We rolled out of Lemmon Valley, just north of Reno, late on an icy night in December. My brother had insisted that a little midwinter elk hunting was just what I needed, and I couldn't think of any good reason to say no. So I had traveled to meet him a day or two earlier, giving me time to visit the co-generation powerhouse he works at in Loyalton, California, just across the border and over Beckwourth pass in the Portola valley. His job was interesting but repetitive, and the little hole-in-the-wall break room bore signs of long occupation. But the equipment he worked with, consisting of a massive firebox firing an equally massive boiler, the only functioning remainder of a Sierra Pacific sawmill which had fed on the nearby high Sierra forests of Ponderosa pine, while largely self-sustaining, was dangerous and powerful enough to require more than a passing mechanical aptitude.
The Feather River rail line had run a spur into the now-quiet mill, and the place shimmered in the alpine cold, with that curious, and eerie vibration any once-bustling industrial facility gives off. Larry had left the Fort Bragg woods back in the mid-80s around the time G-P terminated its logging operations to streamline production costs. A lot of local loggers went to work for gyppos who expanded to meet the approximate vacuum left by G-P's exit, but more than a few Fort Braggers packed up and headed for the Sierras.
Larry chose Loyalton because it put him closer to what he really wants: Nevada's big-game hunting. Last winter was only his second successful attempt at the Nevada elk lottery, and he was excited about the trip. Excited enough that we were about to drive all night after his shift ended and we packed his pickup with weapons and cold-weather camping equipment. Exhaustion and obscure motivations are typical both to millworkers and hunters, so it was not unusual that we would find ourselves skirting the frigid neon skyline of Reno eastbound into the night. I wouldn't be hunting, since I had neither the proper license nor the sought-after tag, of which only a hundred or so had been handed out for this particular 30-day season. I could go along for old-time’s sake and the joy of camping, and I was sure it would be an interesting experience, since I had never seen the mountains we were headed for.
A map of Nevada discloses a series of isolated mountain ranges, 40-50 miles long and a few miles wide, which rise like stone combs from the empty regularity of sage-covered flatlands so out-of-the-way that the nearest thing resembling a town was a tiny gathering of huts in juniper-covered foothills over a hundred miles from the Monitors. It’s called Austin, and we got there about daylight, after at least eight hours of empty roads which seemed to average a curve every 50 miles, crossing salt flats and starlit vistas of negative space extending on all sides to nothingness. There had been a heavy snowfall not long before in Reno, but once we turned south near Fallon, we had seen no precipitation and little evidence that there had ever been any. Climbing slightly into Austin, we once again encountered snow on the ground.
Once over the pass there, we were back on long flat and straight roads, which gradually degraded in quality until about 9am. We were rolling at 50 miles an hour down a glorified dirt road, which brought us to the north end of the range, where we could start looking for elk.
The only habitations around were isolated cattle-ranches, and it was common to see bunches of cattle kicking around in the snow, in some places. Cowboys tended to business on both 4-wheel ATVs and on horseback, and the few vehicles we encountered past Austin were piloted by Stetson-hatted, squinty-eyed veterans of the wild sagebrush rangeland spread out around us. Larry expected that most tag-holders would be concentrated around a mesa at the south end of the range, so he wanted to work down from the north end, exploring any roads that would get us up into the high country.
Besides cowboys, we saw jackrabbits, which Larry considered “hop-rabbits,” and crows, who worked along snowdrifted fencelines in what became an almost inconceivably pristine landscape. We could see the high country, a few thousand feet above us, rising from foothills toward alpine peaks, ragged and glaciated as any postcard. The tracks on the roadside were from pronghorn, cattle and wild horses, all knitted together by the investigative web of coyote tracks — which seemed to cover the snowpack like a vast explanation of the fractal occurrence of small game and roadside leavings. Sometimes they meandered near the arrow-straight shoulder, and sometimes they cut straight lines, under and over barbed wire fence.
On our left as we headed south was a miles-wide valley which was empty as a bureaucrat’s head, broken only by slight contours until it rose into a range of mountains almost exactly as long and rugged as the ones on our immediate right. Several times we turned onto side roads, hoping for a way up, but locked gates and abrupt endings to the roads turned us back. It was opening day of the season, so we were hoping that hunters in the distance might get the herd moving, and we wanted to get up to the high passes they were known to move through. All we saw were more cattle, which Larry called “slow elk” and a few wild horses in the far distance. We stopped periodically to survey distant slopes through binoculars, but the place was about as lifelike as the south bank of the moon.
In mid-afternoon, we finally found a road which led a mile or so back into foothills, where juniper and pinion pine covered the rocky ground. We found few tire tracks, and after a while, none, so Larry decided to get out and hike up a narrow stream then onto the slope, looking for sign.
I waited by the truck, building myself a fire of crispy-dry juniper, which had melted a nice hole in the snow and begun to thaw me to the point where I could enjoy a short nap as I listened for a shot. One or two hours passed before Larry came back, looking a little disappointed and ready to travel some more. We drove until dark, finally ending at another spot in the foothills where we pitched a tent in the snow and built another fire. About bedtime, a light snow began, and Larry imagined that it boded well for hunting, “It’ll get the elk moving,” he theorized, as he planned the morning's expedition.
