“Wilderness adventure is like reading a good book [a page and] a chapter at a time. The last page is usually pretty good because you’ve read the whole book.” –Tavis Molnar (Arctic Red Outfitters)
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” –Theodore Roosevelt
The sweat drips off the brim of my hat, joining the drops of rain that have steadily quickened over the last few minutes. A thunderstorm threatens in the foothills to our west, just above the sole surviving fire watchtower in Colorado—a relic from another era. I have three more ascents to go to hit today’s training target. For a moment, I choose to ignore the pain. A sort of happiness is welling up that is hard to put to words. It’s a common joy known to all who have consented to a path of intense physical challenge for the sake of a greater goal and—even more—a greater good.
I’m near the top of another trek up The Grinder, the name we’ve affectionately given to the rough steps cut in the side of a no-name foothill in the Colorado Rockies, hewn from railroad ties and composite granite. It has the winsome feel of a project leftover from the Conservation Corps with a forgotten story of its own. For years, I thought of counting the number of steps, but the breathlessness of the second half always seemed to keep me from an accurate number. Today my budding teenage son (who started training with me this summer) passes me again and calls out with a grin, “Dad, I have the count at 326 steps.”
I know the climb and descent would be more manageable without the 50-pound pack on my back. But I’m not training to throw candy in the next Fourth of July parade (though I thoroughly enjoyed doing so last month). I’m training for a backcountry fair-chase bow hunt in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. And if we harvest a mule deer in the alpine, as we hope to, we’ll surely spend more energy than I am today hauling loads of meat to civilization.
Though the hunting season is short, the training is a year-round pursuit. At the end, there is no audience or finish-line crowd to celebrate this endeavor. And in training, there is no witness along the countless lonely miles. There is often not even meat in the freezer to testify to the agony and delight.
But I have never known any physical and mental and soulful challenge more alluring and satisfying.
It’s been said consistently by mentors that 90 percent of wild game animals are harvested by 10 percent of the hunters.
I’ve come to know that statistic painfully well: it speaks to years of initiation and fathering—learning mostly through failure, often harvesting great stories but seldom meat.
For years along this path, I pondered this question: What does it take to move from the 90 percent of public land bowhunters to the 10 percent who (on average) successfully harvest most of the game? And slowly but surely, our Father has been illuminating the way.
Today is sabbath, and it is with savory delight that I pull out my bow and hunting bins, methodically taking inventory of the condition and status of my gear, weapon, arrows, and broadheads. I recondition my release with a concoction invented by smokejumpers to protect their leather boots. I massage a fresh coat of wax into my bow strings. I assess every arrow, checking broadhead, shaft, and knock. It’s all part of the liturgy of July and a place of intimacy with the Father, in the hopes of treading the path to becoming the 10 percent.
Archery season is approaching quickly, and I’ve not invested as much as I’d hoped to, given the season of life. But I’ve invested enough to take one more step along the narrow road of becoming. The evenings grow a bit cooler in this late summer season, and I feel the anticipation of chasing wild wax larger inside my soul with each passing day.
Today’s act of preparation is a velcro for hope. As my body goes through the motions of locking on a target and drawing my bow, my soul remembers and faithfully engages more than 15 years of knowing distilled from trial by fire, matured through success and failure. The fear that I haven’t done enough to prepare lurks on the edges of this knowing. Yet I’ve learned that it’s in this place on the edge of fear that I must turn to the Father for orientation. Once again, I am reassured of His presence and His pleasure. Even more, I sense His enjoyment of us as His sons who have consented to the slow and steady process of becoming.
I pause to take stock of five fundamental ideas that form the bedrock of my training toward the 10 percent. These five ideas expressed in the context of hunting also reflect the perennial truths of masculine initiation:
Do something every day
In both this season and this culture of unending demands, there still exists a narrow path into the 10 percent: I choose to do something every day to draw closer to my objective. If my vision is to live with integrity in my relationships and not sacrifice my marriage, my children, and more at the altar of success in my passion, the pursuit of craft quickly becomes complex and, at times, overwhelming. Therefore, consenting to doing something every day proves to be the ascending path toward mastery and joy. In archery hunting, this might be as small and simple as investigating a new map, reading an article, trying a new workout, flinging a dozen arrows, or working through a solution to the problem we ran into the field last attempt. This long obedience in the same direction (to borrow Eugene Peterson’s phrase) also echoes the essence of Warren Buffet’s central strategy for investment: consistent investment over time with moderate returns yields exponential results. If we are committed to join the 10 percent and harvest the exponential results, we find that doing something every day is a proven strategy.
