Donald Mawyer


I discovered Montana in 1980. I was young, and fresh off managing a guns and archery store in Central Virginia. This was a two-store chain, and the manager at the other store had embezzlement issues—not just money, he also stole inventory. The owners got a bad taste from this and they sold out. I don’t blame them, even though it left me unemployed and near broke. I sold my ’75 Toyota Land Cruiser for $3400, stuck the cash in my pocket and caught a ride out west with a friend on a two-month trip that changed my life. I slept on a bed once, and once on a couch. The rest of the time I slept in a tent or in the cab of the truck. It was an intense two months. We hunted Wyoming and then southwest Montana for elk. In the fall we went to northwest Montana for bear and whitetail. Virginia could not hold me after that. As soon as I could, I turned professional and spent the next two dozen hunting seasons in Montana as a licensed guide.

Bar Six was the first Montana outfitter I worked with. We started in the Missouri Breaks, which we hit at a good time in history. It’s sad now, the game is still there but the hunting pressure is intense and the quality of hunt is nothing like it was in the 1980s. I got there at the last possible time before things started changing. Change was swift and no one will ever again see what we saw when I started.

I was young, but I had a lot of hunting experience. I was hunting before I was ten. Translating what I already knew to Montana circumstances took a lot of thought, because Virginia forests are not like anything in Montana. Figuring out what the animals will do is as important as terrain and weather or hunting techniques. Elk, mule deer, pronghorn and moose all behave differently. Bear in Montana are a far more dominant predator than eastern black bear.

I was tested early. I thought I knew enough to start making suggestions, so I suggested using tree stands for elk in the Breaks. Turned out tree stands were illegal in Montana. Also, the Missouri Breaks is not a particularly timbered area except for typical cottonwood breaks along streams. Not to be silenced, I said, “OK, let’s use tripod stands. They’re not illegal.” So we ordered some big tripods.  Then the boss sent me out with a new tripod stand and a client way over my head. Let’s call him Mr. Winchester. He lived and breathed guns. He was hunting big game around the world twenty years before I was born. There was no sense trying to understand how much money he had. One thing I did understand: I was expected to bring Mr. Winchester back with a trophy worthy of his status, or I would not soon live it down. I felt the pressure. Fortunately he knew elk, as I would soon learn.

I put him up in a tripod in a stand of cottonwoods along a stream, and then got well out of the way and down out of sight. Tracks in the mud indicated plenty of elk traffic. Elk need a lot of water so there was no reason to expect a very long wait. The tripod certainly stood out to me when I looked at it through binoculars, but elk cows strolled by it to drink, and ignored it. Obviously there would also be a nice bull around these cows. Then a bull appeared, and he was a big one. The cows and the bull continued to ignore the tripod. I expected the bull to drop any instant from an unmissable shot. Nothing happened. Then these elk wandered off, including the big bull. I wondered if I had the stupidest important client in the outfit’s books. Then I saw the second bull coming. He was massive, like a vision from the Ice Ages. He ignored the tripod too.

The second bull elk broke some records, and that was a good moment for me. It’s good for business when the clients get to pick between more than one bull. After that, there was a lot of interest in hunting from stands. We soon found that if you put up a stand to kill elk, your best chance and really your only chance is the first time you sit in it. I never had anyone kill an elk out of the same tree stand twice, even if it was a great spot with bulls strolling by. After you’ve shot one, you may as well take your stand down and move out. It’s complicated but it’s the way tree stands work.

Later in my elk hunting career we switched from tree stands to ground blinds, which was just as innovative and effective as tripod stands. After years of being hunted from stands, the elk in the Breaks would stop in the open anywhere from 100 to 300 yards off and literally look in the trees for hunters. Ground blinds are basically camouflaged tents. You could put them up on Monday morning and get in them Monday afternoon and an elk would walk right past and never look twice. We put ground blinds around watering holes in September, when it’s warm and the elk have to water fairly often, especially cows and calves. Elk take in a tremendous amount of water. Where the cows are, the bulls are. At first we put cameras on the blinds to see how the game reacted. The elk never paid any attention to the tents. So we started putting bow hunters in, and it was successful. We often had 100% success in 4 to 6 man bow hunts, where you would normally have a 20 to 30% success rate.

