In my family you are not considered a man unless you hunt. You may be endowed with all the distinguishing anatomical features, but in the Gosch clan you are not a man merely because you possess a pair of testicles. You must hunt. Those who do not are looked upon as effeminate aberrations, begrudgingly allowed to attend birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinner, but beyond that discredited and ignored. Even the Gosch women have a disdain for the non-hunting men, as if they weren’t quite worth all the birthing pain and breast milk.
At twenty-four years old, I was still considered a borderline case. Sure, I’d played varsity sports and raced stock cars in high school. I’d brought home pretty girls and could hold my own at the poker table, but on the other hand I couldn’t fix a transmission or boast of any knockout punches. Where the other men were boisterous, bawdy and imposing, I was quiet, reserved and suspiciously well informed on the virtues of universal health care. Most of all though, I’d yet to have my hands bloodied in the guts of something wild, and in the end that would determine my final standing. And so it was in the fall of that year I finally attempted my rite of passage.
The evening before my first day hunting I was tasked with finding elk camp, as my family called it. My dad and uncle and older brother Tim were already stationed there and expecting me sometime after dinner. I had never been to their new site, and would have to locate it in the dark, but my dad assured me it would be easy. All I had to do, he instructed, was drive out Rose Valley Road until I spotted a camper van jutted way out onto the right side of the road. Attached to the back window of the camper was a large triangular reflector. The next driveway on the left would bring me to camp. I couldn’t miss it.
I left my hometown of Longview, Washington and rolled through Rose Valley in high spirits, singing to the radio and smoking cigarettes. I passed the church, the school, the gas station. Chimneys puffed smoke from humble rustic homes. The road then began to hug the Coweeman River more closely and eventually the homes vanished until there was nothing but pure forest. I had driven beyond anything I was familiar with and around each new corner I was certain my high beams would alight on that camper’s reflector, but I only plunged deeper and deeper into the woods until it was clear I had somehow missed the camper.
I flipped the truck around and scanned the road with extra diligence this time, slowly and methodically examining every driveway for some sign of camp. I had nearly driven all the way back to Longview when I decided that it was futile. The camper had obviously been moved off the side of the road and I was now left with two options. I could either go back to Longview which would lose me an entire day of hunting or else drive back out to the end of Rose Valley and spend the night in the truck. Either way I was gonna be the butt of some jokes back at camp, but I figured the guys would be a lot more merciful if they found me in the truck. So for the third time that evening I drove the length of Rose Valley Road and pulled into a wide turnout alongside the river.
I can imagine more miserable conditions for sleeping, but I certainly never want to experience them. The area was in the midst of an exceptionally cold spell with night temperatures in the low twenties. I didn’t have anything to sleep in except my clothes so I put on as many layers as I could, pounded a couple of beers for good measure and climbed into the back.
The seat, I soon discovered, was designed with the exact dimensions to trick a man of my size into believing sleep was possible without ever actually succeeding. It was just slightly too narrow to ball up for warmth, and not quite wide enough to stretch out in comfort. I tried every conceivable position, and then moved to the front seats which proved to be equally exasperating. With each new failed attempt I grew more frustrated and sleep desperate until it seemed reasonable to crack open the half gallon of whiskey I’d saved as a gift and just guzzle myself into a stupor.
Hours passed like this. The last time I checked my phone it read 2:46. I was nearly reconciled to a sleepless first day of hunting when the cab of the truck suddenly burst alive with the radiance of a powerful set of high beams. A familiar diesel rumble pulled alongside me and I rolled down the window.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ my dad roared.
‘I couldn’t find camp.’
‘What did I say? I said, look for the camper that’s way out on the side of the road and take the next left. Pretty simple directions.’
‘I never saw it. Somebody must have moved the thing.’
‘Jesus, Jon. You didn’t go far enough. It’s a mile up the road.’
It was a brief mile at that. My dad’s motorhome was parked at the top of a muddy driveway and I followed him inside. My brother was asleep on the pull-down above the front seats and my dad went to his bed in the rear. The dinner table had already been converted into a bed for me, and as I crawled into the sleeping bag I heard my uncle’s voice in the back.
‘Told you he wasn’t in the ditch.’
The alarm went off at five in the morning. I bickered with my blankets for a few minutes and then went outside to join my dad and uncle who stood huddled next to the stove with their hands stuffed deep in their pockets. Both of them were former football stars, tall and stout now in their mid-sixties. Their beards mostly grey with islands of white, they were in the twilight of their virility. A step or two slower maybe, but still formidable, still dominant. They turned to me as I joined them.
‘Well, look who it is,’ my uncle said. ‘Have a fun night?’
‘Not so much,’ I said sheepishly.
