Call of the Mild

Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner


By Lily Raff McCaulou

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From an outsider perspective learning about a sometimes misunderstood cultural pastime, a beautifully written and contrarian narrative about what it means to hunt in America today.

When Lily Raff McCaulou traded in an indie film production career in New York for a reporting job in central Oregon, she never imagined that she'd find herself picking up a gun and learning to hunt. She'd been raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and an animal lover, and though a meat-eater, she'd always abided by the principle that harming animals is wrong. But Raff McCaulou's perspective shifted when she began spending weekends fly-fishing and weekdays interviewing hunters for her articles, realizing that many of them were more thoughtful about animals and the environment than she was.

So she embarked upon the project of learning to hunt from square one. From attending a Hunter Safety course designed for children to field dressing an elk and serving it for dinner, she explores the sport of hunting and all it entails, and tackles the big questions surrounding one of the most misunderstood American practices and pastimes. Not just a personal memoir, this book also explores the role of the hunter in the twenty-first century, the tension (at times artificial) between hunters and environmentalists, and new models of sustainable and ethical food procurement.


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You would be hard-pressed to find an unlikelier hunter than me. I'm a woman, and married to a man who does not hunt. I grew up in a city, terrified of guns. I love animals and even entered college on track to become a veterinarian. Yet, at the age of twenty-six, I made the strange decision to pick up a gun and learn to hunt. It was a complicated choice, but it started with one simple thing that almost all of us—hunters and non-hunters, women and men, city dwellers and country bumpkins—have in common: dinner. Not the greens and grains on the sides of the plate, but the hunk of meat in the middle.

Of course, my decision to hunt was also deeply personal. It was a way for me to explore my relationships with animals—the dog for whom I buy Christmas presents, the mice I occasionally trap in my kitchen, the wolves whom I admire in theory but have never met. It made me rethink what it means to be an environmentalist. The experience transformed me from the person I had been just three years earlier. I'll start there, when I'm a few months shy of twenty-four, and nothing could be farther from my mind than hunting:

I live with a girlfriend in a cramped apartment in Manhattan, where I work part-time as a personal assistant to a movie director and screenwriter. I also freelance as a production assistant on various film and television shoots. Nearly half of my friends from Wesleyan University moved to New York after graduation, so I know fun, artsy people all over the city. At night, I dress up and attend their theater debuts and gallery openings. During the day, I brush elbows with indie film stars.

But for the past couple of months I haven't been able to shake this feeling that my life in New York has become one big, glitzy distraction. I spend seventy or eighty hours a week working to bring someone else's vision to the television or movie screen, yet I still haven't finished the screenplay I started writing two years earlier. I find myself daydreaming about a new job as a journalist. This isn't entirely out of the blue—I worked on my college newspaper, as a contributing writer up through editor in chief, and I interned at the Hartford Courant for a summer. I know that journalism won't be as glamorous, but I'll hear interesting stories and get paid to write every day.

So the night after Christmas in 2003, I flip open my laptop and go to a job site for journalists that I browsed regularly when I was in college and envisioned a post-grad life as Lois Lane. I search for staff writer positions in New York. Forty-some jobs pop up, but each one requires more experience than I can eke out of my résumé, even with the cleverest phrasing. On a whim, I rerun the search, this time for openings in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, just because the Northwest caught my eye on a road trip one time. Voilà: features reporter in Idaho Falls, Idaho; sports reporter in Columbia Falls, Montana; news reporter in Bend, Oregon. Eleven jobs in all. As I read the descriptions, the hair on my arms perks up. Each job is at a small newspaper in a small town, the kind of modest post I might be able to land with my handful of bylines clipped from the Courant. The exact place doesn't matter to me at all. I love the idea of a new career in an exotic setting. I stretch out on the floor and start to tap out a catchy, one-size-fits-all cover letter:

Dear ________,

Don't let the address at the top of this letter fool you. I'm not just a city slicker looking for a Western adventure.

