Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wyoming at Close Range

"Want to see the elk?" Martin asked me. He was a small man somewhere on the long side of sixty, his dark and scraggly beard bristling with shots of white and gray. I nodded. He nodded. He slung a towel over his shoulder, adjusted his hearing aid, and motioned for me to follow him across the parking lot outside of the mineral pools at the Thermopolis Hot Springs State Park.

While Diane lingered in the hot mineral springs, I followed Martin to a giant white pickup truck. A knot of his hunting buddies, who I had already met, were busy stowing away their bathing gear. While soaking in the pool, Diane and I had struck up a conversation with these hunters. They wanted to know all about our bus; and as soon as I found out they had just finished a week-long elk hunt, I wanted to know all about that.

"He wants to see the elk," Martin cawed. Paul, a lanky man with more scalp than hair on his pate, fished out a set of keys and set about unlocking the topper of the pickup truck. Paul looked like he'd be more comfortable behind the manager's desk of a petroleum services company than out bivouacking through the inhospitable wilds of the Wyoming back range.

"It's a nice elk to look at alright," Paul allowed with a deadpan grin as he opened the hatch. "That is, if you like looking at dead elk."

And so I looked. Decorum prevented me from snapping pictures. But it was a fine dead elk, and I said as much. The field-dressed carcass had been expertly butchered into quarters. There was no hint of blood. The head was detached, and its snout brushed the inside of the tailgate. Face-to-face with their elk, I saw that the antler rack spread wide and tall such that the tips almost touched the roof and walls of the topper.

As we talked about their hunt, it was clear that none of them took any real pleasure in making their kills, nor did they show particular pride in their hunting prowess and their trophy. "It takes us a few days to hike into the back country," said Paul. "It's hard country. It's hard work, where we go. Up and down. Those hills are steep. But then you're out there. The bull elks are still rutting and bugling. It's something to see..." His voice trailed off with the wistful tone of a love-sick admirer.

Paul shrugged as he buttoned up the truck's topper. "You know, I don't particularly like to kill animals. But I figure that as long as I'm going to eat meat, I'd rather hunt for it myself. It's that or buy a side a beef from a yard that crams its cows into a feedlot and shoots them full of chemicals."

He's right, of course. We are what we eat. And as the hunters and I parted ways, it occurred to me that there are two Wyomings.

The first Wyoming is the most obvious--the place itself.
Diane and I had been threading our way west across the northern part of the state from the Black Hills to the Tetons and Yellowstone, and the scenery was a delight to behold. What's more, we were in the fold between seasons when the autumn chill is blunted by a bright and warm sun. Every morning when I got out of the bus, I nestled into jacket and gazed to the horizon.

Sometimes, I found myself under tight stands of Aspens that ripple with a golden glow against a pale blue sky that goes on forever.

Other times, a deep valley spread out before me with a emerald glow, its limits defined by a roll of crinkled hills that reach for the heavens, a tattered blanket of pines smothering the steep slopes.

And then there are places like Wind River Canyon that exhales an air so sweet as to defy my poor attempts to describe it with words.

The second Wyoming is more elusive--namely, its residents (this is, after all, the least populated state in the Union). There are the hardscrabble miners in the east...

...the wild cowgirls in the west...

... and the mild-mannered hunters in-between.

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