Dances with Mule Deer

By John Warren

In the vast expanse of Oregon Elkhorn Mountains, I, a young native, not the one you heard of but a distant relative, set out to make my bones as a mule deer hunter. You see, in my culture, hunting isn’t just a sport; it’s a rite of passage, a dance with nature, and, at times, a terribly inconvenient way to get dinner. But traditions are tradition, so there I was.

The morning air was crisp, and the world seemed to be painted in hues of gold and amber. The mountains whispered tales of old, and if you listened closely, you could hear the coyote chuckling at man’s folly. I carried a hand-me-down Winchester Model 70 slung over my shoulder; that rifle had seen its share of blood, and I was determined to etch my mark in its wooden stock and claim the prize of manhood.

As I trudged on, I couldn’t help but think of all the great things the tribal elders would say to me when I delivered my kill. But something else snuck into my mind. The advice my Uncle Buster had given me the first time I got picked to drag the elk on a makeshift toboggan back to the truck. “Young Buck,” he said, puffing a pipe (Uncle Buster liked to party), “hunting is a lot like life: sometimes you’re the hunter, and sometimes you’re the deer. And other times, you’re the guy who gets to drag the sled.” Luckily, my legs were fresh, I was much older and had a backpack with game bags—but I was still dragging the sled. Hours seemed to merge into one another. The mule deer, with their large ears and keen senses, proved to be as elusive as the meaning of life in a Vonnegut novel.

Whenever I thought I had a shooter, it would vanish, mocking my existence. By midday, the universe decided to play its favorite joke on me. A light drizzle began, and then, moments later, I was taking a shower on a hillside. Each step became a fast-footed tango with mud and rock. At one point, I found myself sliding down the hill. Sliding is an understatement. I was tumbling ass over elbows down the slope ending up in a heap of gear. My dignity was lost along the way, but eventually, it, like the rocks above, found me at the bottom.

Lying there, covered in mud, rock, and sweat, I had an epiphany. Maybe the hunt wasn’t about the deer at all. It could be about the test, the act, and pitting yourself against nature. With a grin, I picked myself up, deciding that today, I would let the deer win.

As I returned, I wondered how I’d tell this story to my family. They would expect tales of conquest, like the Nez Perce braves of old. Instead, they would get a story of rockslides and philosophical deer. And so it goes.

The Elkhorn mountains might not have given me a deer that day, but it gifted me a tale, something to laugh at and earn later on when it was my time. Looking back on this now, it was a good lesson. Ask most hunters, and they’ll tell you it’s not about the kill; it’s about the stories that happen between the truck and the trails end. I would go on to take a muley the next season. It’s great to return with a heavy pack, but there is something to be said about the days when you come out empty handed and a little wiser.

From the FE Films Archive

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