But the truth is, that's exactly who I am and what I'm looking for. As midnight gives way to early morning, and I polish up the letter, I also compile a mental list of reasons why moving to the rural West is not just an exciting idea, but also a smart one. I'll learn so much about myself by branching out and living on my own. I've always loved the idea of being outdoorsy; here's my chance. It sounds like a movie: spunky city gal becomes country muckraker. I already own two pairs of cowboy boots. A year or two at a small paper will provide the experience I'll need to get a better reporting job back in New York.

The next day, I walk to the post office and mail out eleven applications.

Seven weeks later, on Valentine's Day, my friend Larrison and I pack my belongings into a rental truck and head west toward Bend, Oregon, where I have accepted an offer to write news for the local daily, The Bulletin. Larrison has generously taken time off from her job in the writing department of the soap opera As the World Turns to drive with me to Bend before flying home. Somewhere in Wyoming, an honest-to-goodness tumbleweed bounces across I-80 and we squeal. The desiccated shrub looks as if it rolled right off a Western movie set. But this is real life. In the wild.

Our first stop in Oregon, just across the border from Idaho, is a gas station in a tiny farming town. I start filling the tank while Larrison heads into the store for a soda.

"What are you doing?" A stocky young man in a baseball cap stomps toward me.

I look down to make sure gas hasn't spilled over the side of the truck. "Uh… filling up?"

"You can't do that," he says. "Oregon is full-service only."

My heart drops. I can't pump my own gas here? Have I really left my job and all my friends and driven four days straight only to find myself in the New Jersey of the West? I suddenly realize how little I know about my new home. I wonder how much of a hassle it will be to move back to New York in a few months if coming here turns out to be a disaster. I'll have to find another apartment, not to mention face the embarrassment of telling all my friends and family that my Western Adventure was a bust.

"You must be from out of town, huh?" he asks.

"Yeah, New York City."

"New York City!" He drawls when he pronounces the name, like one of the dismayed cowboys in that old salsa commercial. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm moving to Bend."

He nods, as if this makes perfect sense. I've heard that Bend's population is booming, but now I wonder if there's a steady stream of New Yorkers driving U-Haul trucks into town.

Later that evening, Larrison and I pull into Bend, where we've booked a hotel room for the night. It's just after eight and the traffic lights are already switched off and blinking. The next morning, I check the classified ads and find a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a former boardinghouse downtown. It has polished wood floors, a graceful arch leading into the kitchen and built-in dressers in the bedroom and bathroom. Best of all, I have the place to myself. And for just $495 a month—$305 less than my share of the tiny Harlem apartment. Larrison helps me lug my bed, clothes and futon inside. We spend the next couple of days unpacking and taking breaks to browse secondhand stores and people-watch downtown.

At a sandwich shop, we wait in line behind a thirty-something couple wearing head-to-toe spandex. I can't help but stare past the corporate logos covering their garb to the sculpted curves of their calves and thighs. I look around the restaurant. Everyone here is thin, but not New York–smoker skinny. They're muscled.

"I've never seen so many good-looking people in one place," Larrison whispers.

"I know," I say. "Everyone is so fit."

"You're lucky." She arches an eyebrow.

"I'm intimidated."

The night before she flies back to New York, we mix Manhattans—an ode to my former home—and sip them from glasses perched on cardboard boxes.

As I hug Larrison good-bye at the airport the next morning, I know that I should feel nervous and sad to see her go. Here I am alone, in a town I barely know, three thousand miles from my family and friends, yet I'm too excited to care. Larrison's three-day stay has been like training wheels on my new life in Bend. I can't wait to get started.

The next week, I report to my new job. I was told during my interview a month earlier that the newspaper's circulation is only about thirty thousand. But The Bulletin is the only daily in the region, and more sophisticated than its size would suggest. It's housed in a brand-new building on the western edge of town that looks more like a modern ski chalet than a newspaper office. Windows stretch the two-story height of the lobby, with walls of stacked native stone and arched ceilings paneled in stained wood.