As a quick explanation of this kind of guiding, not a full explanation, the guide does not take the shot. As a hunting guide I would take a client or an entire party of clients where they had to go, to hunt the animals they were paying to hunt with a rifle or a bow. Elk, bear and turkey are some of the stars of these adventures but there are also mule deer, pronghorn, mountain goat and other game. They might have to pack in for days, perhaps on horseback, to reach the remote places the outfit leased for hunting. They might be experienced hunters, or amateur hunters, or novices.  Montana is huge. When you’re remote in Montana, you’re really remote. Guides are licensed and there are regulations, but for the clients it’s a particular kind of freedom. Some find it the adventure of a lifetime. Some fall in love and come back again and again to hire a guide and be taken out. It’s not cheap, so most clients are at least rich and some are preposterously rich. Other clients save up for years just for the chance to go one time. It’s not for the guide to figure out why they want to go. There are many possible reasons of all kinds. But whatever the client’s motives are, for the guide it boils down to the client getting a bear or an elk or a mule deer or whatever they paid for, and—number one—getting back safely, because these are not easy trips and losing a client is not one of the options.

I seldom had any occasion to shoot an animal myself in Montana. I love hunting, but I probably prefer fishing. Soon I was a professional fly fishing guide in fishing season and hunting guide in hunting season. Fishing guides in Montana have some of the best trout rivers in the world, the Madison, Big Hole (formerly the Wisdom River), Three Forks, Beaverhead, many spots that were legendary even before Lewis and Clark renamed them. Fishing trips are generally very pleasant and more relaxed compared to pack horsing into the Breaks for elk in unstable weather. Fly fishing is fun to learn. It can be fun to fail at it, even if you don’t snag a big trout. Hunting and fishing trips are basically about happiness, some sort of vintage happiness that our remotest ancestors were familiar with and loved.


Luck is a terrifyingly important thing and there’s no explanation for it. The story of Oz started at Nameless Creek Ranch, after I terminated my lease for the fall season due to low bookings. I still had one bear hunt to do in ten days, so I was hanging around for that. Then I got a surprise knock on the door from Lee, a fellow outfitter. Lee was a former professor at Montana State, one of the oldest outfitters in Montana, famous for his horse packing and a pioneer in using weed-free hay in the back country, hay that didn’t contain knotweed and other noxious plants.

That day, Lee was in dire need of a guide. He had a tent full of hunters whose guide had fallen off a horse—which is easier than it sounds even for a professional—and hurt himself pretty bad. The hunt was south of Bozeman in the Gateway area bordering Yellowstone National Park, an hour and a half drive away. I did not hesitate to sign on.

When we got to Lee’s place the clients were waiting for us in the parking lot. Everybody was ready to go, but the horses weren’t packed. I took a packing school course before leasing the Nameless Creek Ranch with 12 horses, but I was almost scared to pack Lee’s horses in front of his face. “You pack your side and I’ll pack my side, don’t worry about it,” he said. So that’s what we did. It worked out better than I would have hoped. We had a seven mile horseback ride into camp. About two miles into the ride, on a piece of land I had never seen, Lee in the back of the string said, “I think I found myself a packer.”  It was a real boost to my spirits, which I badly needed since I was not yet experienced at leading a pack string.

We got where we were going, and set up camp fast enough for a short hunt at the end of the afternoon. Lee sent me out with a couple of guys, which showed a lot of faith since I’d never before laid eyes on the Yellowstone boundary country towards Onion Mountain. But it was important to get the clients out. They were delayed by their first guide’s horse wreck and they were excited. So we rode out, got well off the trail, tied the horses up and took a walk, just getting the clients out. We hiked in a rough circle and came back to the horses from the other side, which amazed them, like some nearly impossible feat.

It was a good start to an adventure for everyone involved. As that seven-day hunt progressed, I saw five grizzlies over the course of the week. The first one I saw was asleep on his back one morning, no harm in him. Next day another one walked across the trail in front of us. Then the grizzly that caused this story turned up on Onion Mountain, where I had two clients, Oz and his brother, with me.

We saw elk the day before on this spot, a real nice saddle, nice park, wallows, waterhole, all the things elk want. We left Oz in a ground stand with instructions to be quiet and watch for his shot while I took Oz’s brother and the horses on a long loop across the backside of the saddle, elk-calling. Calling elk is very effective and I had reasonable hopes of getting an elk going in the direction of the saddle. But it didn’t work that day, and just before dark we got back to Oz’s ground stand to pick him up so we could go back to camp for dinner. I did a half-assed elk call so Oz would know we were on the trail and walk out. I got no response. Called out again, and saw some movement where Oz’s ground stand was. But the movement appeared to be a buffalo.