Time in the Woods
I’ve often heard that some of the most important scouting is done with maps on a computer. Thanks to incredible apps like On X Hunt and robust information online, that is partially true. But there will never be a substitute for boots on the ground on the particular land on which you intend to hunt, close to the time in which you intend to hunt it. On a scouting trip this summer, we found ourselves above treeline at 13,130. It provided data, confirming local animal populations and patterns that cannot be gleaned anywhere but through direct observation. Even more, it provided a knowing of—the Hebrew writers use the word yada, which implies an intimate and experiential heart knowledge. The former is mere proposition; the second is poetry. We were surprised to find an abundance of fresh mountain goat sign but little evidence of deer using the remote alpine drainage as we’d expected. All of this experiential knowledge, combined with research, will become essential in our next archery pursuit. Whether it’s making sausage, painting, or scouting a hunting area, there is no substitute for experiential knowledge. While the world advertises shortcuts at every turn, real bodily experience over time is essential for the initiation and integration of the masculine soul. We learn by doing. Throw yourself in. There is no substitute for the “slow and steady” of time to do its work in us. Jesus’ words are a good, soulful reminder: “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God—is vigorous and requires total attention.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Choose your hunting companions with wisdom and care
Who you hunt with will shape your experience more than any other variable. I hunt with men who want what I want and value what I value. Men who contend fiercely for joy. Men who love the animals, the land, and the chase more than any outcome. Men who’ve consented to the steady work of preparation. Men who have given their hearts to the pursuit, who courageously submit self-interest to the collective good of the shared mission. Men who see the particular adventure in the context of the greater story and our role in it as husbands, fathers, and friends.
Ask questions of those who have gone before you. Consent to the wisdom of elders. Study. Learn. Listen (which starts by being present and being quiet). Over 15 years ago, I walked into the local bow shop and confessed to the resident pro, “I don’t even know what I don’t even know. But I want to become a bowhunter. Where do I start?” He proceeded to tell me a winsome and evocative story of how he entered the world of bowhunting by watching his uncles come home with elk meat from rifle hunts and how, in elementary school, he packed lunch every day so he could save his lunch money to put toward a bow. He finished with this advice: “Keep the wind in your face, the sun on your back, and find the joy.” This single piece of counsel has guided me more than any other in over 15 years. I have pages and pages of notes from asking question after question of anyone who has gone before me who knows something about archery hunting, the animals, or the land. Humility starts with acknowledging your lack and consenting to being led deeper along the frontier of the masculine soul.
The brilliance and utter frustration is the futility of the odds. Seeking to harvest with bow on public land is a statistically absurd way to procure meat for the family. Statistically, you’re almost assured of failure. But that’s why we do it. It’s those sort of odds that create the best context for initiation and maturing in sonship. It’s those kind of odds that forge the best friendships. It’s the harvest that fuels every step of the way. But at the end of the day, the desire must be rooted in something far deeper than the harvest. Otherwise, compromises of relational integrity and personal ethics are bound to attend.
Remember the brilliant words of North Face founder and elder of adventure Yvon Chouinard. He talked of high-powered executives climbing Mt. Everest, showing up to basecamp with all the fix ropes and ladders already laid out for them by sherpas, chocolates placed on their pillows.
“Taking a trip for six months to get in the rhythm of it. It feels like you can go on forever doing that. Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high powered plastic surgeons and CEOs, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”
We must become the kind of men who can let go of harvest as the ultimate definition of success. We must hunt for great stories before we hunt for trophy racks or even the procurement of meat. We must become the kind of people who have developed a far more robust and life-giving definition of success in the field than an animal on the wall or in the freezer.
