The First Hunt
Yesterday, I embarked on my first hunt. In 2012, my whole perception of hunting was altered when I was researching about the Inuit people. Legend has it, that the ancient Inuits dealt with the moral dilemma and question of whether or not they should be killing animals. They then understood that life requires death and death requires life. It’s a circle. Everything folds back into where it came from. Their responsibility was to partake in that circle in the most respectful manner that they could. They believed that they would kill only what they needed to survive and in doing so, they created a spiritual pact with the animals and the animals became part of the Inuit people. It’s all perspective. They even mounted Polar Bear heads in their homes, not as trophies, but with the belief that the Polar Bear spirit could see how good the family was and that it would make them understand that they were part of good people. The essence of this is what was important to me. It’s not about the gestures we make but the meaning of them to us. Our personal relationship to the inner and outer workings of our life and the life around us. I tried for months at a time, for a couple years, different diets that excluded animal protein but I never really felt as good as I do when I’m eating healthy animals in a conscious way. I really resonated with their perspective, and the thought that I too may be a good hunter someday began to grow.
The process of getting my hunting license and reading everything on hunting that I could get my hands on until I fully understood what I was doing took about two years. All the reading in the world, can get you to a point, but only experience itself, is the big teacher. I believe that no animal should be treated with cruelty. At this point, I believe that my body operates optimally when I’m consuming appropriate portions of healthy animal meat. If I'm going to eat meat, I have to experience the full cycle of life and death, myself.
I had my gear. I had my intention. I had my purpose. I had the understanding. Finally, I knew I was ready to go. I set my calendar for a hunt this weekend. No matter what, I’m going. Now I needed a place to go. Hunting on California public lands can be a little challenging. I really wanted the romance of hunting on public land but the state of CA isn’t as open on hunting as somewhere like Montana or Colorado. It’s kind of a pain to find good information on where one can hunt. Lots of red tape and hoops to jump through sometimes. This was always the most intimidating part of hunting for me. I needed a spot to go that 1. I’d be able to get the animal out of after I made my shot 2. I wasn’t on someone’s private land without me being aware of it 3. I wasn't in a zone of the state I wasn’t supposed to be in. Navigating the land properly takes the most experience. I did quite a bit of research the two weeks prior to the hunt and finally found a big ranch of private land that I could legally hunt on by paying a fee that was fair to me. For my first solo hunt, I agreed with myself that this would be the best option, as I was still learning and this would be a good place to start.
I woke up at 4 am on Sunday. I'm generally not a typical morning person, but today I woke up on my own without the aid of the four alarms I had set. I was excited, prepared, and ready for this. First I pulled the truck around and loaded it up so that I had some time to myself before I left. It took about a year of gathering the right gear to be prepared for this. My pack weighed about 40 pounds but I had everything I needed. If something were to go wrong, I was prepared. I felt at ease by my preparation and I knew the wait was worth that peace of mind. As I got dressed there was certainly a primal sensation that one gets when they "suit up" for something intense. I like that feeling. I would always get it when I'd suit up for a football game. I like having gear and knowing how to use it. This part of the process is always fun to me. This was a little different though because there was no team with me. The feeling is fueled by myself and myself only which made it even more intense. I liked it. My emotions and mood were very centered upon waking up. There’s this thing that happens to first time hunters where they hesitate because their heart starts pounding so hard and they freeze up. I felt like all the different kinds of breath work and meditation and being with myself that I’ve done over the years was part of my training for this. I had no concern of this. I felt like I had been here before. I didn’t need any reminders of what I was doing and why I was doing it. Again, my preparation and baby steps were to thank for this. Before I left the house, I spent a good 30 minutes setting my intention and praying for the animal with a sacred Amazonian Rapé ceremony. I told myself that I would make a perfect shot. One shot to a relaxed animal, and no pain or suffering after. I felt extremely grateful for the animal who I'd be meeting. I was sure that I was going to have a "successful" hunt. I knew today was the day. I traveled into the animal for a bit and was aware of what it might be like to be him/her. The ceremony was beautiful and I settled into a deep meditative state with my quartz crystal in my lap. I was in the zone. I was very focused. "Let’s do this", I thought.
