“It would be so great if you would just go ahead and fart.”
“Yeah. Loosen up the awkwardness of having a woman with us. Make us feel more comfortable.”
We’re hiking in whispers single file on single track. The request comes from the front man. What he means is make me fit when I don’t. I sense an insecure beard ahead. The beard behind snickers.
“I don’t fart on cue,” I say into the pre-day, dark between his back and my
face. “But I will talk like a trucker if you make me miss this shot.”
The face at my back barks. A barely leashed snicker in the silence.
“It’s too dark for a shot,” front beard says.
“I know that, but I have a feeling you’re still going to be talking long when the sun rises,” I say. “And there will be plenty of light for a shot by then.”
“I’ll stop talking if you fart,” front beard again.
Now back beard speaks.
“I’m going to lose it if you fart and then elk will hear me lose it. I’m a loud laugher. Please don’t fart.”
Good. Back beard doesn’t need me to fart. Back beard doesn’t care if I fit. I don’t care either. Let front beard fester with me, the female, sandwiched between two beards. I’m forever the elephant in the room when I’m in the woods with men. In this case, a farting elephant, if Marc Casias has his way. He’s known as the elk whisperer. He can be known as whatever he wants if he puts me on elk.
I’m in New Mexico’s Carson National Forest near Taos to see newly restored elk habitat, but frankly, there’s nothing new about New Mexico. From the aging red peppers strung across every rundown porch that I pass to the crumbling crucifix perched in a prominent position at every Catholic church erected on every corner. Even the locals, with their weathered and wrinkled skin browned by heat and heredity, carry years of wisdom on their faces.
The time-gone-awry illusion is alluring. I like the look of New Mexico through my lens, but I don’t like the dirty looks the local ladies give me. They call me a gringa. They don’t want me dining with their men, but I have to have dinner with their men because their men are my crew for the week. Besides, I’m not wooing anyone when I order ‘Christmas’ (green and red sauce) on my burrito with no trace of linguistic variation in my dime-a-dozen white girl voice. The voice I learned to project while wet with whiskey courage.
This gringa will give the hombres back to the locals just as soon as she’s done chasing elk with them. I’m not after a date. I’m after a story and I won’t get it without Marc asking for farts upfront and Garrett holding his gut in the back.
Garrett Vene Klasen, GVK as I call him, is the enthusiastic hunter conservationist who came up with this story idea. He was also at the Malheur standoff a few chapters back. He’s New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s executive director. He put Marc and I together, which in the end proves wise, but during the meet, greet and fart part, I’m doubtful. The two are too curious about my bathroom habits. You know, those extremely rare moments of alone time I enjoy when not enduring fart requests.
“Kris is a camel. She never pees in the woods,” Garrett says. “I pee every 15 minutes and she’s a camel that doesn’t drink water or urinate. That’s how hard she works. She doesn’t even stop to urinate. It’s creepy.”
Creepy comments aside, Marc and Garrett are the tormented heroes in this story. They’re two of the thousands of OHV riders who ripped up the forest. They’re also the two who willingly pulled their rigs out of the woods so the wildlife would return.
We stop in Garrett’s ‘church’ for interviews. His church is my kind of church. Well-aged aspen trunks drawing the eye so high my long hair falls away from my face when I look up. Way up to the tree tops with limbs raised in praise. Branches releasing blessings of yellows leaves, their falling shimmer an offering of gold coins. It’s a holy sight where unholy things once happened.
“I did ride in a lot of areas and I regret riding where we rode,” Marc says. “There was just so much damage to the forest and I’m guilty of that.”
Garrett adds, “There’s some regret, but there’s also some pride in what we’ve accomplished locally. We’re the ones who wrecked it and we’ve been instrumental in trying to fix it.”
The fix is called a sanctuary, areas you can drive around, but not through. There are two in the Carson. The small chunks of refuge worked and elk returned within two years. I want to see these sanctuaries. These men know where they are.
Marc may outright ask me to break wind, but Garrett is just as devious in his own way. He’s as unpretentious as I am and we goof around like siblings when the moment warrants, but when it’s time to work his intensity matches mine.
“Anyone who has the physical and mental ability to follow us over hill and over dell for days on end without even complaining while bogged down with equipment, is incredible,” Garrett had said when he’d convinced Marc I was the right woman for this job even though I don’t fit the gender mold Marc prefers to hunt with.
Garrett’s endorsement worked and into the woods we went. Marc asking for natural body functions while the natural world reveals itself over a handful of quiet days between archery and rifle season.
