I’ve read stories and heard people talk about the feeling they get when the end is near. I always thought it was bogus, but I was dead wrong. I didn’t think I was dying, I knew I was. Family and friends lined the walls of the local hospital room, and my wife, who never left my side, was holding my hand. I remember pulling her close and asking her to go get the kids. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to see them. I wanted to let them know that Daddy loved them.
This wasn’t how my 2014 season was supposed to start – or, as it seemed at the time, to end. No, it was supposed to be my year. I had been shooting my bow every day for months – a paper-plate-sized group of arrows at 120 yards was the norm. Physically, I had put on 10 pounds of lean muscle and was running between 50 and 70 miles per week. I’d cut out sugar and alcohol, and my protein/carbohydrate intake was carefully monitored. In my mind, the coveted mule deer tag I’d drawn in Nevada was as good as notched and my annual Colorado elk hunt was going to produce a bull that would stretch the tape past the 300-inch mark. I was full of confidence. Life was good.
Just a Bug
And that’s when it happened.
At first it felt like a touch of the flu – a late-summer bug that created a rumble in my stomach, pain in my neck and a migraine-like headache. I fought through it for several days, doubling up on Tylenol and Ibuprofen. As the days passed, the meds seemed to lose their effectiveness. Telling myself it was all in my head – that I was fine – I loaded up my bow and pointed the truck south. It was time for my daily shooting routine and I wasn’t about to miss it.
I don’t remember finishing that shooting session. I don’t remember driving home. When my wife, an RN, called to check on me, I lied and told her I was feeling better. She asked me to pick up the kids from daycare. I remember picking my kids up and my daughter asking me what was wrong. As for the ride home…nothing.
Then I was on the couch writhing in pain and my wife was shaking me. A friend had driven by the house and noticed the driver-side door of my truck was wide open. Thinking that was a little odd, she called my wife, who came home immediately. The next thing I knew was in the hospital. My legs weren’t working and the pain in my neck and head was unbearable. I’ve always considered myself a fairly tough person and truly believed in my heart, at least up to this point, that there was no amount of pain I couldn’t handle. I was wrong.
I spent the next several days in our local hospital. The doctors conducted a spinal tap and ran so many blood tests that track marks appeared on my arms. The bad news: Aside from my obvious failing health (my liver was in bad shape, oxygen saturation was down and violent hallucinations had set in), they had no idea what was causing the problem.
Later that afternoon the decision was made to ship me by ambulance to Swedish Medical Center in Denver, Colorado. The ride was horrible and every bump in the road felt like somebody was hitting me in the head with a hammer. The only good part about the trip was that the driver of the ambo was a good friend, and he kept me posted on the progress of our trip.
Amazingly, a good friend who had graduated nursing school with my wife and had basically lived with us for the better part of a year – a friend who didn’t typically work on this unit of the neuro floor – was working when I arrived. They were shorthanded and had asked him to come over. When I heard his voice and realized who it was, I stopped worrying and just let God take control. He had a plan – it was obvious – and I just needed to ride out the storm with Him at the helm.
The doctors at Swedish – and I had a fleet of them – gave me a 50/50 shot at survival. My liver was in bad shape, and the Infectious Disease Control Doctor told my wife that if I’d spent one more night in my local hospital, she would have been making funeral arrangements.
Days passed and I started to get better. I was able to sit up in bed and eat actual food. Family and friends gathered in my room, many of them sleeping in less-than-comfortable chairs and on the floor. The day I was dismissed from the hospital was a day of celebration, but I had lost 16 pounds. I’d gone from being able to run a marathon to not being able to walk 100 yards down the hospital hall without assistance. Yes, I had a long road ahead. My neuro doc and hospitalist told me the worst thing I could do was try and rush things.
So much for my much-anticipated 2014 season. I missed my Nevada hunt, and for the first time in 11 years, I wouldn’t hear an elk shatter the cool, crisp Colorado air. I tried to get out for pronghorn a few times near my home, but it wasn’t going to happen. The heat killed me, and my body ached with pain after only a few hours.