I drove about an hour and a half to the Moreno Valley. The entire ride, I had my shamanic healing playlist on. Like my mushroom trips, every detail is part of the process. I was in a fasted state because I wanted to be as clear as I could for this hunt and I thought being in a state of “hunger” would maybe even spark some inner primal nature in me from ancestors before me. I arrived at the ranch and followed the dirt road up the mountain. There was an older gentleman hanging around who greeted me when I got there. His back was faced towards me and he was kind of just putzing around doing stuff when he said, “Didn’t know if you were coming. Better get out there, it’s gunna be fucking hot today. 106 degrees.” His name was Merle. I like how he talked to me and it immediately put me in this space of how I imagined talking to an old old friend when I was in my 60’s would be like. No bullshit, just communicating with each other. I liked Merle and I could tell he liked me. He explained to me that he can be as hands off or on, as I wanted. That I could ask for help if I needed it. I told him what I was here to do and he understood. Merle was a Vietnam vet and old school backwoods hunting guide. Today he just worked around the ranch and offered a hand where he could help. He told me that I could go do my thing and that since it was so hot out, whenever he’d hear a gun shot, he’d come looking for me to help get the animal back to where it’d be easier to butcher for me. At first, I felt a silly pride of kind of wanting to do everything myself, but I reminded myself, this is your first time, quit with the pride, Merle knows what he’s talking about, so this sounded reasonable to me. Later, I was very happy for this help.
I finished getting suited up. Long sleeves and gloves to protect from the sun, thick brush, and ticks. Good boots that must be broken in. People's feet getting wrecked during the hike is the leading cause of hunts ending prematurely. Blaze orange hunting vest on for safety. Binoculars and view finder on my chest. Rattlesnake gaiters over my legs so I didn’t have to hesitate where I stepped. Merle said he’s already seen two this morning so I was happy to have them. Hunting knife on my left side. .357 Magnum on my right side, for "better to have it just in case, than not" moments I suppose. And my backpack filled with everything from a camel pack, two cameras, tripod, emergency tent and blankets, bone saw, carving knife, a compass, waterproof matches, etc. Everything I needed for different situations. And finally my Mossberg Patriot chambered in .308. Four rounds in the magazine and 8 more on my stock sock, although in my head I said, “All I need is one.”
I headed out on the dirt path. The day was beautiful. Extremely hot, especially with all the gear, but beautiful. The terrain was very up and down. Some of the declines that I walked were so steep that I had to squat down and slide on the balls of my feet with one hand supporting myself on the ground and the other holding my rifle. It was intense and I could feel it in my legs. Walking miles with about 50+ pounds of gear would have been challenging on flat lands but here, in 106 degrees, man it was brutal at times. Going up some of the inclines, you had to stop 4-5 times just to keep yourself from sucking wind. Small patches of shade were paradise reprieves. My lack of experience kept me on the move out of determination, when in reality, I could have been a little easier on my body and rested a bit more for the long haul. I now know for next time. I saw a couple of small goats and a sheep on a ridge about 300 yards out. 300 yards out is longer than I want to shoot for a humane kill, also it was up on a ridge and you’re not supposed to have nothing but blue sky as a backdrop. In case you miss, that bullet could fly for miles. I did the calculations in my head and I was happy that I knew how to hunt. Exhausted, but happy to be there. Happy to be pushing myself into the unknown. I headed down into a ridge and found a few old ram skulls and stopped to take some photos. I wondered about their stories. I found droppings as well as hair. I thought I might be in the right place. I looked around for about an hour down there to no avail. It was hot as hell so I figured animals would be in the shade which would be harder to spot.
At this point I’m absolutely just sucking down water with the camel pack. Earlier, Merle told me with a look on his face that a grandfatherly figure would give you, “The younger guys are usually the ones who push themselves the hardest. Just be careful in that heat.” I reassured him that I knew where my boundaries were and that I’d be aware of how my body felt. I was starting to become very aware of those boundaries. I was sweating out water as fast as I could drink it. Perhaps much faster than I could drink it. I was a little concerned with how much water was left in my pack but spirits were high. I was happy to be there. It had been a few hours and I explored the whole valley without finding anything. I figured that I needed to get higher so I trekked up a dirt incline. I was tired. My legs were really feeling the heat and weight of my gear. I was certain that I’d find my animal if I reached the top. The climb up was brutal. I would begin to feel tingling on both of my hands and then I’d suck down some water and it would go away for a little. Early stages of heat exhaustion. I had been there before a handful of times at football practices in Miami when I was younger. I was hoping I still had enough water to get me through this. As I got to the top of the ridge, Merle met me on his ATV and asked if I had found anything yet. He could tell I was wearing down a bit and told me that this would be about the time to pack up until evening because of the heat. I laughed and said I understood completely. He gave me a little heads up to look under trees in the shade for that’s where animals would be around this time of the day because it was so hot out. I glassed the area from the top of the hill with my binos and found two smaller goats in the shade under a tree. One was white which stood out from the surroundings. I then found a group of rams under another tree towards the top of a ridge on the other side of the valley. I decided that I could walk around the top of the ridge and look down and make a perfect shot. I told Merle that’s what I’d do and he said that he’d go and get his truck ready and listen for my shot.
