"Got your elk yet?"
It's a far more complex question than it appears. In one breath, it asks, "Are we friends?" "Do you approve of firearms?" "Do we share an ideology?" and, naturally, "Do you want to hear about me getting my elk?" Even more significantly, the question assumes that if you live in the West, you must hunt. Right?
I don't hunt though I have hunted—birds and varmints and deer, mostly—but I never really caught the itch. Why not? Simple. I have plenty of food, and I'd rather do a lot of other things like biking, hiking or skiing during hunting season. I don't have anything against hunters, and I strongly encourage my hunting friends to share their success with me; it's tough to beat a grilled elk tenderloin.
But back to the question. I can't figure out why I keep being asked about "my" elk. The question's not offensive, but it bothers me. It assumes that I do hunt. Moreover, it suggests that I should hunt, if in fact I don't already. Now, why should those things be assumed and suggested, and why are people asking me this question in the first place? What's the big deal with hunting?
For one thing, I've never figured out what makes it a sport. Whenever I've gone, it's been a matter of stumbling across an animal, pulling the trigger and causing the animal to cease to exist. End of story. There's no Hemingwayesque battle between man and nature because the advantage seems to be all on our side. There's no beauty of the kill and no real "sport," just a dead animal. It's kind of exciting, sure, but we humans have a fantastically large brain, opposable thumbs and weapons that can hurl a piece of highly engineered, searing-hot lead several hundred yards accurately and consistently. What's so sporting about going head to head with an animal so dumb that it will leap in front of your truck?
I realize not everyone hunts with a rifle. I have the utmost respect for bow hunters, though with compound bows and razor-sharp broadhead tips, arrows suddenly start to resemble funny-shaped bullets when it comes to killing efficiency. Shouldn't we be hunting with spears, or slingshots or something more primitive, if the goal is to keep it sporting? I met a man once who hunts 300-pound tusked boars in Arkansas with a two-foot-long dagger. He jumps on their backs from trees, Rambo-style. Now, that's hunting.
At one time, in order to eat meat, we had to hunt and kill an animal. It was an honorable task that put food on the table. But the minute people began paying mortgage-like sums of money to fly to another state, hire a guide and finally execute an elk, goat, sheep or other Western big game "trophy," the legitimacy of subsistence hunting went out the window—particularly if what's hunted is a farmed elk that's within a fenced enclosure.
Few of us these days have to hunt for food, and I find it irksome when people claim to hunt for subsistence. It's far more expensive to buy weapons, go hunting and process the meat into wrapped and frozen cuts than it is to buy a T-bone at the grocer. So hunting an animal isn't about providing one's family with food, at least not entirely.
That leaves cultural tradition. Hunting and fishing (and of course, the Second Amendment!) are almost as ingrained in the Western psyche as the fear of wolves and distaste for government. And that's part of what makes the West so great: We like to be outside, and to be left the hell alone, sidearm optional.
I don't have a problem with that, and now that I've thought it through a bit, I don't think I really have much of a problem with being asked about getting my elk. At its heart, the question comes down to the same cultural tradition that makes the mountain West what it is, at least in the places that haven't been "Front Ranged" yet.
It's the same tradition that supports our publicly owned land and water rights and increasingly taut environmental management to protect those rights. It's the same tradition that wants government to keep its distance and supports personal freedom as well as personal responsibility. The Western cultural tradition—hunting included—is pretty special. I'd rather be a part of that tradition, even as a ski-bumming sideliner, than not at all. Especially since this particular tradition comes with tasty meat dishes and friends who like to share.
"Got your elk yet?"
Drew Pogge is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor of Backcountry Magazine and lives in Fort Collins, Colo., on the dreaded Front Range.