Chasing Shadows – On The Trail Of A Giant



I know of a place, far from the civilized world, where the wild things still live.

If you travel there, you will find a hidden canyon tucked deep into the mountain, visible only to those who know the way. Access is restricted to a private land cut through or a lengthy trek across an unforgiving desert wasteland. There are no trails into it, and the brush initially seems impenetrable. Yet if you can leave your human ego aside and reclaim that ancient ritual of traveling on all fours, you can enter it.

Evil thorned branches rake across your sides, rudely tearing your fancy clothes and leaving cat-like scratches on all exposed skin. If you follow the “tunnel from hell” deeper into the canyon, you will find a spring. A brown seep that doesn’t seem much is pure gold to the beasts living here. The ground is a tapestry of tracks left by those who know what is truly important in the desert.

Keep going, don’t give up, even when it seems impossible to travel further. You might have to go around a thick section of demon weed or scurry up a loose, rocky slope. Trust your instincts and press on. There is gold in them hills! Going where others dare not is always worth the challenge.

Eventually, you will emerge scratched, bruised, beaten, yet victorious. You look above and are amazed by the scene that unfolds before you. The canyon opens into a beautiful display of pink and white rocks, weathered, cracked, and beaten into submission by eons of erosion. They are the ancestors and have seen much. Thousands of years come and go in the blink of an eye, yet they remain virtually unchanged and always watching.

About halfway up the southern wall of the canyon, there is a keyhole in the rock. It doesn’t look like much, but if you enter, it opens into a perfect secret hideout. It’s the ideal place to house a bandit escaping justice, a soul wanderer running from city life, or in our case—a respite where a wild beast can grow very large.

And that’s precisely what happened here. A creature has been holed up in this hidden oasis, far from any hunting pressure or human knowledge, where he could grow big. Really big. I saw him a few times over the last couple of years. He is a strange fellow. He’s usually alone when Javelina are known to be pack animals. I have watched him hobbling along the age-old trails he has traveled for many years. He’s seen me too. Unlike other animals who run and hide at the first glimpse of a two-legged, this beast doesn’t seem to care. He is the king of this place, and he knows it.

He takes his time, never in a rush. He has most likely whipped many mountain lions and coyotes with those razor-sharp tusk-like teeth. He acts as if he has never seen a human in his life, which very well may be true. I’ve always known he was there, and I kept him a closely guarded secret. One year, I would hunt him.

It was a week into the archery season. My friend Charlie and I spent a few days looking for the pigs at one of my favorite remote locations. Starting on New Year’s Day—we spent many hours perched on a rocky mountain, glued to our glass, peering across the sweeping countryside. We looked into every wash, examined the undersides of every juniper tree, and scanned the savannah repeatedly. The brush burned from our ocular dissection.

We scoured the place from the frozen milky dawn to the final crimson light show of dusk. Nothing. Not a creature moved, not even a mouse. I looked so hard that I was able to study a road runner nearly two miles away. Any time spent on the hunt is a good time, so we departed with our spirits riding in good company. When I returned home, I knew it was time to go after the big one.

The next day, a storm was approaching. The forecast called for snow, and the clouds began to gather on the mountain peaks. The cruel winds of winter began to howl, and I heard in them a subtle call. It was a call to journey to the Secret Canyon and attempt to flush out the monster pig for a final showdown.

Ths is tough country to hunt if you don’t know where to go. The Javelina are abundant, but the views are scarce, and you can only see for a few hundred yards at most in any direction. Glassing for a spot and stalk opportunity is not afforded; you must engage in close-range hunting here. At any moment, there is the chance you will come face-to-face with your prey and have only a few seconds to act.

So I pressed on with a ferocious wind that teased light flutters of snow from the brooding sky. I scraped through the nasty tunnel and earned my crown of thorns. I emerged from a particularly rough patch to see the spring. It was alive and well despite the dry spell. The beast would be here. That was for sure.

Finally, I got through that god-forsaken stretch of all things scratchy and pokey to emerge and take in the first view of the open canyon. The eerie feeling of the secret hideout washed through me. It’s incredible how a place can feel so lonely, isolated, and completely forgotten yet still exist in a thoroughly exploited world.

A few rocks clattered to the ground, and I saw him descending from the keyhole cave. Big, bristly, stinky and mean. Ready to do battle with whoever or whatever had just infiltrated his hideout. His calmness and collected nature were unique amongst any other peccary I had ever seen. The familiar feeling of amazement and joy came to me. It always arrives when I lay eyes on the thing I have worked so hard to uncover.

He sniffed the air and tried to pick up the scent of the perpetrator who trespassed into his lair. He couldn’t catch it. Lucky me, since he would have certainly been alarmed at the strange smell of a human. I put my range finder on him. Thirty yards was an easy shot, but he gave me no such opportunity as he stood head-on, trying to figure out what I was.