How will you define success? I’ve learned that the greatest harvest on any hunt is always a great story. “Success” becomes an intention of my masculine soul on becoming the kind of person who not only moves toward the 10 percent but becomes a more wholehearted man through the process.
It’s all metaphor
As with the most meaningful stories of our life, the narrative of bowhunting borrows its power from the central story of Reality. The real story is not about the hunt or the meat that will one day be gone. The day will come when my legs and lungs won’t be able to endure the crazy exploits we now pursue. It’s only in choosing to interpret chasing wild in the context of the larger whole that it can take on the quality of eternity for which it was intended since the beginning.
Today I have to dig deep. As my body ages, my son and the joy and levity in his step is the Father’s provision to keep going. He beats me to the top. My body has had enough, and my mind is threatening to abort mission. But my heart knows I’ve got at least another one in me.
I pause at the top of this mountain, as I do as liturgy on the final ascent of every workout. I breathe and take in the beauty, knowing that today, this very moment, is the real gift I seek. I ask the Father what He has to say today. And I am reminded, perhaps for the first time in nearly two decades of training to hunt, that something has permanently shifted in my soul.
I used to train to hunt. Now I mostly hunt to train.
It is more than hunting I’m training for. I’m slowly becoming the kind of person who recognizes that a context for training is essential to continue to grow into the man I long to be in spirit, soul, mind, and body. My training leads my masculine soul along the outermost edge of its frontier—it is in this soul geography that the masculine heart thrives. I’m training for loving my bride today and for decades to come. I’m training to raise my children into vibrant, wholehearted lifetime learners and lovers. I’m training to become a better friend. And I’m training to grow in my capacity to serve with the heart of a king. I realize the gift of training toward the 10 percent has forged in me a lifestyle of becoming that produces more life, more joy, and more fruit than any other lifestyle I can imagine.
I’ve sacrificed time, money, energy, and more to fight for this hunt and—even more—this way of living. Soon I will be off the grid again, deep in the high country. If it’s like many former escapades, we will be contending with all manner of Nature’s glorious fury—her wonderful danger, unyielding demand, and relentless joy.
Like the seep of a mountain spring, the anticipation of camaraderie, of suffering and exuberance, of defeat and triumph fuels my anticipation. I close my eyes to imagine experiencing once more the text that nature renders at the crescendo of summer’s brilliance and autumn’s foray. I anticipate the rare experience of being saturated by beauty and immersed in the canvas of the greatest Artist and the One I truly seek.
That immersion in the beauty and expanse of God through wilderness is worth the pain. It is for joy that we too endure every cross, big and small.
It orients my masculine soul yet again to things good and true and beautiful, dissolving my misplaced desire for less wild lovers that simply cannot provide the life I seek.
It aligns my heart and my strength toward God and His kingdom and His brilliance as the master Craftsman behind and in all things.
It is here I find myself, finally cresting The Grinder one last time, at least for today. My son has lapped me again, and catches up.
Both of us, another rock in hand, walk over to the cairn that started years ago as a single stone and now has become a memorial that kindly reminds us this isn’t our first rodeo. We set our rocks on the cairn and momentarily enjoy this beacon for becoming which greets us at the top of every ascent.
This year’s mission is to find ourselves deep in wild, above timberline, close enought to witness the flicker of the ear of a mule deer. And, God willing, to release an arrow and put fantastic meat on the table.
Even more, it is the story we chase that forges the souls of men.
I used to train to hunt.
Now I hunt to train.
The Father is always offering a doorway through which we can follow Him into the recovery of the ancient path where we might become the kind of hunter—the kind of man—who finds himself among the 10 percent.
What are you training for?
What is the fruit of that training in your life and in your relationships?
What is frontier for you today and in this decade in your training?
Father, You have things to whisper to our interior places of deep ache and longing. We sense that when we choose against the hurry and instead choose to pause, be still, and tune in to Your voice, we will hear Your voice and experience Your heart for us. We will see You, greater and stronger than our enemies. What is it You are inviting me to train for, and how do you want to lead me into more life in the pursuit? You have my yes and my heart. Lead me further along the narrow road…