Wrapped warmly in cowboy hats, fur coats and leather pants, my ten fellow passengers and I disembarked our small plane in Bozeman, Montana. We were greeted by a crystal clear, ice-cold morning a few days before Thanksgiving. The taxidermy we passed on the way to baggage claim, proudly exhibited throughout the tiny airport, presciently foreshadowed my trip.
A friend with whom I hunt bird in northern California invited me to spend the holiday hunting in Montana. His family, living just outside of Bozeman and hunters all, gathered me at the airport and hosted me in their comfortable Arts and Crafts bungalow. My host, a large Labrador Retriever of a man, had driven out from Napa Valley and allowed me to load his car with my traveling booty, bypassing the hassle at airport screening sure to be brought on by my ‘contraband’: a case of mature California and French wines, washed-rind cheeses, Japanese and Chinese teas, Meyer lemons, Mendocino green bud, Maldon salt, shotguns in their leather scabbards, butchering and hunting knives, and several different types of ammunition.
After fetching me at the airport, our small group drove for an hour through Montana’s breathtaking vastness of hills and plains, observing its big sky, and listening to the wail of country music from the local radio station. The sporting life is woven into people’s daily routine; into the understanding of their position and their role within nature. I spotted a white SUV, one side covered in dried blood. Being of Italian descent from the east coast, and having spent a chunk of time in southern Italy, I just assumed it was a Mafia hit. It was patiently explained to me that a deer or elk had been put on the roof rack and had bled down the side of the car and frozen there.
We arrived at media mogul Ted Turner’s ranch just after noon. The Flying D is an 113,613-acre ranch located in southwest Montana just north of Yellowstone National Park. Like all Turner ranches, the Flying D is operated as a working business, relying on bison and hunting as its principal enterprises. Two handsome cowboys, both of whom were sporting dreamy chaps, Stetson hats and thick drawls, greeted our group. We loaded into an old jeep equipped with a wench hung on its open trailer. Even at midday under a sunny sky, it was biting cold. We were after a bison. About 500 heads a year are culled from Turner’s ranch by sporting enthusiasts and those wanting to fill their freezers for the winter ahead. These enormous beasts are ear-tagged with varying colors depending upon their size. The ‘harvesters’, to which we are referred, pay a fee determined by the size classification of the desired animal. We drove through the hills until we came upon one of the many roaming herds. My host, a fantastic shot, used a bow and arrow to quickly put down the 800-pound animal, considered a mid-sized bison.
The cowboys immediately got to work, expertly eviscerating the bison and leaving its astonishingly enormous, steaming entrails for the hawks and ravens circling overhead. They strung up the animal by its front legs on the wench and drove us back to our car, unceremoniously depositing our harvest, hide and head intact, into our waiting trailer.
We had hours of work ahead of us and only a few of remaining sunlight. We rigged a pulley to the old barn, located on the property where we were staying, and hoisted that huge, heavy beast off the ground. We began by sharpening our knives and carefully skinning the bison. After several hours of slowly cutting and peeling back the skin, a pile of black hairy hide lay beneath the still-warm carcass. The sun had dropped behind the mountains across the valley. Despite the warmth of the flesh, my hands were frozen, my fingers stinging from the cold. Nature would provide the evening’s necessary refrigeration.
Over a fine dinner of roasted pork loin, smoked chipotles, and a 1985 Mondavi Cabernet, we discussed how Americans, carnivores to the core, hold strong, often vehement reactions to hunting. We debated our country’s collective disconnect to the meat on our table and how that meat is actually raised. I have always been a passionate cook, devoted to the notion of seasonality and locality, which provided my initial incentive to hunt. My hosts were anxious for me to bag my first game: a white-tailed deer. Having only pursued birds, I was curious about my gut reaction to killing a larger animal. But as I nestled under soft flannel sheets, listening to the frigid wind howl, I concocted a recipe for a future venison stew.
