Colorado Mule Deer: On Common Ground

I’m supposed to start off a hunting story with somebody at full draw, you know, the 20-yard pin locked on that spot where the deer’s heart beats, pulse pounding like thunder, big rack. Hook the reader.

But that didn’t exactly happen.

You’re probably like me. You go to outdoor shows and fill a bag with brochures for hunts. A couple days later, the brochures go in the trash. You face facts – scraping together the time and money for a dream hunt is just that – a dream.

Price (r) and her guide Rusty pose before they start hunting deer in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado.

But, here’s how it happened for me. First, long ago, my brother gets dumped by his long-time girlfriend and on the rebound, at the age of 28, joins the Marines. While in the Marines he meets and marries a woman who is in the Navy.

Also long ago, I lived in Pennsylvania in an old house where I found an old PEZ Easter Bunny candy dispenser. Five years later, I included the PEZ bunny in the things I packed and brought along when I moved to Maine.

In Maine I purchased a small house and eventually replacement windows, installed by The Window Man, Roger Lambert. We talk hunting. Turns out his son, Rusty, lives in Colorado. Why don’t I go out there, this year?

Hunting For PEZ
Later that month, while visiting my brother and his wife and strolling through an antique mall, I happen to meet a man who collects PEZ candy dispensers. My PEZ turns out to be worth almost exactly as much as round-trip airfare from Maine to Colorado.

Bingo.

Rusty meets me in the airport at Colorado Springs, and it makes me feel pretty saucy. One of the urges I get as he walks toward me is to hold my stomach flat, hook my thumbs into the front pockets of my jeans and say, hey, you sweet young thang. Have you ever seen a movie called “Summer of 42”?

But, facts are facts. I’m 40. There are 12 years between us. What could we possibly have in common?

That afternoon we get my license and some camping food and load up for the trek into the high country of Arapaho National Forest. The altitude, about 12,000 feet, gives me a heavy-headed, sluggish feeling, like I haven’t slept for a couple days. My breathing is labored and panting. Every time Rusty asks me if I’m OK I smile and nod. It’s all I can manage.

Our campsite is a rocky knoll with a grassy, flat area overlooking a series of beaver dams and extensive tangles of willows. That first afternoon, I hunt like a giant umbilical cord attaches me to the tent. In the belly of these steep, stern crags, I feel intimidated and insignificant. As the first spiky shadows of the tall pines begin to snake across the ground, I feel that weight that falls on someone alone in the mountains at twilight.

Price pauses for a moment during her deer hunt in the Colorado mountains.

The first morning, a Thursday, we climb up to the perimeter and glass for deer. We don’t see anything and split up to hunt down through the pines, Rusty tacking out on a wide loop and me heading straight down.

These woods are different from any place I’ve ever been. Ancient evergreen trees tower like ship masts, spreading vibrant green arms over great fallen jumbles of bleached wood, which lie disassembled like parts from some massive dinosaur. In between are aisles of dry needles and diminutive, crunchy pine cones. Somewhere, softwoods are rubbing together with a sound like the creak of a new leather saddle.

I have to make myself go slow. Still, I’m only into the pines a short distance before I see some brown, with legs, working up the slope towards me. Four by four.

I quickly back into some scrubby pine and brush, but as I zig the deer zags. Now he’s on the other side of the cover and we’re both frozen, trying to get a glimpse of each other without moving much. I’ve got a window I can shoot through if only a vital part of his anatomy would line up there. For a brief moment I have a clear, close look at his face, beautiful, hair as smooth as the groomed coat of a blood horse. With that, he hops away, keeping the cover between us.

A Difficult Stalk
The next morning Rusty and I sneak across the flat grassland by the beaver ponds. I lay my bow on the ground and put on my arm guard, just as Rusty spots two deer working their way uphill in the woods across from us. They pass behind some thick stuff and he goes to full draw, but the deer hesitate where they are.

I crouch and zip down the slope, planning to get the deer to step forward into Rusty’s shooting lane. What I don’t know is that Rusty is doing the same thing for me. What Rusty doesn’t know is that I’ve left my bow on the ground next to him.

That’s the way it goes all week. After the first hour of daylight on the last day, I begin to feel the impending reality. It’s over. Didn’t get anything. Time to go back to Maine.

As planned Rusty and I meet later in a windy meadow of tall, sharp grass. I?m there first, and soon spot Rusty dropping down the slope like a mountain goat. First class company, I’m thinking.

One of us is skilled, one a novice; one a male, one a female; one young, one middle-aged. If he stepped into an elevator with me we’d probably just exchange polite hellos. We wouldn’t know that we share a fundamental connection with ancestral hunters and each other. Watching his familiar walk, I feel as if I’ve known him all my life. And in a way I have – because we share common ground.

The morning sun begins to clear the peaks behind us, and the thin grass rasps around our boots, as we walk in each other’s shadows to the base of the mountain.

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