Opinion » John Rember

Me and My Arrows

Hunting season in Stanley

John Rember

A year ago, I was drinking coffee in the Stanley Baking Company in Stanley when two bow hunters showed up in green and black face paint and full camo gear--and ordered breakfast. I assumed they had been hanging out before daybreak in thick brush next to a game trail, waiting for a deer or elk to come by.

But no. They had awakened in a nearby motel room, put on their camo and paint, and headed for breakfast. That led to an entirely different assumption, one not so charitable.

Putting on face paint for breakfast means you're starring in your own movie, a movie that depends on your audience suspending whatever disbelief your appearance might engender. That's a risky thing to do in September in Stanley, especially if a couple of locals are at the next table, not saying much and grinning behind their hands.

By September, people in Stanley have been suspending disbelief for the three busy months of tourist season, and they're tired of it. When Stanley folks see hiking costumes, biking costumes, fly-fishing costumes, river-running costumes, horse-riding costumes, dirt-biking costumes, or even going-to-the-beach-at-Redfish-Lake costumes, they know that somebody's on vacation, and that an everyday identity imposed by other people's expectations has been temporarily replaced by a dramatic new self. Never mind that the dramatic new self looks a little funny.

Work in the tourist industry and you might look a little funny yourself. If you take people on horse rides, you dress like a cowboy. If you take them fishing, you dress like a Cabela's poster child. Take them to the mountains, and you'd better have state-of-the-art camping and climbing gear, not only for safety, but also for the maintenance of pageantry paid for with an American Express card.

Things get more serious when hunting season comes around, because the costumes include weapons.

Any full-on get-up can be a powerful mind-altering drug, as anyone ever cast as the Virgin Mary in a community Christmas play will tell you. So when costumes are up to the quasi-military bow-hunting standard, you worry the bow hunters' targets will look less like the bull elk they were after and more like the people who were wandering around in the woods sniffing posies and accidentally spooked the bull elk they were after.

So hunting season can be nervous-making in a tourist town, because you're depending on a bunch of people to deliberately restrain a fantasy they've deliberately entered into.

My take on this issue comes from a father who was a hunting and fishing guide. He consciously created the pageantry of the expeditions he led, and he respected the escape from ordinary life that his clients were paying for. But he always--for his own sanity--kept a hard distinction between his authentic self and the roles he played for his clients.

What he passed down to me strikes me, even now, as notably authentic. I paraphrase, but here is his take on hunting and fishing:

"You are going out and killing God's creatures, creatures who have done you no harm but who do represent a substantial amount of edible protein. It's alright to kill them to eat them. Otherwise, try to respect their right to be alive, and kill them only when necessary. Once you've killed something, your first priority is taking care of the meat so none is wasted. If you're killing or tormenting them for sport, you're engaging in the grown-up equivalent of pulling the wings off flies."

He didn't say this to his clients. He had to put food on our table and clothes on our backs, and not all of either came from wild animals. When you need money to raise a family in this world, you do what you have to do, authenticity be damned, which is a kind of authenticity in itself.

He taught me the arts and the ethics of hunting and fishing. But even though I'm an authentic local Sawtooth Valley person, I don't hunt or fish anymore. Instead, Julie and I buy half a beef from a friend who, every summer, raises four cows on 20 stream-fed tree-shaded grassy acres.

In the middle of a beef dinner, we salute the half-cow that made it possible, and note that he lived a happy and authentic life until his last half-day. "We should all be half so lucky," we say, as full pickup-loads of hunters pass on the highway.

Talk of authenticity comes to a head when you consider that most tourists--hunters and otherwise--are seeking a more authentic life than they have in their jobs or at their keyboards or on their couches in front of their giant flat-screens.

If you do your time in an office shuffling insurance or tax papers, or following a script in a call-center cubicle, or keeping order in a roomful of 40 teenagers who would rather be texting, or even being one of those bored teenagers, you're in the market for authenticity. But tourism, even of the hunting variety, probably isn't the best way to get it.

Authenticity does seep back into Sawtooth Valley after September. Hard frosts in the mornings and slanted light in the afternoons foreshadow the cold and the dark of winter, when 100 or so authentically freezing people will occupy our 100 square miles.

A lost flip-flop on the wave-line at Redfish Lake gains a substance that it never had when it was occupied by a splashing 6-year-old. A dead Chinook on a sandbar gains a dignity it never displayed when busloads of fish-porn addicts were watching it spawn. A small collection of featherless hunting arrows, pried out of trees or found on the ground during summer posy-patch expeditions, creates a mythology it never possessed when nocked in the bow.