‘I bet you were praying that it was me pulling up on you last night,’ my dad said.
‘I had the doors locked.’
‘All you had to do was follow directions, you know?’
‘At least I didn’t drive back to town.’
‘Yeah, I would’ve kicked your butt if I’d found you at home.’
Tim was soon awake and everyone began bustling with preparations for the day. I was outfitted with camouflaged pants, boots, jacket and hat. I glanced at myself in the mirror and felt like a poorly disguised imposter. My dad handed me the black powder rifle I would be carrying, and he reminded me how to use the capper, safeties and quick loader. I’d taken a hunter’s safety course earlier that month and shot a target a few times, but I doubted that I could hit anything that was actually moving.
Shortly after six we were ready to roll. Tim and I partnered in one truck, my dad and uncle in the other. We crept slowly up logging roads, my brother already vigilantly scanning his side.
‘Keep your eyes peeled, bro,’ he said. ‘I’ve spotted em when it was darker than this.’
Big, mustached and bald, Tim was nearly twenty years older than me, and a lot of people were surprised to learn that we were brothers. He was a Deputy Sheriff in Clark County, and fond of the expression, One Gosch, one riot. For him this was no exaggerated John Wayne bravado. He truly had a knack for quelling bar fights and other group disturbances. My favorite story was of when he had an entire family of uncooperative Russians cuffed together with zip-ties and acting very placidly when his backup arrived.
Eventually it grew light enough to legally shoot and the landscape shaped up into something worth seeing. Waves of hills stretched out to the distant Cascade Range, and in each successive valley fog lay bedded down like hazy gray lakes. A couple miles into Weyerhauser property Tim and I broke off from the others and began to hunt the top of a crest that overlooked a broad swath of clear-cut.
‘Elk love to feed in these clear-cuts,’ Tim explained. ‘Especially early in the morning when they’re not as afraid of predators spotting them. They don’t feed as well in the thick stuff as they do in the clear-cuts. Now, what you’re looking for as we drive along is anything that doesn’t fit – ears, antlers. Nature doesn’t make many things that are horizontal so look for the flat of their back. Okay, bro. Pop quiz. What color are we hoping to see?’
‘Light brown. The color of an elk’s ass.’
‘Exactly. Looks like a stump a lot of times. You see that color you tell me to stop and we’ll check it out with the binoculars. So many guys just blaze down these roads and miss animals unless they’re standing right on the road.’
At a slow steady pace we drove on through the morning, turning down one logging road after another until I was thoroughly disoriented. I was determined not to miss an animal on my side of the road and began pointing out rubs and runs like a good pupil. I glanced forward for a moment and spotted fur fifty yards up the road.
‘There. Up ahead. I mean… Deer!’
It was already bursting toward a patch of jack firs, but I didn’t know how it would reach them. A six-foot wire fence stood between the deer and its cover, yet without a moment’s hesitation the deer cleared the fence with an awkward but spectacularly athletic bounce and disappeared.
‘See any horns?’ Tim asked.
‘Don’t think so.’
Nobody in our group had a cow tag that year so bucks and bulls were all we could shoot. Later on we saw a half dozen elk feeding cautiously at the edge of the timber, but again we couldn’t spot any horns. The day passed quickly. Now and again my dad’s voice would crackle through the CB radio asking how our luck was going. None of us found anything to shoot at that day and when dusk began to settle down on the landscape we headed back to camp.
After dinner we drank whiskey and played cards, but by eight o’clock we were all on the verge of nodding off. The other three fell asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow, but I was having trouble ignoring their strange nocturnal habits. Tim kept frantically kicking his legs like he was trying to jump out to an early lead in the Tour de France, while my uncle who is a legendary sleep talker kept uttering loud nonsense in complete sentences. No, it wasn’t a dog that did that, it was your Aunt Michelle. And then later, I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. You’re a liar and a cheat. Get away from me.
I would be a complete wreck the next day if I didn’t fall asleep soon, I thought. Then I fell asleep.
And what seemed like only minutes later we were up again, guzzling coffee and racing dawn to the clear-cuts. My dad and Tim had made plans to hit a specific road they felt good about that morning so we caravanned up at our usual measured pace. Luckily, there were no tire tracks in front of us, meaning nobody had spooked the animals yet. About halfway there, headlights hit us from behind and began gaining rapidly. It wasn’t long before a big white Dodge was parked behind our bumper. The guy grew impatient for my brother to let him pass and threw on his high beams to make the point clear.
‘Screw you, buddy,’ Tim said. ‘We got up on this road first. You’re just gonna have to hang back.’
