I had a moment of clarity Wednesday morning as I stood inhaling the smoke pouring off a freshly killed wild hog that my guide was blowtorching while my 16-year-old nephew watched from a few feet away.
Normal people don't do this, I thought to myself.
And they certainly don't enjoy it.
So why was I having a good time?
I'm not sure yet - I'm still working through that. But I can tell you how I got to that point.
When I met T. Michael Riddle earlier this year at his Native Hunt game ranch in Monterey County, I remarked on how lovely his lodge's outdoor kitchen was, and how much Boyfriend would love it. One thing led to another, and now Boyfriend will be cooking for a big dove hunting party at the ranch on Labor Day.
When Boyfriend and Michael started planning the menu, they decided that they wanted to roast a whole pig. Acquiring one would be no problem because Michael's 1,000-acre property is loaded with wild hogs - in fact, that's where I got my first pig ever back in June.
I still feel like I need a lot of practice with big game hunting, so I asked if I could come down and shoot the sacrificial pig. And because my nephew Joel was coming from the Seattle area to visit me this summer, I arranged to do the hunt when he was here, because Lord knows I wouldn't want to do anything normal with the kid.
That's how I found myself back at Native Hunt late Tuesday, kicking back with Joel and two guides: Sam, who guided me to my first pig in June, and Ed, who has very photogenic facial hair.
Now, Joel has never been hunting before, and no one in his family (besides me) hunts, and no one he knows from school hunts, so what I'd done was thrust this teenager into a completely new planet where the conversation centered around cherished hunting memories.
Joel learned a lot. He learned that a "Texas heart shot" is one that goes the length of the body. And that the particular Texas heart shot Ed witnessed involved an entry wound in the pig's bunghole - such a precise shot that no one could even see the bullet hole. And that the bullet's trajectory tore up pretty much every internal organ the poor critter had, and the pig bloated to three times its normal size in something like 30 seconds flat.
So, nice intro to hunting for Joel.
Had this been his younger brother, who's very interested in hunting, I would've been very confident that he was enjoying himself. But with Joel, I just wasn't sure. I'd look at him from time to time, trying to gauge how he was reacting to everything, but the normally boisterous teen had been pretty quiet for most of his visit. I mean, just getting him to smile for the camera had been an ordeal. So I went to bed wondering.
The next morning, we got up at 5 a.m. and Sam, Joel and I headed out.
We were looking for a hog that weighed 80-85 pounds, just the right size to fit in a Cuban-style oven, and I was confident we'd find one.
The question for me was could I make a good shot? I'd been practicing my shooting, still tormented by the memory of the pathetic gut shot I'd inflicted on my first pig. And I really wanted to see the holy grail of hunting: an instant drop.
But my rifle (Boyfriend's rifle, actually) was loaded with new lead-free ammunition, and after the ordeal we went through sighting it in, that added an extra layer of worry for me.
And oh yeah, did I mention this pig would be roasted whole, so my shot would be on display for all of Michael's guests on Labor Day? No pressure, though.
We walked quietly to the back of a draw and indeed we heard pigs, but they never emerged from the trees. So we walked back out and up a road to another of the pigs' favorite crossings and we quickly came across maybe a dozen more pigs.
Sam motioned to me to get set up, and Joel stood back, motionless. I dropped to my knees, set up the shooting sticks and raised the rifle, and just then, two trucks came rolling up the dusty road.
CRAP! Michael was having some work done around the lodge, and the work crews had arrived for the day.
The pigs retreated to their hideout in some dense oaks, and we walked back down the road, waiting to see where they'd emerge. We knew they wanted to cross the road to get to their midday resting spot.
Sam set off at a trot, and Joel and I followed. But when we rounded the corner, the dust drifting across the road told us we were too late. The pigs had crossed and slipped into the brush, heading around a hill onto the next piece of property.