The pressure during that window moves from the elk to me. Shouldering the responsibility of collecting elk porn is a tremendous burden because shooting the wild with a camera is harder than shooting it with a weapon. I don’t need three seconds to take aim, I need 30 and I may need another dozen 30s to really make the most of what’s going on.
To ease my serious face, as Garrett calls it, he wears hillbilly teeth. He slips them in his beard-covered mouth when I’m most stressed and flashes a huge grin every time my eyes find him through the trees. Camo hides him well, but I never miss the teeth. Makes me lighten despite the heavy frustration and serious fear running through my vibrating veins.
The pressure to perform nearly buckles me shortly after the fart exchange and the insertion of dented dentures. Venison is coming right at me because Marc is calling it in. I’m recording because it’s a beauty of a bull. Heavy rack, wide body, long legs. I’m crouched on my knees trying not to bump my tripod and blow the shot.
“You can hear his breathing. It’s an adrenaline rush big time,” Marc tells me between cow calls with a reed and bull bugles with a tube. “You work so hard. Sometimes some of these calling episodes are well over an hour.”
The elk sniffs the air with his snout, scrapes the ground with his hooves and keeps advancing. He’s 10 feet from my lens, trying to figure out two things: where the hell is the bull that’s bugling a challenge and what the hell is crouched on the ground right in front of me?
That’s when I realize this whole deal is a bad idea. It’s the rut. The bull is looking for a date. I definitely don’t want to be his date. He’s close. Too close. I have to zoom out to fit him in frame. In the stillness, the bull hears lens gears engage, raises his rack then runs away. I have my first of many amazing elk shots for the day and I’m shaking like California in quake mode.
“That interactive moment with a creature is what burns in your mind,” Garrett says. “That bull is the essence of the wild world boiled down into one perfect creature.”
Perfection has me disoriented. I need a few minutes to collect myself. I stand and move toward an open meadow to warm my dew-soaked jacket. Mind you, I took a tongue lashing on day one for wearing a jacket tumbled dry with sweet smelling fabric softener. Marc claimed the elk could smell me from miles away the first two days and that’s why we got skunked. It’s now day three. I’m plenty dirty, my jacket stinks and we are seeing elk everywhere. Maybe the elk whisperer knows what he’s talking about.
“Even someone who has spent a lot of time in the woods can’t tell Marc from a herd of elk,” Garrett says. “As a young man he used to spend days in the woods following the elk around. He really is the elk whisperer. He talks to them.”
With our first wild talking episode wrapped up, we meet in the clearing and joke about the shot being so good we need a post-relations smoke, but none of us smoke so we celebrate by strategizing our next stalk.
I knelt in standby mode for hours on the last bull. That zaps camera juice and I need to reload. The ever-grinning Garrett begged to help carry some of my equipment so I gave him my extra batteries. I rarely let others pack my gear. If something goes wrong, I want it on me, not them. Garrett is the reason why.
He starts rifling through his pack, awkwardly laughs, dumps the pack contents in the dirt then spits his fake teeth out and confesses he doesn’t have the batteries. I want to kick in his real teeth. We are three hours from the truck. We are in the thick of bulls trying to get lucky with cows and I have half a battery left. My bowels may do much more than fart at this point. I bend over with a gut ache, give myself two minutes to calm down then straighten with a plan. My camera will stay off until the last possible second then I’ll roll through the heat of things as often as the equipment and the elk allow.
It’s dicey, but I do it. Marc calls them in. I collect footage. Garrett stays well out of my way. One bugler comes so close while he’s sending out song that I feel his breath raise my neck hairs. His head low, rack swinging back and forth like a grain thresher, his blonde-coated belly billowing in and out with bursts of sound when he raises his neck to the sky to scream. Beyond impressive. I guarantee that bull scores raunchy dates with cows.
“He’s studly-hung-well and he knows it,” Garrett whispers. “A bull like that doesn’t even need to date and foreplay is optional.”
Collecting my story isn’t optional. That’s why I won’t leave empty handed just because crude comments come with wild territory. I don’t encourage vulgarity, but I don’t run when it’s delivered either. Sometimes I think the words spoken with spite are specifically designed to make me run. But I won’t. That’s giving in and giving up. I don’t give in and I don’t give up on a story worth telling. Elk on the return is worth talking about no matter how much b.s. blows between bugles. That’s the reality of the manly profession in which I earn my keep.
And this story’s keep is full of potential. I have a week’s worth of elk porn collected in one morning on the last day of the video shoot with only one lone battery between us. Ridiculous? Yes. Impossible? No. Now that’s something to really grin about. So are recovered batteries. I found them stacked on the truck’s bumper at the end of the day.
Garrett and I still swap scary teeth photos. Marc is still waiting for me to fart.