Solitario

Solitario

When he's pursuing elk in wild country, a man alone is not a lonely man.

Solitario is a spanish word I learned many years ago from an old Mexican vaquero. He commanded little English, I little Spanish, but we found a way to communicate. I was bowhunting pronghorns, and he was looking for stray cows and riding fence. We met on a sunswept ridge not far from the Mexican line. For 13 days, all by my lonesome, I'd been following a lone pronghorn buck, hoping for a chance at a stalk.

As the old cowboy sat on his horse I handed him one of my arrows and pointed out the distant antelope I desired to kill. He lightly feathered the edge of my broadhead with his thumb and told me this about the buck: "Ees solitario. Ee go ees way all lone. By ees self." The cowboy's face resembled old, weathered leather, but his eyes shone brightly.

Several days later, with much travail, I put an arrow through that pronghorn buck, and when I sat on the ground next to him and lifted his head into my lap I whispered the word solitario. "You're just like me, old boy," I said.

Returning home, I looked up the word in a Spanish dictionary. Solitario: lonely, deserted.

En Solitario: one man alone, a loner.

Yes, like that pronghorn buck, and the old Mexican cowboy, I'm a solitario. In my life of bowhunting, I often find myself alone. I like it that way.

Elk camp is a place where a solitario can listen to the wind in the pines, take naps, and feel completely at home.

A year ago last summer, I found in my mail an Arizona archery bull elk tag, my first in 10 years. As a young man, I thought nothing about taking off for weeks at a time on my own, hunting wild country. Now, as I near the age of 60, hunting en solitario has become problematic, primarily because my wife gets concerned when I go off by myself. She asks, "What if you break a leg?" I understand her worry, but sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

To allow plenty of scouting time, I arrived in eastern Arizona's high country five days before the season to check out waterholes and wallows I knew from past hunts and maybe to discover some new ones. As I drove my pickup truck down winding forest roads to the campsite, I saw not another soul and knew I'd have the country to myself, at least until the season opened. That suited me fine.

I set up camp in a grove of pines at 8,000-plus-feet elevation. To the north a forest of mixed pine and oak sloped away a mile or so, to the south loomed a dark aspen-covered ridge, and beyond that lay many miles of wilderness. Ever since my youth, the idea of wilderness has excited a passion in me because it's a place of unlimited possibility, a place where the spirit of a solitario can soar.

Right after I'd finished camp, a thunderstorm hit, and for two hours rain and hail pelted my tarp with a roar like Niagara Falls. When the storm had passed, I headed west into the dripping forest as the lowering sun cast an eerie orange light through the trees. Wet grass quickly soaked my pant legs. Except for faint thunder to the south, the woods were still.

Not far along, I heard a bull bugle and stopped to listen. When he bugled again, I headed in his direction, moving fast downhill into a canyon. At the bottom, I picked my way across a rushing stream and climbed the opposite side. At the top, I paused to calm my breathing and listen. Hearing nothing, I continued ahead, watching and listening.

I love roaming wild country by myself, looking for elk.

When I'm looking for elk in heavy timber, I try to stop every hundred feet or so to use my binoculars to define detail. Doing this now, I picked up dark legs moving through murky pines and a moment later made out three cows followed by a bull. The bull's body glowed caramel in the sun, and his mane and antlers, wet from the recent rain, appeared as black as coal. As he paused in a clearing to bugle, I studied his antlers, counting six points to a side. Because his tines were relatively short and all of the same length, I named him Short-tine.

Over the next three days, scouting mornings and evenings, I saw Short-tine and his bevy of cows several times. During midday I did camp chores, ate, pored over topographic maps, and took luxurious naps in the shade. Frequently I took my bow on short walks in the woods to launch blunt arrows at stumps and clumps of grass.

After several days of solitude and listening to nothing but wind in the pines and bird calls and bugling elk, I'd thankfully rid my mind of yodeling telephones, inane TV jingles, and other clutter put there by modern society. I was happily living life in the open with a clear head, content with my own company -- en solitario.

On one of my forays I located a big wallow churned up with fresh elk tracks. A pine towered over the wallow, ideal for my treestand. Immediately I set my Stealth Cam at the wallow, and the next morning it showed several photos of elk watering, including one fine bull that was not Short-tine. I lugged my treestand to the wallow and mounted it in the pine. My plan was to hunt on foot in the mornings and to sit the stand in the evenings.

That night before opening day, several vehicles passed my camp during the wee hours of the morning: elk hunters invading the woods. Awakened by nervous expectation as much as by the noise, I crawled out of my sleeping bag at 3:30 a.m. and ate a bowl of oatmeal by headlamp.

Then I shouldered my pack, grabbed my bow, and headed in the dark for the aspen ridge south of my stand. A number of draws bisected the ridge, and each draw contained an elk trail. I planned to hunt up several of these into the morning downdrafts, hoping to catch elk moving from their feeding grounds to their beds.

At first light, I heard a bull bugle. The sound seemed to come from the vicinity of my treestand. I stopped and cow-called but got no answer. From experience I knew that now, during the pre-rut, calling would yield mixed results. That's not to say it never works, but I've found that judicious calling works best. I'll sometimes bugle to locate bulls, but I always cow-call sparingly to draw them in.

When this bull did not respond, I resisted the

impulse to head directly toward him -- I didn't want to risk spooking him from the area of my stand -- and continued up the ridge. As morning light flooded the trees, I eased through aspen groves littered with fresh elk beds and tracks. The air was pungent with their scent.