I remember thinking, why in hell is there a buffalo on top of this mountain? Then I saw a couple of cubs and realized it was an enormous female grizzly with a hump like a buffalo. I immediately dropped the lead of Oz’s horse and told Oz’s brother to quietly walk back down the trail, because there was a grizzly on top of us.  He fully understood the need to leave, but we were out of time. The sow charged immediately and hit the waterhole directly in front of us, water flying everywhere. One cub was sticking very close to her. I expected the horses to go berserk on the spot, but Lee’s horses were excellent stock. The horses stood their ground and no rodeo broke out though the grizzly charged as close as 30 or 40 feet from us before she stopped, turned, and walked away.

We started yelling for Oz not to come out after all, because there was a grizzly sow with cubs between him and us. There was nothing to do, it was just about dark, we had no canned mace, no gun, my client had a bow and that was it. I was thinking the worst, everything pointed to the absolute worst. The bear went back into the woods exactly where it came out, approximately on top of Oz’s canvas ground stand.

I felt terrible. No one word really describes it. Oz’s brother was concerned too. We sat there concerned as hell, with an empty horse between us. The client expects you, as the professional hunting guide, to have a good practical idea of some sort for all the situations. This was just such a moment. We had nothing to chase this bear off with. If we tried to reach Oz we might soon need help too. It was a bitter decision to turn and go back down to the camp, and tell Oz’s brother-in-law and his best friend, plus the cook and the other guide, that Oz was missing next to half a ton of pissed-off grizzly. But the odds favored that choice, so that’s what we did.

The rest of the party weren’t happy when we got back to camp and told them where matters stood. Since the other guide had a rifle in camp, he and I decided to head back to the scene. It was probably ten o’clock at night by then. Of course Oz’s relatives wanted to come too, but we told them to stay in camp with the cook and pray. At least the cook had a pistol.

The saddle on Onion Mountain was close to three miles away. About halfway there Lee’s guide, who knew the area, pulled up. “Man, I know what Lee would say. If Oz is dead, we’re going in on a grizzly and cubs sitting on a fresh kill site. This isn’t smart.”

I was convinced at once, but neither of us wanted to go back again and tell the clients that we changed our minds in the dark. So Lee’s guide decided to ride all the way to Lee’s main camp and get help, while I stayed there on the trail. I picked a little spot, lit a fire, got the saddle off the horse and laid down on it just like you see in the movies, thinking the absolute worst. I was 100% certain Oz was dead. I couldn’t imagine anything else. I slept a little bit off and on. About 3:30 it began to get light, and I got up and started saddling the horse. Before I got started, my fellow guide came back with Lee and an off-duty policeman. This is a story about luck.

They were all loaded up with shotguns, which is the best defense against a bear in a situation like this. We had a conversation. Lee, as required by law, called the park service in the middle of the night with his emergency, and the rangers told him the Onion Mountain female had a history, cuffed a hiker recently, was a risky bear. Nobody from the park service wanted anything to do with it. If the rangers went up there and encountered a kill site and a charging grizzly, they would have to shoot it, which they hate to do. But since everything pointed to a fatality, an off-duty police officer went instead, with a helicopter available in case.

Now that there were four of us, armed and mounted, we rode straight to the encounter spot. The grizzly tracks in the mud were just enormous, massive huge tracks the size of pie pans. In the fresh light we could see the ground stand, which didn’t seem to be disturbed. We hollered out, “Oz, Oz,” as loud as we could, and Oz crawled out of the shelter.

“Hey, you guys left me here all night,” he said.

Oz told us that he got too comfortable lying out in the snow and rocks waiting for elk, so he crawled into the shelter, curled up and went to sleep. He figured if a trophy elk came by he would wake up in time. But when he woke up, it was the middle of the night with nobody around, so he had no choice but to wait until we came back to get him. He fell asleep again and woke up a second time when he heard us calling him. The story of Oz. No bears in his version of it.

