I’d never held a firearm before September of 2003. I wasn’t scared of guns or even nervous around them. The idea of picking one up had just never occurred to me. Yet, on an early autumn morning I found myself at a rifle range with a .22 at my shoulder, and deputy editor David Petzal next to me saying, “Just take your time.” A week earlier, I had lucked into a women’s hunt for mule deer in New Mexico. I had absolutely no hunting experience, no rifle skills, and no history in shooting sports whatsoever. But the hunt welcomed novices, and I was curious. After showing me how to sight in, Petzal took me through the anatomy of a rifle, showed me three shooting positions (prone, kneeling, and offhand), and had me fire at targets from 25, then 50 yards. When I was sure of what I was doing, we switched to a Tikka T3 in .270. Over the next few weeks, I caught myself looking forward to the smell of gunpowder. Petzal and I moved to the 100-yard range and finally out into the autumn woods, where he had me stalk deer decoys. Throughout our morning lessons, he encouraged Zen-like principles of focus and relaxation. As he helped me to trust myself and quiet my impulses to rush or overthink, I worked my way up to the mid-November game day.
WHY? At some point, I had to think about why I was doing this. That point came when Petzal asked, “So, how do you feel about killing things?”
Bambi had been my favorite movie as a kid, the friends I have who aren’t vegan are antihunting, and the closest I’d ever come to a rifle was a cardboard version in a middle-school production of Annie Get Your Gun. Why was I about to saddle up and kill one of my childhood icons?
Adventure was definitely a factor. I’d jump at almost any excuse to run around outside. But hunting was of a whole other order than the sailing and backpacking I was used to. Adventure and excitement were perfectly compelling motivations, but on a hunt, they’d be happening at the expense of a life.
The only reason I could accept at that early stage was responsibility. I’d been a meat eater all my life, but I’d never killed anything. I’d never earned my place in the food chain, and this was my chance to step up and take responsibility for what was on my plate.
MEETING DAY After an early-morning arrival at Albuquerque International, I drove through cactus-dotted pastures on a brilliant November afternoon to meet the hunt group. Our host was the Kiowa Hunting Service, which operates on an 80,000-acre ranch near Vaughn, New Mexico. There would be four guides and eight hunters, and over the next four days, we’d be hunting for mule deer bucks. I met my guide, Tim Barraclough, who owned the service, photographer Edward Keating, and the seven other women who would be hunting.
I’d expected a nervous cluster of females milling around with borrowed rifles and tags dangling from their new camo, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. But what I walked into was a game already in progress. I was the only unsure one. They were old hands, most with decades of experience under their well-worn belts. Some, like Jennifer Bailey–the hunt coordinator from Virginia–had been taught by a father when they were kids. Others, like Sandy Cook from Kentucky, had been taught by a husband only a few seasons earlier. But all were absolutely ready to get out there–and to take me with them.
HUNT DAY ONE After a night in a hotel, we were back at camp by 5:15 the next morning. Tripping through the darkness, I found my way to Barraclough’s truck and climbed in beside him. Barraclough is that loud, happy guy you find at the heart of a crowd. A New Mexico native, he’d started Kiowa 15 years earlier, and his guides loved him for a sense of humor as great as his beer-grown gut.
The deeper Barraclough drove into the ranch’s expanse of pastures, the more I realized that from inside the truck I had no idea what the hell to do if we actually saw a deer. So we took 20 minutes and staged a mock deer sighting. He had me practice all the places on the truck that I could prop the rifle and introduced me to shooting sticks.
I’ve mentioned that we were in a truck. Admittedly, with so much ground to cover, we wouldn’t have gotten very far without it. And because of the open terrain that mule deer call home, most muley hunters look from a truck, then hunt on foot. But for me, the truck felt like nothing more than an unfair advantage. I wanted to be earning the meat that would be hanging from the pole at the end of the day, not half-assing it in a Dodge Durango.