I walked about a mile around the valley from the top of the ridge and saw where the rams were. I was about 110 yards away, give or take. I crept up low so I wouldn’t be spotted and laid my pack down so that I could rest my rifle on it. I couldn’t have been more locked in. I was completely focused. I was not thinking, I was just right THERE. I looked through my scope and saw the biggest of the rams, a beautiful black ram that was perfectly broadside to me. “Right at the top of the shoulder blade”, I told myself. “Aim small.” “Breathe.” Right before I took the shot, I said, “thank you” and was hyper aware of the transference of energy about to take place. I took one deep breath and exhaled slowly, squeezing the trigger on the bottom of my exhale, just as practiced. The shot came off perfectly. It felt like a perfect swing on a golf ball or baseball. You’re supposed to be surprised by the shot but I felt so relaxed. More relaxed than I’ve ever been on a rifle shot. The animal kicked it’s back legs out a couple times as a reflex but I could tell it had been a perfect shot. I put the bullet shell in my pocket; a token of the journey. The animal was in no pain. He rested his head up against the rock and I could see that he was dead. I was grateful. Grateful that the animal was at total peace when I made the shot. I also felt hyper aware that the animal’s death was caused by me. I expected this feeling. In many ways, experiencing this feeling was one of the main reasons for me needing to hunt. I didn’t feel “good” per-say. Not in the normal way, one “feels good.” I never expected to feel excited to kill an animal with my hands. But at least in this moment of my journey I knew it was necessary. I felt very humbled. Not bigger than the animal that I killed, but completely one with him. I felt him. I feel him right now.
As I walked up to the body, my experience grew even more unique. The feeling of walking up to a lifeless body that I caused was very intense. Again, I expected this and I knew what I was doing. But it’s like turning in a test knowing you nailed it, and then finally seeing an A. It’s different. You have to experience and feel it to truly know. I knew, now. The ram had the most beautiful bright blue eyes which is what I first noticed. Brighter than the blue sky. I immediately felt like I knew him. I expected this. I knew I would feel these things, but feeling them in the moment is different. You don't change by thinking things, the real change happens through experiential growth. I was in a trance in a way. I was grateful for what happened but my feelings were much greater for the animal. I did not feel bad in anyway but I did FEEL. I spent a few more minutes by his side. Sitting down with my hand on him. It was something I’ll never forget. I also think I’ll experience this every time I choose to go hunting. I want to experience this, for this feeling is that of connection. Connection with every being and every essence of the universe. Everything I do in my life bridges this gap. I knew that it took me so long to go on this hunt because I had to be prepared and open to THIS feeling. If I choose to eat meat, I need to have this connection. Not to be numbed or isolated from this connection, but fully aware of it. I did not conquer an animal. This was not “man vs beast.” This was the universe acting amongst the universe and I was in full feeling that day. Full receptivity to the movements of the universe. I thanked the beautiful animal once again and began to drag him towards the road so Merle could help me get it in the truck. Pulling at him was different in it’s own way. I was trying to be delicate and not trying “to hurt him” or something. Probably more out of respect than anything. It was weird at first. I told Merle that it felt new and odd to me. He understood that I was going through a deep experience and was kind and gentle in his response. "You did things perfectly Matt. He can't feel any pain." - he said. His response made me settle in a little more.
I was out of water. My hands were tingling again and I was relieved to have this part of the journey over with. I hopped in the pick-up bed with the animal. My eyes locked on to him and my hand on his side. I was thankful and continuously humble. I felt one with everything and I understood from my core what I read years ago about the Inuit people. Except this time, I didn’t read it, I was part of it. I experienced it myself. More than anything, I was grateful that I was sensitive to the nuances of these feelings, and to the animal. Neither one, more than the other, but abundantly grateful for both at the very same time. Feeling this connection through my relationship with the world around me and inside of me was how I wanted it to feel. I am no bigger than the mouse, I am no smaller than the mountain. It's the feeling that matters. I am it all. We are it all. I am God, amongst Gods, and I will act accordingly.