When I think of elk, I think of them dead. I think of them stately and taxidermied. I think of going to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as a kid and staring at the life-size elk mounts, wondering how they remained so upright when they died. I think of my dad’s friend Scott, and his elk shoulder mount we kept in our house while he was deployed. I climbed on the dresser to run my hand through its hair and tap its eye. I expected the eye to be wet and give under my fingertip, but it clinked, and I thought I discovered elk had glass eyes.
When I think of living elk, I think of the Idaho elk ranch I lived near during college. On my way to the mountains, I drove by the elk behind 20-foot-high fences—eating at troughs like cattle, bugling like something ethereal; a sad mimicry displaced from their source, only taken to the mountains to be killed for someone’s authentic hunting experience.
“Dealing with the social value of animals is one of the more difficult aspects of my job,” said Brent Lonner, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Area Wildlife Biologist.
Five coyotes hovered at my headlight’s fringe when I drove home one night. They paused to check my location, before stepping deeper together into the dark. Two looked back a last time before dissolving away. I went to sleep to their guttural barks, the ones that end with a warbling howl.
I grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Western Montana, and from grades one through six, took Salish language classes. In them, we heard the stories of Coyote. I loved the stories and this history. In the stories, they spent their time outwitting giants and monsters, exacting revenge and saving other creatures. I still view them as some type of deity.
When I was 13, my family moved from the reservation to a different rural Montana town. Here I learned one person’s god can be another’s devil. I learned that Mark Twain described coyotes as spiritless and cowardly, and that everyone in this new town felt the same. I learned the government described them as archpredators, and I learned they’re the survivors of active extermination, that people shoot them from the sky, pile them 10 feet high, and hang them from fence posts that line miles of road.
“White-tailed deer and elk know how to adapt,” Lonner said when I asked why we are seeing their highest numbers in the last century. “They learn where private land is and learn that hunters won’t come there.”
My dad says, “After the nukes hit, it’ll be cockroaches and whitetails left.” Lonner said, “What’s the quote? After the world ends, there will still be coyotes?”
Coyotes snatched my cousin’s Yorkshire Terrier around midnight, when she went outside to urinate. My cousin chased the two coyotes down his Portland suburb street, screaming and waving his arms. They scurried away sideways with the ten-year-old dog in their jaws, puncturing her neck and belly. He threw his half-eaten apple at them, and they dropped her and scattered. When he walked into the house propping the dog in his hands above his chest, her blood soaked his forearms red and dripped off his elbows. After trips to the vet, she survived. A combination of a bruised and cut esophagus, painkillers, and antibiotics made for a subdued old dog. Her eyes blank and watery, she would tilt her head slowly when you called her name. Once her throat healed and the holes closed, she went back to running in circles and yapping at perceived nothings.
In November, the irrigation canals that run back to the Bob Marshall Wilderness have long emptied and dried-up, but when my dad and I drove by, one was still muddy from the last snow. My dad pointed out a bald eagle standing on the bottom, its talons settled into a half-submerged animal dirty gray as the mud it was sunk in. The animal’s tail rose away from itself long and round like a dog. The dog’s tail jarred us both, turned the scene mournful.
Roxy, that Yorkie of my cousin’s, a couple years before the coyotes hijacked her, sniffed out a burrow filled with newborn rabbits. Somewhere in the recesses of her brain, her muscles and tissue, she knew what to do. Digging in that hole the way her ancestors dug into mineshafts, she crammed into the tight space, teeth-bared and clamping, as singularly focused as they’d been in their rodent extermination. Roxy killed all the baby rabbits while their mother watched and twitched a few feet away.
“I work with ranchers and farmers, non-traditional landowners, hunters, conservationists,” Lonner said. “Every group has its bias. Ranchers think about animals differently than say, hunters because ranchers live and work with them all year, and hunters typically only spend a few weekends with them.”
