Turning the Orange

This TOJ will soon abandon his favorite running trail, though fall is the sweet season for a trail runner in Colorado because the sun moves further south, making for cool mornings and warm days that are perfect for distance running.

Unfortunately, just as the aspen and oak leaves start to turn spectacular yellows and reds that cover the mountain sides as far as the eye can see, one very unnatural color also arrives -- day-glow orange, the safety color of vests and hats worn by a mechanized army of big game hunters. For the next three months, I share my favorite BLM trail with armed strangers who make a valuable contribution to the local economy by their conspicuous consumption, but present a clear and present danger to back country runners.

In his book Why We Run: A Natural History, the biologist Bernd Heinrich speculated that running taps into primordial hunting instincts that we share with our ancient relatives on the African savanna. He writes, "It is not the hunting that motivates, nor is it the prize as such. The allure is being out in the woods, in having all senses on edge, and in the chase." Although I love to run, I've never had fantasies that I'm on a hunt, though I see big game all the time. And the Bubbas I see riding around on ATVs, clearly there only to hunt, don't act like they feel much connection with ancient hunters depicted in cave pictographs either.

Big game season starts with bow hunters, clad head to toe in camouflage, and old fashioned muzzle loaders. I won't see many of them. Anybody hunting where I run in early September will find slim pickings because the most big game are up on the Flattops above 9,000 feet where it's cooler and there is more cover to hide in and understory to eat. Where I run at 6,000 feet, the gambel oak and grasses are so dry that any movement will instantly give a hunter away. I never worry about these hunters mistaking me for a buck because they must be close enough to their target to see exactly what they are shooting at due to the limited range of their weapons.

However, in the second half of September come the first crack of rifles. Once the rifles are around, I remember the message of the X-Files: Trust No One, and I start wearing the day-glow orange vest I bought years ago at Wally World for $5. By wearing the orange vest, I exhibit a kind of respect for hunters that says I recognize their presence and acknowledge their customs.

The Colorado rifle hunting season for deer and elk stretches over October, November, and early December. How many hunters show up where I run depends on how much snow starts falling 10 miles away, up the high country. Heavy snow drives down the deer and elk. By late October the hunting can be really good where I run if the storms come, but the last couple of years, its been too warm and the snows later to arrive.

Last fall on opening weekend, early morning I headed up the trail. At the top of the first climb were a couple of trucks with California plates. They had set up a nice camp with several wall tents, a neat stack of wood, and large metal fire ring. I didn't see any of them around as I went by, but when I came down one of them was standing along the trail near the camp in his day-glow orange vest and hat. I waved a hello and the man waved back and stepped out like he'd like to talk, which is not usually the case. There is often a look of surprise or suspicion when hunters see me on the trail in running shoes and shorts, orange vest on or not, like a TOJ is out of place.

It's an expensive proposition to be an out of state hunter in Colorado because the licenses are pricey, not to mention miles of travel and hauling a ton of gear. I always know if game is around because I watch for tracks as I trudge along trying to avoid tripping on a rock or root. Last year there weren't many in early October. Too hot and dry. I advised him to move their camp up higher, but they stayed there the whole time, and I never saw signs they had any luck.

In late October and into November the first snows usually come, a little at first, then steadily heavier. It's also when the Bubbas show up. Bubbas drive big macho-trucks to haul huge campers and trailers with multiple ATVs. They never heard of roughing it. Most come from out of state. They cluster at the bottom of the trail like fidgety soldiers awaiting the order to launch a military operation. Their rifles are in black plastic scabbards, and often a cooler of beer (judging by the trash I find after they leave, they prefer cheap American pilsners) is strapped on the rack of their ATVs. Because they spend so much time sitting on their butts, they have to bundle up in single piece suits and hats pulled down over their ears to avoid freezing. When they are revving their ATVs before they head up in single file, you can't hear anything else over the roar and the air stinks of engine exhaust. So much for Heinrich's romantic idea of having your "senses on edge and in the chase."

I have a rule. If three or more Bubba trucks are at the bottom of the trail, especially if their plates are from out of state, I don't go up. Instead I head north on the asphalt road going through the valley ranch land. Or right after work I'll run up a hard uphill trail that starts in the town where my office is located. I run with a headlamp because it starts to get dark at 5 pm. There it's beautiful and quiet as the stars come out and the lights turn on in the town below. And no hunting is allowed.

A day-glow vest isn't enough of a guarantee to make me feel confident that I won't get accidentally shot by a jumpy, pot-gutted Bubba whose brain has been altered by buck fever and cheap beer. (Accidental shootings don't happen often, but do happen. A few years ago, about five miles from where I run, a guy hunting wild turkey shot and killed another guy hunting wild turkey. The guy who got killed was hiding behind a bush. When he moved the bush, the other guy fired at the bush thinking there was a turkey. And of course, remember Dick Cheney.) If heavy wet snow has fallen, their deep lug tires will rip the trail to shreds, cutting deep muddy ruts as they fishtail up the hill with throttles open wide. Running becomes difficult, if not impossible.

I have no moral issues with hunters killing animals to eat. I eat meat as couple times a week, and the meat that hunters "harvest" is much more nutritious and safer than anything they are likely to buy in a supermarket (see Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat by Howard F. Lyman and Glen Merzer, one of the first books to expose the dangerous levels of antibiotics and hormones that pollute many industrially produced meat products). Besides, some hunters rely on game to feed their families, especially in this recession. Best of luck to them.

However, I don't think the Bubbas have much interest in nature, certainly not in the well being of their own bodies. Why can't they walk? Why do they smoke so much? What's with all the Twinkie wrappers? Once I found two large cow elk carcasses; the steaks had been neatly carved off the entire length of spines and the remainder of the meat left to rot. Real hunters are the pure of heart -- they trek, climb, stalk, track, use stealth, appreciate animal behavior, and leave no trace as they pursue their game. And they eat what they kill -- all of it. Real hunters are an endangered species. What I see must make Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt roll over in their graves.

By the last month of the season, I'm in voluntary exile. But that's okay. In mid-December, big game season is over, and the hunters disappear just like the leaves on the trees. My day-glow vest is wadded up and stuck in a corner of a closet. For the next five months, all you'll find up there are the wind blown tracks of deer, elk, coyote, and a TOJ.

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