The dusty two-track road turned into a barely discernible line in the distance and disappeared where the sagebrush gave way to timber. By our best estimate, it couldn’t be more than a mile or so to reach the edge of the timber. It did not appear to be steep, only a slow gradual ascent with a short, steeper climb onto the ridge. Beyond that was seemingly endless, spruce-covered country that was surely teeming with elk. At our feet was a flimsy brown signpost indicating that the horizon-bound trail was closed to motorized travel. Exactly what we were looking for.
It was day 5 or 6 of a hunt with no predetermined length, only that we had to be back to work sometime the following week. Up to this point, our hunt had been defined by early mornings, late nights, grueling ascents away from drainages filled with hunters, and silent elk. We had been plagued by rain, snow, fog, cold nights and mid-day heat and had had a couple of painful opportunities foiled by repeated mistakes we should’ve learned from encounters in seasons past. Basically, it was a typical public land OTC elk hunt.
We were tired but were in good spirits and had some newly found anticipation about this area. We started making tracks towards the timber shortly after noon, anticipating it would take us about half an hour of hard walking to get up onto the ridge beyond where the road disappeared. Once up there, we would have a lot of daylight to hunt our way up the long ridge and fully expected to cross paths with a bull or two.
However, after about half an hour of hard walking we did not appear to be any closer to our destination. The sagebrush did a good job of disguising the terrain and we knew we had miscalculated the distance and elevation we’d have to cover. Knowing that we did not have time to scrap the afternoons plan and start over and didn’t want to lose a half day of hunting, we pressed on.
The final stretch up to the top of the ridge took all that I had left. I’m not sure if it was the afternoon heat, the sandy stretch of two-track that made every step feel like 10, the anguish of knowing how bad we underestimated the trek, lack of water and nutrition, days of tough hiking or a likely combination of those factors; but once we got to the ridge-top to begin hunting, I was done. Tapped out. The old adage about one foot in front of the other no longer held true. My legs literally would not go.
After realizing that I’d stopped, my hunting buddy turned and gave me that “what do you see” look, which turned to “stop kidding” and then confusion and concern when I told him “my legs won’t work.” I explained that I would probably be alright, but needed to sit for a while and try to recover so I could at least get myself back to the truck after dark. I encouraged him to continue on up the ridge and not let me keep him from any potential opportunities. Besides, something may just walk by as I sit on a log, right? He eventually took me up on the offer and continued to sneak up the timbered ridge.
As I sat there that evening, I had plenty of time to ponder my situation and what may have went wrong. I didn’t think much about the hunt, the elk, what our next plan should be or really even care. Instead I had a hard, honest conversation with myself and evaluated why I was really sitting on a log and not hunting the elk I had been waiting to hunt for 11 months now. It was revealing. Embarrassing. It was a lesson in humility. But, it turned out to be one of the most significant days of elk hunting I have ever had, and I never saw an elk.
I had been in a similar situation the year before on a different hillside in this same mountain range. Although the year before I was able to continue to walk, I just didn’t. I avoided the long hikes and steep ridges. And when we did go up, I made sure I took my time causing us to not be where the elk were when we needed to be. I grumbled every day that I would get in shape. I told myself that I would own that mountain next year! And at the time, I sincerely believed that. I wanted to! I had every intention of hitting the gym and turning things around as soon as I got home and recovered. But when I got home and recovered, the pain faded. The frustration of half-assing a hunt I had waited and planned so long for lingered for a while, but also eventually faded. I was able to soothe it with the thoughts of “It will be better next time. Next time we’ll hunt harder.” Yet here I sat a year later.
This time was different. I took responsibility for my failure. I wasn’t sitting there because of unexpected difficulty of the hike in. It wasn’t because of the previous days and miles of hiking and a brutally steep descent the day before. After all, that’s just elk hunting. I was sitting there because another year had come and gone without me taking my physical preparation seriously. No matter how many times I had convinced myself throughout the year that I would hunt harder simply because I wanted to, I couldn’t In all honesty, I didn’t even want to at that point. I wanted to go home and start over, just like the year before. But this time I committed.
