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Know the West

Hunting deer on a mountain bike


In the tangle of gear in my daypack, the phone started ringing. It was a wholly inappropriate moment: My phone is pink, and its jaunty notes clashed with the traditional hunter's world of blaze orange and camouflage. I sat on a rock by the trail and cringed. Everything about this -- my first hunting trip -- would prove to be post-modern.

My friend Andrew had been bugging me to hunt with him, and I'd put him off.  Now, on the final afternoon of deer season, I realized that my bike trailer and I were integral to his dream of a carbon-neutral hunt.

We pedaled through town, he with our sole rifle across his back, me towing the trailer.

"I've always wanted to do this," Andrew said. "To leave from my house, go hunting and carry the deer back home. Without a car -- to get a deer without spending any fossil fuel."

With its locavore impulses and proximity to wild places, Missoula, Mont., is the perfect place to chase this dream. The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is less than five miles from downtown. Deer and elk overflow into the adjacent residential valleys, and hunting is allowed in order to control herd numbers.

Andrew and I hadn't known each other for very long. We had teamed up on a project at work, and we sometimes met to discuss it on the stationary bikes at the gym. That gave way to mountain biking as the weather improved, and that in turn led to this experiment in bike hunting.

Three miles past the trailhead, we stopped and loaded the rifle. Now, we pedaled on tiptoe. I almost rear-ended Andrew when he stopped short and stepped off his bike. A good-sized doe had just crossed the meadow ahead of us.

I sat on the rock and watched as the white plastic of his bike helmet appeared and disappeared in the tangle of trees.

I agreed to this first hunt because I've always spent a fair amount of time in the woods, usually running or biking as a restorative escape. Hunting, it seemed to me, might be a more practical way to spend that time. I also like the idea of employing the kind of skills and the self-reliant ethic that help connect me to a fading but not forgotten generation -- our great "grands" who hunted their way into the 20th century and a rapidly changing world.

I've been interested lately in my father's grandmother, who grew up in a geographic swirl that encompassed much of the Western United States. A typesetter and reporter, she and her editor husband joined the rush to the Klondike in 1897, working at newspapers, following the gold.  As he lobbied drinkers toward moderation, urging them to "put a squirt of lemon in it," she earned a reputation as an outdoorswoman. Her obit said she climbed every worthwhile peak in southeastern Alaska. According to family lore, she kept ptarmigan on the table using the old .22 that hangs above the bar at my parents' house.

From my perch on the rock, I felt her beside me, long skirts held silent, a historic reminder that a steady shot might be as handy a survival skill for journalists now as it was back then.

The single shot from Andrew's rifle was incredibly loud. In an instant, it fused the silliness of biking with a gun with the seriousness of killing an animal. I leaped to my feet. He gave me a thumbs-up from the meadow. His eyes were huge, and we gave the deer and the moment time to settle.
Twilight bled into darkness as we knelt in the grass beside the doe. I touched her warm hide. The light of my headlamp caught her eye and I saw her lingering life force slowly fade.

"Can you read the third paragraph?" Andrew asked, handing me some folded office paper. My headlamp picked up the words, instructions off the Internet for field dressing a deer.

This wasn't Andrew's first deer, although it wasn't old hat to him, either. But it was my first deer, and I had no idea what the next step was. Neither of us grew up hunting, but we share the conviction that if you eat meat you ought to at least acknowledge where it comes from. Local meat is infinitely preferable to feedlot imports.

As I read -- something about pinching the skin at the abdomen, inserting the tip of the knife, be careful not to puncture the entrails -- I was grateful that Andrew had let me in on his uncertainty. It allowed me to share the process in all my naïveté, not despite it. Together, we picked our way through the inner workings of the deer, slowly separating the motor from the muscles it had moved.

The evening grew cool. I held the slippery esophagus in my fist while Andrew worked his knife at the opposite end. With some effort -- a twist, a tug and a tip -- the entrails spilled onto the ground as one clean, complete package.

By the light of our headlamps, the texture of the undigested grass in the doe's translucent stomach struck me like a solar wind: She was the machine that ate the grass the sun and earth had grown. She had built the meat that I would eat. Standing in the moonlit meadow, I felt an intense new respect for the process that turns sunshine into meat -- a future meal to fuel more dreams and rides and friendships.

Nadia White lives in Missoula, Montana, where she teaches at the journalism school from which her grandmother graduated.