After a long but rackless day, we pulled in for dinner to find the first deer hanging from the meat pole. The hunter, Deb Wardlaw Cleverdon, was a shooting instructor from Houston, and she couldn’t tell her story fast enough for the seven other women gathering around to hear it. And a very nontraditional-looking crowd it was–women with rifles, rallying around a meat pole to hear about a kill.
HUNT DAY TWO Barraclough, Keating, and I were back in the truck by 5:30 the next morning, and I was happy to be out at that cold, quiet hour. We pulled away from camp as the darkness paled to a soft, gray glow, washing out the stars. Barraclough turned the headlights off just as the cacti began to emerge from the shadows. I felt peaceful as the truck rolled through the morning stillness–and brutally startled when two shots went off in the trees to our left.
Barraclough hit the brakes, and I jumped out in case an injured buck was about to run toward us. When nothing came, we went in the direction of the shots and came face-to-face with a buck lying wounded 15 yards in front of us. The hunter who had fired the shots was hidden with her companions somewhere beyond it in the trees. Barraclough took my rifle, anticipating that the deer might bolt, and Keating radioed over that the deer was down. Cheers erupted from the direction of the still unseen group, while the deer lay dazed and staring at us.
As the buck finally bolted and Barraclough took the finishing shot, I realized that my first experience with a kill was happening from the deer’s perspective. This wasn’t the rifle range back home anymore. This was a sport with an entirely higher set of consequences.
After the others arrived, my party got back in our truck and started toward one of the eastern pastures, glassing as we went. Since the hunt had begun, I had seen at best 10 percent of the deer that Barraclough had no trouble spotting on this unibrown terrain.
Half hanging out of the window, I continued to glass, while Keating leaned up from the backseat and asked Barraclough–with a smirk I could hear in his voice–if it was more fun guiding men or women hunters.
“Women don’t walk around with this macho image to live up to,” Barraclough said. “I’ve had guys spot a deer and just start flinging lead all over the place. They’ll burn 20 rounds, then look at me and say, `Did I hit him?’ But a woman tends to take her time and listen, so if she gets a chance to pull a trigger, a deer will die.”
Still hanging through the window, I squinted at what I thought were two bucks among a group of does at the base of a hill. I hit Barraclough on the shoulder, and he lurched the truck into gear, loudly confirming that they were worth going after. When the truck stopped, I jumped out and got ready to shoot, keeping my eyes on the deer and my ears on Barraclough.
The buck was now running up the hill, trailing the does. He would have disappeared over the top, but he couldn’t resist the mule deer instinct to stop and look back, for one instant giving me a broadside that was almost too lucky to believe. I fired once, and he stumbled as the does slipped away over the hill. He limped toward a cedar tree as I chambered another round and hurried toward him.
Halfway up the hill, I stopped and fired again. The buck crumpled instantly, and it was over. Barraclough was suddenly next to me, shouting, “You got him, you got him!” My mind was struggling to catch up with what my body had just done. Slightly dazed, I took off toward the deer, leaving the guide behind.
I’d heard about the excitement of the kill, and I’d had no idea how I would react. As I ran to the muley now, the rush was almost overwhelming. I was living in a way I never had before, tearing up the hill on an electric surge of adrenaline. Barraclough and the truck dimmed into the background of a landscape that now held only the deer, me, and the closing stretch of dirt between us. In less than a minute, I was leaning over an antlered head and touching a motionless eye.
I couldn’t have been more relieved–or more deeply in shock. I wasn’t even back in my body yet, and I had no idea how the reality of the situation would hit when I finally got there. Barraclough, however, decided for me that full-blown celebration was the only acceptable reaction. Almost as soon as I’d reached the buck, he’d pulled the truck around and begun blasting “Another One Bites the Dust” over the CB.
Now, I didn’t need to light a candle and commune with the earth spirits, but I didn’t need to have ’80s stadium rock rammed down my throat, either. This was between me and the deer. I’d executed a clean, exact kill, and earned the right to feel any way that occurred to me. And what I finally felt when reality settled in was a deep, strong pride.
