From the Backseat: Hipster Hunting

Hipster hunting doesn’t mean what you think it means.

I’ve been doing it for about a year. And no, the quarry doesn’t wear flannel or a beard (although if it did, Portland would be rich game grounds). Hipster hunting is hunting as a return to the past, as a return to authenticity, an homage to killing. It’s hunting to personally experience what goes into every meal containing meat.

Because, let’s face it, killing is something we’ve forgotten how to do.

Not as a society — as a people we’re quite adept at killing chickens, cows, pigs, the planet, whatever — but as individuals we’re bad at it. It’s one of many things we’ve outsourced. When was the last time you wrung a bird’s neck? Or smashed a fish over the head with a wooden baton? Sounds brutal, right? A bit barbaric? But here’s the thing: Chicken is GOOD. Fish is GOOD. Who would want to live without fish tacos? Almost every time I order a meal out, I get chicken, fish, lamb, a burger, something made of flesh. So really each time I go out I’m killing a chicken, a sheep, a cow. I mean sure, I’m not the one chopping off its head — that work goes to someone else — but my hunger is the architect of death. I’m basically the chicken Gestapo.

Last night I ordered a burger with bacon on top — not just cow, but a pig on a cow. I killed them, both in one meal. Devastation.

Earlier in the day I grabbed a pair of Otto’s pizza slices, one with bacon, the other turkey. Two more beasts — BAM! — gone.

Some days my fork is set to full auto.

Now I want to be clear: I have no problem with meat. We’re built to eat it, and animals taste awesome. I want cows and chickens and pigs to live happy lives, but I don’t think it’s wrong to eat them.

But we have grown pretty far removed from our food. Some people plant gardens as a reminder of where their carrots come from, but I’ve never been good at half-measures: I signed up to take my proper place in the killing fields—I took a hunter safety course.

But like most half-baked hipster ideas, it’s just not that easy. I’ve been stumbling around the woods for weeks draped in blaze orange and dragging a 12-gauge, but I have yet to experience the primal mix of elation and guilt I imagine accompanies killing.

Hunting is HARD. It may seem like an unfair game — sweet woodland creatures up against a man with a loaded gun — but when the person hunting has no idea what he’s doing the woodland creatures do just fine. I’ve been out a dozen times, and I haven’t shot a thing. I haven’t even swung my gun to my shoulder. The only thing I’ve shot is a paper plate, and if it were moving I’d bet money I’d miss.

I’ve seen game in the woods, but they are a lot faster than I am, a lot stealthier and probably a lot smarter. My best look is their backsides before they disappear into the underbrush.

On a recent trip I got so lost I had to use a compass to find my way back to my car. I followed a course east to the river and then hopped boulders upstream until I came to a bridge. I was tired, thirsty and overheated by the time I got back to my car, and over my two-plus-hour adventure I saw one bird. I didn’t get more than a snap look at him. Trying to follow him I nearly fell in a river. If it weren’t for Hannaford’s rotisserie oven I’d be poultry-starved.

So hipster hunting is thus far not a resounding success. All my meat still comes ordered off a menu. I’ve found new respect for those who can actually go out and harvest something for the table, but my personal ethical escapade has been fruitless.

Killing. It’s grisly business to be sure, but so far my tally is zero. Maybe I’ll have better luck next week.

CDS Column: Lost Hiker

I don’t hike much anymore.

I used to. I used to hike all the time. Through high school it’s all I wanted to do. When I graduated I wasn’t ready for college, so instead I went hiking — first on a cross-country road trip to hike Colorado, the Grand Canyon and Jackson Hole, then on the Appalachian Trail. At 18, I walked from Georgia to Maine. It took four months and transformed me from relative backcountry novice to old hand. Night after night, firing up a tiny backpacking stove, filtering water, sleeping among the pines, hiking became my first full-time job.

