West Texas Deer Hunt

Late November 1985, West Texas, rocky hilly country covered in sparse pine, scrub oak, and grassy undergrowth. Our party of five hunters had driven in over torturous back roads to stay in an old shack that offered only shelter from rain, snow, and wind, and barely that. But it sufficed. The first afternoon and night were very cold and crystal clear. We were miles and miles from any light source, and in the frozen air the stars seemed very close, and the sky was dense with them. Just after midnight a blizzard blew in and dropped several inches of snow before it moved on.

Early the next day, we chose areas around our base to hunt. My allotted territory was a large irregular trapezoid bounded on one side by the rough road we came in on and on the other by a steep-sided valley, and expanding infinitely, as far as I was concerned, out from our base. From the camp, my territory rose steeply to a ridge line, then sloped away through a complex of small hills and ridges. We each set out while it was still snowing to reconnoiter our territories and begin our hunt.

Once away from the camp, I walked slowly, keeping oriented on my topographical map, frequently looking back for tall trees, rocks, mountaintops, finding landmarks to help with finding my way home. I saw tracks of deer and rabbits, squirrels and small birds. I saw where deer had bedded down or had snuffled through the snow for grass. I felt a part of the scene, a predator on the hunt, my awareness not at all the casual observation of a normal walk in the woods—not passive but active, like a bat pinging and analyzing the echoes. I was exploring, intensely interested in each new view, clump of boulders, or fallen tree. My rifle, slung solidly on my shoulder, expanded my sense of reach and capability.

All day I walked that territory, and I returned to camp content, despite not having seen a single deer. Two other hunters had killed big bucks that now hung from a high beam outside. The hunters were skinning them and cutting them up. Though I congratulated them and was interested in their stories, I was repelled by the butchering and wanted nothing to do with their operations.

Most of the snow had melted by the end of the day, and the next morning when I returned to my territory, the ground was dry again and the smells of the woods, which had been smothered by the snow, had returned. Cold breezes passing through warm places in the sun carried the pure smell of pine or of oak and bay leaves. Sometimes there was a whiff of something dead in the brush.

I walked again most of the day without seeing anything but the flash of a doe disappearing into trees. In mid-afternoon, tired and a little discouraged, I found a natural lookout, a group of boulders high on a slope, from which I would be able to look down along the same slope and also across a small valley to the other hillside. I decided to stay there and watch. The slope to my left seemed a better bet than the other, so I positioned myself to be able to shoot in that direction without moving. But I kept the other hillside in view. I waited.

Suddenly, as if he had materialized there, I saw a young buck walking along the other hillside in my direction, clearly unaware of me a hundred and some yards away in my hiding place. As he passed behind a leafy tree between us, I shifted to the rock on the other side and readied my rifle. The deer must have heard something–when he reappeared he was trotting. There was only a short gap ahead of him, and then he would be hidden by more trees. As he trotted across the opening, I aimed at a spot six inches in front of his breast and fired. The rifle jumped, and when I could next see where the buck had been, there was nothing but a little dust drifting across the space. I could not tell what had happened. Was the dust from the bullet hitting dirt? Had I failed to see him running off? I waited for some sign. Nothing.

After some minutes of watching, I made my way down and around trees and boulder clumps to where the buck had been when I fired. And there he was, just out of sight from my hiding place, quite dead. The bullet had passed through his spine just behind his shoulder. He must have died instantly.

I was both incredulous and thrilled. The handsome buck was mine, and I had killed it cleanly and well. At that moment, dressing the dead animal was transformed for me. It was no longer repulsive; it was fascinating. I enjoyed opening up the large creature, the size of a human, looking at its organs, doing things I knew to do because of my father’s descriptions of his hunts.

By the time I was ready to haul the deer back to camp, it was getting dark. I found that dragging him up that rocky slope was very hard, and knew I would not be able to haul him down the steep side of the ridge to the camp in the dark. So, instead, I tied a rope to his antlers and hauled him as high as I could into an oak tree at the top of the ridge. I tied a bright red bandana around his neck to make him more visible the next day. I took compass readings on mountaintops, so that I could walk along the ridge until I came to that reading or that intersection of readings, and he would be there.

It worked. I retrieved the buck in the morning and dragged him, with great difficulty despite the downhill slope, to our camp, where I finished all the necessary things to use his meat.

My father was a very skilled and successful deer hunter. I had hunted and killed this deer in much the same way he had, as I knew from his many stories. For me, this was pure success in an unconscious goal, and, though I had enjoyed it, I knew even then that I would not need or want to do it again.