Then, much to my surprise, another hairy being emerged from the cave and followed him into the daylight. A new Javelina had joined him in this desolate stronghold, possibly to learn his ways and be given the chance to survive into old age like this old brute. However, this one was no small critter. He was a fine specimen of the species. They stood guard like two old monsters, hidden away from the rest of the world in this wild place.

I waited and waited. So close, but still no shot. The pair started to move, and I drew back, holding my 30-yard pin steady on the big boy’s vitals. Much to my dislike, he kept on going and didn’t stop as he crossed to the other side of the canyon, his compadre close behind.

What ensued was a standoff that felt like an hour. Those two big animals staring at me, turning this way and that, never presenting a good shot. I was precariously balancing on the side of a mountain and trying not to slip into the abyss below. I had stripped my jacket, gloves, and hat for the brisk hike in, but was now freezing my ass off as the snow started to come heavy. I dare not try to clothe myself and give away my position.

I ranged their position many times. 45 yards now. It’s still a doable shot but not a slam dunk by any means, especially while teeter-tottering on a couple of loose boulders. Finally, he stepped into a very narrow clearing between a crucifixion-thorn bush. I studied his position through binoculars. He was quartering toward me. If I launched an arrow at that angle, it would need to find a kill zone only a few inches wide.

I summoned the patience that only came from being in this situation many times before and held back my lusty trigger finger. “Damn, when is this going to end!” I muttered to myself. Finally, he turned and gave me a near broadside shot through that tiny window of branches. I drew back confidently, put the pin on the target, said a silent prayer, and let it fly.

The arrow landed with a thud. Anyone who has shot an animal with a bow knows the sound when it all goes exactly right. It’s different than any other sound, and you know that you did your job well. The giant, old pig took off up the mountain, his feet kicking rocks and desperately trying to gain purchase. Blood sprayed everywhere, and I knew he wouldn’t go far.

He made it about 20 yards up the hill and started to falter. Kicking and dropping back down the mountain, he grasped onto life, yet it quickly slipped through his hooves. He landed in a big creosote bush, kicked once more, then lay still. Then, something happened that was a total shock and completely unexpected.

The bushes near where I sent the shot rustled, and out busted the big old massive beast! He took off woofing and charging out of the canyon, completely unscathed. Then it dawned on me. The Javelina I shot was not him! I had killed his accomplice. The monster pig was still on the loose and survived another skirmish with a deadly predator. The sly old guy lives on.

I crossed the canyon and pulled my quarry from the bush by her feet. Yes, it was a lady, and she was a massive lady! Her live weight was estimated at seventy pounds after weighing her carcass minus the innards, which is enormous for a Javelina. Later, I learned that the largest specimen most folks have witnessed is around eighty pounds. The one that got away might be pushing ninety.

Ecstatic at my good blessing, I thanked the spirits of this place and sent our family code text to Melissa. “There’s one down”. It’s become our family ritual and sends waves of joy and excitement to my loved ones, who anxiously await good news from the field.

Melissa and Jeremiah hiked in and met me at the mouth of the canyon just as I was extracting the heavy load from the impenetrable briar patch. I was able to get the entire girl in my backpack. I’m happy to have my Mystery Ranch pack in situations like this. It’s turned me into a confident, sure-footed mule when hauling big, bloody loads out of nasty places.

We all exchanged hugs, kisses, and exclamations of joy as we began the long pack out through the freshly falling snow. Before going back, I turned around and looked upon my hidden canyon. A feeling of sadness washed through me, riding a blast of chilling wind. Killing is never a simple thing for those who think and feel deeply. It’s something humans have wrestled with since the beginning of time.

I wrestled with it there, as I do many times after the excitement clears. I killed Monster Pig’s friend. He is now alone again in that cold, dark cave. While we will never know for sure, I imagine he has feelings and misses her. I sat with those feelings of grief and know that they are an essential part of being human.

Even if you are vegan, plants, bugs, and small animals die by the millions to feed you. For you to live, others must die, and by taking part in the killing, you become more human in the process. To be disconnected from this ritual leaves a hole in a person’s development and possibly in their soul. Participation in the ritual must be experienced to feel fully alive.

We invited our friends to feast on the abundance of the successful hunt. We honored her death and gave thanks for the life that was sacrificed so that we could live. It was a beautiful experience, full of a rich and complex brew of emotions for all who dared to feel them.

As I write this, I reflect on my wild canyon, known only to me, and the big, hairy beast slumbering in his secret cave. He has to be near the end of his life now. I am curious to know how many years he has left. I hope he will be there next season when I return with my bow to liberate him into the next incarnation. It is ruthless and raw, yet essential—this tradition of the sacred hunt. I am grateful it has touched me in this life, and I hope it touches you the same.

* Note – Javelinas are not technically pigs. They are peccaries. In common hunting culture they are often called pigs and that’s why I reference them that way at times in this article. 

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