After Barraclough showed me how to gut the deer, I helped him lift it onto the bed of the truck. On our way back to camp, we checked the rangefinder from the spots where I’d taken both shots. The first had been at 245 yards. The second, at 170. When I saw that, the pride ran a little deeper.
Back in camp, the guides were showing me how to skin the buck when a ranch hand came in from one of the northwest pastures. He’d put a deer down that had been shot through the jaw by a poacher, then returned to the carcass a few hours later to find that it had been partially eaten by a mountain lion. As the only one with a mountain lion tag, Barraclough would take his rifle out that evening and wait for the cat to come back to feed. And I wasn’t about to miss out.
The ranch hand dropped us off at the pasture late that afternoon. Barraclough found a tree for us to hide under and cut a shooting lane to the deer carcass. We bundled down in the low-lying branches and waited as the light dimmed, and the air chilled to a bitter 19 degrees with 40-mile-an-hour gusts.
Even though the cat didn’t show, the next three hours that we spent freezing and crouching in the dirt turned out to be the hunt I’d been hoping for. Without the truck, I could be a part of the landscape, not just an intruder on it. It took having my feet on the ground to finally feel like someone who’d found a place in the land’s natural cycle of life and death. As a proud, new hunter, it was hard to imagine where else I’d want to belong.
AND GOOD-BYE Two mornings later, we clustered around the fire pit for a last cup of coffee together. With a pocket full of e-mail addresses and a cooler full of deer meat, I drove off the ranch, replaying the past few days in my head. It occurred to me that, on a women’s hunt, we’d devoted very little time to any acknowledgement of our womanhood. In fact, I hadn’t sensed that things would have been much different if we had been men. There had been no hand-holding or head-patting. And no, the guides hadn’t “shot the deer for the ladies” as a guard on my way back through Albuquerque International so charmingly assumed.
We’d just hunted, without wasting time turning every success among our little “sisterhood” into a triumph for all women afield. Of course, there are some differences in the ways that men and women approach any sport, but in the field, your identity makes no difference to the deer on the ground.
PASS THE MASHED POTATOES A few days before Christmas, I was in my parents’ kitchen, making a marinade for the backstrap we’d be having for Christmas dinner. With a little time left before the meat would be defrosted, I checked my e-mail and found a message from Barraclough, letting me know about an elk hunt he’d be guiding next season. At the end of the message, he wished me a merry Christmas and added, “When life gets you down, just imagine you’re sitting under a tree, freezing your butt off, waiting for a mountain lion to come in.”
With that one sentence, I was homesick for a patch of dirt under a tree in New Mexico, and for an outdoors tradition I was only newly a part of. I went back to the marinade, slowly drifting back to the question of why hunt? that I’d had so much trouble answering only two months earlier.
Some people are into hunting mostly for the thrill of the sport. But for me, the excitement was a second-place motivation. If I were only after a rush, I’d just go sailing or climbing as I always have. Hunting means a new life perspective, built around the standards of self-sufficiency it encourages and the responsibility it demands. It’s through hunting that I was lucky enough to come openly onto a natural landscape to gather the food that sustains me. I suddenly couldn’t wait to go on my next big-game hunt, and do it better: No trucks, no hotels. No ’80s pop rock. Just a hard, honest stalk on a clean, open landscape. Just me, under a tree, freezing my butt off, knowing that a new kind of life had come in.
For details on Kiowa Hunting Service, contact Tim Barraclough at 505-445-9330 or go to www.qualityhunt.com.
If none of your friends or family members hunt, there are many organizations that can help you get started. Here are three that offer introductory shooting programs for women. The NRA’s Women on Target, which sponsored my hunt, offers instructional shooting clinics as well as hunts for beginners (800-861-1166; www.nrahq.org/women). In addition to firearms training, Becoming an Outdoors Woman (877-269-6626; www.uwsp.edu/cnr/bow) and the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Women in the Outdoors (800-843-6983; www.nwtf.org/wito) offer outdoor skills workshops. –K.H.
In the past, women have had to wear men’s clothing in small sizes. Today we have more options. Cabela’s (800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com) is one great source for women’s gear. –K.H.