Hauled my sleeping bag, a pad, and a tarp up there along with the usual stuff so that I could spend the night with them. Those elk were there and I knew where they'd be headed in the morning.
That night I fell into a deep sleep on the ground of a treeless ridge, despite the lights of Missoula in the distance and a bright moon. I dreamed of an old woman from India who kept asking me in the beautiful syllables of her accent, "Why? Why do you want to kill those elk?" I tried to answer, but although I have plenty of answers for this question, my dream mouth wouldn't work, like when my dream feet can't run. Symbols? Cymbals? She was all those people from a different culture who ask that question, but never listen to the answers.
The moon set and the stars intensified. Hello, Milky Way. During a waking moment I slipped on my glasses and they fogged immediately from my heat, then slowly cleared to reveal a starry sight we evolved with, made stories about.
Near dawn, my alarm rang, but it was so warm and toasty in my bag and I was in love with such deep sleep with cold cheeks and a quiet, lonesome sky. I loved the howl of one wolf far away. But, I knew where those elk were going to be and I didn't want to be late, so I scurried about my little camp by the light of a headlamp and gathered my gear.
I hiked through darkness and found my spot and sat down to wait in a river of cold air running downhill through this damp draw. I smelled old elk smells. I heard dry grass tinkle with approaching whitetails and watched a little buck drink. Then, I started to doubt. But then, I heard a different sound: not birds rustling in yellow leaves or squirrels scratching around in the pines or the daintiness of deer or the muffled exhalation of distant shotgun blasts. I heard a clunk, a snap, a clop, and big bodies approached. I could see their tan hides sliding right toward me, ears and eyes calm.
My mind raced, and not with the ancestral excitement of a pending kill. My mind raced because of all the ways they could come, this was not the right way, people. It was too brushy, no worn path, and those calm sliding bodies stopped and stiffened when that river of cold air that had just blown over me, wafted over them.
What did they smell? It's impossible for us to know since our own noses are thousands of times less sensitive, but if it looked like something, that smell, to them, it would look like an Irish Setter with some Black Coffee "Vinyl" roast and the inside of an old Ford and some dishwashing soap and an El Diablo burrito and two kids and a mortgage and perhaps a skinny bowhunter. If you're an elk, this smell is out of place like a clown suit at a funeral and instantly induces panic.
I felt sad at all of their unsure maneuvering as they went on red alert. I felt embarrassed at their alarm noise: yes, barking, a sound of failure like a car skidding and crashing.
The nice old lady from India asked me the question again, "Why? Why kill?" My ideals spun around, my ethics, my philosophy, my ancestors flashed past. Words. Ideas. The predatory configuration of my eyeballs. North American conservation model righting the wrongs. Wildlife management. Hunting is conservation. Convenience is our sin. John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, bless their visionary hearts. Connection to the natural process. Taxes. Licenses. Blah, blah, blah. A squirrel chattered. I just looked at her and smiled as politely as I could.