I not only committed to a better hunting season next year, I committed to a lifestyle change. I wanted a change to reflect who and what I really wanted to be, and that would lead to the ability to accomplish goals. I wanted a change to make me a better hunter, and a better person. Most of my major life choices had been made heavily influenced by hunting, so why would I not make small everyday choices in the same way? If I could uproot from home and move several states away for the opportunity to hunt public land mule deer, why could I not jog the few blocks from my house to the gym for the same reason? If I could wish the year away until fall so I could be in the mountains, why could I not recall the importance of those mountains with every meal? Or better yet every bite of food I put in my mouth? I certainly thought I wanted to be that one-percenter who is consistently successful at tagging mature animals, but my actions did not reflect that person. How many seasons and years would continue to go by with this feeling before I actually took action? Not one more. And by embracing this particular feeling of disappointment and failure, I would be able to become better.
The initial steps of making that change may have been important, however, I had taken the initial steps plenty of times. Over and over I had told myself that “tomorrow” I’ll do this. Or “I’ll start next Monday…” And many of Mondays I did great, but by Wednesday or the following weekend I was back into the bad habits. I knew that persistence and patience were necessary, but I could not keep the motivation long enough for what felt like prolonged sacrifice. And to maintain any achieved progress, renewing the motivation and not settling for mediocrity would take extreme and resilient motivation and diligence. Eventually I got fed up and made that commitment. Then, and only by drawing from experience of failure and those feelings of doubt and disappointment that I kept so vivid, I was able to stay driven. Sometimes closer to possessed.
When things got tougher or I wanted to slack a little, all I had to do was recall the feeling I had on that Idaho ridge-top. It became easier to get out of bed at home when I thought about how hard it would be to get out of my sleeping bag after a brutal day and maybe night on the mountain. I made going to the gym a routine by swearing to my post-hunt disappointed self that I would work harder to never have that feeling again, and going to the gym to avoid feeling the same way by not going. I began to push myself harder during workouts by knowing that my legs were still working, and therefore I had plenty left in the tank to push harder. I tell myself that there are plenty of steep, lung burning mountainsides out there keeping hunters out of prime country, will they keep me out also? Will I be able to go wherever the hunt takes me or limit myself to a more comfortable piece of real estate? The answers kept pushing me to become closer to the hunter I wanted to be.
Once I started seeing some progress and results, the motivation and persistence became easier and easier to find. What used to be daily sacrifices became routine and enjoyable. The best part was that where my previous lack of consistent action became a cycle of frustration, my new course was bringing regular feelings of accomplishment and achievement. Even the smallest of victories – a new personal best on a lift, a faster mile than last time, and more pull-ups than before – came with a feeling of satisfaction and progress. Just getting to the gym and sticking with a nutrition plan for the day is a win. When you end each day with positivity and feelings of accomplishment, each day becomes another opportunity to strive for success, as opposed to just dreading the frustration of failure. Then, that positivity radiates to other aspects of your life and it’s like the proverbial snowball!
The best part is, there is NEVER a lack of failure! Every day seems to present something that didn’t go how I wanted it to go. Almost every hunt, if not every hunt, will have some low point that feels like hopelessness or you feel overwhelmed, desperate or just outright deflated. How you handle these moments can literally alter the rest of your hunt, or even the rest of your season. If you learn to recognize and embrace those moments, it can potentially positively influence every season thereafter. Take those feelings and remember, write it down if you have to. Remember why you felt that way. What happened and what caused it? What could you have done better throughout the rest of the year that may have mitigated that event or that feeling? Store all the answers somewhere and use those to develop a plan. After a while, and in a sick sort of way, I started looking forward to hitting my limits. Now when I do, it doesn’t crush me! It’s more of an acceptance and a recognition of what I need to do to get better. I know that it will be a sort of motivation bank for when I need a little extra. It also carries beyond the mountains. The habit and mindset of using disappointment to make positive changes may apply to your career, the gym, your family – all aspect of life! Don’t let failure bring you down, learn to embrace it!