Ah, Wilderness!

For six hours we've been surrounded by elk we never see. They move around us in tight circles, mating, pooping, bugling, but always invisible. How can this be? After all, between the two of us, we have one person who knows hunting backward and forward and one who at least knows how to be quiet; we also have a muzzle-loading rifle and lots of ammo. In a contest between us and a herd of distracted, lust-crazed elk, we should win, right?

"Ha," says Patt Dorsey, as she lies down with her head on her backpack and closes her eyes. "People say, oh, those poor defenseless animals, but they're very, very smart."

So far today, they've been smarter than us.
"Yeah, we went the wrong way," Patt concedes. "But that's why they call it hunting, not killing, you know?" She throws me a Rice Krispies treat. After I eat it, I lie down, too. The forest floor is amazingly comfortable, and in our wool clothes, we could surely lie here through a blizzard, fueled by sugar and the sense of having all the time in the world.

After a while, quiet becomes a barely perceptible cacophony of woodland sounds. About fifty gossiping chickadees. Squirrels in the tops of the ponderosa laughing and throwing down cones. The wind sighing through the underbrush. And beneath it all, the background noise of cow elk musing, chatting, chirping, while the bulls, in their unsubtle mating frenzy, squeak and honk and tear at the shrubbery with their antlers. It sounds more like a troupe of frustrated hairdressers dropping their combs than the noble-sounding act of bugling.

Testosterone, I think: What a hassle!
Fortunately, Patt and I are not troubled by anything of the sort, though these woods are also full of men on ATVs, duded up in safety orange, determined to get their elk so they don't return home in disgrace. Having accepted disgrace both at home and abroad hours--or years--ago, we continue to relax.

Patt is the special projects coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Education Section--which means she develops classes and workshops in "non-traditional hunting," which this certainly seems to be. During the week you can find her dressed up in city clothes, lecturing, or out here in the woods, hunting whatever's in season.

That this particular week is her vacation does not seem to have changed her basic plan. She still rose early enough to get here before the sun was up, and she still plans to stay until something interesting happens.

Half an hour of silence slips by. Because there is nothing pressing to do, we can chart the progress of the sun through the trees. A three-minute discussion of President Clinton's definition of sex. Ten minutes of quiet. Then:

"I know I'm never going to be a beautiful young girl," the 37-year-old Patt observes. "So I'm planning to be a cool-looking old lady."

"With a face like an old leather sofa," I agree.
"Like Georgia O'Keeffe," she says.
Five minutes of nothing. Another Rice Krispies treat. A discussion of the tomato harvest.

"As a matter of fact, I was out in my garden yesterday morning," she recalls. "Right away I saw a hornworm. I told him: That's your last meal, you little asshole. That's the difference between hunting and gardening. Patt the hunter is nice. Patt the gardener destroys."

"I've blown away hornworms with my BB gun," she confesses. "They blew up real good."

Patt grew up fat and figured she always would be. "I added the extra T because I figured if I was going to be Fat Pat, I should be an interesting Patt," she says. But one day fifteen years ago, she began to eat lots of fruit, which pushed some of the junk food out of her diet. Weight melted off until one hundred pounds were gone.

Rather than viewing this as the central accomplishment of her life, Patt was more surprised that it had happened at all. It was not as though her body was all she thought about. Also, she had been too busy messing around in the wild to notice.

"I always had," she says. "Usually, with a woman, they start hunting at thirty because of a husband or a boyfriend. I started hunting when I was ten."

Ducks. It was a freezing cold day near Peetz, Colorado. Her father and grandfather took her to a slough where the water still flowed, crawled with her for half an hour--over ancient buffalo wallows, past arrowheads from long-gone hunters--and then waited patiently while she took many, many shots and finally got a mallard, whose tail feathers she still possesses. "They thought that was the most important thing, that I kill a bird," she recalls. "I didn't care so much. I just wanted to be with my dad and my grandpa."

Her father, a Frito-Lay salesman, hunted religiously on weekends. Her grandfather's parents had come to the Sterling area from Ireland, a place presented to Patt as a country "where the woods belonged to the Kings. The American system was terribly important to everyone in my family," she explains, "because whoever you are, the woods belong to you."

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