It was one of those early November days when winter is a certainty yet the memory of summer still
clings in warm fall golds to the Aspens and willows bunched in bright clumps on the hillsides and in the hollows. The first snows had whitened Idaho’s majestic mountains, driving the big bucks down from their summer haunts in the rugged, windswept high country. The land and sky were brilliant and deer season was at its peak. It was the best time of the year.
It was, in fact, the closing day of deer season. The snow reached just to the bottom of my knees as my son, Beau, and I set out to hunt one of our favorite mountain haunts, 21 miles from home. The hard crusted snow made it an effort for me to lift my foot out of the hole that I broke with every step. As I struggled uphill behind Beau, my legs trembling with the strain, my breath ragged, I envied the ease with which he climbed the hill; I became aware that the snow only came to mid-calf on his long, strong legs. Stepping in the tracks he made was much easier than making my own, even though I had to lengthen my stride to match his prints. I slithered and floundered along behind him as best I could, trying to be quiet and keep snow out of my gun-barrel.
Now and then Beau would turn, eyes filled with the tolerant pity I had begun to notice in his regard of me, and lend a hand to drag me over some log. As his red vest rose and fell before me, my mind slid away to another day, very much like this one, a decade ago—many footsteps ago—though it doesn’t seem it could be so long a time.
The snow wasn’t quite so deep that day, the country not so high nor steep, but to the little blond
five-year-old boy, struggling along in his mother’s determined tracks, the world must have appeared an endless succession of cold, white, kid-swallowing drifts. I vividly recall his noisy
progress, exasperatingly slow in step but loud in vocal protest when he fell too far behind. As I heard yet another fleet, flown stag crash away unseen through the timber I thought, “I will never get a deer. I will never even see a deer!” I knew there was nothing louder in all the wild woods than the crunch of those little Buster Brown encased feet on a brittle, brown Balsam plant. Beau’s noisy presence was so distracting that more than once I caused a well-concealed whitetail to break cover at the sound of my own scolding voice!
How small Beau was that day—that year! How many miles I either bullied him or carried him along. How tireless my legs and arms seemed to be such a short time ago! How many tracks we made down those fall-clad hillsides in a season when I never counted the seasons ahead or behind or thought of the tracks we were making through time. In those days I watched only for the flash of
quicksilver in the sunlight, a fresh track in the snow or damp earth, and I wanted nothing more—or less—than the glory of a successful hunt and a prized buck for the winter larder.
As it turned out, I shot first buck in Idaho the year that school became more of a priority for Beau than mid-week deer hunting trips with mom. That was the turning point in time for me; no longer burdened with my small, complaining shadow—like a cat-bell hung around my neck—I began to fill one or another of my tags every fall. The seasons blurred together into memory of yellow leaves and an uncountable succession of tracks: lone, single tracks down the snow-dusted, fall-swept Idaho hillsides. As the years passed, I found my enthusiasm for the fall season had shifted and my imperative drive to bring home a dead deer, shot by me alone, had changed into a contentment with contemplative, musing treks through the Autumn wildlands. My trail of tracks covered less ground, strayed less frequently into rough, steep, or unknown territory, and reflected a much more sedate pace.
My fall shadow, who once struggled in my tracks, grew sturdy and tall. The marks we had scratched on the kitchen doorway, pencil tracks tracing Beau’s trail from small boy to young man, passed up all of our own marks, one by one. The advent of High School brought football, Driver’s Ed—heaven help us—Hunter’s Ed, and back into my fall hunting excursions, another set of tracks.
So it was that I came to be struggling along in Beau’s long, deep tracks, up a perpendicular mountainside, through giant snowdrifts, over monster ponderosa deadfalls; panting, moaning, and amazed. Yes, amazed, at the height of his square shoulders, at the tireless pace he set; amazed at the shift of the set and sequence of our tracks through the snow, not just that day or any particular day, but over and through the years.
The hillsides remain the same. The same scattered gold of the Aspen breaks, the same first caress of winter white, the same sharp sting of piney cold, the same fresh hoofprint in the trail; the same quicksilver flash in the trees. But our tracks, my son’s and mine, have changed, and changed again, and will change again, at least a few more times before winter sweeps down to fill them in so smooth and white that no one will know we ever passed a season here.