The Dodge only drew nearer, but Tim wouldn’t relent. Finally, in a burst of defiance, the guy attempted a swift and unexpected pass on the left, but Tim, a racecar driver and veteran of high speed pursuits, had been expecting it. He stomped the gas and swerved to cut the guy off. Both of them slammed the brakes with a flurry of gravel and Tim was out the door and charging toward the Dodge before his truck had even finished sliding. At first the guy looked like he wanted to fight, but when he saw my brother coming at him he changed his mind. He didn’t exactly cower behind his door, but his body language suggested he recognized its use as a shield. There were three other guys in the truck and none of them even bothered to open their doors.
‘What the hell you shining your brights at me for?’ Tim barked.
‘Cause you’re going five fricking miles an hour!’ the guy shouted back.
‘Tough luck. We don’t want you up there before us scaring all the animals.’
‘I’m not even hunting here. I just want to get into the Toutle.’
‘Then I’d suggest you find another route.’
We carried on up the road. The Dodge kept its distance.
‘Where were you at for backup?’ Tim asked me.
‘I was still half asleep. Besides, you looked like you had it handled.’
‘Yeah, well, I had the first three that came out, but the fourth guy was gonna be all yours.’
‘You sure don’t shy away from conflict, do you?’
He seemed to like the sound of that, and repeated it to himself. I swear I could see the testosterone steaming off his bald head.
The morning’s confrontation proved to be of no consequence. We saw nothing up that road. In fact none of us saw anything with hooves that entire day. It was so bleak that my dad and uncle uncharacteristically quit early and were back in camp by two. Tim and I stayed at it a bit later, but it wasn’t long before we also called it a day.
Back at camp my dad and uncle were watching Primetime Bucks VI on VHS. They were so engrossed in the video that they didn’t even acknowledge us as we entered the motorhome. On the TV a massive six-point elk was sauntering across an open field, and my dad and uncle ogled him with impassioned looks typically reserved for hard core pornography.
‘Look at the horns on him. God, he’s huge!’
The bull stopped and looked at the camera – sixty yards, broadside.
‘Oh ya. Ooh. Get him. Oooooh!’
When the movie was over we all went outside to finish some work around camp before dark. Tim and I stepped up to a cord of wood that needed splitting. Working with an axe was another manly skill I’d neglected over the years and at first my swings were sluggish and inaccurate. Tim suggested I alter my stance and grip and soon I was splitting the wood with some real proficiency. My dad grunted his approval.
Tim, however, was not about to appear bested by a beginner and took up the axe to show how it could be done with panache. He didn’t even bother to set down the beer he had been drinking, and began chopping with one arm while intermittently sipping with the other. The wood split apart with resounding thwacks until Tim got his axe stuck in a knot. He removed the axe head and swung again but this time he only knocked the chunk of wood on its side. He set it upright again, swung, and again the piece fell over. This time Tim braced the piece with the hand that held the beer. He swung and still the piece wouldn’t split.
‘Tim, you be careful now,’ my dad said.
Tim disregarded him and braced the piece for another attempt. As the axe went back my uncle shouted, ‘You’re gonna cut your finger off.’ The axe came down, thunk, and a jet of blood spurted into the grass. Tim dropped his beer, reeled back and cradled his left hand against his belly.
‘Dammit, Tim,’ my dad hollered. ‘What did you do to yourself?’
‘I told him,’ my uncle said. ‘I told him.’
‘Let’s see it,’ my dad said.
Flecks of blood speckled Tim’s bald head and a red rivulet was trickling down his wrist. He displayed the hand and we saw that the tip of his forefinger was missing.
‘Ah, Christ!’ my dad groaned. He went and got the first aid kit, trying to stanch the wound, but the blood would not stop flowing.
‘Gotta take him to the hospital,’ my dad said. ‘Tim, let’s get you loaded. Jon, see if you can find the rest of your brother’s finger.’
I searched around the woodpile and the grass, but the severed digit was nowhere to be seen. My dad came out with a ziplock bag half-full with ice.
‘Come on, Jon. We gotta get him to the hospital.’
‘I can’t find it anywhere.’
‘Pop, they’re not gonna be able to reattach that little nub,’ Tim said.
‘They might. It’s worth a shot.’
‘Nub,’ my uncle said. ‘That’s what we’ll call him from now on.’
I thought maybe the nub was hiding under the axe, but when I lifted it there was just more grass. Then I turned the axe over. Stuck there on the other side of the blade was the nub. About a half an inch of Tim’s forefinger with the nail still attached.
‘Found it,’ I said.
‘Well, give it here,’ my dad said.
‘I don’t wanna touch the damn thing.’
‘It’s just his finger for Christ’s sake.’
‘Go ahead and get it then,’ I said, holding the axe out.
My dad took it and popped it into the bag and they were off to the hospital.
‘Nub,’ my uncle repeated.
