Growing up as one of many siblings on a family ranch impacts one's life in many ways. Beyond acquiring an overly compulsive work ethic, learning how to cram six children and two adults into a 1969 Dodge Polara, and developing a keen appreciation for fresh milk, eggs and meat, other, subtler factors influenced my being.
Take birthdays for example.
Entering the world less than a week before Christmas has its disadvantages, especially in a family where the mother toils 14 hours a day to manage her share of the ranch work, tailors shirts from scratch and feeds a clamoring horde of youngsters without the aid of Chef Boyardee or a microwave. My birthday, always combined with Christmas, was lost in the shuffle. The last memorable birthday present on the ranch west of Three Forks came around the ninth anniversary of my untimely arrival. It was an oil-fired lantern with a broad, woven wick and shiny blue paint, an eminently practical present for a boy who did his after-school chores in the dark on the abbreviated days of winter. Sometimes there was a cake, sometimes not.
A keen anticipation of Christmas more than compensated for the lack of celebratory zeal related to my birthday as a child, so I was mystified later in life when adult friends informed me that birthdays ought to spawn the most heartfelt festivities of the year. The excitement continues to elude me.
I have no day-to-day sense of my actual age. When asked, I usually stop to calculate the span on earth based upon my birth year. More problematic is my seemingly ceaseless inability to remember the requisite cards and presents expected to accompany the birthdays of others, a factor that has frequently sullied past romantic relationships.
In the tradition of Freudian projection, laziness or sheer neglect, my three children also suffer from my boredom with birthdays. They usually get a phone call, sometimes a card. Always they have a present or two, but the items are seldom offered on the "real" day of their birth and less frequently wrapped.
I guiltily confess the same pathetic pattern with my sweetheart. Last spring, in celebration of her birthday, I gave her a hunting rifle the week of April Fools' Day. After graciously accepting the gift, Lisa sweetly reminded me that she had never hunted big game and her birthday is in late May.
But she seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the silvery .308 Marlin Express lever-action and its sleek Alpen scope that seemed to beg for a shot or two. I scattered a few cans around our picnic spot, and Lisa—the New Hampshire half of our long-distance relationship—shouldered the rifle and sent thin tin soup receptacles hurtling through the air like a veteran. Then her deep green eyes turned fixedly on the gift-giver.
"You've given me a rifle for my birthday," she said. "Now you have to take me hunting."
Though Lisa's annunciation of "birthday" seemed strained and slurred, "have to" reverberated in my ears as clearly as the commands of my hawk-like, austere grade school principal. That evening, at home in Billings, I filled out her application for a non-resident antelope tag, fervently hoping the "have to" might also sway the special-licensing gods that moodily brood over the Fish, Wildlife and Parks computers in Helena. In truth, the prospects of sharing an antelope hunt with her seemed as far-fetched as a weekend getaway to a private tropical island.
Around mid-July I went online to check the antelope drawing results for myself and my two sons. Bingo. But those were the easy, resident drawings. With some trepidation my quivering fingers typed Lisa's ALS (Automated Licensing System) number onto the Web page, which had a herd of 13 mule deer arrayed in a banner across the top, the number of animals doubtlessly chosen by a designer with a sly, sick sense of humor. But bad omens in Montana license drawings evidently don't apply to pretty girls from New England. The moment I clicked the "get status" button, another page cycled onto the screen with the blessed words, "successful, 2009 antelope license."
Though it was nearly midnight in New England, I immediately dialed her number.
"What are you doing in October?"
"The usual. Hiking, writing ... why did you call at this hour to ask about my schedule three months from now?"
"Better add antelope hunting to the list."
The drive in mid-October, aimed at the scattered parcels of public land northwest of Broadus, acquaints Lisa with the various savory routines that accompany a trek to the antelope pastures. We stop in Hardin for a Wilcoxson's ice cream sandwich, carefully motor through Busby, and scan the roadside for not-so-streetwise mongrels, spotting only two canine highway fatalities. Then it's on to Ashland, with another requisite stop for gummy worms and a pint of sweetened ice tea. Some 20 miles farther east on Highway 212, we veer north at Pumpkin Creek Road, stopping a couple of times en route to glass wild birds and distant ungulates.