Speaking of Bear

Most people don’t associate bear hunting with calling but it’s extremely effective. Just like turkeys and elk in some areas, you can accidentally educate bears to ignore calls by calling too much, and that has happened a lot in the west on bears. In the east we don’t have the spring season to correlate but people do call them in the fall. I wonder if this developed by accident out west where people would be elk hunting using a cow call or a calf call and lo and behold a bear would come in. People started realizing that bears were coming in to predate that elk calf. Since they will also come in to eat their own young, a bear cub squall was the next logical step. There are exceptions to every rule, but most of the time when a bear comes in to a call he comes in charging. Most of the experienced clients I have taken would hunt bear with a shotgun. I believe the hunter’s faith is a big factor in the outcome. Most bear come in hard and fast and it can be difficult to get a rifle on them over open sights, but using a shotgun is effective. Most bears coming in to calls are males. They’re coming in to kill something and extremely excited. Where you have killed an elk and gutted it, you could come back the next day and you might catch a bear on it. That latter method is not considered baiting but just a natural practice.


When I was a kid, the two things I most desperately wanted to do in life were to become a professional hunting guide, and to become a cowboy. I grew up on cowboy television—we were the Rowdy Yates generation—so even as a child I wanted to be a cowboy.  I am proof that you do not have to give up your childhood dreams. You really can do those things, as long as you don’t give up. I tried other possible lives first—I tried going to school, tried being a business owner and a manager. But I never gave up, and I lived my dream. Soon I got to be a cowboy. It was easy to find ranch work outside hunting and fishing seasons. Work is all ranchers have and there’s enough for everyone.

I was about to say finding ranch work in Montana is about as easy as falling off a horse, but falling off a horse isn’t really funny. It’s not surprising how easy finding ranch work is, because you get to sleep in a shed with several other guys, some of whom probably have too much character, and live on pale turkey sandwiches and coffee for weeks at a time, doing the toughest physical labor for twelve or fifteen hours a day, sometimes in crippling weather. All this for the chance to make about $4 an hour. I look at my chronic disabilities and injuries, arthritis, medical conditions, scars etc., and know exactly how it happened. Cowboys get torn up. Some don’t make it for even two seasons.  Others go on to the end.

This is a story about Willie and the dreams he lived. Willie grew up on a ranch in Montana. As soon as he could, he left the ranch and became a rodeo rider. He was a solid young professional for years, riding the rodeo. Obviously he was never famous but he lived the life he chose until spine damage and repeated bone fractures made rodeo impossible and there were no more paydays. Willie went back to ranching, got married and divorced, got married and divorced again, had some children he didn’t ever get to know along the way, and lost his ranch.

Willie became a game guide because he saw other people he knew making a lot of money doing it. The fees were real money and the tips alone could set a fellow up nicely. He got quite well known as a game guide, and in the off seasons it was good fun to go to Las Vegas with Willie, get snorted up on face powder and spend all your money. His rodeo injuries meant a life of chronic pain, so he didn’t feel bound to spare himself any fun he could manage to have. He was bringing in nice cash but he was broke again every time you met him.

There’s areas south of Butte where the mountainsides are pitted with old prospector test digs. These conical pits are steep-sided from erosion and often 10 or 12 feet deep. Being comfortably well away from anywhere, it’s great big game country and particularly good for bear. Willie took clients there and on one of these trips he got his client lined up with a rifle shot on a particularly massive bear minding its own business in plain view. All the client had to do was pull the trigger. When Willie’s hunter fired, the bear flopped over and disappeared into one of the old test pits. It was a great shot, Willie said. Dropped the bear like a rock. They walked down to the pit and there was the bear at the bottom, obviously dead and laid out against the slope as nicely as if an undertaker had done it.

Willie liked to carry a rifle in case of unforeseen need, though guide regulations prohibit the guide himself from hunting. Since he couldn’t get down into the pit to recover the carcass carrying a rifle, he slung it over his shoulder before sliding down next to the bear. There was just room for the two of them. The bear was as limp as dead things are, and he could not budge it. The client wanted a photo with the bear, of course, but both of them together couldn’t haul this trophy out of a steep pit with the rope they had. After a brief discussion, the client, still somewhat dazed by his own successful shot, agreed that just the skin would be trophy enough. Willie got out his skinning knife and made the first incision at the top of one of the paws. That’s when the bear woke up.

The bear leaned forward and wrapped his jaws around Willie’s head. His head more or less fit inside the bear’s mouth, the upper teeth were locked in his scalp, and the bear was trying to crush his skull. Willie struggled to unsling his rifle but there wasn’t enough room, pinned down by an ice-age creature at least seven times his own body weight.