The sixty-five-or-so people who work in the newsroom are not locals who learned the business because it was an available job, but professional journalists—mostly city folk like me—who moved here for their careers. Editors came from the Detroit Free Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. Reporters moved here from Denver, San Francisco and San Diego. Two news reporters even grew up in the same Maryland county that I did.

I've been hired to cover a rural area that stretches hundreds of square miles southeast of Bend. I spend the first day scoping it out from the driver's seat of a used Ford Ranger pickup truck that I found in the classified ads and purchased the day before.

Bend is almost the geographic center of Oregon. Sagebrush-studded high desert splays out to the east of the city. To the west, ponderosa pine forests creep up the volcanic Cascade Mountains. Unlike the Rockies—steep, tightly stacked peaks that form walls of granite stretching beyond the horizon—these mountains rise gradually, one at a time, like snowcapped sand castles. Together, the Cascades form a sort of sky fortress that traps clouds moving eastward off the Pacific Ocean and clutches them over rainy Portland and Eugene, freeing Bend's skies for a rumored three hundred days of sunshine a year.

In February, in the dead of central Oregon's long winter, the landscape looks drab and dreary despite the sun. I drive past gnarled trees, scrubby shrubs and clumps of tall, native grass, dried and yellowed by the cold. Bare, reddish ground peeks between each of these plants. Unlike the wetter climates I'm used to, there is no fast-growing underbrush coating the soil here. A few dirty patches of snow cling to the shadiest spots. The sparse needles of the juniper and pine trees look dusty, more gray than green.

I get on Highway 97, and as soon as I cross Bend's southern boundary, the exit signs abruptly end, along with any other symbols of civilization. This is not like the East Coast highways I am used to, where one town peters out as another builds steam, with no discernible gap in between. Here, city ends. Country begins. I drive over a steep, craggy mound called Lava Butte. It erupted seven thousand years ago and covered nine square miles with black, porous rock. NASA actually trained astronauts for the moon landing on these desolate lava beds. As I travel south, the elevation rises, and a mat of snow blankets the ground.

I am winding down an unlined road toward a tiny regional airport when suddenly, in the middle of the asphalt in front of me, I see a gray, fluffy, dog-like animal. It's lying down but alert, with its head up, facing me. I brake and lean closer to the windshield for a better look. It's too big to be a fox. A wolf, maybe? I gasp at the possibility. As my truck rolls closer, the animal gets up and trots off the road, its tail floating perfectly straight behind it, parallel to the ground. It stares at me with pale, intense eyes as I drive past. Then I watch in my rearview mirror as it flops itself back down on the sun-soaked asphalt.

When I return to the newsroom, I run up to the environmental reporter and recount what I've seen.

"A wolf?" She laughs. "I doubt it. There are wolves in Idaho, and they may be starting to move into Oregon, but not this far west. It was probably a coyote."

Of course. A coyote, not a wolf. But I'm not disappointed. I'm in awe. A coyote is a real wild animal, infinitely more exciting than a tumbleweed. The Western Adventure has officially begun.

My life here is a distant cousin to the one I led in New York. There are no gallery openings to speak of, no theater debuts. I have to remind myself each morning to dress more casually than I'm accustomed to, so I don't stand out too much. My high-heeled shoes are getting ruined anyway, chewed up by the gravel that covers so many parking lots and paths.

Co-workers invite me to parties, where I quickly grow tired of Bend's unofficial winter greeting: "What did you ski today?" I've tried the sport a few times but don't consider myself a skier. Each time I'm offered this opening line, its speaker is so taken aback by my answer—I don't ski—that he immediately looks away and repeats the question to someone else. Someone more… Bend. I eavesdrop as other, fitter partygoers recap their mountain conquests, and I'm surprised by the level of detail in their answers. There are two official ski areas here: Hoodoo and Mount Bachelor. People also cross-country ski on trails through nearby forests. They travel all over the West to ride different lifts for a weekend. And they backcountry ski, which involves hiking up a mountain and then skiing down it.

