mountain goat in montana
A Montana billy stands on rugged terrain. Donald M. Jones

So accustomed had I become to mailing in the permit application and not drawing a tag—a 1 percent chance—that each year I forgot about it. The act was nothing more than tossing a penny into a fountain, a repeated gesture, not for the hopes of the wish.

I wasn’t home the day the mail came—​a big packet. My youngest daughter, Lowry, called and was more excited than I was. I hadn’t thought I’d ever get one, not in this life.

Early Doubts

The goat season starts in early September and runs to the last day of November. I read books about goats, but didn’t scout; I was traveling all summer. And I was ambivalent. They’re just so…well, cute. Lovable, adorable. Friends who knew I’d drawn a goat permit were checking in, asking, and I was candid with them about my ambivalence. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not feeling it yet. I might be able to make a hunt right before pheasant season.”

I knew I wasn’t behaving with the desire that any quarry deserves to have directed toward it, but it was an honest response. My experience has been that the best way to find an animal is to hold some form of that challenging balance between wanting and not wanting, and then to enter the landscape, learn it, and see what happens.

My FedEx driver had gotten a goat permit 20 years earlier, had shot one, then promptly had suffered a heart attack. There was a part of me that worried it wasn’t coincidence, but high-mountain karma: That one has to think hard, and be right and pure, to hunt such an animal, in such country. That it shouldn’t be entered into lightly, or even for mere sport.

Sometimes I wonder if there are animals that just aren’t meant to be hunted. Why do we hunt what we hunt? Why a pheasant but not a robin? Why a goose but not an eagle? I wanted to burn incandescent, phosphorescent: I wanted to burn white. But about the goat, I couldn’t. There was no history of pursuit or desire, no tradition. Is this what it’s like, I wondered, for people who have never hunted before?

I waited, trying to summon the fire to kill a white goat. To begin thinking about it, and see if, over time, that space could fill just as surely as if I were trying to hunt myself into shape physically.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to kill a goat if I saw one. But I had applied for a permit, and drawn one; and in that strange moral calculus in which hunters so often find themselves, which seems to nonhunters like paradox, I realized that I owed it as a gesture of respect to play this out: to seek the goat in order to seek the answer to that question. To possess the permit and not go into the country in which goats lived was an act of disrespect to the goats, to their wild country, and to myself. I didn’t have to kill one. But I had to go in and look.

Fresh Tracks

September in this part of the world still feels like summer. It was a strange sensation, hunting in such heat. It felt like I should be wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. I knew the shaggy beasts would be in the cool shade, wherever that was, up high, almost surely on a north slope, and if they could find any remnant patch of snow left over from last year, that was where they might be.

I knew of such a place, and climbed toward it. I imagined the goats lying there, panting like dogs, the wind ruffling their long white fur. And still again, I did not want to kill one. The rifle in my hand felt like a bazooka; I felt like a fraud.

I started before dawn, and reached the high mountain lake I was bound for in early afternoon. This region of Montana is stippled with such lakes, and over in the designated wilderness there are goats. But they are goats that have seen humans, and while they don’t approach the humans, they don’t always run. I was looking for goats that would run, which was why I was over in these other mountains—a wilder, more sprawling range, but just as jagged.

A long time ago I had seen a goat here—a dead goat. In September, I’d bushwhacked into this lake from a different route, and my attention had been drawn by the sight of two eagles soaring in tight circles at the top of an avalanche chute, in which an ice tongue lingered, top to bottom.

At the top of the chute were three grizzlies—one large and two small, young of the year. They were 800 yards away. I watched as the three of them slid, one at a time, like children taking turns on a playground slide, down that long chute of dirty ice, into the gaggle of ravens and a lone eagle gathered at the scrappy feast below—scattering them, then, like raven bowling pins, the black birds leaping up and out of the way in a kind of reverse-cyclone, rising more quickly than the eagle, which appeared to lift in slow motion.

