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A Truly American Experience

(ROCKWALL, TX — July 1, 2019) I fought off disappointment and my feet ached, but a simple campfire somehow made it better, primitive TV in a sense. I didn’t need its warmth, but I definitely welcomed its comfort. After hiking eight miles and seeing no elk, I definitely needed some form of encouragement. So far, for me the animal existed only in pictures and dreams, and although I planned to hunt them in the fall, I’d yet to actually see one live.

Earlier in the year a friend told me about the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma. Being only three or so hours away I thought it would be perfect for a wildlife viewing backpacking trip. Angie and Ireland were in Memphis and the boys had plans, so I trucked up for a solo adventure. Teddy Roosevelt started the refuge and its 50,000 acres is now home to 700 bison, 1500 elk, longhorns, prairie dogs, deer, and turkey. And no sooner had I entered its borders did my heart skip; less than 50 yards from the road sunned a bison. Enormous is a ho-hum expression for this living icon of America, and I was just feet from him. Soon, I imagined sitting up on the side of a mountain glassing up hundreds of buffalo and elk for hours as they grazed the plains.

But nothing is ever that easy.

That first afternoon I worked my way up to Elk Mountain by the Elk Mountain Trail with the delusion that trail names were prophetic, but irony ruled the day as the only thing “elky” was a couple of tracks and some droppings. People crowded the mountain and elk aren’t fond of two-legged beasts. That evening by the fire I made a plan to hit the trails at daybreak over cold water and freeze dried backpacking food. I was going to hike where few would tread. There was a remote trail that was said to be flooded in parts and folks at the visitor center warned newcomers that it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience. If there was any chance of finding elk, it would be there.

After a mile or so of prairie, I descended into a beautiful canyon. The views took my breath and I had already started to tell myself that if I didn’t reach my goal, it would still be all worth it. Then suddenly, just to my left, 75 yards away, trotted three female elk. They headed to an outcrop of rocks so I circled to see if I could get a better view. As I rounded the outcrop, they were gone just as quickly as they appeared. I had camped, hiked, and watched some of the most beautiful animals in the world, and all for eight bucks and a tank of gas.

It was as an American experience as it gets.

There’s 640 million acres of public land all over this country, some of the wildest and most beautiful land in the world, and it is reserved, not for the privileged, but for any citizen to hunt, fish, camp, hike, and have countless adventures. I saw animals that merely 100 years ago were nearing extinction and now they roam in places from sea to shining sea. It’s not a zoo, but with some hard work and a little luck, anyone can see them.

That is part of why this country is so great. Here, we can speak our mind or not, we can worship our God or not, and if we so desire, we can trek in wild places and see mountains, beaches, forests, and deserts. Freedom for adventure awaits, so why not?

By Scott Gill is an RISD teacher, coach, and author of the book “Goliath Catfish.” Follow Scott’s blog at puptentpapa.blogspot.com and read more of his “Front Porch Ramblings” at BlueRibbonNews.com. 

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