What Used to Be ‘A Way of Life’
NORWOOD – Big game hunting here on Wright’s Mesa is big business for this small, remote area of the San Juan Mountains. But during the season – it begins in early October with muzzle-loading rifle season, and soon there’s much more, well into November.
Hunters are pretty conspicuous on Norwood’s main drag (there’s only one). Or try the bars – plenty of hunting talk there. You might even hear a visiting hunter – done up in the most expensive gear he can afford, call out to a friend – “Hey, did you get your elk yet?” (Or buck or bear?) Bright “hunter-orange” – vests, jackets, hats and other highly visible clothing, has replaced the earlier camouflage gear.
Still, big game hunting here has become highly controversial. “I call it industrial hunting,” Father Syl Schoening said recently, the tone of his voice somewhere between anger and deep disappointment. Now just turned 80, this retired Catholic pastor has always been a steward of the land (and other issues of conscience) both here and in Telluride, where he served St. Patrick’s as parish pastor for 12 years, starting in 1981. Father Syl was a very early and active Vietnam war protester, which, among other things, marked him as both brave and controversial.
Retired in Norwood – at his secluded Hermitage a few miles south of town, but still active in civic affairs, with the lengthy hunting season at hand, Father Syl was ready to vent about big game hunting and what had gone wrong with a once low-key outdoor sport for local San Miguel residents.
Turns out that a lot of other folks here aren’t pleased with the costly “industrial hunting” that’s turned into lucrative businesses for “full- service” professional guides and outfitters, and private landowners here, as well. The Herndon Ranch is also caught up in this economic dilemma – do you maximize your income, or stick with your land ethic?
There are distinct parallels here with the Paradox Valley’s conflicting views about supporting the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill development – jobs for this depressed area versus dreams of a future internationally recognized outdoor recreation site, like Moab.
But even now, fall hunting season in the Norwood- Wright’s Mesa area the center has what’s been a highly welcome economic shot-in-the-arm (oops) for business here. From restaurants to motels, laundromats, service stations and the like, out-of-town hunters spend money.
You’ll find a real sense of authentic San Juan Mountain hunting at Dennis Eymann’s Norwood True Value Hardware store on Main Street. No low-rent, Wal-Mart feel here. Just better quality gear – Carhartt, Levi, and high quality outdoor boots that run to $185 a pair. So, if you’re an out-of town hunter (and there many, Eymann says) and serious winter weather rolls in, you may find what you need to save your hunting trip at Eymann’s. In addition, he says, out-of-town hunters buy “lots of local stuff,” from T-shirts to horse hay, special feed pellets, binoculars, game calls, knives and “cover scents” to disguise evidence of old critter activity.
Guns and ammunition sales, however, are out. “The public is buying it up so fast” that guns and ammo are scarce items, Eymann tells me. (Just another sign, perhaps, of this nation’s fear and paranoia over our divided political and cultural values.) But here in San Miguel County, small rifles were “tools of the trade’’ for ranchers and others locals who ran into unexpected events. So says longtime friend John Mansfield (outdoorsman, law-enforcement officer are just two among his many skills) who understands the role guns have played here in ranching country. Rifles were “working tools – lever action 30-30 caliber, with iron sights and a short barrel;” for early-day ranchers no telling when you’d find a crippled critter, an unwelcome varmint or whatever. (Today’s slicked-up gas-guzzling pickups still sport back window gun racks – it’s a cultural style statement of sorts.)
In the early days – the late 1940s – cowboys, my father-in-law included, often carried such a small rifle in a case, tied onto the saddle somewhere. When big game hunting became a bigger thing here, specific hunting rifles – and scopes – took over. The new style rifles with their flatter trajectory became “really deadly,” John explains to me – I’m a non-hunter, who’s basically scared of guns. When I first joined the Herndon family, the family was pretty casual about hunting – no fancy gear. The guys sighted in their rifles, and tied worn-out red bandanas around their sweaty old working Stetsons. That was it. Locals were more afraid of inexperienced and nervous first-time hunters, firing off a “sound shot” through the trees, than blending in with the woods – camouflage-style.
But now, welcome to hard times, everybody. At least one outfitter this fall is offering “special, one-time” recession rate. That translates to a $1,000 discount for a five-day, guided rifle season hunt – which typically runs close to $4,000. But nobody I talked to was predicting the decline of “full-service” commercial hunting, lodging, meals, ATVs – (very high on Father Syl’s “unsportsmanlike” list.) But in addition to Redvale’s upscale Bray Ranch hunting, you’ll see “Bray Ranches Private Land Wildlife Adventures. Want a guided walk in the wilderness – see Bray’s website. Several generations of the Bray family run this business – including sheep and cattle on 20,000 acres of private land.
A number of local families follow their own, not-for-profit fall hunting traditions. One of my favorites is longtime family friend and colleague Betty Greager. A tall, handsome, stylishly dressed woman in her late 70s, Betty and her husband Howard (the local writer and historian) have seen it all. To me, Betty is a sort of serene outdoorswoman; steady, paced – probably a good shot with the right rifle. Betty plans to hunt this fall – she has an elk license, and got her “last elk” in 1992 (and an antelope in Brown’s Park two years before that).
“I love to get out,” says Betty, who started hunting in 1960 with a group of hardy Wright’s Mesa women, and killed her “first elk in 1961.” She is proud of her record – I could hear it in her voice – and a confident provider who has always known what “sustainability” and natural meat are all about. Go, Betty.
Now, from my early years here, just scuffing through the deep cover of aspen leaves in the Lone Cone’s deep forests with the sun turning ground into pure gold, you don’t have to be a hunter to feel the fall magic – try it, between hunting seasons this fall. Then consider Norwood’s Grother family. Craig’s just retired from the U.S. Forest Service as its longtime wildlife officer. The family hunts together, puts up their own meat – make elk sausage, even, and occasionally provides tasty meals for ailing friends (me). Nothing like the big-bucks, self-indulgent seasonal “resorts.”
With the Grother family, it’s a way of life, folks. Something to learn here – maybe something to do with President Obama’s call for some political and cultural “change” in Americans’ vision of our future, off-pavement selves. I’ m not saying goodbye to Woody Allen or our long cultural heritage, but I’m ready to say goodbye to big-time, big- money “industrial style” hunting here in San Miguel County.
How about you?