I turned 47 last month, which would have seemed far more difficult to believe if I wasn’t faced with so much evidence of aging on the reg these days: more and more grey hairs but less hair volume overall, an increasingly blurry jawline, that helpless little umff noise I seem to make now whenever I haul myself out of a chair, the growing feeling of disconnect with pretty much every fashion trend that emerges (paperbag-waist pants can go fuck themselves in particular, followed closely by mom jeans).

It’s not easy to feel total acceptance about getting older. I mean, is there anything graceful about seeing your neck transform into a pile of wadded-up crepe paper? How about those aforementioned grey hairs and the way they’re so incredibly wiry, as though calcifying from the inside out? Or when you accidentally open the front-facing camera on your phone when you’re at a not-great angle and it’s like my GOD, I’m just straight-up melting like those Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Well. Aside from the whole Observing Your Own Rapid Decay side of things, there are upsides to being of a certain vintage. For instance, I don’t even have to endure the humiliation of trying those weird bag-waist pants: I can tell from wayyyyyy over here they’re not for me. I feel far more settled in who I am and what I care about, and there is a real element of peace to that.

It’s like I’ve spent much of my life trying to form myself into different shapes, and I am finally losing the desire to keep doing so. Middle age feels like a lot of things, but perhaps most of all it feels far more authentic.

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The ATV growled its way up a hill so steep I was in a full brace position, partially to keep myself from sliding around and partially to be at least somewhat prepared if the entire vehicle flipped over backwards, which I had been assured was not going to happen but that didn’t stop me from anxiously calculating our odds as the ground dropped away on either side of us.

It was cold and dark, two of the more-than-two reasons I have not historically been a fan of hunting. I was reflecting on how far I was, literally and figuratively, from my comfort zone, wedged inside three layers of jackets and maybe wondering a tiny bit why I’d even agreed to travel with my family to northern California in order to freeze to death on what was admittedly a fairly badass/terrifying off-road vehicle.

Once we reached the lookout spot and the engine went silent, though, I stopped bemoaning my lack of creature comforts and took in the setting. All around us was a quiet waking-up world of rolling hills, sage-colored shrubbery, and twisted Manzanita trees with smooth blood-red bark, criss-crossed by winding ribbons of dirt roads and game trails.

The sky lightened, bit by bit. Birdsong began to come to life all around us. We all stood in a sort of electrified silence, scanning for shape or movement, and I wasn’t aware of the cold any more. Just like the night before when we’d first headed out from camp, I was filled with a pulse-quickening mix of anxiety and anticipation: the hunt was on.

:::

How do you hunt a wild boar? First you have to find him. I had somehow imagined this part to be easy, on a property specifically dedicated to hog hunting. Like we’d be driving through fields of hogs, the air filled with a cacophony of feral oinking, just looking for the very best one.

This was of course not at all how it was: the hogs were few and far between, and challenging to spot. We canvassed by ATV, but more often we walked, covering miles of deceptively gentle-looking terrain that served up an endless series of lung-straining elevation changes and thick hog-hiding brush. We moved along as quietly as possible, sometimes slowing to a snail’s pace to mask our footfalls. (Once I imagined the unpleasant scenario in which I was the one who spooked one of the boys’ hard-won hogs by stumbling over a rock or stepping on a loud branch, I mastered a sort of exaggerated tiptoe walk that probably looked like a cartoon villain but produced almost no noise. Go ahead and picture it: a hunting party of four, three walking normally, one basically prancing along in a top hat while twirling a handlebar mustache.)

Late Friday morning we finally had eyes on three hogs on the hill next to us, close enough for a rifle shot. Riley got set up, stretching out along the ground with his gun on a tripod, and I marveled at his calm, focused demeanor. I knew his heart was pounding, but his movements were sure and steady. There was the sense of one great collective held breath, then the crack of the bullet — pchowww! — went echoing through the air.

Down on the ground, his boar kicked its last. It was a long shot with perfect placement, and as hard as the morning search had been, we all felt rejuvenated. There was Riley’s success to celebrate, and a bolstering kind of reassurance that John and Dylan’s time would surely come soon.

Thankfully, there was no way to know just how tough things would get as the day went on.

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On the third and last hunt of the day, John, Dylan and I headed to a tree stand, with the plan of waiting until dark if need be. Dylan was archery hunting and therefore needed to be in fairly close quarters to take his shot, and the stand seemed like his best bet.

We hadn’t been there long when our guide Mike’s voice came whispering across the radio: he’d spotted hogs in another area, and they weren’t leaving. So off we went in their direction, moving quickly and quietly, until the radio came to life again, the volume low but urgent: “John. They’re heading right towards you.”

With John in the lead, the three of us crept forward until he suddenly raised his fist: stop. I followed his line of sight, and just over the top of a nearby rise I could see a pair of raised hog ears pointing in our direction. John and Dylan immediately began a tense and silent maneuvering, getting Dylan into position, while I slowly dropped into a crouch to avoid being spotted.

From my lowered position I didn’t have a great view, but could see Dylan draw back — a motion I’ve seen him do a million times before while target practicing, now a powerful fluid movement made with the certainty of repetition. A split second later, a flurry of noise and activity: the thump of arrow meeting flesh, the scuffle of Dylan’s boar — now suddenly joined by a previously unseen pig — breaking into a run.

Dylan and John briefly clasped hands to acknowledge the shot, but their attention was quickly drawn to Dylan’s hog, who had managed to take flight across a small ravine — dodging two additional near-perfect-but-not-quite followup arrows along the way — and up into a steep hill choked with brush.

From there, a long and arduous search began, with guide Mike joining John in the brush while Dylan was posted back across the ravine in case the hog headed in his direction. John, who had seen the arrow hit true, knew that the animal was seriously, probably mortally wounded, but was unfortunately still mobile thanks to adrenaline and thick protective layers of fat.

Time ticked by in a worrying manner: it was officially evening, and soon would be too dark. If his hog couldn’t be found, all we could do is come back in the morning to resume the search, and the meat would go to waste.

The final moments of the hunt were a rollercoaster of emotions: John was telling Dylan the situation didn’t look good, Dylan was crying because he didn’t want the hog to suffer, Mike was floundering around looking for a lost blood trail, I was imaging the inevitable bleak mood back at camp and wishing for a fourth jacket as the temperature continued to drop, when suddenly, “I’ve got him!”

Mike had finally spotted Dylan’s hog, and John was able to take him down. Oh, the relief of it, knowing it was over at long last and that we weren’t going to have to leave some hurt animal out there. It wasn’t how anyone had envisioned the evening playing out, but things had thankfully ended on the right note — both boys had a successful hunt, one just involved a bit more drama than the other.

The next day we were heading back up I-5, coolers ready to be dropped off at a meat processor. Like that, it was over.

:::

How do you hunt a wild boar when you are not the hunter? Here is how: you care, very deeply, for the hunter and their goals. This is how your every footstep is made with care, your every sense on high alert. You share their excitement, their success, their sorrow.

Even better, you share the stories. “I’m so glad you came, Mom,” Dylan told me on the way home, and I realized how glad I was, too. Maybe not for the frigid temperatures or the “rustic” bunk beds at camp, but for the experience of being with my family in this way, yes, absolutely, I am so very glad I came.

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