Cold and Gray

By M. Shane Brown

I have a strange obsession with tangible things that often lies at odds with the fleetingness of everything in this wretched digital age. I think most outdoorsmen do too, though this might not be obvious on its face. Glance around the hearth of any hunter’s home and you’ll find the stuff—bone and antlers, hide and brass, and whatever other junk that managed to gin up enough sentimental value of its own to keep around; these things are almost always proudly displayed and destined to find life anew when they next change wistful hands as “my old man’s buck,” or whatever the it is—true immortality.

One way this antiquated bent manifests itself is a compulsion for writing in hard copy, and Ground Zero for this habit is a black hardbound journal that goes on every single hunting or fishing trip with me. Elk down to quail, Arizona bajadas up to the Idaho Panhandle, everywhere in America, it’s either in the lid of my Mountain Hauler or sitting in the truck back at camp. For reasons I still don’t understand about myself, I carry a primal urge to commit the events and minutiae of a day out hunting to the pages of this little black book.

From what I’ve seen, there seems to be two simple yet significant barriers to success in hunting any game in the wooly country of the American West: physical and mental toughness. I think the physical aspect is the easier of the two to prepare for. The mind proves to be a more difficult beast to callous than the body, even for those paradoxically blessed with and cursed with that mule-headed stubbornness—that fortitude you really need to muster in the face of the slings and arrows you take square in the jaw out in big buck country.

It was a late rifle tag high in the rolling sagebrush of Nevada’s Great Basin, where the mule deer were just starting to get that sultry tingle and temperatures can swing a mean 50 degrees in a day. I made the four-mile hump up the mountain on Halloween. Even in the mid-afternoon heat when I set up at the glassing knob around 7,000 feet the deer were out and moving, threading their way in between the mahoganies dotted amidst the aromatic sage, hanging their heads low to feed. The weather was beautiful and spirits were high and when the sun dipped back behind the next range over to the west, sprawling out past the valley in front of my camp. I ate and tried to find a few hours of sleep, fighting all of the nervous adrenaline pumping through my green veins.

The first of November was a reversal, a monochrome of overcast skies and on-and-off snowstorms blowing in from the north. Highs not out of the 40s and beyond that, all of the deer had made themselves scarce, refusing to step out to feed or to fight or to chase ass. The whole day I sat in the wind picking apart the pockets where they should have been with a beat pair of Porro prism binos and coming up empty. Miserable. The most steeled of minds can have difficulty remaining as stoic as they should here. Looking back through the rearview on a day that fell short of expectations I retrieved my black book and in the face of that familiar hunter’s uncertainty on the night of November 1st,  I wrote six lonely words and went to bed:

“Cold and gray. I saw nothing.”

On a bluebird morning on Tuesday, November 2nd, I sent a 150-grain E-Tip through both lungs of a small 3×3 mule deer I bumped into while going out for water. My very first buck, and still one of my proudest accomplishments … all risen from the ashes of six pessimistic words the day before.

The contrast between the highs and the lows of those two consecutive days is almost as stark as the black of the ink on the notebook’s white paper. The skull of that small buck that still sits on the bookshelf all these years later as a tangible reminder that before every November 2nd, there has to come a November 1st.

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