So I knew where I wanted to go. When I arrived at the glimmering blue lake, there was, surprisingly, another human being. He was walking around picking up scraps of litter from lakeside campfire rings. We visited for a while—despite the remoteness of the location, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was talking to the grounds­keeper, with his spear-tipped pickup pole, in an urban park—and he gestured toward the lakeshore and told me that he had seen some fresh goat tracks in the mud there.

“Ah, I was afraid of that,” I said. “I guess I’ll go in the opposite direction. I don’t want to walk up on a goat that’s become used to seeing people.”

How do you even hunt goats? I had no idea. Like a kindergartner, I’d checked out books from the library. The pictures in them did not dispose me further to want to kill a goat. The nannies with their kids, snuggled into rock turrets like clubhouses. The blue sky in which they seemed to float. The supreme fittedness, the improbability, of their existence, clinging to life on cliffs: living on stone, as if living on nothing but air and rock; as if living only on thought. The wildest of dreams made manifest. I think it’s wrong to kill something you don’t know. It’s hard enough to kill something you do know. Would I learn more about goats, in another month or two? I didn’t know.

A Different Beast

That was hot September. After that, I had to travel more. I had not built my autumn around the idea of killing a white animal. When I had time, I went out looking for elk and for birds.

Why had I applied? Maybe because I knew enough about myself, after 56 years, that it would encourage me to get up early and hike long days, into wild country where I might not otherwise have gone. Without the golden ticket, I would likely have stayed in the lowlands, hunting only the familiar.

I realized also that many of the other animals I had grown up hunting, and learned to hunt, were generalists. No small number of them benefited from agriculture and disturbance. Mourning doves, whitetail deer. Among them, the elk were wildest—found in the farthest reaches of the backcountry. The bobwhite quail of my youth had evolved a splendid relationship with fire and grassland, drought and rain, moisture and grass—little buzz bombs of yearning. And the wild turkeys, too, were magnificent. They could prosper in tilled fields as well as in the old hardwood bottoms still relatively untouched by man. But to hunt a goat would be something beyond my old limits.

I kept thinking about my FedEx ­driver’s heart attack, and the deep caution I’d felt; the idea that the two events, his heart attack and the seeking of that sculpted treasure, were somehow connected. There was no judgment in the emotion. I simply filed it away and told myself, That wouldn’t apply to me.

Proceed with Caution

I did want to see a goat. I wanted to walk along the stony ridges that their kind needed. Not tolerated, but needed. Sky-walkers. Humans and eagles, their only predators. An animal so peaceable that it would go to any length to avoid predation. I was pretty sure I just wanted to see one.

I asked my friends Tim and Sean, both hunting guides, where they would go if they wanted to find a goat that had not been corrupted. They said I would have to go as far back as I could—shocker—and Sean gave me the name of a peak where, while skiing, he had seen goats on three occasions. “Bring your rappelling ropes,” he said.

Again I left long before daylight and hiked a long way, in the rain of mid November—sleet, up high, and fog, toward a peak where I’d never been before, but which on the map showed itself to be a great pyramidal point overlooking a broad hanging valley. I would hump up a long steep ridge to one of its lower ridges and follow the fin of that ridge to the flank of the pyramid, and then, in the talus, I would begin to look for goats, circumnavigating the peak like a pilgrim come to one of the world’s holy places. It would be a 16-hour day.

The trail disappeared and the rain intensified; fog shrouded the mountains, and I had brought no compass. I consulted my rain-tattered topo map often and did my wandering best, mindful if I got off on a spur ridge or dropped into another basin, I could end up in Idaho, a day or more away.

I was still in thick forest, walking that knife edge, and as I slogged, I held out the hope that in such miserable weather the goats might also have come down off those highest cliffs and spires, and be taking refuge in these same dripping woods. I squinted into the fog and at the faintest suggestion of the valley below, and the parallel ridge across from me—the one that also led to the peak—and though I walked all day, I seemed to be getting no closer. I was in new country but was unable to see it.

I was tempted to bushwhack down into the valley and seek the most direct route to the peak; but I stayed with my map, went the long way around, and did not reach the country I sought.