Three days later we’d nearly reached the end of my time in the woods. That evening I would return to Seattle and everything cosmopolitan. After five days toting a rifle in full camo I no longer felt like such a blatant imposter. I had spotted animals, hiked game trails and woken before dawn more times that week than the past five years combined. I had even bagged a grouse with Tim’s shotgun. My first kill. There had been no hero moment, no sudden metamorphosis, but I had managed not to embarrass myself and for that I was content.
In the foggy gloom Tim drove us up the logging roads with a bandaged hand on the wheel.
‘Keep em peeled, bro,’ he said.
I nodded. They were peeled. As I searched my side of the road though, I couldn’t help but wonder where among the Gosch men I would now be counted. The real men or the aberrations? Neither seemed fitting. I was still in limbo, I figured. One grouse hadn’t changed that. My graduation to real man would have to wait another year.
By noon it began to feel like another bust. The four of us had hunted hard for almost a week and not an elk or deer had been taken. A bona fide bummer, a stinker, a drought. The CB radio crackled and a voice sounding like my father’s came through all garbled. Tim picked up the mic.
‘That you, pop?’
‘Pop, you read me?’
‘Uncle? You guys pick up?’
‘We got one, son. Elk down.’
‘Elk down. We’re off Duke-em-out Road. Gonna need your help. It’s a pack job and he’s one big animal.’
I had always assumed that killing a bull was a somewhat sacred affair. I’m not sure where I got this notion exactly, but I envisioned we might all kneel down with a hand on the hide and say a short prayer, thanking this noble creature for sustaining our family. Afterwards we would pass a small goblet containing the elk’s blood and each take a sip for another year of strength and courage. I guess I’ve watched too many cheesy movies because nothing remotely like this happened. Instead I approached the bull as my dad and uncle were snapping pictures and my first thought was, that is the biggest thing I might ever see dead in person.
The elk was already gutted, and I was surprised that the blood and the pile of organs didn’t make me feel the slightest bit queasy. Its lifeless eyes and tongue lolling out its mouth had no effect on me. No big deal, I thought. That is, until my dad picked up his saw and began cutting through the neck and spinal cord. It was a gruesome sound, and for a moment I thought I might lose my lunch.
The elk was quickly skinned and butchered into movable pieces which were then wrapped in old bed sheets and tied to backboards. Unless it was urgent, Dad and Uncle were past their packing years so Tim and I would be walking it out. Unfortunately, the elk had not dropped anywhere near the road. After it had been hit it ran down a steep ravine, crossed a creek and finally expired about a half mile from the trucks. Dad and Uncle helped Tim get his pack on and then readied the second one for me.
‘Gonna be heavy,’ my dad said.
‘I got it.’
‘I mean real heavy.’
‘Bring it on.’
‘Ok then. On you go.’
I nearly fell straight back onto the meat.
My uncle chuckled. ‘Can you walk?’
I mumbled something vaguely English and trudged after Tim who was at the bank of the creek and determining which rocks were most reliable for the crossing.
‘Try and step on the dry ones,’ was all he said and started across.
I followed Tim’s path and concentrated on each new foot placement. My legs strained to maintain balance on the slick wobbly rocks. I felt like a fat man feigning agility. A half dozen moves and I reached the other bank with relief. Next was the ravine.
Before we had arrived, my Dad had tied the end of a rope around the base of a tree at the top of the steep, rain-slick slope and fed it down to the bottom. Tim began to ascend the ravine, hand over hand up the rope. When he was halfway up I took the rope and jerked myself into the first step. The weight of the pack was crushing and each new step took tremendous effort. By the time I reached the top I wanted to crumple, but Tim was waiting for me impatiently.
‘We gotta move, bro. It’ll be dark before long.’
We made three runs like this. Each time we reached the truck I fell backwards into the bed until Tim got the pack off me. I didn’t complain. I didn’t say much of anything. All I wished was that I’d had the foresight to hit the weights more than once a month.
When the pack was finally off my shoulders for good I sat in the passenger seat of the truck sucking air. My legs felt rubbery and weightless and my shoulders ached where the straps had lain. It had been the hardest thing I had ever done physically, tougher than the toughest suicide drills my basketball coach had used to punish our team after an embarrassing loss. And it was at this moment, the moment when I might have very easily decided hunting was too hard and given up forever, that a curious thing happened. The pain seemed good to me. I was proud of it, in fact.
I heard Tim crack open a beer and soon the voices of my Dad and Uncle approaching the truck. Where’s he at, I heard my dad ask. Another beer was cracked and then my Dad was standing beside me. I turned to him as he said the words.
‘You’re gonna work like a man, you can drink like a man.’
And then he passed me the beer.