My Days with Charismatic Megafauna
It was 2:00 a.m. when my husband came home with traces of blood on his hands. Rather, it was 2:00 a.m. when I returned home from a night of dancing at the Union Club, and I found Chris taking in deep breaths on the edge of our bed. “Where have you been,” he asked, his eyes pointing up to me as if I had left for cigarettes and hadn’t come back for days. “Alex and I went dancing downtown,” I said, “Why are you here? What happened? I thought you were going to be in the backcountry all week.”
I leaned against the doorframe and watched Chris hunch his shoulders and press his palms into his knees. “I shot an elk this morning.”
“Yeah, and I need your help. Actually, we need a lot of help. Do you think Alex and her husband would be willing to help us pack it out? We’d need to leave in a few hours. I’ve called Ed, and he’s gonna help too.”
Alex was still up, still zingy from our spirited girls-night-out. Of course, she said. Of course she and Brian would help. Alex and I shared an old train car together at Forestry Camp. Back then, she would chase mosquitoes in her pajamas, trying to cup and release the insects outside. After a few years, she as a wildlife biology major and I as a conservation major, we learned that killing for sustenance was part of good resource stewardship.
Chris shot the elk seven miles in, a mile past the Wilderness boundary in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He set up camp after six miles, woke before sunrise and hiked up a mountain pass and down into a ravine with air like cool water. And that’s where he shot the elk. By the time he gutted, skinned, and hung the animal, the sun was dipping under the ridge line above him. He emptied his water bottle and a pack of wipes trying to get the blood off, but he was still covered in the newly dead. He was bone tired by the time he summited the mountain pass. With six miles to go, he ran the rocky trail in the dark. He wore a sidearm for protection since the grizzlies were known to expect a meal when they heard a gunshot. Gunshot equals gut pile. Chris ran hard and fast and tried not to think of the remaining blood on his clothes.
We arrived at the trailhead by 6:00 a.m. Chris and I split a gas station doughnut and finished the last dregs of coffee from my thermos. I put snacks into my backpack, and Chris loaded black plastic bags into his pack. Alex, Brian, and Ed arrived just after sunrise, and we began our hike toward the dead elk in the wilderness. Our high-tech backpacks bounced cheerfully like giddy children, not knowing they would soon be weighed by meat, forty to fifty pounds each. Ed would take seventy, which was mystifying since he was almost eighty years old, but he didn’t flinch at the task.
By the time we reached the elk, quartered it, sealed it in the plastic bags, and loaded our packs, the ridgeline was swallowing the sun. The hike up the ravine proved the hardest part as I wasn’t accustomed to carrying forty pounds of dead weight. Normally, you fill a pack strategically with the lighter items near the bottom and the heavier goods near the top, but elk meat doesn’t work like a down sleeping bag. No amount of magical thinking would change the bloody muscle into feathers or fleece. I took small steps and made short switchbacks, just like Ed, and trudged the meat uphill as if carrying a dead friend on my back. Chris passed me as he bee-lined his way up and said, “If you were in better shape, you could carry more.”
At the summit, I found Chris trembling. We hunkered beneath a wind-whipped spruce, and I gave him my rain slick. The light turned blue. In our packing rush, we forgot flashlights, and there was only one between the five of us. No moon. Griz country. I stumbled over rocks and roots, and the elk wanted to pull my body to the ground. The black night felt like a shell closing in on me. Keep your breathing steady, I told myself. Don’t think about hypothermia. I trained my eyes on the patch of light ahead that Brian carried, and I tried to remember what was coming my way as my feet struck the dark trail.
No bears found us that night or the next day when we returned to collect the remaining quarters that Chris hung from a tree branch.
Part of our load included the elk hide, which was just for me. I was learning the art of tanning from friends who were experts in primitive skills. Truth be told, I was learning how to tan to prove myself to my husband, to show him I was committed to our marriage after dozens of complaints about my selfishness. I was twenty-five.
Not only will I help you pack this elk out, I will tan the hide to show you how much I care. My parents showed me a healthy marriage takes patience, compassion, and humility. I missed the part about applying those values to a good match. In my mind, Chris’s love of the outdoors was enough glue to link our mismatched hearts. We couldn’t have been more different. Why did I marry him? I was twenty-one, and my imagination hitched onto the few impressions when I met him at a record store run by old hippies. He initiated our courtship by sending me a phaelanopsis orchid. He played the flute, rode a red BMW motorcycle, he wasn’t from Arkansas, and he was into yoga. He liked Terry Gilliam films, which meant he must be deep and poetic, which he was. He gave me an easel and a set of Schmincke watercolor paints. No lover had ever given me an easel. In truth, it may have been a scent I fell for, a co-mingling of sandalwood and smoked peppers whirling from his kitchen. My mom tried to warn me, but nothing was going to stop that train from leaving the station. Maybe if she had said, “Chris will not respect you as an artist,” I would have paused for reflection, but instead, her words, “I think you’re making a mistake,” triggered my own bull-headed drive to prove her wrong.