Through it all, Lisa's lively green eyes dart curiously over the novel landscape of pancaked prairie prickled with yucca and sagebrush, punctuated with protrusions of soil and stone into whose bowels the steely roots of long-needled pines burrow for nutrients and moisture. Her fingers twine in mine. She asks questions and offers commentary, none of it directly related to killing an antelope. Many men speak of hunting primarily as a means for a greater appreciation of the world outdoors. Women, I think, are more prone to actually feeling it.
"Those are deer, aren't they?"
More accustomed to the shorter-eared whitetails of the East, Lisa has spied a considerable herd of mule deer with their namesake appendages jutting from their heads. Two small fawns turn ears that seem larger than their diminutive gray bodies toward our slowing vehicle. As we stop, a magnificent buck, with antlers that spread beyond the fuzzy tips of his hairy hearing aids, strides to the crest of a berm in the hayfield. It's a sight I've seen hundreds of times, but it never fails to stir my senses with the wonder and vigor of autumn, when hoofed mammals are fat and sleek from summer's bounty, tracking through a world of crimson skunk brush, radiant yellow ash trees and flaxen grasses, oblivious to the coming lean months of winter. Though other hunting companions sometimes become impatient with my penchant for parking to observe animals other than our quarry, Lisa stares delightedly at the curious herd. After many long moments it is I who suggest we motor up the road in search of antelope.
We spy a smattering of pronghorn, all on private land. An unbroken canopy of bloated gray clouds sags nearer the earth, dimming the landscape. Then, as if on cue, a herd of some 60 antelope trots across the road in front of us, drifting from private land on the east side of the road to a block of state-owned real estate on the west. Easing the Tahoe into the barrow-pit, we wait until the last animal crests a ridge that takes them from sight. Then Lisa uncases her rifle, and we ease the doors closed with scarcely audible clicks.
When we gain a vantage point to view the prairie ahead, I can see the herd is well out of range, still drifting westward. Our chances of overtaking it with sufficient light to shoot are slim. Ready to turn back toward the road, movement on the periphery of my vision swivels my eyes down a broad ravine. Like a tan and white apparition, an antelope buck appears, walking in the same direction as the departed herd. It's a scant 150 yards away, well within range of Lisa's rifle and ability. But as we prepare for the shot, doubt arises.
Something about the animal is not right. Though there's no apparent wound on its body or noticeable limp, the buck seems a bit sickly, its strides lacking the ease and grace of a healthy antelope. It halts to gaze in our direction as Lisa brings her rifle to bear on the two-toned body, an easy shot at a standing animal.
"Let it go," I whisper, explaining my misgivings. "We'll find another one tomorrow."
By the time we reach Broadus, amber light flickers from street lamps whose enthusiasm for the night shift seems about as dim as that of a veterinarian rung from midnight slumber for a calving session. We idle down the main drag, looking for lodging and restaurant. A typical mom-and-pop motel appears with a "vacancy" sign in the window. The route bends south at a stoplight. Near the outskirts of this snippet of civilization, a dozen mud-spattered pickups, a handful of tired automobiles and a shiny Buick are parked outside what appears to be the popular eating establishment.
"Do you think I look okay for dinner?" asks my Dartmouth graduate, glancing with concern at her grubby jeans, dirt-caked hiking shoes and brown quilted vest she earned as a master's national skiing champion.
"You're perfect," I reply with conviction.
We take a table inside. A matronly waitress with red lipstick and an easy smile drops two menus on the table.
"Would you like something to drink?"
Lisa orders a glass of red wine.
It's been a fine day. I'm a fortunate fellow. Pushing the envelope of cosmic favor, I ask if they have any dark ales or porters on tap.
"What's that?" our server responds.
"Oh, yes, we do have beer on tap. Why didn't you ask? Bud and Bud Light. Could I bring you one of those?" she asks sweetly.
