by Lisa Jane Barron
Hunting at what appears to be the edge of the world is more than surreal, it takes your breath away but allows you to continue breathing. It’s sensory overload without being so overwhelming that the world as you know it ceases to exist at that moment. It takes days of mornings, work whistles, dog kisses, and mundane trips to the supermarket after to realize how amazing that one hunt was.
The first season I ever hunted was, on paper, easy. I had a slew of New York tags for everything from bear to turkey to deer but I was only focused on the last. I had tens of thousands of acres to hunt but I only focused on the front fifteen, maybe twenty. I participated in one push, I walked the tree lines, the men of my party believed it to be the “easiest” for me to tackle, I was trotting down a mud road, a toddler could have done it.
I hunted from two stands that first season, one that looked out to the aforementioned dirt road and a quasi-open thicket, and one that resembled the Taj Mahal. If I’m leading you to believe that this was some sort of deer hunting super-structure with turrets, marble pulpits, and inch after inch of priceless artwork adorning the sides, then I’m doing a fair job of describing the monstrosity.
It appeared, at least to my novice eye, that the stand could be seen from space. It was crudely thrown together in a haphazard way, as if the foremen overseeing its construction went to Home Depot and proclaimed to the irritated shop keep looking to lock up, “Put whatever you have left in the cart, I’ll take anything you’ve GOT!”, and they did.
Three minutes is what it took to climb the seven staircases that led to the zenith, a rickety piece of plywood that wasn’t attached to anything and swayed whenever the lightest of breezes past through it. The tree, a necessary part of a “tree stand” I came to understand, was buckling under the pressure of the massive structure. It called out to me as I took a seat on the rusted patio future strewn about the top, I didn’t make out what the tree said but it looked as if it was dying, slowly turning into what adorned it.
For weeks, I walked to one of the two stands, scaled them, sat, looked around for a while, waited till dark, got down, was escorted by whomever else was hunting back to my Jeep, and went home.
Hunting, I thought then, was easy.
In the Badlands, the extreme opposite proves true.
We had heard about the mystical landscape before we moved here. People talked about the badlands but have never gone, didn’t go near it, or took pictures long enough to show friends back home that they had “been there”. Months, chaotic ones, have passed since we made our move North. We hadn’t carved out time to drive the two hours to the alien landscape- creating and maintaining a life here in Bismarck was at the top of the To Do list.
We went on our first deer hunt to an area we had heard was good for deer. Another area that was completely underwater last summer, the acres were rebuilding, save for the miles of water-hewn trees, their still-standing counterparts wearing the insignia of their battle, water marks to their midsections.
Solo hunts were on tap so we kissed as we usually do; I went my way, he went his.
Three hours passed. I happily sat on a log, read a little, and looked around. Starting to feel as if this was the huntress of yesteryear, I got up, started walking. I kicked up a doe, the first deer I had ever seen on any first day of a hunt.
We reunited and walked some more towards the Missouri river. When we reached the furthest point, he said, “I think it’s time to make the trip.”
“The trip. The big one?” I had asked, knowing full well what he was thinking.
He looked into the distance, eyes sheltered from the sun’s rays by his giant hands, and nodded.
Four the next morning, I was awoken by three tails (well two, the little one has a nub) smashing against the side of the wall. Jovial in the way only dogs can when awoken hours after they had gone to sleep, their eyes screamed WE’RE GOING SOMEWHERE, WE’RE GOING SOMEWHERE WITH MOM AND DAD! MOM AND DAD!
Our troop was left sadly for the day and they howled their disappointment as our truck eased from the driveway.
Night became deeper as we fell an hour behind. The flat North Dakota landscape continued to be so. Flat farmland, a flat area adorned with oil pumps, drills. Dickinson rose from seemingly nowhere.
We stopped to get something to drink on the way in. A man in a gigantic truck smashed into the concrete barrier between our truck and the gas pump. He missed us by half a centimeter. His buddy, more concerned for us than his buddy’s lack of driving skills, yelled from the window, “Did he getcha?”
Morning rose and as she stretched, she found us taking in our first glimpses of badland beauty. Before our eyes, the landscape changed into ancient river beds, dried valleys, towering buttresses, swooping curves, and dazzling colors.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park opened like an envelope for us, inviting us inside to be sent away, to somewhere unlike anywhere else.
We had planned to GPS our location and then walk as far as our hockey and football abused bodies could go. Our phones decided that moment was the best time to lose signal. I, a worrywart by nature, looked to him like a puppy caught in a rainstorm. He shrugged his shoulders, mumbled something about being “fine” and started off. I, aghast in his wake, finally got half a bar of signal. I GPSed our site and sent it to his mom with the note, “We’re going off. This is where the truck is, just in case.”
