The Son He Never Had

elk-hunting

My whole life, I felt the pressure to fulfill the role of the son my dad never had. I put that pressure on myself, of course, but I felt it nonetheless. He had me and my sister, but he was totally a man’s man. He needed someone to play catch with, so I donned my mitt. He needed someone to fish with, so I begged for a pole. I made tool belts look good, and learned how to put up a tent before I learned how to paint my nails.

Lucky for him (but really, for me) I turned out to really enjoy those things. I love playing catch. And fishing. And hunting. I used to joke and say I was the girliest tomboy to ever exist. Even as a joke, I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it.


It was the second year we had gone hunting together. The first time I went hunting with him, I told him I had no problem shooting an elk, but I wasn’t so keen on field dressing it. He expected to hear that. I was the same way with fish. I’d catch them and cook them, but I had no interest cleaning them. He agreed to take me hunting anyway.

Just before 5:30 one particular morning, while it was dark and mysterious outside, Dad’s headlights showed up in my driveway. I grabbed my gear, all our food I had prepared, walked out the door, and we drove to our spot.

I remember sitting in the cab of the truck until it was legal for us to shoot. With the window cracked, we heard the howls and yips of coyotes. Dad was convinced they had come upon a gut pile of a successful elk hunt. I didn’t care what they had found… they sounded evil.

Before first light, we began our hike. A few switchbacks over a dusting of snow led us into the tree line, crunching through some pretty solid snowpack.

Here is where I should mention, hiking with my Dad is like hiking with an unleashed Labrador. He walks (quickly) all over the place, and in order to travel two miles, you have to walk six with his meandering. He gets on a trail of prints or scat, and he follows every. single. hoof. print. Even if you can see where it picks up a few feet away, he’ll follow it as it winds, rather than heading straight on.

If you’re not in any kind of shape, you won’t survive while hiking with him. I know this, because he almost killed me with his merciless meandering.

As the sun came up, we made it to the top of a hill where we sat under cover of some pine trees, and hoped the elk would cross the valley before us. Just as the light peeked over the horizon, we saw a coyote – most likely one we heard earlier – make his way through the clearing below. We watched for a while as he walked away, and rabbits began to appear in the valley after he had passed.

Sitting still on the hillside in the early morning cold, I started to shiver. A lot. I was wearing a few layers – thermal underwear, jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt, sweat pants, and snow pants, all topped off with my bulky hunting coat. With no more movement, however, I started to cool off quickly.

I turned to my dad and whispered through my chatters, “D-d-d-did you kn-kn-kn-know sh-sh-shivering is your b-b-b-b-ody’s way of st-st-st-st-staying warm?”

Without taking his eyes off the valley below, and without missing a beat, Dad whispered back, “So is wearing more layers.” Steam rolled out of my mouth as I let out a silent laugh. Easy for him to say.

We made a lot of memories hunting together. I never did get my elk. For the record, I would have field dressed it…

The thrill of the hunt was enough to get me out there, but that time with Dad was worth every unfilled elk tag. I live 700 miles away from Dad now. There are no early morning hunting trips together. No fits of laughter on the hillsides. No lengthy wandering on the hot trail of the herd.

Every year during hunting season, I think about our trips up the mountain. It wasn’t warranted, but I’m glad I put the extra pressure on myself to do those “manly” things. It turns out I’m a far better cook than I am a huntress, but I wouldn’t trade those little adventures in the big woods for any kind of fancy shoes or manicures.

I do really want some elk steaks now, however…

Happy Father’s Day, Dad

My kids have an amazing dad, and this is evidenced in so many ways every day. He’s a better father to them than I am a mother, and that’s not me being humble. It’s an indisputable fact. Our children are so blessed to have him in their lives, and if there’s anything I will take credit for, it’s convincing him to have a life with me so I could give him to some special kiddos. You’re welcome, kids.