My flashlight was weak, and I lost the ridge often. I was wet and shivering, and if I’d wandered off the trail, I would’ve been in a bad spot. I stumbled and fell hard against some rocks at one point—I heard and felt a crack in my left forearm, which I’d used to cradle my rifle during the fall. It hurt, but so unpleasant were the general conditions that I didn’t differentiate that pain from any other.

I got out around midnight. I had gone into new country but had seen almost none of it. That’s O.K., I told myself. I was building goat karma. It takes years to learn to hunt, and many of those years must first be spent learning how not to hunt.

Pushing Through Pain

I thought it was a bruise. My forearm swelled and hurt, but it was November, so I kept hunting. Chasing elk. Later in the season—the last week—I would be lucky enough to walk up on a young bull in new snow. But in between I made a few more goat runs.

I went back to Fog Land, but another storm hit. I was better prepared—rain gear, gaiters, a working flashlight—and wandered through the basin, looking. I felt like I’d come to a house where a going-away party had been held earlier in the week. I walked around the base of the stony peak in the fog, rain, and snow. It was beautiful but they were not there. In that fog, I would have to walk up to one face-to-face. I didn’t, and in the late day, and on into the night, I hiked out, thinking the thoughts, or non-thoughts, one does on walks like this, hiking out at night, one step in front of the next, your tiny light a thin tunnel through the darkness.

A Clearer Picture

I chose another tack: into the mountains from the Idaho side. I watched the weather, and hit it on the last clear day before a storm. I’d rested up a few days, which felt great. I had energy, going up the trail and, when the trail ended, up the creek. I had that good feeling that you have some days. Maybe you will see an animal, or maybe not, but some days feel different, and on those days, you often see things.

I didn’t. But it was great finally to see the country. A deep north-south-running valley, narrowing toward the high peaks to the south. Up into the high country, the wonderful country, where the hard-charging creek constricted to a trickle, and higher still—above the treeline—the wandering green marsh-loops of its snowmelt head­waters. This was where my friend Sean said he had seen goats when he was skiing, on three separate occasions, across the last decade or so. I gained a saddle between peaks—I could not reach the peak in a day—but from that saddle, I was able to look out over what seemed like an infinitude of other ­glacier-​cut high wet basins, and snowcapped-­mountain teeth. I could have gone in any direction. I could have spent a month wandering.

Late afternoon always comes quickly in late November. I climbed up onto a ridgetop, to the thin skullcapping of snow, where I saw a track like none I’d ever seen before, fresh and crisp in the day-warm snow. There was a scattering of them—one or two animals—and while some looked deerlike, one did not. It was short and broad—as wide as it was long. I followed the wandering track, around through the rocks, in and out of snow, thinking I would look up and see a goat at any moment: a young goat, or a very young mule deer. I hoped that the animal had a larger body than its feet suggested.

I followed the tracks until the light grew soft and weak. I kept expecting to look up and see, finally, a goat looking back at me—and I knew, that day, that if I did, I wasn’t going to shoot. Still I was intensely curious, and I followed the tracks until they went down out of the snow, and then I followed the ridge down into the darkness, and saw nothing.

My arm hurt worse. There was no time during hunting season to have it looked at. And what would the doctor do anyway—put a cast on it? I was taking care of it, carrying the rifle in my other hand, folding it into the crook of my other arm, up there in that beautiful late-day high country. I gazed out at the magnificent country, the altitude and elevation I had earned, walking all day. Do goats have similar, or better, vision than humans? I had no idea. I hoped they could see what I was seeing.

As is so often the case, it was harder to bushwhack down than up. Going up, all routes converge at the top; as long as you keep going uphill, you can’t get lost. But going downhill, you can end up almost anywhere. Which I did, after an engagement with thousands of acres of old-growth alder, the trunks and branches clotted together like the most dendritic tangle of brain synapses, the mountain’s brain working to keep out intruders. A tangle through which only songbirds might pass, not killers.

