See, the thing of it is, he says, is that you have to enjoy the journey. Can't just want to shoot things. I've gone all day in stuff like this and never seen a single bird. So you have to want to take a nice walk. He's telling me this while we're sidehilling into a draw, my responses coming slow because I have so many other things on my mind. My right foot keeps slipping out of my boot, they aren't tight enough. The ground isn't just steep, it's deceptive--rocks creep up out of the waving clumps of cheat grass and threaten to pop an ankle at a moment's notice. My nose hasn't stopped running, and now the skin underneath has turned raw. I'm trying to keep an eye on Dex, to see if he stops, but it's hard to watch that tricky ground and him at the same time. Still though, I know what he means. I say that, or I say, I guess you're right, but I don't think he can hear me. I can barely hear him, only catching about a third of what he's saying, which is annoying. It's gems like this I'm missing. Later he goes, hey, here's an old adage I like to hunt by. You think you're alone out here, far away from anyone else? I look out from the side of the ridge we're on. To the front of me is sagebrush and cheat grass, a thick spine of bluff rising to meet the sky. The bottom of the draw is dense and tangled, rocky. The river is out of sight, but I know if we headed back towards where we came from, we'd stare down from an inspiring height at that big body of water. I seem pretty alone. Well you're not, he says. Speaking from personal experience? I ask. He laughs, yep. There's no time to elaborate though, because the incessant jingle of Dexter's bell has stopped--he's pointing the tangle of sagebrush at the bottom of that draw. Dad starts to move down, I stay still, behind him, but with a sudden burst of movement, a buck comes bursting out. He bounds up away from us, up the sidehill, and I'm suddenly envious of a creature so much better suited for this environment. I can't quite figure out how, because those legs are so spindly thin and the way he's bouncing they ought to be broken, but then, that's Darwin for you.
The first hour of any big hike is the hardest, I think. Sure, you're fresh, but you also haven't gotten anywhere substantial yet--so when you're staring up a ridge and comparing it to the forest service map you checked out before you left, and they're telling you, yep we'll just sidehill in and out of these draws and do the one big up-down, and then hike through some more until we drop back down to the road, it feels impossible. It looks impossible, too. Wouldn't you think that giant, undulating landscape insurmountable to mere mortals like us? Doesn't it seem like it should be that way? But here we are, nestled into a draw, slowly but surely making progress.
The day started after we'd already been in the car for a couple hours, the sun rising blindingly through the windshield, painting the sky in so many shades of fire. The light slowly revealed the land for the rest of the day, leaving pieces untouched until dusk, when it began its slow, meandering retreat. There were plenty of pockets while we were out that crunched with frost well into the late afternoon, the cold and the shadows rendering the light thin and insufficient. The sun must really hate that, I think, after we get started down the road we'll take in. The road is about four miles, and cast in shadow the whole way by the canyon walls. Cold has made the world slow down, and soon it will stand still--the river will freeze over, the fish will stop swimming, sink to the bottom and wait it out, plants will stop their incessant push up, the creatures will hide, and we won't come here. For now, though, the morning is new and though it's cold (I lose my face to it) the sun can still do some work. Tall grass on either side of us glitters diamond-like as frost melts, little holes of mud appear where thin sheets of ice were before. As we walk, we wave to two fly fisherman we met earlier in the parking lot, hope they don't freeze up out there in their waders. They're tall, kind of geeky guys, made more so by the waders, and when they admire Craig's gun they tell us their wives said no guns when they got married, so now they just fish. Please don't let me be that wife, I pray silently. Please don't let me be the rule-making, domineering kind. And then I laugh a little, because of course that's up to me.
Once we get going, after that first hour has been fought through, a nice rhythm emerges and we all settle into a pattern. Dex has gone full-on frenetic and runs circles, maddeningly, around us. He's racing smells, as if he can't get to the next one fast enough. It's fun to watch, which is all I'm doing today, but tough to hunt with--if he's too far away and hits birds, if that scent stops him in his tracks and we're nowhere close, you might as well give up on ever hitting anything. So Dad tries to rein him in, two short blasts on the whistle to let him know he needs to change direction, that he needs to stay closer. It works, kind of. They have their own language while they're out there, Dad knows when Dexter is actually on something or when he's just testing the air. Dexter will look back for Dad every so often, watch for his hand signals. Sometimes they work, sometimes Dex knows something we don't and goes after that instead. Dad tells Craig and I at one point, when it looks like Dex is on point, no--look at his head. His head looks like it's pointing to me. But he's barely moving it, side-to-side. If he were pointing, Dad says, he wouldn't move a muscle. Craig investigates. It's an old roost--they were probably just there, judging by the amount of crap they left behind. Good read, Dad.
We walk for probably twelve miles, sidehilling a lot of the ridges, only getting tricked significantly by one turn. It forces us into two big up-downs instead of just the one, but we've been out long enough that I don't mind. I've found that I am remarkably sure-footed, shockingly so considering the clumsiness with which I approach the rest of life. But I am good at going up and down mountains. A certain intuition, or maybe just bullheadedness, follows me up what appear to be unapproachable summits. I like the simple, straightforward exertion of putting one foot in front of another on a hill, of feeling strong and sure moving up. And today, I'm particularly grateful for my Dad and Craig's company because they won't complain about the grade of the hill, about the misread of the mountain. They'll just keep climbing, like me, because that's all you can do. Nothing you say, nothing you do, will change that mountain. So you better just get up it.
It's worth it. My dad asks me twice why I wanted to come. He warns me it'll be hard walking for a long time, it'll be really cold. I know you can do it, he says, but why do you want to? There are a lot of things I could say, quick, witty retorts. I'm known for them, you know. I throw out a couple the second time he asks. The first time, I say, I don't know, I just really want to. Because I can't put the feeling into words, I can't make you understand. I can only tell you what I see, and at the top, right before we start the descent, I look out over what feels like everything to me. I'm standing alone on the ridge, a sea of golden cheat grass below me and a sea of dazzling blue above, and the canyon stretches out in front of me, too big to feel real. The river is a deep, still U around staggeringly sheer walls, the heaving land a thousand shades of tan. I stand rooted to the ground and let the wind below around me, take my breath out of my lungs, and I let all the words in my head empty out until there's nothing left but the canyon and the sky and the sound of the wind to fill me.