Most of my hunts are preceded by a long drive across the state. I drive away from all the chaos of social life and towards another great adventure in the mountains, after stopping in at the local gas station and buying my last cup of coffee, that is. I flip on the GPS and turn up the radio, and just cruise. The gas gauge and tachometer swivel back and forth in accordance with the passing mile markers and stop signs, on many occasions dozing off for some time, then suddenly realizing that I may have missed my exit, but the voice on the GPS incessantly assures me I’m still on track. The view through the windshield gradually changes from deep green forests, to expansive rivers, to desert, then pine and tamarack forest, and finally dramatic mountain peaks.
Pulling up to the trail-head I eagerly get out, not letting the dust settle first. Removed from my climate-controlled truck cab, I get the chills as cold air engulfs my body. The silence feels strange. I grab my pack from the back of my rig and strap on a couple of last minute things before hitting the trail. Hiking at a steady pace, my lungs begin to billow and the thump of my pulse quickens. After some time I start to wonder: what pace am I hiking, how fast is my heart beating, and what is the concentration of CO2 in my blood that’s making my lungs pump so hard? Now wishing I had a meter for that. I have a meter for everything in my truck. Then, jokingly, I concluded that if we had meters for those things someone would take it upon themselves to make regulations for them. At least there are no signs out here to tell me how fast I can walk and how much a gallon of water costs. I felt sort of naked without all the numerical and linguistic barriers that normally stand between me and the world – but it was a good feeling, I was experiencing the world first hand.
We live in a time and society in which everything is automatically described with words and numbers and held in front of our faces so we don’t have to think about it. We have road signs on every sharp corner so we don’t have to judge it for ourselves, thermometers to tell us how hot the air is, traction control to sense how much traction our tires have (I can’t wait till they come up with traction control boots), and the list goes on and on. We don’t have a feel for things anymore. I can drive in a mild coma for 500 miles, with the radio blaring and GPS on, without err. Human senses have been replaced by sensors, and skill has been replaced by gadgets. I don’t even have to tie knots anymore; there’s a clip for that. Pretty soon hunters are going to be wearing sound meters to tell them how many db’s they are making during a stalk (I hope you are not a sleazy salesman considering developing one of these right now).
While there is a place for describing things with numbers and words we need to be careful not to let them restrict our ability to see the world. When we see a sign that says “monument 3 miles ahead” we have to understand that that monument is not the only thing coming up in 3 miles and that there could be something equally as worthy of a sign in only 2 miles. Just because someone else has already labeled what he finds important doesn’t mean that he has labeled everything that you would find important. When exploring a new place, a wild place such as the mountains, where few people have gone and fewer have gone with your intent, it is even more important to be aware, to listen to the symphony of your senses, and to loosen up our system of interpretation.
Initially it may be overwhelming, but the longer we spend away from the city, away from the buttons and junk food, the more we become aware. Our blood sugar stabilizes, our muscles lean out, and our thoughts grow clearer. It’s amazing what a little fresh air, diet, and natural exercise will do. But it’s more than that, our eyes will get used to seeing in the forest again and our brain will re-adjust to the wide-open alpine landscape. Our senses will sensitize so much that candy wrappers make our ears throb and movement in our peripheral vision thrills our attention. The brief whiff of a dead animal or musky elk herd will re-train our mind to rely on scent just like seeking out a water source by ear will re-train our mind to rely on sound. What at first incites only a hunch-like feeling, something we think might be true but are unwilling to act on, will soon solidify into law.
To be truly aware requires energy – it’s not a passive thing, it’s a workout for both our body and mind. It requires attention and contemplation and action. We cannot find a track in the gravel if we do not look for it, we cannot not determine where that animal is headed if we do not think, and we will not find the animal if we do not pursue. Some things in nature are more obvious than others and I guess this ability to perceive different levels and kinds of detail is what sets hunters apart.
The pinnacle of awareness is the ability to watch your adventure as it happens, from the third person perspective, visualizing all the players in relation to one another – the hunter, the hunted, the obstacles in between – playing the hunt like a chess game. It starts with the senses but depends on interpretation. The more of the situation we can sense and the quicker we can pattern and predict dynamic processes, the less we have to depend on luck and the more motivated we become as we accept responsibility for the outcome of our actions. In this sense awareness becomes the hunters’ motivation, because only when we are aware of our situation and understand natural processes can we see the path towards our goal.
Now we can see how serious this issue of awareness is. It all starts in the truck where everything is done for us and so we slump into a mild coma and let the GPS guide us. We can’t carry this mentality into the mountains if we hope to be successful. On the hunt we need to be awake and attentive to the small things and to the big things, the fast things and the slow things, the visible things and invisible things. Of course we cannot be on high alert 24-7, just as a mule deer out in a meadow must balance feeding with scanning for danger, or we will burn out quicker than an afternoon thundershower. But for those hunters who work hard to improve their sensitivity and endurance, awareness is an asset like no other.