From there I moved to mountains, to rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and skiing, added tools to get me to the top, techniques to push adventures to new heights. “Hiking” became something I did to get to the fun part: the snow, the rock, the vertical parts where the rope came out. I hiked on 14ers in Colorado (the state’s highest peaks), volcanos in Washington and the knife-like ridges of the Tetons, to rock faces in the Shawangunks in New York and Yosemite Valley in California, but keep in mind none of it was hiking.

And over time it moved even further aside. It got renamed “the approach” as I traveled to South America, Europe and Africa for mountains, rock and ice climbs. “Hiking” meant carrying a rope, harness, helmet and all the climbing gear for the adventure ahead, and thus weighted it became more work than fun. The sport once again found itself on my periphery.

But recently I’ve found myself back in the woods. I find myself there with no summit in sight, tramping between trees and ducking under spruce bows, the trail unbeaten and unmarked. I’m out there wandering, splashing through creeks and past logs downed by beavers. It feels like a return, a recovery of my hiking spirit.

But it’s not. It’s from before my high school days, before hiking boots and Gore-Tex and double-walled tents. It’s from my very first explorations of the woods, back in late elementary and middle school when I would pull on duck boots, grab the dog and vanish into the trees out past the cemetery at the end of the street. There were trails, but they were serpentine and poorly marked. The spruce and pine hung close, and though it was only a few hundred acres hemmed in by road on one side and ocean on the other, it was enough to get lost in. There were rotting logs and moss-covered rocks to climb over, and a canopy so thick sunlight struggled to reach the forest floor. It was just woods, more rugged than any hiking trail. My Australian shepherd Cody and I would walk for hours, wandering deer-paths looking for stray antlers and animal signs, imagining ourselves intrepid explorers, Native Americans maybe.

But that’s where hiking began for me, those first forays into woods as pretend hunters and explorers. The nylon windshirts, LED headlamps and ultralight stoves came later, the slick well-marketed modern trappings that now adorn that early call.

My earliest role models weren’t looking to stand on top of things. “Because it’s there” is a modern concept. They were looking to survive, to find enough to eat or the safest/quickest route. “Adventure” was an accident borne of necessity. Hiking wasn’t the approach to those explorers, it was the pre-industrial equivalent to a trip to the grocery store. It wasn’t sport, it was just part of life.

What brought me back to my roots? To the root of my roots? My new hiking partner—not an Australian shepherd, but a 30-year-old Sears and Roebuck 12-gauge.

That’s right, hunting is my new hiking. With my dad’s old shotgun I wander, no vertical objective calling from the horizon. I find myself stumbling through undergrowth, pushing aside tree branches, mucking across marshes and otherwise tramping, the original forest call. I’m not ticking off another peakbagging summit or trying to break my speed record up Washington; I’m just walking, wandering the woods, looking for antlers and animal sign.

And with the walking the wonder returned. The things I used to love about hiking — noticing the feathers scattered among the tree roots marking some kill, walking an old logging road in the cold morning air that eventually peters into nothing, tripping on the rusted hulk of an old peavey left by some long forgotten logger — now lives in blaze orange. It’s exploration with a walking stick of wood and steel.

And just like those early walks with Cody, when I go hunting I have no idea what I’m doing. I get lost. I get wet. I find myself tired and hungry and running low on water. I overdress or underdress, wear the wrong socks or wrong hat. It’s all those things I used to struggle through while hiking, but when there are summits involved I’ve long since learned my lessons. Not in hunting though. In hunting I’m still the utter beginner, more akin to that elementary school kid than ever.

As a result the animals of the forest are safe. I see game, but everything in the woods moves so much faster than me. I have yet to get my gun to my shoulder much less get a shot off before my quarry disappears. It’ll be a long time before I kill anything. When I see something I wind up chasing, but the animals know the hiding spots better than I do. So I search, walk in circles sometimes for hours.

It’s the most hiking I’ve done in years.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

CDS Column: A Shot in the Dark

IMG_7944-1I’m not much of a hunter.

Last year was my first season. I took the hunter safety course in the southern part of the state, a consequence of waiting until the last minute to sign up. But three days of spoon-feeding later — information distilled so simply failure wasn’t an option — I had state approval to walk the woods with a gun.

