& the stories we tell ourselves
By Landon Blanchard | photography by Landon Blanchard & Elyse Guarino
The goal was clear. Head out first thing opening morning and kill an elk - simple, clean, straightforward, and easy to understand. Elyse, my partner (for hunting and life things) and I came to the plan while sitting at the bar two nights prior. Through the scattered and stifling noise of the background music, Elyse leaned in slightly and yelled, “maybe I can only say this because I am not the one shooting, but I say we go back up there and we find him, you shoot him, and we wrap this thing up on opening day. We go light, we just bring the essentials and straight calories - Reeses, cheese, and Fritos.”
The “he” she was referring to was a bull that I had badly missed during the archery season two weeks prior. Her optimism and brimming levels of confidence left me to believe that yes, yes we would go back up there and find him, I would shoot him, and we would indeed wrap this thing up on opening day. And, we would do it all hopped up on simple sugars and salts. I believed her when she made that statement, and that belief in the story had already shifted the moment in our favor.
"I was walking miles in my head, glassing up false expectations based on the accomplishments of others, and carrying a heavy burden of doubt into the field."
This had been my goal for 7 seasons leading up to this year, but killing an elk had never happened for me. For 7 seasons I developed as a hunter. Each year learning more, gaining more knowledge and experience. I hit a point somewhere along the way where I began to subtly think simultaneously that I deserved something and that I wasn’t good enough. Maybe it was from too much time comparing myself to others via things like Instagram? It was a mess. I was a mess. It felt at times like I was only hunting in the metaphorical sense. I was walking miles in my head, glassing up false expectations based on the accomplishments of others, and carrying a heavy burden of doubt into the field. I never had a chance to kill an elk, I simply didn’t make space for that to come into my life. I was too distracted with a different story built around unrealistic expectations and negative self talk. My self-deprecating story only grew with each passing season and unfilled elk tags.
This year was different though.
4:00 a.m. and simultaneous cell phone alarms awaken us to the reality of October elk hunting in Wyoming - it’s dark, it’s cold, and it’s snowing. Normally, the aforementioned conditions would leave me employing the use of the snooze button, or what my friend Jared affectionately calls the “mediocre button.” But dammit, today was different. There was some intentional shit happening here and I was feeling the flow. Boots, coffee, calories and we were off. The hike in to my spot flew by with the final switchback coming moments before first light, we started hearing bugles - a lot of bugles. Exciting!
Also exciting? Slowly realizing that the letters you’re trying to read transcribed in the snow next to the trail spell out very clearly “B E A R” with an ↑ pointing in our direction of travel that the group in front of us had written minutes before. Onward, we’re here to kill and elk.
"Considering what had just transpired, we discussed whether it was responsible to go after this elk with grizzlies so near."
We moved up the ridge and caught our first glimpse as we slowly came to the first saddle. A herd bull with cows was feeding away from us without a chance for a shot. As I watched the elk feed into the trees, a sow grizzly and cub split the herd and continued across the hillside and into another group of bedded bulls. The four bulls slowly stood up and diverged from the bears as both parties went about their day. At this point killing a bull seemed unlikely and possibly risky.
Moments later we heard a bugle to our left. Considering what had just transpired, we discussed whether it was responsible to go after this elk with grizzlies so near. With no clear objections I began to make my stalk.
The bull was quartering and moving away, but with a cow call he turned broadside. My foundation felt good and the crosshairs lay directly over the vitals. Still, I paused for a long time - long enough to think it all through, to be fully in the moment, and to check all the boxes. Those next few moments reside somewhere in that space between hyper-speed and slow motion. The round fired and the bull hunched forward, running around the corner and out of sight. We walked 200 yards to find the bull on the hillside.
I remember Elyse mentioning her nausea, not so much from the dead animal, but more to what an animal the size of an elk meant to two people who are nearly 4 miles from their truck...in a snowstorm...flirting with grizzlies.
We loaded what we could onto our packs and a short 8 hours later I was turning the key to the truck’s ignition - we had done the hardest physical thing either of us had ever done, and we did it together with intention and persistence...and EmergenC, Reeses, and Fritos.
Did we really just do that?
There is a particular type of person who can be found in these small rural communities - those people who always seem to be right there with you. Those folks who live completely in the world as they are, but who live with aim and tenacity. The special ones also find a way to live with equal amounts compassion and empathy. These folks say they’re going to do the thing and then they do the thing.
"If this hunt did anything for me, it demonstrated the power of intention and the function of reality being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, especially the ones we really believe in."
Through the direct encouragement and support of Elyse, and an intentional decision to change the story I was telling myself, we decided to create a more positive story. Some people have the incredible ability to not only snap you out of negative thoughts about yourself, but to actually make you believe you can do anything. It helps that she’s the most capable person I’ve spent time with in the mountains, however it’s her mental toughness to believe in herself and in others - even in trying times that change your perspective of the world.
HEAVY PACKS, SMILES AND DOUBLE BEAR SPRAY
If this hunt did anything for me, it demonstrated the power of intention and the function of reality being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, especially the ones we really believe in. It also illustrated to me the type of person I am and who I’ll continue to be. And, the type of people I want to be around and learn from. They help remind me that I have the ability to shape my own reality, and that one day, I will have the opportunity to do that for someone else.