The land is the arena in which we play out the journey that is our lives. The land is neutral to warrior and hunter who since the beginning of time have been one in the same. The man who picked up a spear to defend the tribe was the same man that used that spear to provide sustenance for his family. The warrior was not identified as a warrior-athlete and the hunter was not a hunter-athlete, or even a “hunter,” for that matter. They simply were. Their survival depended on being hunter and warrior, being skilled in the art and science of both.
I do not like the term hunter-athlete. One is either a hunter or one is not. If one runs a mile a week in preparation for hunting season, is he a hunter-athlete? Or is it the hunter who subscribes to the three-days-on, one-day-off mantra of the Crossfit community? Maybe it’s the ultra-endurance runner who can fly through the mountains on a trail for a hundred miles or more?
A hunter is a hunter. It’s a state of mind, a state of being, a calling. Preparing the body can be as important as knowing one’s weapon system, be it bow or rifle, to make it an extension of oneself—sending countless arrows and bullets downrange from various positions, distances and angles.
Honing these skills is vitally important, but just as in military training, it is the mind that is ultimately the most important tool and weapon at your disposal. A crucible tests the strength of that mind along with the intangible trait of grit. Can you be comfortable being uncomfortable? Can that become the environment in which you thrive, make good decisions and long to return? The uncertainties, the variables, the pressures of war and of the hunt share many similarities, which is why the same man has been drawn to both since time immemorial.
Most civilizations have placed a high level of importance on training their young for the hunt and for war. From age seven to eighteen, Spartan youth took part in the agoge, a rite of passage producing some of the toughest people the world has ever known. First Nation people of the Americas had similar rituals, some starting before birth with mothers wandering the woods to put their unborn child in tune with the rhythms of the wilderness. At adolescence, a vision quest would complete the transition from boy to man. These cultures produced men who could hunt as well as they could fight.
Though not required for citizenship, hunters and warriors still test themselves in the most unforgiving of environments. Those who feel the pull to service can assess themselves in crucibles designed to test for that intangible trait required to prevail when the chips are down: grit. The Navy has its Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, more commonly referred to as BUD/S, the Army has the Special Forces Qualification Course and Ranger schools, the Marines have their world-renowned sniper school. All are crucibles of the modern era.
In the same way that aspiring warriors train for these elite military schools, so does the elk hunter train for the backcountry hunt, the sheep hunter prepare for the shale and near vertical terrain inhabited by their prey. There is a key difference, though. There is no quitting deep in the wilderness, making the stakes higher than quitting an elite military training program like BUD/S. It is easy to quit in BUD/S: You simply ring the bell and set your green helmet with your class number down next to the one signifying the person who quit before you. The immediate consequence of quitting may be life-altering by design, but it is not life threatening. Ten miles from the trailhead with weather closing in, one hundred pounds of elk meat on your back and darkness falling, the consequences of quitting are much higher. What keeps you going? Grit. Your training prepares you for the expected rigors of the hunt, but when you roll that ankle alone in the backcountry, grit wins the day.
Stories passed on from generation to generation of the warrior and hunter classes have inspired those who have heard the call. Our earliest stories and artwork come from the hunt. There must be a reason.
The modern athlete shares some of the same attributes with the warrior and hunter, but not the most important ones. The most elite athletes on the planet are very good at their chosen pursuits, which oftentimes mean they are in exceptional sport-specific shape. Are the Olympic marathon runner and the NFL lineman elite athletes? I would say that they are. When they pull a muscle they have a trainer at the ready to ensure they have the best care available within minutes of injury along with a coach or coaches ready to evaluate and offer wisdom and encouragement. They are like an exotic car capable of incredible speeds but also in need of expensive and frequent tune-ups. The warrior and hunter must be elite in a different sense. Miles into denied territory forward of friendly lines the warrior must push through regardless of the pain. Far from the closest road, and inaccessible by vehicle, the sheep hunter has no choice but to revel in his discomfort. This is part of the pact. Being comfortable being uncomfortable makes the warrior and the hunter brothers, not their three-mile timed run or max deadlift. Pain is a constant companion.
When that warrior returns to base, fatigues marred in sweat, face caked with mud, the enemy’s blood staining his boots, he feels at peace. He is home. Similarly, the hunter, back at camp, fire coming to life beneath Orion, sleeves stiff past the elbows with the blood of an elk that will provide food for his family; a contentment known only to those who participate in the life-and-death process fills his soul. Regardless of the temperature, the distance to loved ones, the time invested in this pursuit, he is home.
Photo credit: Tony Bynum
Without a doubt, training with intensity and frequency tempered with the intelligence of best practices make one a better hunter. But a hunter is more than an athlete. He is a part of the process of life, and by extension, of death. The two are inexorably linked. The hunter is aware of the winds, the rain, the cycle of the moon, the seasons, the sounds, the smells, just as is his warrior brother.
I have witnessed the fight in the Afghans who occupy the unforgiving landscape of the Hindu Kush. The terrain has humbled the toughest of warriors: the Greeks, the British, the Russians, and now the Americans. To the tribesmen of the mountains, it is home. They are connected to the land, to the process of war and the process of the hunt. Tough lands make for a tough people. Our celebrity athletes that fill football stadiums and baseball parks can’t hold a candle to the toughness born of the mountain stadiums that are the playing fields of life for the Afghans.
The mountains are neutral, though it might not feel that way to the elk hunter carrying a hundred-pound load of meat toward a trailhead with miles to go, or to the sheep hunter trying not to break a leg in grizzly country with the sun setting and headlamp batteries close to their end. Those who live and breathe as part of the natural rhythm of the earth are a part of that neutrality. Life and death are the most natural parts of the rhythm of the wild. One depends on the other and so the cycle continues. The land does not care how hard you have trained. The land does not know what mercy is. To survive and prevail one must be a part of the process; a warrior-hunter. To me they are one in the same.
What of those who have not tested themselves in a crucible, have not had the opportunity to fast during a vision quest, have not been tested and forged in the hottest of fires? What of those who as Roosevelt said, fail “while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat?” Cold and timid describes most people these days, I fear. As technology distances us from the natural world we lose our relationship with it, thereby losing the connection to our martial and natural roots.
Preparing for the hunt is preparing for life. One will not always have a trainer, a physical therapist, a coach with words of encouragement, or stands filled with adoring fans to cheer them on. In the wild, nature is harsh. It is real. It is neutral. To understand it, one must answer the call of the hunt.
To call it a sport cheapens it: The hunt is life. To be a hunter is to be a part of the process that is life. Grit, self-reliance, drive, determination, trusting in yourself and your skills—these are all traits that make us better people, better husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and by extension, better citizens.
Having been to war and on the hunt I understand that these are my natural habitats, my natural state of being. One has made me better at the other. I suspect it has always been this way.
The land is neutral and, in the end, it will reclaim us all.