The strap of my rifle digs awkwardly into the already sore muscles of my neck. I think to myself how my roommate would not approve. I am by myself on a wheeler, not my wheeler but solitary all the same and I am celebrating by reminding my body just how little I care about its groanings. Even so, I cut back on the throttle and knock it in to a lower gear. Not for the sake of my neck or the patch of somehow bare skin on my wrist that is numb from cold or my thumb that seems cramped into place on the throttle or my eyes that water from the dust and wind. No. This is the first of a baker’s dozen of waterbars striping the next third of a mile to keep the road from washing out and between these and the holes left behind when the bulldozer scraped out rocks to “fix” the road it is becoming hard to navigate at my preferred speed.
I was next to last out of the gate this morning but I have passed two quads from our party to put myself in the lead. We all left later than we intended but I appear to be the only one trying to make up for lost time. Then again I also have the farthest to climb. And there is a pair on one wheeler so bumps are harder to mitigate. And my uncle just had his hip replaced, so he is “taking it easy”. My nephew would be in front of the pack but he elected to hunt on foot from the house. If it weren’t for the freedom of four-wheeler that his choice gives me I would be jealous of his good idea, his extra half an hour to sleep.
It is still some time before dawn when I reach my habitual parking spot, just past the orange ribbon on the tamarack and just before the upturned root that looks like an elk shed. I pull the key and find myself surrounded by nothingness. I shimmy the rifle over my head, remove the scope covers and chamber a round, safe on. I am hunting.
But that is stupid and I know it. I cannot see to shoot will not be able to shoot for another half an hour at least. If I am hunting while I am walking I will have to wait. And this is a good meadow for critters to bed down in. I should wait. But I am right up against the woods and they are dark dark woods. Instead I follow my usual pattern and tromp through the brush guided by the little circle of red emanating from my headlamp which sorely needs new batteries. To put the stamp of approval on my instincts I am less than half way to my perch when I hear a pair of startled animals crashing in to what sounds like everything on their way to and then through the thick timber on the south side of the meadow. I never do see them although I started maybe only 30 feet from them. Such is the pervasive darkness of a land without light pollution. I settle into my nest recognizing that my morning chances of seeing anything probably leapt away on the swift feet of ungulates in a rush. I “hrumph” in frustration to my sheltering tree but it remains unconcerned in the blackness.
I think this is my favorite time of day. It is like saffron, precious, transient and well worth the price of admission. A faint sliver of the waning moon graces the cloudless sky. Little is left but it shines with enough intensity to drown out all but the most persistent stars. Out of vast blackness silhouettes of trees emerge. At first they are merely breaks in a skyline of domed mountains. But slowly, silently, mountains separate from other mountains, each a subtly different shade of almost too black to be grey. And the sky has the slightest hint of a color. It is as if the landscape has been tinted barely blue. Or maybe the color is more violet…Or could it be green? Next the birches and alders and poplars take on definition and they too are bathed in the soft almost-color. I look for markers, remembered places, huckleberry bushes with fiery red leaves, evergreens that live up to their name, the yellow crowns of leaves topping the alder trees…I can imagine their hues but for a few more moments I am captured in black and white. I am mesmerized. Images cannot capture such beauty; words cannot possibly describe it. Who has ever seen such a morning except me? Who will ever see this morning again? I am utterly alone but to be lonely seems impossible. And suddenly, instantly, colors appear. Orange, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, born of nothing. Dawn is breaking.