Later I descended the ridge into the rising thermals and entered an area of mixed pine and oak dotted with meadows. The morning was so fine, I didn't let the lack of elk sightings spoil it. After all, it was just opening day, and I hadn't run across a single hunter. At noon, I stretched out in the shade to rest.

By three o'clock I was in my treestand. As a young man I never hunted out of treestands, preferring instead to hunt with both feet on terra firma. But as I've grown older, treestands have gained an appeal for me, giving me a way to hunt with my head as opposed to shank's mare.

When I found this wallow, I set up a trail camera and got some pictures of a nice bull.

Hunting friends have told me they get bored in a stand, but I never get bored. I sit quietly, clear my mind, and settle into The Zone, a place where time doesn't exist and I'm alert to everything -- evening shadow fingers creeping across the meadows; every twig snapping around me; the slightest breezes; every movement of birds, squirrels, and deer. As I now sat in The Zone, three hours passed in minutes.

At 6 p.m., as the sun dropped behind the pines and light bled from the meadow, the woods got very quiet, and a bull bugled somewhere behind me. The call reverberated through the dim woods and prickled the hair on my neck.

Waiting five minutes, I cow-called. Nothing. Another cow call, and the bull answered. For the next 20 minutes, we called back and forth. With every bugle the bull seemed to be closing the distance, and before long I spotted dark shapes ghosting around the edge of the meadow. Through my binoculars, the shapes resolved into four cow elk.

Then, off to the right, I saw the bull skirting the meadow, coming dead towards me. I almost lost my breath. Trying to hold the binoculars steady, I saw he had big, beautiful antlers, with six points to a side. As he came nearer, I put the glasses down and slowly picked up my bow. By now he was 30 yards out, staring intently at the wallow.

As I eased an arrow out of the quiver, the broadhead squeaked in the foam. The bull picked up this slight noise and stood looking for danger. I froze.

Then, as he turned broadside, I drew my 62-pound Martin recurve, picked a spot behind his shoulder, and let the sting slip.

In the failing light, I lost the arrow in flight, but at the thud of the bowstring the bull took off like Man O' War into the dark timber beyond the meadow. I heard branches popping and crashing, and then silence.

For 20 minutes, I sat still, trying to calm myself, replaying the shot in my mind. Even though I hadn't seen the arrow hit its mark, the shot had felt good, and I felt confident.

Finally, in the dark, I descended and went to the spot where the bull had stood. In the light of my headlamp, I studied the ground but could see no sign. Maybe I just wasn't seeing blood in the white light of my new LED light. With my old incandescent headlamp, blood seemed to jump out at me. Was there no blood? Had I missed the bull? I began to worry.

Here I was, in the dark, with a possibly tough tracking job ahead, and I was alone, tired, and hungry. Suddenly, being en solitario was not so appealing. I decided the better part of valor would be to hoof it back to camp, get something hot in my stomach, and return with my gas lantern.

At camp, I wolfed down a bowl of chili and loaded my butchering tools, freighter packframe, and Coleman lantern into the pickup. Then I drove as close as possible to my stand and went afoot. Thanks to my GPS, I went right to my stand.

At 10:30 p.m., I fired up the lantern and began my search. I found tracks that could have been the bull's, but they mingled with other elk tracks and then disappeared in the waist-high ferns. Dejected, I began working the meadow in a grid. Three hours passed, and I found no more sign.

So I put my treestand in a pine over the wallow, and the results speak for themselves.

As much as I hated the idea, it seemed wise at this point to go back to camp, get some sleep, and resume the search in the morning. Striking out for the truck, by blind, outhouse luck, I blundered into an area where the ferns were sprayed with blood.

My heart soared like a hawk. Quickly I picked up the blood trail and followed it perhaps 100 yards until it played out into freckles and pinheads, and then nothing. My emotions were on a rollercoaster ride, from the highest highs to lowest lows.

Back at camp I slept fitfully for an hour or so as I dreamed of the bull lying in the woods, and I was up before first light. The night before I'd tied my handkerchief to a tree branch at the last blood sign, and at dawn I started tracking there again, working arduously from one blood speck to the next.

Near eight o'clock, I jumped onto a log to survey the forest. About 100 feet ahead, in a sunny glade, I spotted an elk antler arching out of the grass. It took me a minute to realize just what it was. Then I ran ahead. The rollercoaster had just topped out.

I spent the morning dressing and skinning my bull, an uphill job for an old solitario.

Then, about noon, I ran into guides Rom Dryden and Jimmy Seay of Rincon Outfitters.

They insisted on helping me finish packing meat, and when I protested, they simply pointed out that they had a client in the woods and some free time. As they selflessly donated their time and energy to help a total stranger, I could scarcely express my thanks.

They would probably contest this, saying I wasn't a total stranger but a fellow elk hunter.

Generosity like theirs reaffirms my faith in humanity. Occasionally, even a solitario welcomes some company.

The next day, back in camp, another hunter pulled in. He said he saw my trophy from the road and had to have a closer look. For some time he stood admiring the antlers, and after hearing my story, he said, "I bet you'll be happy to get home!"

I just smiled. What I didn't tell him was that while pursuing elk in wild country,

bow in hand, en solitario, I am home.

The author and his wife live in Hereford, Arizona.

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