Phil Caputo: Old Age and Elk Hunting in the Rocky Mountains

This is appropriate because my chances of spending a nanosecond in Las Vegas with a showgirl are less than my chances of becoming an Olympic pole vaulter; and after less than two days on foot and horseback, I fully empathize with that old sailor, yearning for "the feeling that will never come back any more."

Actually, what I yearn for is the absence of feeling, especially in my knees. Also, the arthritis in my left shoulder has flared, a saddle sore burns my rear end, and my feet throb. All this despite the fact that at my annual physical my doctor pronounced me quite fit for someone my age. That last phrase is key.

In my wallet is a kind of birthday card presented by the Social Security Administration three months ago when I reached a chronological milestone. The card has red, white, and blue stripes across the top, and in the white one are the words MEDICARE--HEALTH INSURANCE. I may need it when I get out of here, here being Montana's Absaroka wilderness.

No Pain, No Gain

THE NIGHT BEFORE I rode in (with five other hunters, a photographer, and three guides led by the outfitter, Duane Neal), I had dinner with writer Jim Harrison and his wife, Linda, at their house in the Paradise Valley. Their dining-room window framed the snow-rimmed Absarokas, which looked beautiful and formidable, prompting Jim to ask why, as a card-carrying geezer, I wanted to spend eight days in them looking for elk.

The obvious answer--because I wished to shoot one--wouldn't suffice. Although elk hunting is physically challenging under any circumstances, there are easier ways to go about it. I replied, "I seem to have a need to suffer," which might have been inculcated by my education in Roman Catholic schools, where I was taught that my sin-stained soul would be denied the joys of heaven if I failed to cleanse it through one form of self-flagellation or another. In other words, no pain, no gain.

This lesson was later reinforced by three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, an institution fully capable of transforming even a dedicated hedonist into a masochist.

I don't think Jim and Linda completely bought this argument, and upon reflection, I don't either. It has an element of truth but doesn't fully explain why a 65-year-old was going to subject himself to hardships that much younger men would find trying. There are other reasons, which I will get into in due course.

But suffering first. Elk hunting provides enough of it to gratify almost anyone with a martyr complex, but not as much as sheep hunting, which, if it weren't voluntary, would be classified as inhumane punishment. I had survived such a hunt in 2003 in Alaska's Brooks Range. Its rigors made me feel as if I had completed Navy SEALs boot camp. This achievement gave me a certain hubris. A wilderness elk hunt, I thought, would be a pleasant experience by comparison, a kind of trail ride with guns.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

OUR BAND OF 11 men, six mules, and three packhorses left the Mill Creek trailhead on a cloudy September morning, bound for Duane Neal's Grizzly Creek camp, some 16 miles away, half of it uphill--very uphill, from roughly a mile in altitude to two. I was much encouraged to learn that I wasn't the only geriatric case in the crowd. Neal, who has operated Black Otter Guide Service (406-333-4362; blackotterguideservice. com) for nearly 40 years, was 70; one of his guides, Dave Morton, was 66; and one of the hunters, John Nolander, was 64.

Perhaps an hour into the ride, we encountered a blowdown blocking the trail. We dismounted and took turns removing it with a double-bit axe and two-man saw. Farther up we hacked through another in the same way, then a third and a fourth. I can't speak for the others, but the chopping and sawing made me feel old-timey and rugged and ready for whatever the wilderness might dish out.

Snow is what it dished out, snow up to the horses' knees. The firs and lodgepole pines were flocked with the stuff, and clouds and mists veiled the rocky escarpments above. The trail grew steeper in a series of tight switchbacks, then leveled off and wrapped around the mountainside, the slope on our right falling a couple of hundred feet to the Mill Creek headwaters, the slope on the left almost sheer.

Approaching Wallace Pass, the trail became like a catwalk against the face of a tall building, and in this precarious position, the pack train stopped. I stood in the stirrups and was dismayed to see that the trail ahead had vanished under the snow. One of the guides, Gary Francis, was on foot, looking for it. He didn't appear to be having much success as he lunged through waist-deep drifts. Behind him, the mules and packhorses stood blowing steam. Without a trail to follow, the danger of a spectacular wreck had increased considerably; that is, if the lead mule took one wrong step and fell, he would pull the whole string down with him.