When a Bendite explains what she skied today, she doesn't simply name a location. Just as the Inuit supposedly have a hundred words for snow, so, it turns out, do ski bums and snowboard dudes in Bend. There's powder (dry, fine snow), breakable crust (an icy layer that skis sometimes fall through), dust on crust (a thin layer of fresh snow atop breakable crust), boilerplate (ridged ice), ball bearings (loose ice pellets), wind pack (crust formed by wind, not sun), mashed potatoes (wet, creamy snow), death cookies (hunks of ice hidden beneath smooth-looking snow), corn (hard, old snow that sunshine has softened into grains), Cascade cement (ultra-thick snow that grabs your skis), slush (even non-skiers know this one) and many more.

Of course, not everyone in Bend is my age. Young families are moving here, and retirees, too. Most come from California, to escape the traffic jams of Los Angeles or the skyrocketing housing prices of San Francisco. Outdoor recreation is what draws most of them—they ski, golf or mountain bike. Or they simply appreciate having so many sunny days in which to walk along the river and gaze at the mountains. Construction workers flock here, too, to help meet the growing demand for homes. I find myself in the minority not because of where I come from but because of what led me here: a job. In an office, no less. Unlike all of these outdoorsy folks, I'm not sure what to do in my spare time.

I yearn for friends to discuss books with, lazy friends, friends who consider two o'clock a reasonable hour for brunch. Friends who want to unwind at the end of a long week with a movie and a bottle of wine, not a sixty-mile bike ride. Friends with loud political opinions. Desperate for an indoor activity, I enroll in a pottery class Tuesday evenings at the community college. Hunting is still farther from my mind than just about anything. But it is about to move a big step closer.

The morning after my twenty-fourth birthday, a Friday, I stop at a coffee shop on my way to work. You can't drive two blocks in Bend without passing a coffee shop. One intersection actually has drive-through espresso huts on three of its four corners. I don't usually drink the stuff but I've got a slight hangover from the mint juleps I downed with some co-workers last night, and I figure, what the hell, I'm trying to go local anyway. As I hand my money to the cashier, I hear my name.

"Lily! Hi!"

A tall, fit woman in her sixties waves and starts walking over from the other side of the store. She's in my pottery class, but I can't remember her name. I can't believe she knows mine.

"Hi! How are you?" I rack my brain for names. Barb? No, Barb has longer hair. Is it Ann? Or Annie?

"Oh, I'm so glad I ran into you," she says, as if we're old friends. "I need your phone number because I'm fixing you up with someone."

What? In New York, some co-workers offered to set me up on blind dates a few times, but unlike this woman they asked me first. I always declined. And how does she know I'm single, anyway?

"One of your business cards would be fine," she adds.

Still struggling for a response, I reach into my purse and pull out a card. The moment she snatches it, I realize that it's too late to say no to the setup. The card was my consent. I stare at it, in her hand, and I fumble for a polite way to ask for it back.

"Thanks. Well, his name is Scott, and he's just so sweet." She draws out those last two words as if she's describing a puppy. Not a good sign.

Shit. The Western Adventure has taken an awkward turn. I climb into my truck and pretty soon the whole incident slips my mind completely. Monday, I get to the office and check my voice mail.

"Hi, Lily, this is Scott. I work with Janet Windman."

Janet. I wasn't even close.

"Anyway, Janet gave me your phone number and told me that you're new to town, and so I figured, if you'd ever like to grab a cup of coffee or a beer or something, just give me a call."

The high-pressure date suddenly deflates into a casual chance for a new friendship. I write down his phone number. That night, we make plans to meet Thursday at Deschutes Brewery, a local pub.

After work on Thursday, I hop on my bicycle—still trying to go native—and pedal the five blocks to the brewery. As I crouch down to lock up my bike, I scan the front of the restaurant. A few groups of people in their thirties and forties stand in loose circles on the sidewalk, waiting for tables inside. Only one man in his twenties leans against the wall near the front door. He's wearing sunglasses, jeans and a red fleece vest over a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up a few inches. He's about six feet tall, with thick brown hair and a slight suntan.

"Scott?" I try not to sound too hopeful.