“I was sure I was going to die,” Willie told me the next time I met him. I did not recognize him at first. “It was too dark to see. He got a better purchase every time he clomped down. My head was about to pop like a grape. I hoped my hunter had enough sense to shoot the bear again. He was only twelve feet away. I also figured he might just as likely shoot me instead. I’ll never forget that minute of my life. But he did shoot the bear.”

The client also saved Willie’s life by getting him down off the mountain. The stitches were countless and the fractured skull took longer to heal than the gouges on his face. The scar on his head where the bear ripped his scalp off was truly impressive and the first thing that caught your attention now.

“One of the doctors was stupid enough to ask me if I minded looking like this,” Willie said. “I’m not dead, and it wasn’t my choice, and I don’t have to look at myself anyway.”

It was the end of guiding, though. He had nothing left but cowboy work. His wrecked spine made riding an agony, whether by horse or ATV. He woke up in pain and went to bed in pain every day. The best way to get to know him in that late period of his life was to be the guy driving him to the health clinic, which in Montana is always 80 miles away no matter where you live, to fill his pain prescriptions when he was too wracked up to drive himself.

I’m making Willie sound like a liability. That’s just my own bitterness coming out. There’s nothing about horses and cattle Willie didn’t know. Willie was the first person you would pick to work with in an emergency. He was reliable, unflinching, and one of the best cowboys anywhere. He lived in an old trailer that didn’t need fixing up, and from season to season he came in out of the purple hills and the sagebrush flats to get ranch work. He was a cowboy to the end, and it ended with Willie’s last horse wreck, the worst smashup we’d ever seen. Willie was flung and stomped. He nearly bled out on the 80 mile drive to the clinic. Head crushed again. All the usual bones broken again.

Willie, now living on opiates, wasn’t supposed to be able to drive. He was supposed to just ride his wheelchair from then on. But somehow he managed to get into his jeep, reach his favorite mountaintop before dawn, and watch the winter sun come up, looking down toward Beaverhead, the same view Lewis and Clark wrote about.  He left a phone message so they would know where to find him.

No Cheating

The biggest thing when stalking any animal, whether it be whitetail deer or antelope or mule deer—or out west we stalked turkeys, which is hard to do in the east—the big secret is never to cheat. It’s the kiss of death. You might see an animal 500 yards away, but you have to walk a thousand yards or half a mile to swing around out of sight to get within shooting range. It can take an hour or more and you wonder if it’s still there. It’s so tempting to shortcut the stalk and just ease over the ridge and peek to see if it’s still there. And guess what, you just blew your hunt. Especially in my early days I made that mistake many times and learned to never cheat. You make your plan and stick to it and when you get there, if he’s not there, you still know where he was and the game can start over again, as long as he’s unaware of you. Never ever cheat.

Glasses are critical, because game animals have better senses and far superior vision. Remaining unseen is essential, and even then, after a good stalk, you may only have a few seconds of encounter. You can’t get away with any gun movement. Practice is the only way to get that down. Most hunters use 8 or 10 power magnification. 12 X is harder to keep stable but you can use your fist as a tripod instead of holding the binoculars in your hands. Spotting scopes can be a huge advantage since they’re usually 20 to 60 X. When the digital cameras came out, the spotting scope became an awesome tool. I have made spots over a mile away. You can set the spotting scope up, take a picture through the eyepiece with a digital camera, and then zoom the picture up on the camera. That way, if the client is looking for a trophy buck, literally you can show the client to decide if this is the animal they want. It’s also nice to have the live picture if you decide to harvest that animal.

The Father and the Son

I had hundreds of clients over the years, and I liked almost all of them. Quite a few were wealthy. Some were famous, but most were not. Some became enduring friends. I always had plenty of repeat visitors. A successful hunting or fishing trip puts people in a friendly mood, and you can still have a great time when the fish don’t bite and game makes itself scarce, and there’s always next year. I could go on forever about the interesting people I met and all the good times we had. These were peak experiences for most, lifelong dreams happening, and I always felt privileged to provide that. They rarely asked why I was a guide, but that was why.

Some things don’t really need a reason. Even if you never cast for trout in your life, nobody has to ask why someone would want to float the Madison River or Big Hole. It’s obvious. I never needed any reason to hunt, though you could speculate why someone from Los Angeles or New York would want to hunt bear ten miles from the nearest road. People have their reasons and they came to me to fulfill their dream, not to explain their dream.

