I turned sixteen a little over a year after the shooting. A family rite of passage—a family tradition that was very important to me—occurred on my sixteenth birthday. It was to go deer hunting with the entire family. It was a big deal, a huge family affair involving my parents, my brothers, my grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, etc.
Even though I would not be able to stomp through the trees and brush, and would be hunting from a sitting position, I was included—and I was excited.
The opening morning of deer hunting season finally arrived. Before I knew it, I was sitting behind my dad on my grandfather’s chestnut quarter horse. My paralyzed legs were wrapped around Dad’s waist with my shoelaces tied together in front of him to hold me in place (sometimes I’m luggage, sometimes I’m a backpack). Even in that ignoble position, I still loved the ride through the golden fall leaves of the quaking aspen as we moved down into the valleys of the beautiful Pahvant Mountain Range, east of Fillmore, Utah.
We finally decided on a good spot for me to position myself. They lifted me off the horse, propped me up against an old aspen, handed me my Uncle’s .30-30 Winchester lever action rifle (just like John Wayne’s), tossed me a sack lunch, and walked off saying they’d be back at noon.
They went down into the canyon below me to hunt—and perhaps scare some deer up my way. Soon, I could hear the animals rustle through the dry leaves as they moved towards me. As I waited quietly under the tree with my sack lunch beside me, I realized that what was coming toward me could be anything: squirrels, porcupine, deer, elk, bear, cougar, Bengal tigers, Big Foot. Suddenly I realized I could be lunch.
I had not been there long when a herd of a dozen or so elk came along, paying me no mind whatsoever. I watched them, enthralled with their beauty and majesty. I was also nervous. I felt extremely vulnerable. I couldn’t move. I could imagine them trampling me into the ground. I had no way to save myself. I didn’t even think about the gun. It wasn’t elk season and I didn’t want to go to jail—getting trampled to death, notwithstanding.
After they moved on, I heard other noises. Probably deer over the ridge, but in my mind I could still see a big hungry bear coming toward me with me on his menu and the apple in my sack lunch for dessert.
Instead, after a paranoia-filled wait, a nice two-point buck came into the clearing about fifty yards below. My heart pounded as I swung my rifle to my shoulder, aimed carefully, took a deep breath, let it half out, and squeezed the trigger. I had a peep sight, not a scope, but I dropped him with one shot.
It was a nice first-time trophy. I couldn’t have been more proud. After years of hunting with my dad and carrying our lunches in my backpack, I had come of age. I had finally bagged my own deer.
Suddenly, the deer jumped up—or tried to. I hadn’t killed him. My bullet had simply broken his back—just as my friend’s bullet had done to me. The young buck began dragging himself along with his front legs, trying to escape. I couldn’t get a clear shot to end his pain. I watched helplessly, sick to my stomach. Suddenly there was a loud explosion off to my left. A passing hunter had seen the situation and ended the paralyzed animal’s life.
He walked over to me wondering why I was just sitting there under the tree. I explained my situation and what had happened. He offered to field-dress the deer and I gladly accepted. Before I knew it, he had dragged the deer to a nearby tree, cleaned and dressed it, left it hanging to cool, and was on his way.
When my dad and the others returned for lunch, they were startled to see that not only had I killed my first deer, but imagine their surprise to see it hanging in a tree, field-dressed and ready to carry out.
When I first realized the deer had been paralyzed by my bullet, I had a surge of empathy and sadness. My deer was no different than me. I knew its pain, sense of despair, the broken back, the loss of freedom and mobility.
The increase of meat for our family’s table was important, and I did love the trek to the mountains, but even though I still enjoy the adventure, I never looked at hunting quite the same way.