Tracks

There are easier ways to spend a birthday than climbing one thousand vertical and post-holing. Better ways than spending what little air you have blowing it through a whistle. Climbing still, climbing always up into the deep snowline, breaking crust, crunching. The Douglas fir forest, snow-bound home of the West’s greatest native game bird. Sweat running down backbone, but cooling and freezing everywhere else. Frost in the beard, hard packed snow marbles in the dog’s feet. She stops every now and then to chew at those ice balls, but mostly she toughs it out. Feet starting to bleed. This is high enough, isn’t it? This ridge where blue grouse of past hunts have pitched wildly down and across in front of the gun and a big blue rooster, big as a polt turkey, gives you the most challenging shot of a lifetime of shotgunning. Down, away, dropping, swinging and dropping and when the trigger is found, the shot is long. On the edge of range. And yet big blue bird goes down and you do too, dropping, plunge-stepping like a mountaineer—because you are, shotgun instead of ice axe—down to where the rooster went in, calling the dog and there it is. The bird is in hand and feels as if it weighs ten pounds. Twenty when you gain the ridge again.

That was last year. This, no birds yet. But then you find the tracks. You slug water (getting low), check the dog’s feet (bleeding but a long way from the heart). Check your supplies (dwindling), check the elevation gain (one thousand fifty), check the shotgun (still loaded), check the watch (advancing rapidly) and check your ambition (see the tracks? yeah, that’s a good sign, gotta be a big one up ahead).

There are better ways to spend another year, spend the marking of a new one. Maybe. The tracks lead up. Up you go.

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