The Killing Season

The Killing Season

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Drew Pogge

For hunters and non-hunters.

Lakes freeze over like drooping, sleepy blue eyes. Cottonwoods present their annual leafy fireworks display. Snow sifts over the highest peaks. And the artillery blasts of high-powered rifles echo through it all. Ahhhhh, sweet, sweet Montana autumn. The killing season.

It's a fever that takes hold during elk season in particular. All at once, conversation turns to rifles, scopes, grain counts, and scary-sounding terminology like penetration, stopping power, and hydrostatic shock. It's a war on nature.

Now, I'd like to make it clear that I have hunted. I've even owned guns. And yes, I've field dressed a few critters, large and small. But I just decided one day that I'd rather go hiking, climbing, or skiing, and buy my meat. I guess I'm lacking the killer instinct. Laziness may or may not have something to do with it.

For us nonhunters, this annual, highly ritualized time makes life interesting, exciting, and a bit scary. Going for a hike or climb becomes a militaristic undertaking, with a standard-issue orange uniform and the expectation of meeting armed parties in the woods.

And hunters are never happy to see nonhunters in the autumn woods. They probably think we're scaring off all the game, what with all of our noisy tree-hugging and granola crunching. I can almost hear their thoughts: "Hmmmm, no gun. What the hell? I bet he's from California. Or Missoula."

But hunting season in Montana—even for those of us unafflicted by blood-lust—is beautiful. Snow falls overnight and melts by noon. Temperatures are flannel-shirt warm during the day and get-closer-to-the-fire cold during the night. And dead animals begin to appear like autumn apparitions around town.

There isn't a person in Bozeman who hasn't played "How Many Legs" while sitting behind a pickup in town. Counting hocks and hooves to determine just how many dead critters are in that truck in front of you is good fun (and arithmetic practice for Junior.)

I once counted nine elk legs sticking out of the bed of a rusty Ford. Do the math; any way you figure it, there was an elk somewhere missing some legs. I'm still curious.

And "How Many Legs" isn't the only hunting-oriented game. My camo-clad friends like to play "Scare the Bejesus Out of Visitors with Corpses in the Garage." The game is played like this: A visitor is sent into the dark garage to retrieve beverages. The hunters have strategically hung all manner of gore from the rafters, until the garage resembles the set of Saw IV. When the victim—er, visitor—finally finds the light switch, he's greeted by the gleaming, skinless, disemboweled corpses of several freshly harvested ungulates. It's a classic Montana pastime, and it's certainly worth a few chuckles, once the screaming and night-terrors subside.

More than fun and games, hunting season transforms people. The guy from the office—the clean-cut one who wears a pressed shirt every day—suddenly takes a week of vacation and returns with a beard and dried blood under his fingernails. The checkout lady at the grocery store—the one who asks about your "adorable" dog every time you're there—casually mentions the "four by four" mule deer she expertly shot over the weekend. I'm sorry, who are you? It's just one more way that Montana is different than most anywhere. Our office managers and grocers moonlight as Rambo stand-ins.

And as much as the season transforms hunters into killing machines, it transforms the rest of us as well. Nobody bats an eye when a couple of guys saddle up to the bar wearing blood-splotched camo, carrying large knives, and smelling strongly of smoked Sasquatch. It's hunting season. Even we nonhunters "get it," and we're happy to put up with strange smells. For a while.

There's a certain pride that comes from living in a place that still values hunting. It's a primal instinct, and even among the deli-meat crowd there's a subtle, unconscious reverence for hunters. Few of us can understand the kind of direct relationship hunters share with their prey (their food) and whether you're into killing or not, it's pretty cool. Of course the PETA freaks and probably a large percentage of the Co-op clientele might beg to differ, but they should just go sit on a rutabaga.

Once the rifle blasts fade, every tag has been filled, and the mountains are left to winter, it's time for the bounty. Ducks, geese, deer, and elk turn into steaks, roasts, hamburger, sausage, and jerky. It's a game-meat bonanza. Demand for beer and antacid soars, as mass quantities of delicious, naturally harvested meat is consumed. From traditional family recipes to succulent, exotic restaurant cuisine, the land is flush with flavor. And that's something even the staunchest nonhunters can appreciate. Unless they're vegetarian, of course. But then, they have their own stories. ("Did I ever tell you about the 38-point broccoli that got away?")

So hunt, or don't. But we're all—even the Co-op crew—a part of Montana's hunting tradition. Counting legs, hanging carcasses, watching friends and co-workers transform into hunting fiends; we all experience the killing season one way or another. And for this nonhunter, it's a pretty neat thing. Just don't expect me to help pack your elk out. Unless you've got tenderloins to spare. . .

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