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August 2023
Story by Charles Bartlemay
State: Oregon
Species: Deer - Mule

Hunting can take us places where it becomes possible to find things we didn’t know we were searching for. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find exactly what our soul needs. This is one of those stories.

I can remember a time ages ago, whiling away the hours imagining hunts we would share together. The wisdom, knowledge, and bushcraft I would impart to you. Thrills and heartbreaks, sweat and tears, aches, pains, fatigues, elation, and gratitude. Feeding of mind, body, and spirit. All things hunting. All things life.

“Is that one, daddy?” I seriously doubted it. She was 5 years old and peering through the mini Nikons I picked up at a garage sale for her. It was five minutes into her first ever glassing session on the evening before opening day of archery season. I mused on the fact that I may soon not have to hunt alone anymore.

“Where’s that, sweetie?” I saw where her glass was pointing way out at the end of the long, thinnish strip of dense buckbrush embracing the base of the ridge we were on. Surely it was too far out for her to spot anything. I took a look anyway to entertain her. Antlers, and not small ones.

“Heh, yeah, and he’s a real dandy! Well, I guess you got your daddy’s eyes,” I chuckled, gushing with pride.
“What’s a dandy, daddy?”

More chuckling. “It’s a buck, a nice buck.” The best we had seen in fact. We glassed into the ambiguity of darkness. I would harvest that buck the following evening as she watched with her grandma from high up on the ridge. That was nine years ago. Her first hunt. Her last hunt.

I used to delight in hunting Desert mule deer in that area. It was my lifeline. I would return to that locale the following few seasons. I really tried. I couldn’t stay more than a day or two. It was just no good. You can’t glass for bucks with tears in your eyes. You can’t do much of anything. I eventually concluded the place was too emotionally messy for me to hunt and resolved to find a new spot for deer, a clean spot. I pivoted my focus to elk hunting. High in the mountains, far from the desert, I gained some much-needed space from those memories, those tears. The space allowed me to stuff her way down deep where the enormity of it all wasn’t so scary, so sad, and so consuming.

However, something shifted early last year. I would find myself perusing onX, scrutinizing desert country, daydreaming of big bucks. It was less a matter of me coming to terms with the grief of losing my daughter and more a matter of me having mastered locking it away, burying it so deep I wouldn’t have to, convincing myself I had moved on. I would catch a sporadic memory of her stalking up on me and stop it dead in its tracks. I’d choke it down like a bitter pill lodged in one’s own throat. Done. Dealt with. Leave me alone. Please. Please.

I pinned several likely spots, but one really tugged at me. A month before the season, I gobbled up mile upon mile of blacktop that eventually metamorphosed into that kind of desert two-track that jars your very soul, doubling your drive time, adding but a pittance of mileage.

Accessorized with a pack, I shuffled the two miles across a sea of sand and sagebrush dotted by small islands of volcanic rock and then clambered my way up the rocky butte. As the last sliver of sun melted into the landscape, I was catching my breath and orienting myself with the new country laid out before me. Twilight closed in. I spotted several deer, including two small 4-points. My intuition was right; there were deer here. My vision began to blur as I fought back memories of her.

Dawn. I was caffeinated and in position before it was light enough for the desert to begin to reveal her secrets. It was too dark to glass, but glass I did. I didn’t want to miss a single second of the show. As the light expanded the reach of my acuity, I spotted something at the far boundary of my Swarovski-enhanced vision where a canyon yawned out of a faraway ridge into an expansive basin. I recruited the spotting scope, and through already surging heat waves, I could tell it was a buck. If I could discern headgear at this range, I knew I’d found something worthy of a closer look. Then he was gone, dissolved into the sage and obscurity of a distorted atmosphere. I spotted several more immature bucks that morning, including the two from the night before. The morning was busy, and I was packed up and an hour into the drive home before I realized I hadn’t gone blurry eyed at all that morning. My breath caught in my throat, and I swallowed hard. One more bitter pill down.

I was out again two weeks later, determined to get a closer look at the buck that I had thought about several times daily since spotting him. The territory the buck had annexed in my mind helped keep a lid on other thoughts I’d fought so hard to bring to heel, especially considering the time of year and the endeavor I had committed to. I had figured out a way to get a little closer to his area by vehicle, but I was still a three-mile pack in. It was 95 degrees when I set off. Brutal.

Drenched in sweat, I eventually arrived at the top of a ridge where I had a spectacular view of the large basin and could see a good ways up into several of the canyons that fed into it. Later that evening, I found the buck. He was an impressively tall, framed 4x4 with good forks in front and back, a kicker on his left side, and decent mass. He was with two other fair bucks that evening and the next morning when I located him again. Anticipation shored up the wall holding back a melancholy that had been pressing more forcefully against my soul. I had to leave that next day, but I was back two days before the season opened.

I was several days into the hunt and had transformed myself into a full-blown scientist, consumed with painstakingly poring over every scrap, morsel, and tidbit of data which I tirelessly labored to collect. I analyzed, theorized, and hypothesized. I strategized and then fantasized about how it would all shake down. I wondered at the magnificence and absurdity of this dance, this game I was engaged in. I marveled at the innate, instinctual intelligence of this animal that was dependably one or more steps ahead of me at every turn, every setup, and every almost opportunity. My brain strained to render it down into its simplest terms. Elementally, we were simply two points moving through space and time, two collections of particles. The first moving through the continuum based solely on satisfying the most basic of need – hunger, thirst, and survival. The second was calculating and adaptive, in obsessive pursuit, trying to converge with the other. Behind it all, always in the background, was a sadness.

On the seventh evening of the season, I rolled the dice once again and set up on one of his many travel routes, waiting to see if I had guessed right. I had. Adrenaline surged. Finally, our timelines had intersected. I drew my bow, and my shot was true. It was a quick, clean kill.

As I walked up to this magnificent buck that I had come to know so well from hours of watching him day in and day out, I was euphoric and totally overcome by the emotion of the whole thing. I recited farewell words to send him peacefully on his way and snapped a few quick pictures where he lay. As the adrenaline let down, it must have brought my guard down with it. I heard my daughter’s voice, clear as day. “Is that one, daddy?”

I dropped to my knees, stunned, tears flooding my eyes. My breath stuttered in my breast as I sobbed, “Yes...yes, and he’s a real dandy.”

I felt that familiar fossilization creeping into my heart. “Don’t go. Please don’t leave me again,” I cried. She stayed with me as I wept long into the night.

She is with me still as I write this. In truth, I could not have written it if she wasn’t.