We shivered in our saddles. Neal passed the word to dismount and allow the horses to find their own way. That was when we knew we were, if not in trouble, then in an interesting situation. Getting off a horse on what amounted to the side of a cliff was a delicate operation. As I trudged behind mine, a pale gray gelding named Spirit, my sea-level lungs labored in the thin air, my heart thudded unnaturally fast, and my mind shot back to a story I'd heard about a 78-year-old man from Colorado who had accepted an invitation to go elk hunting despite his recent recovery from a triple bypass. When his wife objected, he replied, "I'd rather die on a snowy mountain than in a nursing home, watching TV, not knowing what's on."

Having undergone two cardiac operations in the previous year--a procedure to cure atrial fibrillation, then the insertion of a stent in a blocked coronary artery--I got to thinking about the septuagenarian's remark. I had come to terms with my mortality long ago in Vietnam, at an age when it is normal for you to think that you will never die. Now that I own far more shares of the past than I do of the future, my dread is not of nonexistence but the loss of physical and mental powers--the heat in the lump of dust that expires before life itself. No, I did not want to die on a snowy mountain, but given the choice between that and watching a TV in a nursing home not knowing what was on, there was no doubt which one I'd pick.

And therein I saw a better answer to Jim Harrison's question. I was on an elk hunt because I was capable of it, at the same time that I knew I might not be next year or the year after. I was greedy to do the kinds of things I love while I still could.

Wait, you say. Do you mean to say you love crawling up snow-filled mountains? Yes. Not for the sake of it, but for the rewards it brings. One of which was granted when, after some difficulty, we reached Wallace Pass. Below lay the Grizzly Creek and Knife Creek valleys, bounded by mountains that made a white-crested, jagged horizon, range upon range, some greened by dense pines, some blackened by the vast forest fires that had burned through the Absarokas only weeks earlier, but altogether a landscape that looked as wild and pristine as when the Crow and the Blackfeet and the mountain men had hunted and trapped there.

Some three hours later, we arrived at a broad meadow of copper-colored grass, through which Grizzly Creek meandered, cutthroat trout flashing in its pools. I was delighted to see smoke curling up from some hills overlooking the meadow. Camp consisted of several wall tents heated by woodburning stoves, a large mess tent, and a corral, where we were all glad to part with our horses, for the time being anyway.

We were served hot coffee by Terry and Elnora Neal, Duane's brother and sister-in-law, who do the cooking and manage the camp.

"Heard you had quite a time getting over the pass," Elnora said to me. "Duane said it was the worst crossing he's made coming in for nearly 40 years."

"Yup," drawled Duane, sitting nearby in the dining tent. "Hairiest I've ever seen it."

I was a little surprised to hear this. It hadn't seemed all that rough, but that, I now realized, had been due to my own ignorance of the situation. As the old saying goes, if you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, you probably don't know what's going on.

The Nursing Home Gang

AFTER DINNER, the hunters were assigned their guides. The two youngest, Rick and Tim, were given to Gary Francis, Duane's son-in-law (Black Otter Outfitters is very much a family enterprise). My tent mates, Bob and John, in their 40s, drew Delmer Cox, a well-traveled Canadian and licensed architect who, for reasons unknown, had become a hunting guide. Nolander and I, previously terrified that we would find ourselves trying to keep up with the comparatively youthful Cox or Francis, were pleased to be matched with our brother geezer, Dave Morton, a retired Forest Service ranger. Morton's head, innocent of hair except for a band of gray above his ears, and his--shall we say--less than killer abs were reassuring. We immediately dubbed ourselves "The Nursing Home Gang."

