The kindness of hunters

 

I despise guns. If a Winchester appears in a movie, I gnaw my fingernails, heart galloping. Firearms show a lack of imagination, I think; they slant the playing field, and sometimes threaten to tip the whole thing over. Recently, a student of mine penned a lyrical essay on the spirituality of hunting. I gave him an "A," but he didn't convince me that enlightenment comes from blowing Bambi to bits.

Once, I found myself in the actual presence of military weaponry –– AK-47s or whatever they use these days. Trying to find Disneyland, I drove among National Guard soldiers pacing the pavement with machine guns in response to the L.A. riots. I nearly wet my pants.

I felt similar apprehension as I approached the trailhead for Three Fingered Jack near Sisters, Ore., and wedged my VW Beetle between trucks bearing NRA decals. One bore a bumper sticker that read, "Charlton Heston is my god."

"Hunters," my friends Molly and Cindie said as they climbed out. "First day of the season."

"Is it safe to hike?" I asked.

Molly shrugged. "Just stay on trail."

I pulled out a red bandana and tied it around my head like a protective shield.

Cindie slung her camera around her neck and raised an eyebrow at my headgear. "They shoot hippies, don't they?"

We started off on the pine-needled path. Through binoculars, I searched for songbirds –– and semi-automatics. Immediately, I spotted three hunters striding through the trees. They wore orange vests over camouflage. Each brandished a gun.

My hands began to sweat. I live a peaceful life in Eugene. For fun, I rehabilitate owls. My mind flashed on Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit" in A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Would the hunters shoot us for sport?

Molly, whose sunny smile could charm the antlers off a five-point buck, greeted the men. "Any luck?"
The leader grunted. "Nope."

"Beautiful morning for it, anyway." She waved. "Have a good one!"

"You, too," he said.

I stood frozen as the trio lumbered past us with their rifles, then feigned amusement to cover my fear. "See them?" I hissed. "They looked exactly alike!"

Cindie swigged water from her Klean Kanteen, identical to mine. "Seen us?"

We each wore convertible khaki pants, black pullovers, and hiking boots.

"Look!" Molly pointed. "There's Jack."

We gazed at the rocky spires. "Let's go!" she said. "We'll have lunch at the base."

We hiked on -- Molly and Cindie quickly, me slowed by stories I'd heard about accidental shootings. In Indiana, a hunter shot his grandfather. In New York, a hunter shot his foot. And in Texas, infamously, Dick Cheney shot his hunting partner.

At lunch, I couldn't eat our Nutella and apples. I was so worried, I barely saw the golden eagle overhead.

Molly consulted her guidebook. "Let's take another path back to our trailhead."

"Will we see fewer hunters?" I asked.

Cindie looked up from her camera. "You need to chill," she observed.

For the next hour, I hiked coolly, sucking in smoky October air. We came to a trailhead, but not the one at which we'd parked. A lone white truck stood by an outhouse.

"I'm lost," Molly admitted. "The sun's going to set soon –– let's walk down this gravel road."

My feet ached. Cindie glared at the mountain. "From this angle, it looks like Jack's giving us the finger."

A single spire taunted us as we limped away. If we had to spend the night in the woods, I vowed to guard my friends, waving my bandana and warbling show tunes so early-morning hunters wouldn't mistake us for elk.

Tires rumbled, and a truck loomed over us. Two men in orange vests glowed from the front seat –– the younger one blond and behatted, the older with wrinkles that deepened as he squinted.

"Evening, girls," he called. "Where you headed?"

Molly named our trailhead. His smile dimmed. "That's 12 miles from here!"

We grimaced. The man jerked his thumb toward the back seat, above which two rifles gleamed. "Get in," he said.

My heart pounded. "I love riding in the bed of a pickup," I stammered.

"Suit yourself."

Molly sighed and jumped into the truck bed, followed by Cindie. We arranged ourselves around two enormous camouflage backpacks. My boot found it immovable as a corpse. "Think it's dead deer parts?" I whispered.

Molly shrugged. "It'd smell."

I sniffed the pack as the driver started his truck. I caught no scent, but my stomach lurched. What if the hunters kidnapped us at gunpoint? Could we bargain for our lives with a half-eaten jar of Nutella?

The truck sped up. My friends lay flat and giggled. I managed a weak chuckle while wind whipped over us. We slowed beside my lone VW with its bumper stickers. "Vegetarians taste better," one read. The other said "Meow."

"Yours?" the driver asked me.

I nodded, red-faced.

"Can we take your picture?" Molly produced her camera. "Our rescuer."

"I'll take it, Dad." The younger man stepped out, and we posed with his father. "We'll send you gas money," Molly promised.

"No need. You'd do the same for us."

The man's certainty troubled me. Would I really rescue a trio so different from me? Could I see past orange vests and shotguns to extend a hand? I doubted it.

The hunters I'd disparaged now shone with nobility. Humiliation bowed my head, but curiosity got the better of me.

"Sir?" I called after our driver. "What's in the backpacks?"

He didn't hear me. He climbed into his truck, one hand saluting as he drove away. Perhaps it was just as well.

Melissa Hart is the author of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.

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