My Colorado white-tailed deer archery tag kicked in on October 1, and I figured sitting in a treestand would be a simple task. Wrong! It took me hours to get a stand in a tree, and when I did sit, my knees and hips cramped. Later in the month I embarked on a media hunt in Oklahoma and a DIY hunt with some good friends in South Dakota. The remarks from everyone on those hunts were basically the same: Dude, you’re just not ready to be out here yet. You look awful. Don’t push yourself too hard. You should just go home and rest.
Up to the end of October I’d kept a pretty good attitude, but any amount of optimism I had was fading fast. My perfect season – the one I’d prepared for and envisioned – was over. I couldn’t sit in a treestand for more than three hours at time without having to get down and regroup. I got depressed. I got angry. I know today that I couldn’t have been the easiest person to be around.
One More Go
I almost didn’t go. In fact, at one point I started unpacking my clothing from my tote. If it hadn’t been a Kansas tag – a hunt with a good friend and a warm place to stay – I would have opted out. Thank God I didn’t.
I don’t know how many of you were in Kansas during that second week of November 2014, but for those of you that were, you know how extreme the weather was. The wind howled and the mercury dropped into the negative digits. Considering how I was feeling, the weather couldn’t have been worse. I didn’t even go out on my first day. Instead I opted for the comfort of a good buddy’s truck and some scouting time behind my binos.
To escape the frigid temperatures on day two, I sat a ground blind I had popped up and brushed in the previous evening. My morning was uneventful – only a few does passed by – and by 10 a.m. I was freezing and ready to be done. I wasn’t having much fun. My body ached. I was still having some dizzy spells. I was ready to quit.
I slept in on the morning of day three. I awoke with a scowl, and looking in the mirror I noticed my face wore the same pathetic frown that had been there for weeks. It was at that moment that everything changed. I was pouting because I missed a few hunts, because my perfect season wasn’t going the way I wanted it. Big deal! I was alive. I was going to see my kids again in a few days. I was going to coach my son’s football team. I was going to pop in a good movie and snuggle up on the couch with my wife – one of our favorite things to do. Truthfully, I’d been given a gift. The man upstairs had taught me to not take a single day, let alone a single moment in the woods, for granted.
I headed out on the evening of day three with a new breeze blowing in my sails. It was freezing and the wind was howling, but to be honest, I felt really good. I climbed in my stand with renewed focus and let the worry of killing a big Kansas brute slip from my mind. I was going to enjoy the smell of snow-carrying air, watch burnt yellow and orange leaves whip in the wind, let my heart thunder when a doe walked into view.
I hadn’t been on stand more than an hour when I heard it: the familiar sound of crunching leaves in the distance. My bow was in my hand before I saw him – a long-legged 8-point that needed a few more years to officially become a jaw-dropper. My heart jumped into my chest and I thought about pressing my bow into action, but I let the youngster pass. He didn’t go far, moving into a stand of thick cedars less than 40 yards away where he took his aggression out on a young tree. It was awesome. I watched him for about 20 minutes before turning my attention back to the CRP in front of me.
It was louder this time – the sound of branches being broken, the sound of horns rubbing on wood. I pulled my binos from a pair of does that had just emerged from their CRP beds and focused them back in the cedars. Yep, he was still there, still hammering away on a young cedar. It actually took about five minutes to realize it wasn’t the same buck. The little eight had been replaced by a bigger-bodied deer – one sporting a slightly better 9-point rack.
I grunted at him. Nothing. I grunted louder. Nothing. I snort-wheezed. Nothing. Finally, the buck took a break from his tree beating and glanced into the CRP. He didn’t see the does, but he did hear my doe estrous bleat followed by a handful of tending grunts. He bristled up and started a stomp toward my stand – his body posture that of a buck approaching another buck. He was no giant – he could have used another year or even two to grow, but he wasn’t going to get it. My arrow was perfect and the blood trail was short. I sprinted toward the buck the moment I saw his white belly. I bear-hugged my friend and pumped my fist in the air.
Was it an extreme hunt? By weather standards you could easily toss it in this category, but mostly it was an extreme hunt because of the trials and tribulations that led up to it – trials and tribulations that, through the help of God, my family and friends, I was able to overcome.
My vision for this season is basically the same as what I penned at the beginning of this article. I’m in the best shape of my life and have plans to take down some great animals. The only thing that’s changed: I’m going to enjoy every moment I spend in the outdoors and not take one single second for granted. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Make the most of today.