The terrain, from our vantage point, looked simple. The invisible river beds looked a heck of a lot like nice little valleys between the skyrocketing sedimentary rock formations, which, from there, appeared to be easy enough to walk around and walk up, if we felt the need.
We came upon the first riverbed by accident, as we almost fell into it on our way in. The falling walls ended some thirty feet down. At the bottom, once we found our way, we stood in a riverbed of natural salt. It covered us, turned our boots into slip-and-slides of the footwear world.
That first ascended wall wasn’t bad; it was pretty easy in fact.
Another river bed, another not-so-steep climb later and we stood here, looking up, realizing that to canvas the area for that elusive and delicious muley meat we had been craving, we had to go up, way up.
This area, we assumed, looked the best and safest to climb. He made his way, propelling his 6’5” body up the side like a camo-clad Spiderman. I, perfectly aware that the only thing to break my fall were rocks and no harness had I, was hesitant. But hunting is what we came here to do, so I put my boot forward and climbed.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have saved myself the moments of pure terror, the seconds of sheer, heart-stopping climbing, by strapping my bow to my back. No, I had stubbornly told myself, I could do this. It turned out, I couldn’t.
With one hand grappling on to the side of the rock face and the other my bow, I looked down and saw my head smashed against the rocks, blood pouring from every crevice of my small body. I saw him screaming, scaling the cliff down, again like Spiderman, but this time in the full superhero regalia. I saw my dogs running from across the valley, crowding around my lifeless body in an effort to rouse me more quickly.
I saw all this at the moment that I saw the small ledge. I stood, legs earthquaking, slowly strapped my bow, its quiver, to my pack. The world swayed slightly as I hefted the gear to my back. From above, kind of like God, except not at all, more like a movie rendition, my husband directed which way to go, told me to take it slow, to press myself against the rock ledge, throw all my weight at it as if by some force of will, I could make it so that I would not fall.
Minutes, or hours, I’m unsure which, later, we stood atop the cliff. I looked down, around, and up. I collected myself, swearing that it was only sweat that dripped down my face, staining the rock-hard clay below.
Once we paused for pictures, our trek continued. We saw another ledge that would prove to be a better vantage point so we scaled that one too.
Ten miles later, here we sit, looking at all we had done. Well, I sat, he stood. His rear end had battled a hidden cactus when an impromptu lunch break turned into a half hour of extracting hidden spines from his pants. It would have helped, in retrospect, if he had looked before he sat but he was committed to sitting and enjoying that bottom-of-my back-pack-squished sandwich.
Cows meandered by, some 400 yards away. We watched them, wondering what it must be like to have full reign of the area. Our answer came in a skeletal form buried deep in a pit we almost fell into, just as she did.
We never saw another human, sans the random cyclist that my husband, for an iota of a second, believed to be a muley strutting only 3 yards away.
A concave, oblong circle, much like the Native American historical site in Menoken, North Dakota, sat below us. We walked the clear exit, the entrance, the circle in the center where the fire roared. We wondered how it must have been, to wake up to this alien landscape every morning, to the rainbow of colors, the dust, the wind, the land not yet, or never, touched by the modern hand, to hunt the buffalo atop it, or to battle those within it.
Our bows stayed out almost the entire hunt. We canvassed for a muley, assuring one another, “if I get a shot, I’m going to take it.”
I shot everything I could.
The cracked ground sprouting vegetation, contradicting life itself, boasting breath when none should be. Petrified wood pushing through rock walls, salt pastures. Cows running free, following the heard, seemingly unknowing of the surrounding beauty. Tables for giants, set up along a rock wall, waiting for a tankard of ale, a whole sheep, wool and all.
I shot it all not to remind myself of its beauty but to prove that it was real, that I had been there, climbed it, saw it, lived it.
It’s safe to say that I am no longer the huntress who patiently waited for a whitetail to meander by my larger-than-life stand. I no longer relish in walking to and fro my plastic, man-made stands, the sounds of the near road broaching the otherwise still silence.
That huntress gauged the success of a hunt in the deer seen, the venison harvested. As the number of hunts has progressed, so has my attitude towards it. I had always believed the hunt to be ancient, spiritual but now I know, it never leaves you, nor do you it.
I stare once again at the revolutions of my fan, blowing the chilly forty degree air around this fortress of a house. Blinking, I see the Badlands, my torn hands reaching over one another to make it another foot up the wall, my tired legs pushing up another hill.
Next time, I’ll taste the natural salt, walk two more miles, and maybe look down that rock wall. But as for now, I’ll relish in the memories.
The hunt may have been, for all the purposes of mainstream outdoor TV, unfruitful, as no monster, trophy muley sagged from the back of our truck, bouncing with the uneven road, but in reality, it was anything but.
It was solitary, it was stunning, it proved that I could reach outside myself, it was all this, and it was mine.