After a weeklong elk hunting trip in the Colorado wilderness this past October with my Dad, brother and friend John, the three of us descended out of the hills in our red Toyota Tacoma, philosophizing about the adventure now behind us. As the winding dirt road cut through the Rocky Mountain passes, rubbed shoulders with sparkling blue trout streams and bid farewell to the antique cowboys tending their high-altitude cattle, we were brought back to pavement, cell service, and the often cold reality every true sportsman faces—an unfilled tag, and the impending need to explain what so many call defeat.
It must be failure, many assume, to spend four days on barren highways, six nights unsheltered in the frozen and wet backcountry of late autumn, packing every accommodation and freeze-dried ration on your back, absorbing mile after mile on your blistered and battered feet, only to return home without ever firing a single shot. The budget hurting and the time gone, there’s nothing tangible to show for it, nothing to hang on a wall, no grip-and-grin photos to post on Instagram or Facebook, and nothing to fire on the grill. Does that make the trip a failure?
The answer depends on what you really value about the experience. If hunting is nothing more to you than a set of horns to impress your friends, then yes, trips like these are a failure. Meat is another obvious reason to head afield, but with a public-land success rate that reaches 20 to 30 percent at the very best, that means returning home with an empty freezer happens roughly 70 to 80 percent of the time. Those aren’t very good odds. It’s easier and more cost effective to buy a cow off a local farmer and have the beast butchered close to home.
Meat and horns are two rewards of the hunt I’m as passionate as anyone to pursue and celebrate, but neither are ultimately the linchpins of the experience. In truth, I’m hunting for the wilderness just as much as the animal, and such a thing cannot be weighed or quantified.
How do you measure the wealth of experience you inherit when it begins to snow at 11,000 feet on the side of a mountain and you’re alone with a pack, a brother and a fire under a 60-foot pine tree? Or when two feet of wet snow collapses your tent at 2 a.m. and the two of you are forced to build a makeshift lean-to, gather whatever dry wood is left, and dangle drenched gear near the flames as you prepare for the inevitable trek back to base camp the next day?
Who can quantify the value of sitting next to your father, the one who took you into the woods as a young man for the first time, and sharing a view of the waking world just two months after his open heart surgery and the brink of his extinction? What’s it worth to share an excited jolt as the two of you spot an elk together for the first time in over a decade, the scars still fresh on his feeble chest?
How do you estimate the return on investment for biscuits and gravy around a brisk, late-morning fire, a Dutch oven fast at work amidst the coals, or a solitary scouting trip on a sunny fall afternoon that satisfies the legs and fills the heart with a burning delight for the golden grasses of high mountain meadows, the handiwork of God’s creative genius?
You can’t quantify these kinds of things, just like you can’t quantify a lot of the best things in life. But as Aldo Leopold once said, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot” (Sand County Almanac, 7).
In a world in which we’re swallowed up by the constantly distracted connectivity of smartphones, ceaseless emails, text messages, carpet-walled cubicles and a deluge of restless, yet often meaningless activity, the “wild things” have the power to refresh and remind us of the simple yet elegant beauty of the created world out of which we were made. As sons of Adam made from the dust of the earth, we cannot be whole without a robust connection to the earth we were made to cultivate and protect. When we forget where our meat comes from or fail to respect the creature that died a bloody death to bring us life, we lose touch with who we really are; the “wild things” brings us back.
Like the punchline in those old Mastercard commercials, some things in life truly are priceless. As the world grows more techno-crazed and frenetic with every passing day, the “wild things” only become that much more important. You can dump cash on licenses, gas, food and more gear than you have means to transport it, but you can’t put a price tag on a deep and rich experience of the wild, especially when shared among friends. We did not return empty handed.
Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech (A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, 7).