Clouds like cotton stretched to horizons reaching on forever, sailing ships on an ocean silent and still. Though nothing we were hunting was close, we spoke only in whispers. This was a land of reverence, a cathedral of earth and sky.
We rested our binoculars on shooting sticks or across the backpacks we’d gratefully shed and scanned mountainsides rising opposite ours, hills framing valleys that lay between. Deep scars of bare rock marked places whose angles allowed nothing to stand. Sarvisberry and sage covered pastures below. Aspen and dark timber sheltered quiet places above. Game was plentiful throughout in an expanse of the West subject only to weather and gravity and the wind.
A lone mule deer watched from a mile away. He looked down from the saddle of a ridge whose spine traced a path from the valley floor to a broken peak soaring above, rock reaching heights beyond reason. His high rack crowned a head that dipped to meet what vegetation he could find then rose again to face us. He might as well have been in space, so far across the void he stood. We were supposed to be looking for elk, but it wasn’t possible to stop watching him. In a realm rich with the stuff of every outdoorsman’s dreams, he was king.
It’s not possible to soak it all in, only to be saturated in a cauldron of possibility, reconciling what-ifs and gone yesterdays with a future open to infinity. A thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to absorb it all, neither mountains nor dreams, but through words and through pictures, through video, we try. The outdoor industry forms many strange and happy intersections. Part of the work we do marketing the Mossy Oak brand involves telling the nation’s stories of our products in action through the television series, “Mossy Oak’s Hunting the Country.” In our lifetimes as outdoorsmen, through the decades we’ve spent compiling our own experiences, we’ve found hours spent hunting or fishing, hiking or camping, in any of a countless number of ways, to be more than a sum of its parts. More than just a diversion or entertainment, time in the outdoors becomes part of who we are one experience at a time. The work we do marketing our brand is work, of course, but it offers us the tremendous opportunity to share stories that might otherwise go untold or under appreciated. Thus, our work becomes an act of sharing who we are and what we love. The context, whether fields or forests, or mountains climbing high, is the common ground we all share.
One evening early this past fall, in mountains lit by the moon, we walked down from the heights of our day. Flashlights rode in our pockets or packs, but we didn’t need them. A silent light bathed the Rockies as they lay beneath a cloudless field of stars.
We passed through pine and brown switchgrass, skimming hands along tops of the latter. We breathed thin air worn weary by the summer sun. Like us, even the breeze seemed hopeful for cooler weather, or maybe that was just imagination. Above and around us, elk moved across slope, downhill, back and forth, as they would, but our chase was over, and we surrendered the mountain to the elk and the deer and the night.
In our small company walked John Faulkenberry, a hunter whose own epic story rivaled the scope of the terrain. A sergeant first class, squad leader and U.S. Army Ranger, he had deployed twice to Iraq before being wounded in Afghanistan. In that summer of 2007, he had rushed into the Korengal Valley on his own two feet. In the early fall of 2016, as he strolled down into the Valley of the Three Forks of the Little Snake, only one of those feet remained. Every night, he removed the prosthetic that did his right leg’s job from the knee down. Every morning, he put it back on. Every day, he walked. He walked up hills as steep as geology would allow. He walked over aspen blow downs that stretched on for miles. He walked through bogs that threatened to suck the heart out of the mortals who followed.
If we had let him set the pace, he’d have left us all behind. Open places are powerful like that, both mountains and dreams.
He walked in glorious sunlight through country no superlative could describe. And he walked downhill this night, under light that kissed the mountains of the moon, then turned to glow across the mountains of the Earth. “People at home never knew what we went through,” he said, “but that’s OK. We fought so they wouldn’t have to know.”
At the end of a five-day hunt that traced 50 miles on foot over land 9,000 feet high, as the last daylight fled and the moon rose again, he walked to the side of an elk he had certainly earned long before, well before putting on his prosthetic for the first time.
Honor can be a nebulous thing, hard to quantify but easy to recognize. It’s something most of us think we have, one way or another, though sometimes self-doubt makes us wonder. Other times, occasionally, life is more certain, and I now know two things to be true: I once spent a week in the presence of honor, and it was my honor to be there with him.
The episodes featuring John Faulkenberry will air in the fall of 2017.