By Wade Truong / Elevated Wild
At twelve thousand feet, wind howling and dust finding its way into every seam of my gear, what I knew before coming out here sinks in. This is a lot different from home. I sit down, set up my binos and tripod, and start scanning the broken timber and hillsides for an animal I've never hunted.
Everything about this place - the dryness, the wind, the light, the height, the vastness - is unfamiliar. It’s unsettling being in such a new environment, but there is an innate confidence in what I'm doing, something ingrained in my biology. This is something that humans have always done. This hunt just happens to be somewhere else.
"The vastness of this country is only comparable to big water. An ocean made of rock, flipped on its axis."
I knew that this hunt was going to be unlike any hunt I've been on. I’d never been to the Rockies, much less hunted them. From studying topo charts before I left and looking at 3D maps, I knew the landscape would look completely different from the sea level agriculture fields and creek bottoms I'm used to. I could sense it from the tarmac when we debarked from the plane, but at twelve thousand feet was where it really sank in. Seeing the scope of this country, the indescribable size and texture of the land, assured me that I knew nothing about what I was trying to do.
The air is thin up here and everything is bigger, intimidating and unnerving. It’s incredible how far you can see, yet there is so much to look at that it feels impossible to find what you're looking for. The vastness of this country is only comparable to big water. An ocean made of rock, flipped on its axis. I’m looking for a brown animal in a sea of brown grass, dark timber, and clouds of dust.
I glassed the area for a few hours. The sun starts sliding behind a ridge and the air chills immediately. The steady breeze reminds me to put on a layer before heading back down the trail. You’re lucky to see a few hundred yards where I hunt in Virginia, and the temperature generally doesn't swing 50 degrees in a day.
It’s a dry and dusty hike down the mountain. Match box dry. Every step on the trail kicks up a cloud of fine rock. The only thing green we see are the needles on the spruce and firs. What little grass we see is the same burnt gold as the aspen leaves. How can anything live in this?
By the time I get back to camp it’s pitch black. You couldn’t count all the stars overhead. The headlamps only allow me to see what my hands and feet are currently doing. Beyond the throw of lights, inky darkness. A sea of unknown, unseen, and hopefully some elk.
"I knew this would be different, but I had no idea how different."
Before setting foot on those mountains, I spent months preparing for something I didn’t have any first hand experience doing. I hiked with a weighted pack, shot my rifle, made checklist after checklist, read, tested gear, and listened to podcasts on the subject. I was as prepared as I was going to be without having set foot on the ground.
I knew this would be different, but I had no idea how different.
This country is rough, steep and dry in ways that a screen can not display. Overnight temperatures dropped into the twenties, and topped out just under 90. I saw animals new to me: mule deer, moose, pika, blue grouse, grey jays, ravens, and more I couldn’t ID. I heard the new sound of a cow elk just out of sight, followed by the familiar sound of an animal catching my scent.
Every day I hiked further out of my comfort zone. Every ridge, saddle, meadow and basin I hunted was new ground, unseen to me. The further I went, the less foreign this place felt. Western elk hunting is wholly different from hunting Eastern whitetails, but the sense of purpose feels the same.Walking through a tangle of blow downs, a misjudged step sounded like splitting kiln dried wood. The aspens sounded less violent, more like the crisp oak leaves back home. Mule deer don’t spook quite like whitetails. Moose are taller than you can imagine, quieter than you think they could be. It gets warm quick, it gets cold faster. A mile might actually be three.
I never found the animal I was there for, but I did find something else. I found that no matter how alien this terrain was, and how foreign the fauna, I never felt like I shouldn't be there. As different as this place is, my goals and my intent are the same. I’m trying to find an animal, one that is far more at home in this landscape than me. I’m trying to learn about that animal, its strengths, and its weaknesses. I’m trying to find it, kill it, and eat it. The stakes are different, it wouldn't take much to get really hurt out here, but the game is the same.
The hunt for food is as purely human as it gets. It’s the cornerstone of us, and all things living. I’ve never been so out of place, yet felt so at home. Looking for food, trying to scratch out a living, same as everything else out there.
About Wade: Wade Truong is a lifelong Virginian, self-taught chef and hunter. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Garden & Gun. His passion for cooking and sharing food is the foundation of his obsession with the outdoors and the resources they provide. He spends all of his free time hunting, fishing, foraging and exploring the bounty of the land and water. He believes that the more we participate with our environment, the more we understand that we need to protect it.