So we went back to the draw where we'd started, and sure enough, we spotted a few pigs high on a hillside. But I couldn't get the chosen pig in my sights before it turned and disappeared into the brush.
Sam was looking discouraged. It was getting late, and pretty soon, most pigs would be bedded down for the heat of the day.
"Dude, don't worry," I said. "If I don't get a pig today, that just means someone else needs to get one before Labor Day. I'm having a good time either way."
His face relaxed. "I'm glad to hear that," he said.
And I found myself glad to say it. You assume, when you go to a game ranch, that you'll get on a pig pretty quickly. And sometimes you do. But these are wild pigs running in steep terrain that's covered with dense brush, and there are no guarantees.
And that's fine, because that's hunting.
We walked back out of the draw to make one last effort, chatting a little more easily because we'd relaxed. And of course, when we rounded a corner, we saw two pigs at the top of a hill.
"Set up," Sam whispered.
And I did. But the pigs were skylighted, nothing but blue sky around their silhouettes. That's a lesson I remember vividly from hunter safety: Don't shoot at skylighted animals, because if you miss, you have no idea what the bullet will hit on the other side.
And in this case, I knew that the workers had been in the area where these pigs were, so there was a very real chance I could hit a person.
"Can't do it," I whispered back to Sam.
"OK," he whispered back, motioning to Joel and me to get up.
Sam managed to get us farther up the road without being detected. The sun was behind us, making us difficult to see. And the wind was blowing from left to right, so we were impossible to smell.
I set up next to the trunk of a thick oak tree, propped the rifle on the shooting sticks, and got the chosen pig in my sights. She was looking straight at me, but couldn't see me.
"Aim for the neck," Sam had told me.
The pig turned broadside. I trained the crosshairs on her neck, and willed myself to make them stop wobbling. But in a moment of unusual calm, I realized I was so close - maybe 35 yards - that it didn't matter if I wobbled a bit. I pulled the trigger.
She dropped, and began kicking - not the kick of a wounded animal, but the nerve reaction of a dead animal. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.
Thank God, thank God, thank God. She didn't know what had hit her - her death was mercifully instantaneous.
I looked back to Sam and Joel and grinned. I'd finally done it right.
Maybe it was that sense of success - a clean kill! - that made the rest of the morning bearable.
I knew in advance what we'd need to do. When you roast a whole pig, you do it with skin on. Normally, you would remove the pig's hair by dipping it whole into a tub of scalding water, scraping off the hair and taking a blowtorch to those stubborn hairs that just won't go.
But we really didn't have the means to boil that much water or dip this pig, so we'd get the job done entirely with a blowtorch.
Sam quickly got to work, having done this once before. It was horrendous - the hair would catch on fire, smolder sickeningly and leave a charred crust, which we then scraped off. It took repeated applications of flame to get the job done. (To get a good feel for what this looked like, click on the photo at the top of this post. Very, very vivid.)
I stood close and helped with the scraping. Joel stood further back, and I looked at him from time to time to see how he was doing.
Had he grown up the way his mother and I did, where domestic pig slaughtering was an annual family party, he would be unfazed. But I didn't know if my family's weird genetics alone were enough to steel him for this.
While I sat and wondered, Sam thrust the blowtorch into Joel's hands and encouraged him to do some torching. Fun times.
We got through it, and a couple hours later we were pulling out of the gate to head home.
That's when Joel started talking, saying more in a few minutes than he'd said for the entire previous 24 hours.
He said he was surprised about one thing: Even though he wasn't shooting, every time I'd get ready to shoot, his heart would start racing, anticipating the moment.
"And if I ever decided to hunt, I'd want to do my first hunt there," he said. "It was pretty cool."
"Cool," I said. "Just let me know."
© Holly A. Heyser 2008
Postscript: I wasn't the only one hunting at Native Hunt to put food on the Labor Day table this week - Phillip over at The Hog Blog also took out a fallow deer for the event, and you can read his adventure here. Turns out we were writing our stories at the same time!