Under a dust-crusted lightbulb in the barn, the backstrap peels away from the ridges of the elk's spine, helped by careful cuts of a boning knife that's been sharpened so many times the blade has thinned to only an eighth-inch or so wide. There's a clean piece of muslin draped over the bottom of the old Coleman canoe, and the other backstrap lies there, rich and purple-black against the white cloth. Deep into November, muted sunlight gently nudges through the barn door, clouds building in the north, a wind rustling the dry leaves on the cottonwoods.
This time tomorrow it could be 20 below. The elk carcass, now so pliable, will be hanging here frozen hard as marble. Fingers will ache, feet will be numb, a crude meat saw will replace the precise old knife. There is a perfect day almost every fall when the season's elk and deer have been hanging long enough to age the meat perfectly, just before the gavel of winter falls. Today is it. Clear off the kitchen table and the counters, turn the satellite radio up high, stock the wood stove. Knife sharpener, freezer paper and tape, a Sharpie to write on the packages: "ham steaks, grade B," "shoulder meat, stew," "back-strap steaks, butterflied, A." Clean buckets for grinder meat and soup bones, a box for dog scraps. The job will go on into the night, and then some. Do not hurry, do not rest. Cut straight. Don't mess up the gift of this mighty creature.
In late October of 1990, I was living with my wife in a cabin on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley near Stevensville, caretaking a small ranch owned by an heir to the Pepperidge Farm fortune. The aluminum irrigation pipes that ruled over every hour of every summer day were stacked in racks beside the equipment shop. The trucks and tractors had been winterized, the snowplow jerked from the waist-high tangle of weeds and made ready. We'd been in Montana a little over a year, and I had my first resident big game license, a piece of paper that seemed to glow like radium, a passport to the great yawning freedom that lay beyond the hayfields, where the Bitterroots rose like the wall of a mysterious kingdom. I grabbed a butt pack with some water and ammo for my battered old .308 lever gun, and set off walking, stopping to take the last of the Wolf River apples from a tree that had been nearly destroyed by the nightly visits of black bears.
The ranch wintered a herd of about 80 elk, but we had moved in at the beginning of haying, so I had never seen them. In fact, I had seen only one elk in my life, a young bull, horns still in velvet, leaping across the trail on St. Mary's Peak. I knew that somewhere, high above me, some of those elk that wintered on the ranch must be gathering. A worn game trail with no fresh tracks took me up, and up, through stately groves of Ponderosa, across marshy little creek bottoms thick with chokecherry and spruce and up again to a long ridge. A gentle thudding came from above, a sound I'd never heard before. I stopped and leaned against a tree to break my outline, as I'd learned as a child hunting squirrels in Alabama. The thudding got louder. I stared upward, almost in disbelief. A huge creature the color of sunburnt grass appeared, horns towering, a kind of shaggy mane, almost black. I slowly realized this was what had drawn me up the mountain. This was a bull elk.
I raised my rifle and shot him, and to my utter amazement he slammed to the ground, careening downhill in a dramatic power slide that carried him past me and into a small patch of young Doug fir and spruce, where he thrashed and then went still. I remained rooted to the earth, hands shaking, as a sense of growing horror at what I had done began to creep over me. It had all happened so fast there had been no time for contemplation. Now, the great beast lay dead.
Around me, the mountain seemed dreadfully empty, the autumn light morose. I went to him and took out my knife, slack-jawed at the immensity of the task before me. I tapped his eyeball to make sure he was dead, jammed one of his giant back hooves behind an uphill sapling, and poked tentatively at his Rocky Mountain-sized belly with the blade, imagining the monstrous coils and organs bound within. Something exploded in my head, a thunderous, white flash. When I opened my eyes, I was face down, tangled in the Doug firs, the smell of the bull heavy in my nose. The hoof that I had stuck behind the sapling had come loose and cut me down like a bolt from Zeus.
It took until late the next afternoon to get him out of the woods, taking him apart and lashing the quarters—the shoulders and hams—to an old pack frame I'd found in our cabin that must have once belonged to the Marquis de Sade. The hams were so heavy that I had to prop the pack against a tree, sit down in front of it, jam my arms through the unpadded straps, heave forward to all fours, and then endeavor to stand. I could only stagger downhill, 50 yards or so at a time, the de Sade pack frame sanding away the flesh of my hips and the straps biting into my shoulders like a two-headed snapping turtle—a scene repeated for a couple hours until the dull sheen of the tarpaper roof of our cabin appeared through the pines.