Death Grip

Darkness, again. I had a flashlight and, this time, a compass, worn on a narrow cord around my neck. I could no longer see the dark valley below and beyond, but tacked my way toward the bottom and the riverside trail that would eventually lead me out. After some hours, the alder disgorged me into a north slope of dense cedar, on a slope which, though not quite vertical, was so steep I had to descend by holding on to the young cedars as if to the railings of stairs.

Down closer to the lowlands, there were giant cedar stumps—and here on this wet shady north slope, the young cedar in which I found myself now tangled was swarming in, growing up around the old stumps like the bars in a jail cell, younger trees growing so close together that even by turning sideways it was hard for me to squeeze between them, and the slope so very steep.

I was gloriously tired. My ankle buckled. I stumbled, and as I fell over a little lip of a cliff—only a 3- or 4-foot drop—the nylon cord on my compass caught on the snag of one of those cedar stumps, so that I was suddenly noosed, the cord cutting into my neck like a hot saw.

One minute I’d been daydreaming, blundering along, just existing, in this strange dark jungle, and the next I was dangling like an outlaw on the gallows, my rifle dropped, my toes unable to find ground beneath me.

My flashlight tumbled several yards down­slope where it sent a random beam into the phantasmagoric tangle, each cedar with its boughs spread wide like the outstretched wings of vultures, and it seemed this strange sight would be the last thing I saw.

I did not think about my FedEx driver. I did not think about the knife on my belt. I thought only—flash forwarding 20 years or more—how no one would ever find me, deep in this tangle of off-trail clot: not for a hundred years anyway, not until the young cedars grew huge and the loggers returned. The bars to the cage would spread wider as they grew, and the prison cage of my own whitened bones—my ribs squirrel-chewed, my pelvis porcupine-gnawed, my feet still dangling those useless few inches—would stir like the faintest of wind chimes on the windiest days, when a breath from the outside world was able, thinly, to penetrate these dark woods, this tight grove.

Do not seek the treasure, I thought…

I don’t know how I broke the nylon that was strong enough to hold my weight. The power of panic, I guess. I snapped it—my eyes seeing stars—and fell down the slope. I lay there panting, joyful. I got up after a while, gathered my things, and hiked out in darkness.

Leave in the Cold

I went back one more time. It was the last week of the season and had been snowing for days. It was also likely the last week I would ever have a goat license. The snow was not too bad, down low, where at times it had been mixed with rain; but as I ascended, it grew deeper, until it was knee-deep, then thigh-deep. I had not brought snowshoes, but I kept going. This was my last chance. I had brought my backpack, complete with tent, cooking equipment, extra dry heavy clothing—the temperature would drop to zero, the windchill much worse—extra gloves, extra everything.

I went up through those same snowy alders, and up the ridge, snow howling against my face, but sweating so much from the labor that each step was like going into the caldera of an active volcano. Did I think that I might encounter a goat? No. Again, I would have to walk up on one, in this blizzard. But it was the only time I had left, and I have learned that you never encounter good luck staying at home.

I did get lucky.

Late that day, a brief column of sun sank down through the clouds, just as I was cresting a pass, and in that blue sky, that beam of gold sun against new snow, a bald eagle was circling, close enough to me that I could have tossed a tennis ball for it to catch. Then the column of light closed in with clouds and fog and it began to snow again, harder than before, and I pushed on.

I got lucky. Something shifted in my arm, so that the pain was suddenly significant, to the point where it made me sick at my stomach. I got lucky, though, and set up my tent, broken-armed, in dusk, in that blizzard, and crawled inside, where I shivered my shape into an ice cocoon, at the very top of the mountain. I slept solidly, and when I woke up it was still snowing, harder yet, deeper still. I got lucky; turned around and headed down. Fell into a crevasse with my pack, but was able to get out. Continued on, slowly. Crossed an ice bridge down in the low country that second night, and the ice broke, I fell in, but only up to my knees. Continued on, was out before midnight. Lucky.