Life is ironic, that those who have a lot, often lack a lot, but those who have little, often possess some rich, remarkable, and puzzling things. -- Robert Coles
We pulled up to the elk camp which looked more like a village. A flat meadow of land hollowed out from the many pine trees, that for most weeks of the year, was completely uninhabited. It had become a buzzing whirl of activity and portable buildings constructed by these men. There was a cook tent made up of canvas that was the center for all the food, and stoves, and eating activities. The mess hall. It was similar looking to a circus tent, just smaller.
A pop-up trailer sat near the trees that housed the men to sleep. A bathroom had been setup in the woods with a plastic tarp to the north, the blue plastic blocking our view and the wind. A hole had been dug deep in the ground with a real toilet seat mounted on 2X4’s and some cut wood logs. There was another canvas tent for all the men’s gear and storage, along with two more tents used as they constructed it all.
In the center of it all was the fire pit raised up with rocks, and dirt, and a huge tripod with a round grill that moved up and down for food. The official name for the place we camped was “the zoo.” It was named that by Earl and Richard because of so many hunters being in the one central area. It is not that way anymore. Not these days. This day, we are left to our own. No tents, or hunters, or camps around us. A growing sign that the sport has been losing its men to death, and not picking up any to replace it. I grimace at the thought, but realize for this day, it means better hunting.
When you looked around at all the tents, and vehicles, and objects, it was for good reason.
The men at camp had been doing this for years. The items around camp were proof. The canvas tent was Richard’s which he bought at Cabelas years ago. It was originally a white canvas, but had since become brown with dirt, and smoke with the years of heavy use. The grill over the fire was also a custom piece by Richard. It was metal poles made into a tripod structure over the fire that hung a huge circular grill grate through a metal wire on a pulley system. That too, was made by Richard, along with the aluminum cooler. They had built custom trailers, and stoves too. And most of the gear, as I asked about each piece was about the age of me.
The whole camp was a fixture of their own creativity and use of materials to meet their needs. Down to the toilet seat that was screwed into some wood boards, and propped up by fresh logs they had cut with a hole in the ground. It wasn’t fancy or flashy, just practical and useful. It served its function.
Their gear was so well made, I didn’t know they made the stuff till near the end of the week hunting. No one was bragging about it, or making a big deal of any of it. It just was. And my fascination with the cooler made of aluminum and custom foam pieces and joints, and hinges had Richard looking at me like I was crazy for thinking it was such a big deal. Earl’s pants looked more like a painting than they did jeans. Spills and colors, and oil stains throughout them. They had signs of use, and function. Even the wooden folding tables looked as if they came from the civil war.
I had come from REI, and stores loaded with gear advertising about the newest, most improved, and added features to sell the next year’s gadget and clothes. Flashy signs, and stickers promising lighter, harder, you name it. These items had none of that. No logo. No design and style in them. They just worked. And served their use and came with character. Similar to the men who had made and worn them.
Everytime I walked into the brown speckled tent that was the mess hall, I found myself entering into something much larger than myself, and part of this hunting group that had been going on as long as I had been born. There was something comforting in that, it didn’t start with me, and wasn’t going to end with me either, there was tradition and rituals that continued on—passed down. The men, and the stories they had. I had joined in for a moments time. It was this moment of wondering if I was going to be the next generation to uphold the place. If I was going to someday inherit these old pieces of gear, and stoves, along with the younger men I was with.
There was no talk of that. It was my first trip. I was getting to eager as I thought about it.
You couldn’t get this feeling of the camp at Starbucks. It was old and aged, weathered. And while I thought I liked the new and flashy, the dust and dirt was starting to get inside me. I was enjoying breathing it in, and getting it on me.
I don’t know when it happened, but Richard seemed to have his eye on me. And every chance he could, he would make a little joke, or tease. I soon became his “little buddy.” Whether he was working in the kitchen, or gutting an elk, he would call to me, “Hey, little buddy, take this to the trash, or so on.” At one instant, it felt a bit shameful, or discouraging. They guys would laugh each time. But it wasn’t the name that I wanted to be called. But you could see in his eyes, there was a respect, and almost desire to engage with me when he said. It wasn’t in anger or shame, but in fun and interest. Even at one point when I was going to be in a section of the woods on my own, he wanted to make sure I was going to be safe.
I began to play into it, and fire back some comments back.
This was a way of showing affection, without saying it. While my generation was great at expressing themselves and sharing their feelings, I knew these men did not grow up in a place, or time as this. But while I would have written them off years ago for not being able to relate like this, I began to see what was happening between Richard, Woody, and Earl was just that. Love.
It took on a different form and expression, but the exchange was just that. And the teasing was
Richard’s way of drawing near to me.
While I would tease Richard of his old days of dragging whole elk out of the woods, he would fire right back. On, and on we would go.
It happened in many of the places I was in. Men loved this sport. Whether it was at work, or in the woods, men were constantly ragging, and picking.
It would be pretty easy to dismiss this stuff as unspiritual. Foolish talk. But the story of most young guys is they have never been around men at all, or related, or been in the midst of a teasing match. I felt there was something much deeper going on, when we would fire back at each other. Like elk rubbing antlers testing each other, determining the stronger elk. A young buck taking on a bigger one. I felt the feeling of rubbing against masculinity, that was old, and weathered, and as I picked, I found him rubbing back. Like a mutual experience between the two of us. Something felt right in the world as it happened.
I found that you could not expose this. I could never say Richard, do you like me? Or even think of putting the words to it. It seemed best, left as it was, and a sort of code.