There are several disadvantages to camping out in the wilderness when you are of a certain age. Leaving a warm tent and sleeping bag to pee in the freezing dark in your socks and underwear is very disagreeable, but on my third trip outdoors since turning in, I tried to look on the bright side. The stars in those unsullied skies were as breathtaking as the 20-degree temperature. It was a view of the heavens that today's urbanites see only in photographs snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the light of the aforementioned stars, aided by flashlights and kerosene lamps, we mounted up at the old corral for the first day's hunt. Nolander, a retired air officer and now a defense contractor, works out regularly in a gym. Morton, of course, spends much of his time on horseback and hiking in the mountains, and I stay fit with a regimen of calisthenics, hiking, biking, riding, and kayaking. Nevertheless, each of us got into the saddle by slow, mechanical degrees, our movements reminiscent of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

The stars were out again when we returned after a perfectly fruitless day. We got out of our saddles even more slowly than we'd gotten into them and walked to the dining tent as if our legs were jointless blocks of wood. Elk hunting ain't for sissies. Neither is getting old.

There was some uneasiness around the campfire that night. No one had seen an elk nor sign of one; no one had heard a rutting bull's bugle.

Morton opined that wolves, reintroduced to the Yellowstone region in the 1990s, accounted for the scarcity. "Ten years ago, there were almost 20,000 animals in this herd. It's down to around 6,000 today."

The Slide

NEXT MORNING we set off for the Red Rock plateau, some 6 or 7 miles away and 3,000 feet higher than the camp. Morning in the Rockies is a relative term; the high peaks retard the dawn by a good two hours, so we made half that ride in darkness, and the remainder in a prolonged twilight.

Morton halted us at a point where the trail went up at roughly the pitch of a gutter cleaner's extension ladder.

"We made it," he said.

"Made what?" I asked.

"This is the slide. If we didn't get here early enough, the ground would have thawed and the horses would have a helluva time climbing in mud. Kick 'em hard going up, and keep kicking, and if you feel them wanting to stop, kick harder. Otherwise they might fall backward."

Yeehaw! The Nursing Home Gang dug their heels into their horses' flanks, and up they went, lunging and snorting, plumes of breath blasting from their nostrils like steam from an antique locomotive. I have ridden my share of horses but have never been able to establish a meaningful relationship with a single one. A horse's main purpose in life is to dump its rider, and it will do so at the first opportunity, but I must admit that I acquired a semblance of affection for Spirit as he gallantly carried me up that incline. I was certainly glad I didn't have to climb it myself.

After giving the animals a well-earned breather, we continued on and at last reached the plateau at 10,000-plus feet. Wide alpine meadows were broken by islands of lodge-pole and whitebark pine, little knolls, and rocky, snow-dusted buttes. Looking southward, we could see the beginning of the Wind River range in Wyoming, 100 miles away. In the opposite direction, the Gallatins cut into a clear sky like a serrated knife, and the distant Beartooths rose picketed with pines until they turned to a solid white tinged rose by the new sun.

Morton thought the elk might have retreated here, to the high lonesome.

"Elk are really wild nowadays," he said. "It used to be that hunters were all they had to worry about for six weeks a year. Now, with wolves and mountain lions and grizzlies making a comeback, they've got something after them all the time."

I could not imagine a more magnificent place for them to seek refuge. As we rode on, the frost-covered trees on a ridgetop to the east, backlit by the rising sun, glistened like giant icicles turned upside down. The snow in the meadows sparkled as if strewn with countless bits of crystal.

As if to salute the grandeur, Morton blew his elk call, a curved horn that mimics a bull's bugle. It is a haunting sound, a cry of the wild, not really a trumpet-blast so much as a high, alto-sax note, somehow plaintive and challenging at the same time. We listened for an answer, heard none, and tethered the horses.

After giving me some directions, Morton sent me off on my own, while he and Nolander worked their way to a basin to the northeast.

It was no different from still-hunting deer: Cover your movements as best you can, walk slowly as few paces, stop, look, listen test the wind (none to speak of that morning), move another few paces, sit down for 10 minutes or so, scanning the terrain, get up and move again. In this way, I covered perhaps half a mile in an hour, coming at last to the rim of the basin, opposite the side my two companions were hunting.

I sat on a shelf of caprock and swept my binoculars over the distant slopes, into pine stands where elk like to lie up, concealed by the shadows of the trees. Elk that do not learn to do this end up dead.

