Andrew and I got married in September, so by Christmas time, we were 3 months in deeper love with one another. Our first Christmas was one of humble beginnings, but one that set the tone for one of our favorite Christmas traditions.
Andrew had gone elk hunting a couple weeks before Christmas, and they hadn’t been successful. When I asked when they’d be going back out, he said, “That was it. I can’t take more time off to go again.” It made me sad to see him so disappointed. He loved hunting, but in our newly-wed status, the meat an elk would have provided was going to be a huge blessing.
I had an idea. “What about on Christmas?” I asked.
He looked at me, a little taken aback, “I’m not going to take your Christmas.” (We had just had a talk about how I felt like he wasn’t making my family stuff enough of a priority.)
“We could go early in the morning and be back in time for my family party at 1:00, don’t you think?”
He really didn’t need much convincing, but I was pleased at his effort to put my family stuff first, and more pleased that I was winning first-place wife status.
We woke up at 3:30 Christmas morning to a blizzard. But we were going. We packed all our gear and made a very slow drive to Duschene County. Once we crossed over the mountains, the snow tapered back and it was actually a pleasant day. We had prayed for success (honestly, I said to Heavenly Father, if we are going to make this big of an effort and this much of a sacrifice of our first Christmas morning, please help it to be worth it.)
It wasn’t five minutes into the drive down the dirt road we had turned off on to spot a small group of elk, about 5 or so. As we had stopped the truck, they had sauntered off, so we got out to go follow them. This being A: my first hunting excursion (let’s just say my dad about fell off his chair when I told him I was going hunting with Andrew. Although I come from a big hunting family, I had never gone hunting myself. I was the daughter that would pray for the safety of the animals when my dad went hunting…) and B: me being an absolute wuss when it comes to the cold, it took me just a minute to bundle all the way up. By time we got out to where the elk had been, they were long gone.
We heard some chirping and Andrew glassed across the land. “Holy cow!” He breathed. “There’s a herd of elk out there, probably 300 plus.”
He handed me the binoculars. I saw them too. My heart fist pumped heaven.
“They’re probably about 3 miles out. It’ll take some time to get out to them,” He said. We looked at the clock. It was about 9:00, and we needed to leave at 11:00 to make it back to my grandmother’s party. We decided we’d chase ’em and see where we were at at 10:30.
“Alright,” he said, pulling his pack tight onto his back. “I’m going to have to boogie. Will you be ok?”
“I’ll keep up as best I can,” I said, my athlete pride a little hurt. So we took off, but it didn’t take long for me to start to lag behind. I finally said, “Just go. I’ll follow.” Luckily, there was enough snow on the ground so his footsteps would be simple to keep to. He showed me he was going to keep to the edge of some hills, so I had a basic idea of where to go, and then he boogied. I stifled the rising awareness that I was now by myself in the middle of no where. We had seen another truck parked a little further down the road from where we had stopped, and I tucked the fear of running into some other mountain man also back behind my mind, and I just kept my eyes on Andrew’s footprints in front of me.
It was going just fine for a while. Until Andrew’s footprints merged with another set of footprints. The mountain man, I thought. Was he following Andrew? Did they meet here? Was Andrew following him? I had no way of knowing. So I kept going, punching down the scary movie scene playing in my head.
After probably twenty minutes, I had to pee. And I had bibs on (they’re basically winter overalls). So hoping the mountain man wasn’t watching, I stripped my winter wear off and took care of business. After a ten minute potty break due to my complex wardrobe, all was well, and I trucked on.
Eventually, Andrew’s footprints and mountain man’s footprints diverged. Only, I didn’t know whose was whose. Oh Heavenly Father, what do I do? I prayed. I had to go back to where the prints first came together and make sure which were Andrew’s. I sighed. So much for catching back up to Andrew. So back I went, studied, came back, and thought I could tell which were Andrew’s and took off after those, the whole time wondering if I had really chosen the right path.
The footprints soon started up a steep little hill. Once I got to the top, the footprints stopped. What the? And then I realized Andrew must have climbed the hill to scout how close to the elk he was, and then climbed back down the same way he came. I sighed again, and back down the hill I went.
Ten minutes later, the footprints went up another steep hill, only to come back down again. And then up and down another hill. And another. Andrew! I was yelling in my head.
As I was coming down one of these hills, I heard a gun shot off in the distance. Yes! I smiled. This is finally over.
And then another gun shot. Ok, kill shot, I thought.
And then another shot. Crap. He missed. That meant the herd was on the move. I looked at my watch. It was 11:00. At this point, I wasn’t going home without an elk. My blood, sweat, and tears were now involved. He had better follow them.
Finally, the hills ended and I came to a windy clearing, windy enough that the footprints were either faded or barely visible. I had to make a lot of guessing, but somehow, God be praised, I found Andrew’s path again (or what I hoped was Andrew’s path…) on the other side.
And then, I saw it. Hundreds, thousands, of elk tracks. I tried to keep to Andrew’s footprints, but they were hard to find amidst the turned up snow. I just kept straight, like I had in the clearing, finding one print here, or one there. And then I saw blood. And no more visible tracks, but I saw another blood spot a bit further down. Still, I couldn’t see any footprints. The snow was useless at this point, being trodden down by the herd. I sat down on a log and prayed.
I looked to my right, where the ground started to slope down, and saw Andrew. He was elbow deep in elk blood, gutting his harvest. Relieved this was over, ecstatic he hadn’t missed like I had thought, and completely grossed out, I called out, “Andrew?!”
His head shot up. “Yeah!”
“I’m going to stay over here.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” he laughed.
After he got the elk all ready to go, I realized we weren’t done, not even close. We now had to get this elk to the truck. With a rope tied to the elk, we dragged the gigantic animal, just us 2, for 3 miles. All I have to say is thank heavens my husband is strong as an ox, thank heavens there was snow on the ground to make for easy sliding, and thank heavens the ground was flat for the most part.
As we walked, we talked about our separate adventures, laughing at the different perspectives, and agreeing that it was a terrible idea to leave me without a gun in the middle of no where with the mountain man. Andrew hadn’t seen him, but followed the mountain man’s tracks, hoping to catch him and make a plan together so mountain man didn’t shoot first and scare the elk off. But when his tracks started to go away from where the elk were, Andrew gave up. Yeah, a pistol for the wife was going right on the list of must haves for next time.
It was about 1:30 by time we got the elk into the truck (by some serious geniusness on my husband’s part because there was no way we 2 were going to be able to heave a dead elk carcass three feet in the air).
I had told my family our plans, so I called to let them know we weren’t dead, but that we’d miss the party.
“Oh, we’re all still here,” my mom said. In a family of hunters, they were going to wait for the tales of Christmas hunting adventure and to hug Andrew for getting me to go hunting.
As we made the drive home, Andrew smiled as he squeezed my hand, “This has hands down been the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
I don’t even rememeber what presents we actually gave one another that year, but that Christmas morning is a forever memory. Although that first Christmas is hard to beat, each year, instead of waking up and getting stuff, we wake up and go on a winter adventure. And to this day, my best-wife-ever trophy shines brightly among our family memories.