I’d like to share a story about my own dad. First I’m going to take a long time to get to it, so that if he’s reading this right now, he’ll be wondering what I’m going to say next, and he’ll have that awkward, “I hope it’s not about the time I drove right past her when she had a flat-tire story” moment.

Don’t worry, Dad. Your secret’s safe with me. Oh…wait….whoops.

HappyFather's Day,Dad

For one of my birthdays, and I can’t believe I can’t remember which one….my 24th? 23rd? One of those. Anyway, for one very special birthday that I can’t remember how old I turned, my parents bought me my own 30.06 rifle. There was a note covering the picture on the box that said, “Right Shoulder Massager” and I still had no idea what it was until I opened it up and saw the stock and barrel for myself. Duh.

Anyway, it was such a special gift in my eyes, that I welled up with a few tears. My very own rifle. Now I wouldn’t have to borrow one (by the way, thanks Cory…) to go hunting.

Wait…you hunt? And you have a rifle? Are you one of those people? Yep.

Growing up I put this burden on myself to be as tom-boyish as possible, so my dad could feel like he had a kid he could do things with. He didn’t get a son. He got an emotionally warped me, and he got my sister. I asked him, repeatedly, if he ever wished he had a son. He assured me time and again my sister and I were all he ever needed.

I didn’t believe him.

So I went fishing with him. I played catch. I wrestled (and lost). And I enjoyed these things. I hiked. I camped. I wore steel-toed boots. It was fun.

There was one thing I hadn’t done, and that was hunt. In my 20s, I drove a few hours to Lander, WY, for a hunter safety course (which was me, and a room full of 10 year old boys) so I could hunt with dad the fall of 2003. Hunting was another way for us to have dad/daughter time.

It’s no secret I’m not one single iota in shape. I get winded walking up someone’s porch steps. It’s embarrassing. So when I was out and about in the back country with my dad, covering MILES of open range, I was tired. No doubt I slowed him down. The man is an animal. It’s like when you take a dog for a walk and you walk in a straight line, but the dog runs over here, runs back, runs over there, loops around, bounds back, goes off in another direction, and you’ve walked 500 feet, and your dog has walked 5000. My dad is that dog. He is all over the place.

We would be walking across an open pasture, and dad would turn the walk into one that included switchbacks. Anyway, I remember after one grueling hiking day out hunting, he told me I had kept up really well and he was proud of me.

Whoa. Ladies and gentlemen, I had arrived and officially considered myself a hiking and hunting professional that day.

There were other moments he wasn’t so proud. Like when I was too noisy with my fruit snacks wrapper. Or when I crunched my Cheetos too loudly. It drove me crazy when we’d be hiking along and he would stop, turn around, and put his finger up to his lips to signal “shhhhh”. What did he think I was gonna do, bust out into song? “OH HAPPY DAY-YAY! WHEN JESUS WASHHHHHHED MAH SINS AWAY-YAY!” For real. Other than apparently eating too loudly, I’d not made a noise all day. But thanks for telling me to be quiet.

Or when he would turn around and take his first two fingers to his eyes, then move them out to scan the horizon, signaling for me to keep an eye out. For elk. That we were hunting. I get it, Dad. I’m supposed to look for elk. I understand the concept. Thanks for the reminder.

I never got my elk. But I did get a lifetime’s worth of memories in those trips we took up the mountain. And a sprained ankle.

One of my favorite memories from hunting is when we were sitting on a hillside waiting for the sun to come up over the peaks. We’d seen a coyote down in the valley, and that was it (though later that day, we’d come face to face with several Bighorn Sheep). I was shivering to beat the band and I whispered very scientifically, “Dad. D-d-d-did you kn-kn-know that sh-sh-shivering is your b-b-b-ody’s way of k-k-keeping itself wa-wa-warm?” My Dad, in all his wisdom, replied, “So is dressing in more layers.”

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I forgot to get you a card…so…I hope this counts. xoxo