It wasn’t a conscious decision; we had merely started moving in slightly different trajectories, and in this sort of country that means that before long we were almost a mile, and a deep gorge, away from each other. I look across the rim at the small figures, the even smaller brown and white dots that represented the dogs. Even at this distance, it is obvious that they are covering 10 times the amount of ground the humans are.
I find reasonably stable footing amidst the slippery skateboards of sandstone talus piled atop each other and look over the rim. Even in February, the creek flows assertively. Yes, people would have lived here, and probably would have done pretty well at it, considering the harshness that lay to the horizon beyond.
In the distance, the rooftops and glass reflections of a border gambling town can be seen. I am less than an hour hike from the road, but I know no one has likely stood where I am in a long time. They come in vehicles of sealed, conditioned air, never leaving pavement, and head straight to the dim cacophony of casinos where it could be any time of night or day. Indeed, this lack of any reference to time of day is the deliberate strategy from the casino’s point of view. And then, broke, satiated, guilty, elated, hungover or maybe even lucky, they get back in their cars and move on, their feet likely never touching real soil, their menthol-pickled lungs taking in as little fresh air as possible throughout the entire endeavor.
I drop below the band of rimrock and continue to parallel the ridge, the creek now audible below. Here and there are concentrations of tiny obsidian flakes on the ground, doubtless in the very same spot where they initially fell, as someone ages before fashioned a tool or killing instrument of some sort. I continue on, lost in various thoughts of the people who used to live here, losing recollection of the quarry I came here to find, not even sure exactly where my dog is. It feels good to be alone in this place, walking, consumed by the moment, surrounded by scatterings of human evidence, reminded that I am but one in a long chain that stretches way back. Something incongruous catches my eye and I bend down. A tiny chert arrowhead, perfectly formed.
I move on, still deep in thought, looking down as I pick my way along, only half-heartedly still in the hunt. Hank pops over the rim above to check on me and then disappears again.
And then suddenly, there it is.
I stand there stunned as everything around me slows and focuses in the middle, on what lies in front of me, blurred around the edges, like an old tintype. Despite the mid-day temps hovering around freezing, it is clear that the cat hasn’t been dead for long. It is also clear that this had not been a quick death, that nothing dies quickly this way. There would have been hours, if not days, of struggle, of life slowly ebbing, of creeping cold, until this. Wind moves the soft fur, and I can’t resist – I kneel down and run my fingers through it. There is this brief, purely sensory moment where my thinking, judgmental mind is as numb as the carcass before me. This incredibly soft coat. I want to continue running my hand through it and not think about anything, but thoughts begin to creep back. I stand up and wonder if the trapper is watching me from somewhere in the distance. This is easy country to remain undetected in.
I try to get it back, but the rest of the day is not the same. The usual burning desire to continue hunting and covering country has been dimmed to a flicker and all I want to do is put the gun and the rest of it all away and go sit somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a good view and not think about anything but the biting February wind chafing my face and the little chert arrowhead, smooth between my fingers.
Bruce Smithhammer is a freelance writer and editor, a columnist for the Teton Valley News and a contributing editor for The Drake magazine. He is also among a group of hunting writers who contribute to the blog Mouthful of Feathers, where this essay originally appeared.