Suddenly, down in the basin and fairly close to me, no more than 200 yards away, a wolf pack started to howl. It is sound at once doleful, thrilling, and a little scary. You hear it and in a twinkling, you're no longer Homo sapiens with a high-powered rifle, you're Homo neanderthalensis, clutching a spear. I couldn't see the wolves, nor was I expert enough in lupine vocalization to determine whether their yelps signaled a chase or something else.

Hope caused me to decide they were in hot pursuit of a bull elk with a rack like a tree. I slipped my left arm around the sling and got ready to shoot the Boone and Crockett record that was going to run past me at any moment. This fantasy went the way of the one about the Las Vegas showgirl (a great-uncle of mine, a high-ranking member of the Chicago mob in the 1950s, actually met and married one), and I got up and moved on.

A set of mule deer tracks, a day or two old, showed clearly in the snow, and as I had a muley tag. I followed them until they ran out in a jumble of rocks. Turning to hunt back to where the horses were tethered, I came across spanking-new grizzly bear tracks. The easiest way to tell a grizzly's print from a black bear's is by the length of the claw marks, and these were as long as my fingers.

As is always the case when you know His Lordship is in the immediate vicinity, I experienced a certain awakening of my senses, a wariness born of the knowledge that I, even with my .30/06, was basically a nobody, an irritation Sir G. could swipe out of existence in (chose one) a New York minute, a Detroit second, a heartbeat. Why this excited me is a mystery. Also--another mystery--it made me feel younger.

At any rate, I was glad to see that the bear's destination was not mine. I arrived at the meadow around noon, when it had grown balmy enough for shirtsleeves. Nolander and Morton had not returned, so I sat on a warm, flat rock, resting my tired back against the rocks atop it, and that was when the passage from the Conrad story flashed in my mind. The feeling that will never come back any more...

A Different Sort of Glow

I THOUGHT about the matches I had fought on my high school boxing team, the contests I had won and lost on the Purdue University wrestling team. I thought about Marine Corps boot camp and officer's training at Quantico, where I had placed fourth (out of 175) in a grueling physical fitness test. And I thought about the time, way back in 1961, when a buddy and I had hiked into Michigan's Huron Mountains to go steelhead fishing.

That was before lightweight gear, freeze-dried food, and backpacks designed by NASA engineers had come into being. We carried our heavy sleeping bags, canvas tent, rubber waders, and tin cans of hash and beans in Duluth packs--some 75 pounds each--for 5 miles up and down steep hills, then waded wild rivers for a week from dawn to sunset, and hiked back out and got stupifyingly drunk on our false IDs in a north-woods bar and danced and partied all night with two women 10 years older than we.

I remembered other feats that seemed at the time to require not much more effort than getting out of bed, and asked myself: Had I, with my thinning hair, expanding waistline, fading vision, arthritic shoulder, stiff knees, and aching spine really done all that?

I had, but no more.

Oh, yes, Captain Marlow, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that expires too soon...

Or does another sort of glow light the aging heart? I looked at the crystalline glitter of the meadow, at the great and still untamed mountains, at the grazing horses, and suddenly felt an acute joy. I had seen no elk and yet there it was: joy. I recalled a conversation I'd had years ago with a California winemaker. He'd told me that he produced an especially robust zinfandel by dry-farming. The vines were deprived of water until they were near the point of death. Reacting to the artificial drought, the vines poured their life essence into the grapes, giving them an intense flavor.

Something like that was happening to me up there on the Red Rock plateau. Painful awareness of my limitations granted a poignancy to the moment that the younger me would not have experienced. He would have been thinking about his quarry. He would have been frustrated, maybe even angry. He would have thought I'll get one next season if I don't this season.

But the older me, with the stent in his coronary artery, knew there might not be a next season. And even if that earlier edition of me did get his elk, he would have missed something utterly, utterly precious.

"Elk hunting ain't for sissies. Neither is getting old."

NOW ON FIELDANDSTREAM.COM

AN ELK HUNT PHOTO GALLERY If you'd like to get a better look at elk country and see what it's like to hunt on horseback (beats hell out of doing it on foot), there are plenty more of Dusan Smetana's photos at fieldandstream.com/elkhunt

Contributing editor Philip Caputo is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Acts of Faith (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).