A hunting license, paired with no idea what I was doing. An old hand-me-down 20-gauge I’d been given in high school would serve as my long sword, and a few stops at the L.L. Bean outlet set me up in blaze orange. I was suddenly poised to kick around the woods with a loaded firearm, crisply dressed and legal but still far from lethal.

So, for my first day out I recruited an experienced friend to lead me in my pursuit of ruffed grouse, an appropriate-seeming challenge. We walked Jackson woods on overgrown logging trails waiting for an explosion of wings or the sound of their distinctive drumming, but we saw nothing. Instead of entering the arena of primordial provider, I took a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Lots of hunting days, my friend explained, are spent like this, more wandering through empty woods than shooting. The gun on those days is a hiking accessory.

Two days later, I was back, this time on my own. A grouse, I was determined, would find its way to my table. I drove the same dirt road looking for deciduous forests along sunny slopes, the sort of place a healthy grouse might opt to make roost. I parked at a pullout, donned my orange vest, loaded my shotgun, laced my boots and set off into the forest.

The explosion caught me off guard, barely five minutes in. A rustle catapulted a bird into the sky, and it streaked from left to right like a football bound for the endzone, wheeling around trees and darting out of sight.

My gun never came up. The lightning bolt erupted faster than I’d imagined, and I stood dumbfounded. This was going to be harder than I’d thought, I realized.

But I’d seen it, noted its general direction. It wouldn’t go far. This was its territory and it’d stick close. So, I followed it, tromping dead trees and downed limbs looking for wherever the football had landed.

Fifteen minutes later, my steps triggered another explosion, this time streaking back right. I’d found it, but again I was flat-footed. My gun hung across my thighs, never approached my shoulder. I didn’t have a chance. This bird was better equipped for survival than I was, and another hour of walking failed to scare it up for a third time. I walked back to my car with nothing but a shotgun in hand.

More wandering in the woods than shooting. It was proving true.

But the shooting was what drew me to the woods, what pushed me to hunt: Not the sport of it, but the killing. Like most of us, I am happy to eat a hamburger or chicken on my Caesar salad. But I have never killed a cow, never chopped the head off a hen. Our food does not demand such commitment. It’s easy to eat steak without ever coming face-to-face with a living, doe-eyed cow, much less having killed one. Our killing today, like so much in our economy, has been outsourced, and not just to the neighborhood butcher.

Not that I’m opposed to the killing. Every carnivore and omnivore does it, all without the guilt humans wrestle with. But our habit is to kill from a distance, to leave it to others while reaping the benefits. It’s a tendency that engenders complacency. Ignorance in the face of death lets things to get messy in dark corners.

Across Idaho, Utah and Kansas vast feedlots line the highway. Herds stand crowded into brown squares stripped bare of grass. Cows stained dark with mud and feces stand resigned to lives hemmed in on four sides, the bovine equivalent of cubicle-bound.

These are not happy cows. They live this way as a consequences of distance, the result of ordering the sandwich without having to raise the meat. It is a system built to maximize efficiency at the expense of humanity (or bovinity perhaps). Bullfights may be decried as cruel, but the ring offers more life than the feedlot, and everyone winds up hamburger by dinnertime.

The factory farm, however, lets us keep our hands clean. The bullfight, meanwhile, occurs center stage in blood red. How curious one is banned while the other is good business.

Hunting was my reckoning. I went into the woods to walk among feedlots, to take my part in the killing up close, a shotgun filling the space of captive bolt pistol, no more handing off the task at reduced rates.

But it didn’t happen. I didn’t even raise my gun, not that day nor any of the following. I wandered woods and watched birds streak like footballs through the foliage, but my reflexes were too slow, my gun never reached my shoulder.

Left to my own devices, I determined, I would starve. Ideas about ethics and ideology would play no part. The only meat would be store-bought, and questions about the veracity of my carnivorous spirit remain unanswered. The ferocious hunter I was not.

It is, however, that time of year again. Lucky for the birds I’m not much of a hunter.


This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.