Years later, when Chris began questioning the batiks of nude women, how I used my own blood on the cloth — I didn’t know if I should feel ashamed of my art or protective of it, and it only made matters worse when friends would say, “You are so lucky to be with Chris. He must be the best husband.” I didn’t know how to respond to their praise. Chris was the public saint who volunteered for non-profits, mentored at-risk youth, and reached out to people on the margins. “Yeah,” I’d say, “He’s great,” because I thought I should feel that way. When he began telling me artists keep company with whores and pornographers, I told myself, He doesn’t get it yet, but eventually he’ll get what I’m about.
“Why can’t you just be satisfied with taking still-life classes at Michael’s? Why do you have to put your dirty laundry out there for everyone to see?” Give it time, I thought. Marriage takes work. Eventually he’ll understand. I couldn’t bear to make another painting of fruit in a bowl. Really, though, it was the essays that disturbed him most. When he said, dirty laundry, he meant the essay about abortion and how my writing professor read it aloud to my class because he thought it was the best piece that particular week. Writing nonfiction was worse than painting because there was less to interpret. He hated being on the page even though I never said his name.
We went to the backcountry instead of a marriage counselor.
A few years after the elk, after the meat had long been eaten, Chris and I explored the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. I still remember the meadow full of wildflowers — lupine, Echinacea, pearly everlasting, and arrow leaf balsamroot. I had never seen such a picture-book landscape brimming with color. We pitched a tent beneath a stand of Douglas-firs, on ground worn by feet, paws, and hooves. The evening sun lit up bands of dirt rising around us as we shook old pine needles and tiny exoskeletons from inside the tent.
Sometime during the night, I woke to an unfamiliar sound. I knew the sound of conifer needles (little pins), rainfall (bacon frying or popcorn popping depending on the water velocity), and even field mice (pitter patter up and down the exterior walls). This sound was different. Foot steps. No, paw steps. Large and ambling. The creature circled the tent. I imagined its eyes zapping X-ray vision inside our flimsy shelter. I imagined it salivating. And then, the thing pushed its head against the nylon wall. Just a little.
Chris was sleeping peacefully. I dared not speak. Instead, I tried to slowly lift my leg, millimeter by millimeter, but the sleeping bag material would not stay quiet. Trying to silently lift my leg so I could discreetly nudge Chris awake led to stomach cramps. Holding my leg midair, I wondered if the cramping would lead to vomiting, and then I wondered how quickly I could unzip from my sleeping bag, unzip the tent door, run across the campground in the dark, find the car, unlock the car, and vomit inside the car because I learned that even the faintest scent of toothpaste will attract a bear. It had to be a bear. I was convinced.
A headache came on so strong I relaxed my body, and sleep grabbed hold before I could fight it. In the morning, I shook Chris awake and described our brush with death. “Huh,” he said. When he stepped outside, he started laughing. “Some bear, Joanna.” I poked my head out the door, and there pressed into the soft dirt like musical notes gone wild, were dozens of hoof prints from a deer—a little deer who was likely drawn by our foreign scents.
Chris and I encountered a real bear in the last year of our marriage. Actually, several on two different occasions. The first occurred as we looked for the Pools of Eden in the Swan Range. I boulder hopped over massive rocks padded in thick moss. As I landed next to Chris on one rock, I looked up and locked eyes with a young black bear who froze in his own surprise. In a matter of seconds, Chris moved his hand up to his sidearm, but the bear leapt off the adjacent boulder, disappearing before Chris touched metal.
The second encounter happened on our last wedding anniversary. We hiked up the spine of a mountain whose name I can’t remember in the Bitterroot Range. Chris liked to throw rocks over edges. I decided not to admonish him about safety and how there may be a hiker in the valley. He picked up a piece of granite the size of a child’s head and heaved it into the air. I followed its arc and rushed to the edge to see where it would land. There, on a ledge twenty feet below, was a large momma black bear and two cubs. The rock landed in front of the momma. She darted to one side while the cubs scampered up a Ponderosa pine. “Wow! What are the odds of that happening,” Chris said like a boy who’s found buried treasure. I stood there on the edge and couldn’t shake the shivers creeping through my body. I wondered if this would be our last hike.
It turns out divorce is simple in Montana. A brief waiting period and one visit to the Missoula County Courthouse and it’s done. Chris threatened to leave me for years, even packed all his belongings one time when I skinned and quartered a deer with another man. After the ridgeline, my gut feelings wouldn’t go away. I read biographies of artists I was drawn to, and I saw the choice written on the wall. You can stay in this bad marriage that everyone thinks is special, or you can be crazy brave, be an artist, the thing you’ve always been and are just beginning to discover.
I began modeling for a wild-eyed erotic artist in town. He wore a gold hoop in his left ear and lived on the second floor of an old brick building that was a brothel back in the logging days. He made prints, sketches, and paintings of me in various positions. I felt electric.
Chris packed his things for good and moved out of the apartment while I lived in the Swan Valley for my graduate research. When I returned, the space was clean and tidy, except for one thing. I remained in the apartment for another year, and in that time, I found small notes inserted inside books, journals, clothing, the backs of framed art, written on the batiks I made — all Chris’s handwriting — all messages tucked away for me to eventually stumble upon — carefully crafted words about how I let our marriage fail. More than a decade and many towns later, I’ll open a book, and a scrap of paper will flutter to the floor, one I hadn’t found yet. It must have taken him days to wire the apartment with his words. It was an incredible feat.
I still have the elk hide. It glows amber in the sunlight and smells like sweet, smokey honey.