When someone rolls into the campsite next to yours, go say hi. You probably have something in common.
Public lands—our national forests and state trusts and parks and monuments—have become a solace for me and my wife, Jen, since we took up residence in our Airstream. Unlike home, where there are appointments to keep, errands to run, people to see, and traffic jams to endure, the woods mean quiet and seclusion—it nurtures my inner hermit. When we go to the trouble of finding an isolated spot, we like it to stay isolated.
A few weeks ago, Jen and I had settled into a lonely camp at 9,000 feet in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest with the intention of staying two weeks. When a truck rolled in on day two and set up camp down the road, I almost spat out my bourbon in disgust.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t begrudge this newcomer his experience. He had as much right to be there as we did. I just felt protective of mine. That defensiveness was amplified by the fact that we’d come to this spot, in part, to hunt elk. Our new neighbor wasn’t only imposing on our peace—he was direct competition.
Jen and I took up hunting only six years ago. We had no background or family history of hunting, just the determination that if we were going to continue to eat meat, we’d like to harvest our own. We’ve since come to love it for much the same reasons that we appreciate living in the trailer: Hunting is quiet and methodical. It puts us in places and situations we otherwise might not reach. It forces us to slow down. It helps to distill the beauty in our day-to-day existence. Hunting is mostly just walking slowly, almost imperceptibly, through the wilderness and trying to meld with the land. In that context, the nearby camp—with its oversize truck, flatbed trailer, yurt-style tent almost big enough for a circus, and pair of ATVs—felt as distracting as the persistent chime of email.
For the first few days, we all tried to preserve the reverie by simply ignoring one other. But on day four, after we’d each passed each other’s areas looking the other way a few times, Darrell gave up on politesse and drove his ATV straight into our camp. “If we’re both going to be here, there’s no sense in gettin’ in each other’s way,” he said.
A New Mexico native, he’d been hunting these mountains for 25 years, he informed us, and we’d taken his longtime camp. As we talked, he studied our rigs, sizing up our fat bikes, featherweight backpacking equipment, and Airstream, a far cry from his quad bike and tent. He didn’t know any better what to make of us than us of him, and he never got off his ATV or proffered a hand to shake. Doug, his buddy, was friendlier, asking about the trailer and our approach. I told him where we’d been hunting and gave him intel on what we’d found. But the interaction still felt more like a preemptive strike than a neighborly visit. When the two left, we figured that our future with Doug and Darryl held nothing more than curt nods.
Darrell returned the next afternoon. Apparently skeptical that I’d been trying to throw him off some hunting spots, which wouldn’t be unheard of among notoriously tight-lipped outdoorsmen, he’d gone up and found the places just as I described them. Now his whole demeanor had changed. He was engaged, chummy even. We were no longer on opposite sides; it was now us against the elk.
From that afternoon forward, Doug and Darrell stopped by our camp daily, or Jen and I stopped by theirs. We traded stories about the day’s hunts and shot the shit about our favorite wilderness in New Mexico. As we all got used to each other, Darrell passed on a bunch of insights about hunting that he’d gleaned in his quarter-century of doing it. He even shared a few of his favorite calling techniques, which is like a magician showing you how he fit that rabbit into his hat. If it hadn’t been for Darrell’s overture on day four, we might never have spoken, which now seemed funny and slightly sad.
Going into the woods and tuning out other people is tempting, especially in these days of political and social division. But for that time in the woods and probably well beyond, Darrell and Doug and Jen and I had more in common than we had differences. The same goes for your campground neighbors who insist on running the generator nonstop or those folks cranking tunes at the crag or beach. We’re all on the same team, out there to enjoy the escape. With public lands under fire, finding solidarity with everyone who values wild space is more important than ever. I’m not saying I’m planning to introduce myself at every nearby camp in the future, but I’ll always consider it.
Darrel and Doug got an elk during the next to last day of the two-week hunt. When I saw their headlamps on the hillside after dark, which I knew meant they would be working into the night to clean and carry the animal, I was happy for them, not jealous and slightly bitter as I might have been if we hadn’t met. The next morning, we congratulated them, traded emails, and talked about toasting their success someday back in civilization over whiskey. I didn’t get my elk this year, but I drove away from the mountains with something better: knowledge and new friends. Might just be the best hunt I’ve ever had.