Occasionally the dreamer gets slapped with reality. My only season at Jim’s Big Elk Camp, for example. All names made up. I only knew Jim by reputation when he hired me for the October rifle season along with my friend Case, two other guides I didn’t know, and a cook. Jim’s outfit had a reputation for packing hunters in and out all fall. Lots of hunters were headed our way. I still hadn’t met Jim in person when he phoned and asked me to come to camp a week early and get things set up. “The trailer’s ready for you,” Jim said, “key’s under the log, generator’s running, completely supplied, food, radio, pretty much anything you want.” The invitation sounded reasonable so I showed up a week early. There was no one around at all. I retrieved the key from under the log, let myself into the trailer, and found nearly nothing in there, not a scrap of food. Maybe a couple of mice. The furniture was the least it could be.

I spent the next couple of days straightening things up and getting the camp ready for hunters. By Day Three I was pretty hungry. I tried to console myself thinking at least I had plenty of water. The weather was cold but not disastrously cold. Then my pal Case showed up. He was a bit dismayed to discover there wasn’t any supper. He went foraging harder than I did and found three cans of bean chili in a back closet.

“We can’t eat that,” I said. “It’s been freezing and re-thawing for years, maybe.”

“You’re right,” Case said. “We can’t eat that.”

The next day—Day Four for me—we changed our minds and split a can of the chili. I was sorry to have to be eating that but nothing bad happened. We were lucky.

The following day the third guide showed up, we’ll call him Beck. He had the ATVs and other equipment on a trailer, but no camp food. “I guess you guys never worked for Jim before,” Beck said. “The food’s never there. He’s afraid we’ll gorge ourselves and drink up all the Scotch, so he brings it himself.”

Beck had his own provisions, which he immediately shared. This was honestly generous. He knew we’d eat most of it on the spot. His provisions turned out to be home-made mule deer jerky, in the familiar tainted teriyaki flavor, and some pickled eggs. Case and I thought it was Thanksgiving.  Jerky never tasted so good.  I had no idea I’d ever eat pickled eggs. We were crazy grateful.

The day after that, the cook and the fourth guide, a guy named Clowder, showed up. Cookie expected Jim to already be there with a month’s food and beer on the back of a truck.  “Looks like Jim’s late again,” Cookie said. “How come you guys didn’t drive back to town?”

Case and I had been debating about whether to have any money or not. Money was a scarce commodity. Case’s cows ate up his money like hay, and feeding us would have busted me at that stage of my career.

“I got a camp account,” Cookie said. “Me and Clowder’ll drive back and get something to eat.” It was ninety miles to town, so they started off immediately. They didn’t even unpack first.

The day passed and we saw nothing of Cookie. Same with the night. Next morning, hours went by. We started worrying that Cookie might not show up at all. But, late in the day, Cookie appeared, badly hung over. We asked why Clowder was no longer with him.

“Oh, Clowder met a gal in the bar last night and went off to get married,” Cookie said. “I got no faith in Clowder. Jim’s gonna be a guide short again this year. You guys look starved. I’ll make supper just as quick as I possibly can.” We helped carry the groceries into the kitchen and then stood back to let Cookie work his magic.

The delicious odor of scrambled eggs filled the trailer along with another smell—the bland and lowly stink from the other two cans of re-thawed beans. Cookie served us scrambled eggs and last year’s chili for dinner. He seemed a little hurt when we complained.

The next morning Jim showed up with all the missing food and drink. Some of us felt we had very little to say to Jim. He also had the first two clients, a father-son trip. After starving in the trailer the longest, I had first pick getting out of Jim’s Big Elk Camp. I couldn’t wait. We all shook hands and named ourselves. I loaded the truck and we set out on a carefully chosen jeep trail winding up into the Breaks. The father sat in the passenger seat and the son sat in the rear seat. The plan was to bump up the jeep trail for about two hours, then set up camp. Hunting would commence on foot from there. It would not be warm and might get briefly icy, but if you’re camping out of a truck you can carry more than enough weight to be cozy. Meanwhile, I realized I already knew this guy’s name, like everybody else who watches enough TV or reads the news much. He wasn’t trying to make a secret of who he was or back down from it. Even now, you too would know exactly who he was after a context-remembering minute. One of them.

Fasting heightens the spiritual senses. After the unplanned fasting in Jim’s trailer, I had serious questions on my mind, the Great Whys: why me, why them, why this, why now, why here, and so forth. The real answers to these questions surely must exist, and the complexity of the answers must be amazing.