Not uncommon in hunting circles, we rose before dawn. I brewed an enormous pot of Jasmine Pearl tea with Meyer lemons and good Montanan honey to wake and warm us while we butchered the bison. The enormity of the creature was only realized as we dressed the immense loin, the strapping legs, the barrel-like chest. It was hours of laborious work, made less tedious by the freshness of the animal and the sun’s slow ascent, warming the frozen, peaceful valley spread out at eye-level before us.
Having cut and wrapped most of the meat to be shipped home, we piled into a spacious pick-up truck, complete with requisite gun racks, hunting dogs and antler sheds, and headed into the mountains to hunt bird. I felt like a teenager: drinking beer, gnawing on homemade jerky and listening to old rock-n-roll at high decibels. It was bone-chillingly cold, but the big sky was bright blue. We hiked the open fields for hours, the crimson corn and wheat stubble yielding few opportunities to shoot but plenty of amazing vistas. Just before sunset, we stumbled upon a covey of Huns, or Hungarian partridge, and bagged just a small one.
As we arrived back to the house, I noticed a pile of birds lying on the porch. I sorted through pheasant, partridge and quail; their colorful bodies frozen solid from the outdoor temperatures. We walked inside the house, warmed from the constantly stoked fireplace, as an enormous cast iron skillet was being removed from the oven and the cork pulled from an older Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. A wild pheasant pie with foraged mushrooms was to be enjoyed for dinner, its savory aromas making me wild with anticipation.
Early Thanksgiving Day, I rose before the sun, layered up and met my hunting partners. The three of us hiked to an enormous valley at the base of a mountain range, its peaks topped by snow. It was beyond cold. I was deeply chilled and already wondering how I was going to maneuver my frozen fingers into pulling a trigger. The wheat field was crunchy beneath our feet, but it had not yet snowed. As the light grew, it slowly warmed me, defrosting my purple hands. The only sounds were cows moaning in some far-off pasture. We didn’t hike for long before we noiselessly crept into a dried-up riverbed. Peering into the next field, we spotted a five-point buck. God, he was beautiful. It was so quiet and peaceful. I was in a reverie.
The shot ripped through my dreams. I was unprepared. It seemed so inappropriately loud. Its violent noise ricocheted endlessly off the surrounding mountain ranges. The buck went down quickly, soundlessly. Behind him, we were surprised to see a yearling doe, once hidden by the larger buck, staring straight at us. The bullet went through her tiny neck and she collapsed immediately. Bittersweet.
The final vision I have of my Montana Thanksgiving is watching my two bundled hunting partners drag the eviscerated deer, steam rising from the opened bodies, across the frozen valley as the sun slowly rose from the mountains behind them. The rugged beauty of that landscape remains with me.
I returned from Montana on Thanksgiving afternoon. My ‘big feast’ consisted of salsa and chips and two iced-cold Belgian ales at the Bozeman Airport. I sat and looked out over the planes to a not-so-distant mountain range. I felt so tired and dirty. I desired nothing more than a huge salad to counteract all of that Montanan meat, and a hot oily bath to warm my chilled bones and clean the distinct scent of butchering from my chapped skin.
A few days after I returned home, my bison meat and whole doe arrived to my front porch in northern California. In the days ahead, along with a couple of friends, I would process much of the bison into beautiful fresh sausages for winter suppers. But I wanted a different experience for the doe. I put on Coltrane and lit all the candles in my little kitchen. I sharpened my knives and shooed the cats into the next room. I placed the deer on my dining table. I had already skinned and cleaned her under Montana’s big sky. A yearling, she was so small; more reminiscent of a large dog. I butchered her slowly, carefully, taking care not to leave one trace of the prized, sacrificial meat behind. Her bones were later roasted and used to make a dense, glistening stock. I recalled my hunting partners telling me young doe are hugely revered for their tender, sweet meat. I cut two slices from the strikingly red loin and seared them off to rare in a smoking hot cast iron skillet. The meat tasted minerally, like a fine French wine. With a little sea salt and a glass of Araujo Cabernet, it was quite rich and decadent; a feast worthy of my deep thanksgiving.