Packing Out Elk Conjures Up a Sad Ghost
Night was falling dark, dry and dusty as I slipped the last game bag into my freighter pack roughly 1,000 feet in elevation above our Idaho campsite.
Five other bulging game bags hung in the nearby Douglas firs, where they would have to spend the night. I’d been shuttling elk meat from my bull’s kill site for over six hours, and felt physically beaten. This would be my day’s final shuttle, and so I made sure it included the bull’s tongue, heart and tenderloins. I wanted to get the delicacies on ice overnight, just to ensure they wouldn’t spoil.
As I slumped under the heavy backpack and then stood straight to adjust its waist, chest and shoulder straps, my headlamp briefly lighted the nearest blood-stained game bag above.
I paused, suddenly deep in thought. It's odd how a passing glimpse can unlock memories and reminders of forlorn friendships and past considerations.
For several years during the early 1990s, I always made one last cut or two at my deer’s gut piles to retrieve the liver for my next-door neighbor, Gordy Latraille. Gordy savored deer liver, and often swapped me huge bags of potatoes he gathered while visiting his hometown in North Dakota.
At times I also gave Gordy a deer or half-deer because he valued the venison as much as I did. Besides, it was the neighborly thing to do, and he deserved it. I could trust him to watch my home, and maybe even check in and help Penny and the girls when I was away fishing, hunting or on business.
Those considerations ceased their relevancy in late summer 1998. That’s when Gordy died unexpectedly, just weeks before I could make final tweaks and adjustments to my bows, arrows, guns and riflescopes for autumn’s hunting seasons. He was 48.
Gordy was one of those gracious guys who, despite having a nice wife and three respectful sons, had a rough freakin’ life. I never got all the details because I thought it impolite to pry, but I knew his service in Vietnam left him unable to work because of long-term health and stress problems. His visits to the VA hospital in Tomah were more frequent than he cared to discuss, which he expressed by waving off subtle inquiries about his well-being.
On top of that, Gordy was forever driving back to North Dakota to attend the funerals of close relatives, many who died before their time. God help me, but when he drove off on such trips, I often wondered when his turn would come. I don’t pretend to sense pending doom, but it seemed to lurk in Gordy’s shadow.
My worst experience as a neighbor had come a couple of warm summers before his death when my daughters yelled downstairs for me to go to our backdoor. They said Gordy was there and needed to see me. I grumpily greeted him because I was preoccupied with deadlines and tardy manuscripts.
Gordy stammered something about a lot of people arriving shortly, and asked if it would be OK if they parked in my driveway. I must have looked puzzled, because he then blurted, “My wife died last night, and our family's coming in from North Dakota.”
I stared in shock as Gordy blinked tears and explained that his 42-year-old wife, the mother of his three teen-age boys, had checked into the hospital the previous night because she wasn't feeling well. He said she’d been having kidney problems, but then she shocked and shattered him by dying before dawn.
Man, what did this guy do to deserve such deep, chronic pain and loss?
Even though Gordy and I never hunted or fished together, those were our two safe topics for driveway visits. When Gordy learned venison was seldom in short supply in my home, but that I wasn’t a liver fan, he hesitantly asked if I would save every deer liver for him. He said he loved eating it, and rubbed his stomach for emphasis.
His appreciation was so sincere during the subsequent gift-givings that I somehow felt guilty when considering all the deer liver I had left for foxes, raccoons and opossums in previous years.
Before long, I began offering entire deer when our freezers reached capacity. Gordy would send over a son to help me skin the deer. The son then helped me carry the pink carcass down the hill to Gordy's kitchen, and lay it atop the waiting table. Later, he would call me over to proudly show his meat-processing operation, and drop friendly hints about never tiring of fresh liver and venison.
All those memories flashed past me three weeks ago atop that dark, steep Idaho ridge, making me take inventory of my five game bags one more time before grabbing the trekking pole and heading down the ridge.
Later, as I entered our campsite under a rising half-moon, I pictured foxes, skunks and black bears roughly 2 miles away, extracting the big liver from the entrails beneath my elk’s boned-out spine.
Not that those scavengers could somehow care, but they had the Vietnam War to thank for that feast. Their meal was one Gordy would have savored with grace and gratitude.