The father was easy to get along with, a little reserved, confident by nature. Father and son, all their gear was brand new. The kid, who was going on 15, had never seen wild land like this before in his life. He was more than up for it. He was too absorbed to talk. It was a rare experience for his dad too. In my elevated fasting condition, I plainly saw how the licenses, the hunting equipment, the plane tickets, the rentals, trip accommodations and everything else was expertly arranged by skillful office managers as part of a flawless setup.

Over the next couple of days we mainly talked about the weather and the landscape and animals we saw. My picture of my hunters got more elaborate. Dad had no idea about hunting and did not care one way or another. Golf keeps some people fit for walking on real ground, but—how can I put this—except for golf courses, Dad’s shoes probably never touched any natural surfaces.  He was overconfident, because things can happen, guide or no guide. But things were developing as a typical trip with no problems, even though both my hunters were novices.  I’m sensitive to guns, because an untrained person with a weapon is a walking menace, but Dad’s safety speech on the first hunt set the tone. The guns were never to be loaded. When the guide pointed out game, the kid was supposed to load his gun and get ready to be told what to do next. Dad even checked the kid’s gun from time to time to make sure it was empty.

This skinny kid, as tall as his father, just got out of a month-long rifle camp run by the company that manufactured his rifle. Though one of the youngest people at gun camp, he had much more formal training carrying a weapon than I did. But the gun wasn’t loaded. You can picture the results over the next two days. We had a decent number of chances and the kid could load the rifle in a snap, but still too long.

Elk are funny. You can stalk elk, and you might find a big bull resting in the shade. You can eat lunch and the bull might still be lying there. You can also hunt from a blind. But my hunters were novices, so all we could hope for was an encounter type of shot. Then the kid would load his rifle, it would be too late, and he would unload the rifle again. So far, he’d done everything he was told with no complaints—which is miraculous at that age—and he still trusted us.

On the final day of the hunt, in rough cut terrain, we had one more chance. We walked up on a huge bull surrounded by his harem of cows at the mouth of a ravine. The bull didn’t spot us for a full three seconds. Then the whole gang disappeared up the gully. The kid was a good sport about these outcomes.

I had an idea where the gang would come out of the ravine, if somebody stayed where we were and held an unloaded rifle. Dad was perfect for that role. I led the kid off, and as soon as we were out of sight I told him to load the gun. There was no particular hurry. The ridge offered a low shoulder not too far in front of us. If the elk headed for the horizon like a Kentucky Derby, which is something that can happen with pronghorn, we would have no chance anyway. But that’s not what elk do. We crawled up on top of the shoulder, with the exit from the ravine in plain view. In a few minutes the bull trotted out with all his cows. He saw us immediately, even though we were laid flat. The kid shot him in the neck right at the base of the skull. The bull folded up and the cows fled away.

He was far too large to carry out. I took photos, and we cut the quarters out with the head. It was five loads. After our first two trips, he did the last carry by himself. Dad was completely satisfied. He never doubted things would work out perfectly either, no more than the kid. They both assumed the right outcome was inevitable. And so it was. They could not have been more pleased, and at the end of the trip the father tipped me five grand, in hundreds.

I could end it there, except the Why question still bothered me. He wasn’t trying to act out the big hunter. Was he doing this out of pure love for his kid?

As we returned to Jim’s Big Elk Camp, the kid said from the back seat, “Dad, what do you think of screwdrivers?”

“Think of screwdrivers? As a tool? Sometimes there’s no other tool.”

“No, Dad. The vodka and the orange juice.”

The kid was trying to start an adult conversation. For the first time on this trip, the dad looked a little confused. “I like screwdrivers OK,” he said. “Did you like your first hunt?”

“I did. It was pretty good. I guess I could have enjoyed it more but, well… maybe I shouldn’t talk about that.”

“No, go on. I need to know.”

“It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about. See, all I ever really think about is pussy. I seem to be unable to stop thinking about it. Is that really normal? I’m kinda worried. Am I gonna be obsessed about stuff like that for the rest of my life?”

The expression on his father’s face was literally human. This is why you hire a guide.

“The elk in the back of this truck had nine cows lined up,” I said. “Which is normal for a bull that size.”

Donald Mawyer is a retired big-game and fishing guide who lives in Covesville, Virginia.