Whatever my luck, it's obviously run out. I replicate Lisa's request for red wine.
Lisa seeks my opinion on the culinary offerings, something I can't recall her doing on any of the several occasions we've dined in downtown Manhattan (New York, not the Gallatin Valley). I advise her to stick with beef and avoid seafood.
"What's a hamburger steak?"
"A thick, rectangular patty of ground beef cooked like a steak," I reply, pleased to expand my sweetheart's knowledge of cuisine.
Later, at the motel, the stout, dour proprietress confirms the availability of a room.
"Turn the TV down," she shouts into the living quarters behind the counter where a couple of kids are staring at the tube.
"Ain't smokers are ya?"
"Got any pets? We don't take no animals and there's a cleaning charge if you sneak one in."
The room is nondescript, but very clean. In less time than it normally takes to fall asleep, the alarm is chirping. Outside, the eastern sky glows faintly as we hop into the chilly rig and putter across the street for two cups of hot, honest coffee and a box of doughnuts. Aided by caffeine and the vehicle's heater, my metabolism comes to life as we wind our way back to the area where we spotted the antelope the previous evening. Around mid-morning, I spot a herd bedded near the base of a butte prickled with ponderosa pine, its sides striated with several deep ravines. Napping on a section of state land, the animals are in a perfect place for a stalk. I turn the vehicle back down the dusty road and park out of their sight. I look at Lisa. A smudge of powdered sugar whitens her lower lip, begging, it seems, for a kiss. While I've been looking for antelope, she's eaten the last doughnut.
I part the barbed wire near the "walk-in only" sign on the fence, pressing one strand down with a boot, elevating another with my hand. Lisa slips through the opening. I hand her rifle across the rusty top wire. We hike westward, happy to stretch our legs on the hard prairie.
Keeping below a bulge in the butte we reach a vantage point about 250 yards above the resting antelope. Then I make my first blunder. Lisa is as natural a marksman (marksperson?) as I've ever seen, but I fail to remember that hitting targets or piercing cans on a range isn't the same as shooting a live animal, and the span of this shot is considerable for a novice shooter. Lisa trains her rifle on the black-horned buck at the edge of the herd, exhales slightly and fires, missing cleanly. Unaware of our position, the antelope bolt in a blur, then stop, heads twisting in all directions.
"Should I try again?"
We watch the pronghorn trot in a large circle. For several long minutes they stand, then one by one settle to earth. When a last vigilant old doe takes her bed and begins grinding her molars, I carefully mark their position. We retreat, then swing around the back of the butte.
Scaling its steep shoulder brings a burn to my legs, but haste is in order. Reaching the summit, we spy the bedded antelope, then quickly slip into a ravine that obscures our approach. Easing around the end of a bulge in the butte's base, the antelope come into view, a scant 80 yards away. Rifle resting on a bipod, Lisa aligns the crosshairs on the buck as it rises and turns to stare in our direction.
"You need to shoot ... now," I whisper urgently, knowing the buck will bolt at any moment. At the shot, the does sprint to safety, but the buck stays behind, dispatched more swiftly than a fly flattened by a swatter. Lisa is shaking slightly from an overdose of adrenaline, smiling and very happy.
After admiring the silky coat and twin pronged horns of the buck, Lisa notches her tag, but lets me gut her prize. We hike to the road, retrieve a game cart from the vehicle, then return to the antelope. As we wheel it back toward the road, the familiar, rolling staccato calls of migrating sandhill cranes sound overhead. Looking north, we see several large flocks winging our way. The rush of atmosphere on feather mingles with the cacophony. Captivated by the cranes, I'm suddenly more aware of Lisa standing very close to me, the radiance of life on her face, the intensity of her eyes trained on the long-necked throng, and the bond between us, stronger for this shared adventure.
Rubber hums on asphalt as we make the westward journey on Highway 212 back home. Amid the celebratory chatter, Lisa pauses to give my arm a playful pinch. "Do you think that next year I might get an elk tag for my birthday?"
For once in my life, I'm sure there's a birthday present I will not forget.