The weight of the rifle hung like a pendulum from my left arm. Sweat running down my forearm and through the holes in my Nomex flight glove mixed with the rich Afghan mountain dirt to form a gritty paste. The chalky feeling was like a pebble, a prayer bead, or some other fidget, a welcome distraction from the burning in my lungs and legs from each step up the mountainside. I reached out with my free hand to steady myself against the climb, leaning into the mountain, my ankles bent forward like a ski jumper’s, countering the weight of my large ALICE pack trying to pull me back down to a kinder elevation.
My team sergeant paused a few feet in front of and above me. He planted the buttstock of his SR25 in the dirt and leaned against it like a walking stick. I followed his lead as permission and did the same with my heavy M24. I was overly secure in my abilities as a new Green Beret in this graveyard of empires, but I didn’t know it then.
Almost 20 years later, my lightweight polymer-stock rifle with its fluted barrel is slung over my shoulder, riding tight against my streamlined, ergonomically engineered Kifaru pack. I look at the baskets of my trekking poles as they swing in front of my feet. The cadence of the poles clicking against the granite gives me something to move my feet to. Look up, you piece of shit, I admonish myself for keeping my head down, then quickly forgive myself.
This isn’t the Hindu Kush. It’s Idaho. No one is going to get the drop on me here. The worst that will happen is that bull elk will spot me before I spot him. But I know where he is, and I have another thousand feet of up before we’re in the same line of sight. I keep the cadence but not without some heavy Catholic guilt.
It’s my third day in the Bitterroot Wilderness. No motors, no cell service. I remark that the only thing out here louder than the wind is the occasional bush plane flying overhead. I am corrected by my partners in camp. The loudest thing in these mountains is, apparently, my sleep apnea. I tell my buddies it’s bear deterrence.
Six of them here cut their teeth in some form of combat or another. The other three individuals (two men and one amazing woman) are strong enough in the backcountry to prove that the military missed out. The two days prior had been a similar routine: eat, hunt, commiserate, sleep, snore. It feels like about the closest thing to patrolling in Afghanistan that I could pay for without heading back over. There were no fires or wall tents on patrol in the Hindu Kush, and maybe to that end, Idaho feels a little like summer camp. But this terrain, in all its rugged, unforgiving beauty, washes away any illusion of easy.
It is exactly what I need. We never really talk about it around the fire. The SEAL, the recon men, the cav scout — we talk about game and calibers, and other wild places, but we never really talk about why we’re out here, pushing our bodies up granite spurs, tearing our hands and faces through thick mountain laurel, when meat is readily available at the grocery store. Maybe we don’t talk about it because we never really thought about the why. We just accepted that we need a certain amount of challenge to make us happy, and this is much simpler than marrying a stripper.
Papa Hemingway famously said, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.” Hemingway killed a few Nazis but also spent a lifetime chasing game around the world and involving himself in one way or another in the conflict du jour. This hunt will not replicate what we had in Afghanistan, Iraq, or our own conflict du jour.
War comes with baggage and scars. If you took a life, you spend the rest of your days reconciling yourself as a man who took a life. If you didn’t, you spend the rest of your days wondering whether you did your part or were truly tested. There is no going back to quote-unquote normal for those who have made a profession of armed conflict. There is an unquenchable thirst for the next challenge. We make peace with ourselves, but there is a conflict in our souls that will never surrender.
There is a scene in the show Yellowstone where Kevin Costner’s character offers up a lame buffalo to the neighboring tribe for a ceremonial hunt. The members of the tribe gather in a mix of modern and traditional garb. An elder shoots the animal at damn near point-blank range. There is singing. The chief quietly tells Costner that this is a poor replacement for their old ways. I wonder if this hunt I’m on is my lame buffalo. There are no easy shots here, and walking anywhere is a challenge, but elk don’t shoot back. There is no hunting like the hunting of men.
Click clack click clack BANG. I’m startled by the trance of my trekking poles by the report of a shot above me. I’m not the man I was 20 years ago. The recon men have outpaced me chasing these elk. One of them has taken a shot. I keep trekking. There is a rush now to track the blood trail before the sun dips behind the mountains.
The last 100 yards are always the hardest, and this ascent is no exception.
I arrive at the ambush site exhausted and thirsty, glad for a break. The recon men are on the other side of the ridge searching for the kill. I drop my pack and do what any good infantry guy does: drink water, pull security. I lean against my pack and look out over the valley below. This is my reward. There are few who have been here in this spot and have had the privilege of taking in the view that I have. I would prefer to be enjoying this view with my hand on antlers, but I didn’t earn that today. This is enough.
The last bits of sun are being chased by darkness. A cold that only comes on the side of a mountain worms its way through our sweat-soaked layers. I take out a homemade fire starter of dryer lint and paraffin, while my partner gathers bits of fuel from the mostly barren hillside. Our small fire is a beacon to the camp over a thousand feet below. They can no longer see us through spotting scopes in the darkness.
The recon men return empty-handed and frustrated. We sit perched on this small island of flat in a sea of steep. We stare at the flames and lose ourselves in our own thoughts. We rushed here after we spotted elk. We did not pack to spike camp. We’re out of water, and this little fire is our only heat. We’re not done for the day. We need to descend the mountain in the dark.
Due to the limited visibility, the descent takes nearly as long as the ascent. Scrabble gives away to slides. At the timberline, fallen firs grab legs and give a false sense of footing. I hyperextend my knee in a hole left by a tree root. The last time I did this, I was descending a shale mountainside on the Af-Pak border. At the valley floor, branches rake the eyes and vines weave natural fences.
We descend into the creek bed. My feet slip off a rock and I’m calf-deep in ice-cold mountain runoff. One last steep climb to the plateau where camp and its comforts await. I’m the last one in. I clear my rifle and place it and my ruck against a tree. I strip off my sweat-soaked shirt and stand next to the fire. Steam rises from my bare torso in the freezing air.
I have a serious case of the ass. This is not the tranquility of nature. Nature just fucked me, and I helped it.
“Jesus,” one of the civilians says. “That — was impressive.”
“I can’t believe you guys made it up there that fast,” another says. “And then back down!”
I’m drawn out of my mood by talking and recounting the adventure. A plate of hot chow finds its way into my hands. I sit with my friends by the fire. We laugh with no concern for who or what hears us.
Twenty years ago, I walked back into the firebase after a difficult and fruitless patrol in the mountains.
I cleared my M24 and dropped my ruck. I had a plate of semi-decent hot chow, sitting in a folding chair, listening to my teammates recount the events of the day and ribbing one another for small indiscretions. I was content.
Shared suffering, food, fire, and camaraderie.
Hemingway wasn’t wrong. There is no replacement for battle. But that quote of his is just a piece of a larger picture. War was always only part of the equation. There is joy in a shared challenge just as there is in a shared victory. To embrace the suck, we must find the suck, and man does hunting suck. I can’t wait till next season.
This content was originally posted by Coffee or Die in September 2022.