until the road set up, or dried out. I drewrnthe saddle ofFand stowed the tack behindrnthe tent, and Jerry’s son Todd drove mernback to the truck in his Jeep, across thernford.rnThe truck lost traction on the firstrngrade going south, and I got out to chainrnup. Lying on my back in mud I chainedrnall four tires, and got up in the cab againrnlooking like a survivor from Bnrnside’srnMud March. Mud slathered the hidianrnblanket upholstery and balled on thernfloor mat beneath the pedals. At the toprnof the hill I got out again to check the fastenings,rnwhen another truck comingrnnorth turned out alongside in the sagebrush.rnIt was a party of Search and Rescue,rnlooking for a woman who had beenrnmissing from her camp for nearly 24rnhours. The rescuers were in high spirits,rnamused to recognize me in my chrysalisrnof mud. It had taken four hours to drivernthe 45 miles from Kemmerer, and mudrnwas caked so thick in the wheel wells thatrnthe tires had barely room enough to turn.rnI worked in town for two days beforernreturning up coimtry, taking one of thernLand Cruisers with me this time. Thernroad was set up pretty well except for therndeepest holes, where the trailer wouldrnnot have made it through. I fixed camprnat an edge of forest above the creek, andrnthat evening it rained again. Rain soakedrnthe kindling that lay about in the woodsrnand leaked through the peeled waterproofingrnon the old nylon tent. I ate coldrnantelope sandwiches with whiskey forrnsupper, and spread a woolen blanket onrnthe tent floor beneath the sleeping bag.rnBy morning the rain had stopped, a muffledrnsilence in the cold darkness. I leftrncamp 90 minutes before first light, carryingrnthe rifle on mv shoulder and a flashlightrnin one hand, across Bear Trap andrnup the steepening trail through the drippingrnwoods. The snow was mostly gone,rnwashed away and evaporated except for arnfew pale patches off in the dark beyondrnthe focused beam of the electric light. Alrcadvrnmy woolen pants were caked withrnmud, and my feet felt encased in anvils.rnNothing that was solid was left in thisrndark world, nothing real, nothing supportive,rnnothing to hold to, nor bracernwith, nor against. Movement was selfdefeating,rnstruggle impossible, as in arnnightmare in which flight is running inrnplace and breathing smotheration. Attemptingrnto will myself out of the dream,rnI could not awake. So I kept climbing,rnout of the lifting darkness into the palernhopeless drear of the gathering light thatrnsuffused the soaked woods where the elkrnhad withdrawn to the nearly impenetrablerndepths of the black timber, mythicalrncreatures as mysterious and elusive as thernhippogriff. Arrived finally at the steeps Irnpocketed the flashlight, took hold of thernslender aspen trunks on either side of therntrail, and pulled myself upward, handrnover hand through the mud.rnI hunted all day in intermittent rainrnunder a lowering sky, through canyonsrnand along the clouded scarps of ridgesrnwhere water vapor crawled among thernwind-stunted trees, stopping often to restrnmy legs and sometimes kindle a brief firernfrom the dead branches I smeared withrnpetroleum vaseline, and toward eveningrnbegan the sliding unbalanced descent torncamp down the jellied mountainside. Arnhorse trailer had jackknifed on thernswitchbacks above Fontenelle, and threernmen in yellow rain slickers were attemptingrnto lead the resisting horses outrnthrough the narrow space at the end ofrnthe trailer where the door was jammedrnhard against the cutbank. In camp therntent sagged against the poles, and the firernpit enclosed a pool of ashes. Inside therntent was damp, but the wet had failed tornpenetrate the bedroll. I sat on it with myrnfeet outside to remove the shapelessrnboots, and brought them reluctantly intornthe tent. A couple of antelope sandwichesrnwere left in the daypack. I drank mostrnof what remained of the whiskey while Irnate them and found strength enough tornremove the wool pants and sweater andrnget inside the mummy bag, whichrnseemed like more than I could ever needrnor wish for throughout eternity.rnWhen I returned to the mountains arnweek later the road was sfiff as a frozenrncorpse, and the iron fir trees pointedrnagainst the snowfields. I left the LandrnCruiser at the crossing and started alongrnthe trail, hardened in the contortions ofrnits last agony. A powdery snow filled thernhollows and scrapes, and I had to climbrnhard to stay warm through the fine blowingrnsnow. The mare was safe at home,rnbut I carried in my wallet an unfilled elkrntag, valid for eight hours more of daylight.rnThe last hunting camp had been pulledrnout of Pomeroy Basin several days before,rnand I was alone in the snowy mountains,rnwith only my rifle and the staring unseenrnelk for company.rnThe knotted trail turned my ankles as Irnclimbed, halting often to rest the pain ofrnmy lungs, seared by the Arcfic cold, andrneat some jerky. The snow deepened onrnthe ground as the elevation increased andrnthe falling snow flew thicker, driven byrnwinds coming across Indian Ridge.rnTurning back to look down canyon I sawrnmy tracks behind me, filling in with snowrnand drifting over. At the hogback swalerneast of the ridge the fresh powder reachedrnmy knees, breaking imperceptiblyrnagainst the woolen leggings as I pushedrnon into the woods lying between thernswale and the whitened cliff. I walked arnlong way through the woods where thernsnow in places barely penetrated thernblack canopy of the forest without findingrnelk, or sign of elk.rnA brace of pine grouse exploded fromrnthe snow and flew into a tree at my approach.rnI built a fire under their roostrnand sat beside it on a log, watching thernragged flames evaporate the snowflakes,rnand the birds with their cocked headsrnand round eyes, staring down at me. Itrnwas white and sfill and perfect in the forest,rnmiles above the binding red morassrnof the two-week season. After a while,rnwhen I felt warm again, I scuffed snowoverrnthe remains of the fire with the sidernof my boot, reached the rifle from a treernbranch, and told the birds goodbye beforernstarring out through the woods to thernopen park, where a snowy twilight was alreadyrncoming.rnAs I traversed the brushy sidehill belowrnthe hogback the snow clouds tore apartrnand the disc of the sun burned through,rnwan and wobbly as if by some miracle itrnhad become unfixed in the pale sky.rnLight broke suddenly against the hill, andrna form appeared like a spirit upon the toprnof the ridge, directly below the sun. Thernbull raised his head as I brought the riflernup until the back points of the rackrnscraped the croup, and the shag of hisrnthroat was exposed. I found the heart inrnthe crosshairs and moved up a foot abovernthe backbone, but then I did not shoot.rnThis was neither the time nor the placernfor blood, even less the driving wedge ofrngunshot into the absolute beauty andrnpeace of the wilderness. Instead I loweredrnthe gun and stripped the magazinernof shells, and when I finished the lightrnhad vanished from the hill, and the bullrnwith it. Pockefing the shells I shoulderedrnthe rifle once more, and stepped offrndownhill into the gathering dusk. crnThis article first appeared in the Januaryrn1997 issue.rn(vQiSKsrn50/CHRONICLESrnrnrn