On one afternoon bike ride, I came upon a rattlesnake in the middle of the highway. It started only as a twisted line before revealing its middle, torn through with the entrails spilled over the discolored yellow line. The scene filled my mouth in the way some sights overwhelm many senses. I could taste the snake’s curled-back stomach, the edges of its hollowed-out body, sticky and metallic.
The same happened last week when I drove past the cranked, emptied body of a cow elk laying roadside. I scraped my tongue against my teeth to remove the taste. The stomachs of animals killed on the road seem disproportionately ripped open. Their shoulders and hips tattered but together, attached to cavernous, excavated bodies. I know how tires can run through and open a snake, but I don’t know how it happens with four-legged animals, or how quickly scavengers get to their easy parts. I wonder about this, but keep driving. What is my relationship now, when it’s so often the viewing of roadside death at 70 miles-per-hour, my neck craning as I try to take in more meaning than I deserve?
A rancher deposited cow carcasses in a field below Gilman Hill a day or two before I drove by. Golden eagles, bald eagles, and various hawks and harriers in the dozens crowded the hill, field, and sky. They came to this cluster from solitary reaches miles apart. They sat still on dead tree branches and fence poles, only the slow revolution of their necks suggesting life. Or they glided listlessly above, all waiting turns to pick the teeming bodies to skeleton. The bodies’ smells didn’t get into the truck’s cab, and my senses were blocked to the point I felt as distanced to the macabre scene as watching it on BBC. The less-than-Attenborough narration: There’s a lot of birds.
Three miles down the road and nine years earlier, on Gunther’s Hill, my brother’s left headlight shattered against a leaping white-tailed deer. From the passenger seat, I saw the deer lunge and flip, hobble off the road down the hill and gone. It all happened weirdly slow. We got out to check the damage, but the deer was disappeared in the tall grass of the roadside ditch. All that remained of her were the patches of hair we pulled from headlight crumples of newly red-filtered plastic.
I drove to the Targhee National Forest, past Warm River and halfway to Mesa Falls, before the plowed roads stopped and the snowmobiles started. I snowshoed into a valley away from the blocked road, away from gauged snow and snowmobile’s whines. Towards the Henry’s Fork River, to see the frozen-over parts and the quick, clear flow underneath. I wanted to see life unaffected by unnatural things, and thought I would if only I walked a little farther.
On the valley floor, I found small bunches of hair stamped into three-day old snow. A few more steps, and the bunches became swaths that feathered over pink blood. I came to the remains of an elk, and my body jerked away, tensed and buzzing, my mind racing blank. The skull, spine, and hips of the elk were all that was left: a mottled gray like the remnants of a Thanksgiving turkey—far from the bleached white state that accompanies sacrifices and sacred grounds, yet the land felt hallowed the same. The skeleton looked grimy to the touch, like it would leave something on you that had to be scrubbed off.
Where I stood, red-cheeked and breathing heavy, there was no smell besides my own. The sharp air paused the rot of meat left in the fissures of spine and hips, and the blood-clumps of hair looked sprouted from the bones. Life felt present in the freshness of this death. The parts of this elk still with us in the world. Is a thing alive if it is still giving life? The stomachs of vanquishers were still filled. The tracks were still distinct and telling, their story still unfolding.
I found what I’d wanted, and I couldn’t stay. I clomped up the hill itchy with sweat and drove home. Below the mountains, firs and pines gave way to fields where sprinkler pivots rolled over long sweeping rows of dark, wet earth.
A herd of elk crossed the highway in front of me last month outside Lincoln, MT. The moon lit their backs, and my headlights lit their sides. Their presence took up an altered space in that field, their mass no more tangible than drifting breath. I felt as though I could have passed through them like passing through fog, just the sensation of something heavier. But still how corporeal they were as apparitions.
Brock Allen is writer from Montana currently living in Fresno, CA, where he is a Creative Nonfiction candidate in Fresno State’s MFA program.