Daylight on the mountain was nearly as cold as the night had been, and we brewed some coffee and threw together a light breakfast under clear skies. Coyotes yelped and sang in a semi-cycle on the slope above us, and Larry showed me where the guns and ammo were located, giving me permission to take a few pot-shots at them if they came in range. In Nevada, the general opinion toward coyotes, at least among my brother's friends, is that they should be shot on sight, in whatever amount is convenient. As I hung around camp that morning I limited my shooting to a little plinking at beer cans with the .22 pistol. I hadn’t shot one of those in a while, and revolvers are always fun, so it was satisfying enough to send the aluminum birdie on its little wild west adventure through the snow.
Glassing the valley we had traveled through the day before, I spotted a herd of wild horses strung out across a square mile or so, they seemed to be mostly red and black, and it was possible to pick out the solitary stallion, bigger and shaggier than the scattered groups of mares. It gave me an aching sense of timelessness, not just the horses, but the spotless expanse of sagebrush, lightly covered with snow. It’s a place where humans have managed to live for a long time, although probably never in large numbers. One could easily imagine bison and more primitive, now extinct, beasts, acting much like the horses were, nosing along through three of four inches of snow, faces turned to a biting wind.
At times the sky was a clear blue, and at other times cloud formations would roll over the ridge behind me, scattering snow over the peaks and bringing only light flurries down to me and the horses. Larry was somewhere on the slope above, I knew not where, and the only thing to do was wander around looking for whatever was there. Besides horse and cattle droppings, there were dried piles of elk marbles here and there among snow-covered boulders. The only proof that humans had ever been there, apart from the road we had come in on, were little yellow flags on short aluminum rods, marking some inscrutable study or survey being done by Bureau of Land Management workers.
About noon, Larry came down to camp and we had lunch. There was some sort of problem with his rifle scope, and he spent an hour or so fixing that and sighting in before he was satisfied that he could actually hit an elk if he saw one. He had seen nothing but old sign on the hike, so we were soon breaking camp and heading further south. We were encouraged by the light traffic and minimal sign of human activity, it meant that most of the hunters were somewhere else. It seemed most of the elk were, also, so the challenge was to find elk without encountering great numbers of nimrods engaged in the search. At such times the hunter is constantly second-guessing and conferring, and we turned up every side road, looking for tracks, the one thing which could confirm the presence of elk.
We drove until dark and then drove a little longer, finally on a road that rose out of the foothills and into the peaks, toward a pass which looked like it might put us in the perfect spot to intercept any passing elk. Near the summit, on a cut-bank which rose to a slanting forest of mountain mahogany and quaking aspen, we finally saw tracks. They were big, hot-looking punctures in the snow crust, and showed where some elk had crossed, coming up the range just as predicted and heading into the country we had occupied that morning. Again we had to consider whether to go back there or spend the next day near the pass, tracking those, and hoping others would appear if they were gone. In the end, we pitched camp near an old Mormon settler’s cabin in an isolated pocket of valley, hard under an icy peak.
That night around the fire, the wine froze in our cups.
In the morning, we were back up on the pass, and Larry hiked over the wild slopes, following the broad swath of tracks which may have been only a few hours old. Our strategy was for him to transect the spaces between roads, while I drove the four-wheeler back to the main road and tried to find the one we had agreed on to meet him when he came out.
That sounds easy, but with the combination of snow, mud, rocky surfaces and steep slopes, it required much concentration. Most of the ground I had to drive was untracked snow leading into wildly unpredictable circumstances. I could see small flurries building and passing over the peaks, and it always seemed that a major snowfall was brewing, but this part of Nevada is about as dry as any landscape in the west, with most of the airborne moisture passing over so that I began to think of the sky as a not-so-distant and near inexhaustible river going who knows where through unending skies.
Although we saw a lot of tracks and many piles of still-fresh sign, we saw no elk, not much except the crows who seem to be able to live where nothing else can, and what they fed on remains mysterious, unless it’s elk droppings. The elk seem to relish this hostile terrain, living on the sparse vegetation among rocky peaks, but finding enough to keep their thousand-pound powerhouses steaming through sub-zero temperatures and blinding winds.
The next day was more of the same. We knew the elk were close, and there may have been a lot of them, but they were not to be seen. Their tracks seemed to pick a path just beyond the sight of the main road, more or less following ridges which led off into breathtaking drops through rock walls toward foothills and distant plains.
We hunted hard the last day, but finally abandoned the effort and headed down toward the foothills on the opposite side from where we had come in, passing through long plateaus of juniper and pinion pine exactly like those we had climbed in the days earlier, stopping many times to examine cattle herds.
Late that night, we were back in Reno, in time for New Year's Eve but too tired to make much of it. I was back to the coast within a few days, but Larry took his next day off, a week later, and made a return trip to the last stretch of foothills we had been through. To his surprise, he encountered a large herd of elk and shot one, a big cow which he admitted to shooting at random, by firing into the crowd at 200 yards. I returned a few days later for a sample of elk liver, and I saw the still uneaten liver in a bowl in the refrigerator, five or ten pounds of rich red tissue bleeding lightly, it was a good meal, exotically different than the buck liver I am accustomed to, and the massive carcass in the shed out back promised a long-term supply of elk meat.