"Yeah. Hi, nice to meet you." We shake hands and walk inside, where Scott puts his name on the list for a table. We each order a pint and sit down near the bar.

"I liked your story in today's paper," he says, referring to an article I wrote about a local toad population that has made an unexpected rebound.

"Thanks. It was fun mucking around in ponds for a day. What did you do today?"

Scott exhales.

"Actually, I got audited."

We both laugh.


"Yeah, really. It's over, though."

"Well, cheers to that."

We clink glasses.


It turns out Scott and Janet work for a small nonprofit that collaborates with local farmers and ranchers to restore the Deschutes River, the main branch of which runs through downtown Bend. Every summer, 97 percent of the river's flow gets diverted into canals for irrigation. Janet volunteers in the office. Scott runs programs: helping farmers switch to newer irrigation systems that use less water, piping canals to reduce the amount of water that leaks into the ground, and buying and leasing water rights to put back in-stream. The job gives Scott an interesting window into fish and wildlife populations, which I will appreciate later.

Scott grew up in the Willamette River Valley, which I immediately recognize from a computer game that I played in elementary school, The Oregon Trail. To win, you have to make it to Oregon's Willamette Valley, on the other side of the mountains from Bend. I am startled when Scott pronounces the name of the valley will-AM-it. It sounds harsher than the way I always pronounced it, willa-MET.

Both sides of Scott's family came to Oregon on the wagon trail. His parents were high school sweethearts who grew up in a small town not far from Bend and moved to Portland just after their wedding. They owned a small chain of clothing stores in the Portland area, but Scott spent his summer vacations and as many weekends as possible visiting his grandparents in eastern Oregon. This—the sunny high desert, with air that smells of juniper and sagebrush—is his home. He still spends his weekends exploring it, on skis in the winter and in waders with a fly rod in hand during the summer.

When our table is ready, we sit down and order burgers and more beer and keep talking. I tell him about my own childhood, in Takoma Park, Maryland, a city of seventeen thousand that hugs the northeastern edge of Washington, DC. Sometimes called the People's Republic of Takoma Park, or Berkeley East, its social hub is a Sunday farmers' market that straddles the DC-Maryland boundary, just two short blocks from the bungalow where I—like my brother, Nathan, before me and my sister, Gretchen, after me—was born. (Yes, we're the products of home births, midwives and all.)

Takoma Park is famous for its quirky residents, including Motor Cat, a tabby feline who wore a custom-made helmet and rode on his owner's motorcycle by digging his claws into a thick patch of Berber installed in front of the driver's seat. Years before it became hip to raise backyard chickens for eggs, a wild rooster appeared in Takoma Park. Residents named him Roscoe. He migrated between pocket parks and postage-stamp yards. Sometimes he even strutted down busy sidewalks. This went on for years before Roscoe was discovered early one morning, flattened, in the middle of Takoma Park's main drag. Angry mourners blamed the hit-and-run on a gas-guzzling SUV, probably driven by a Republican. A statue was erected in the bird's honor, and a pizza parlor adopted Roscoe's name.

But throughout my childhood, Takoma Park faded into the background while I transported myself to Green Gables, Narnia or a secret garden. Books sustained me at least as much as food did. In fact, no week was complete without a few walks to our local library. My favorite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, which perhaps foretold my eventual journey west. At first I loved the details of life on the frontier: how they churned butter, cured meats and built a sod house. As I got older, I reveled in the emotional undercurrents, such as Ma's desire for a stable home pitted against Pa's wanderlust.

Scott listens to all of this and suggests a book that I might like as an adult: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, one of his favorite authors. As he summarizes it for me, I can't help but smile. Here we are, in Bend, discussing books.

It's nearing midnight, so we split the bill and walk outside. We unlock our bikes—Scott rode his to the brewery, too—and stroll with them toward my apartment. We arrive at my doorstep too soon, despite my efforts to walk at a fraction of my usual pace. We shake hands good-bye and make plans to meet up on Saturday, when, it turns out, we have both been invited to a barbecue at the home of one of my co-workers.

That night I toss and turn, unable to stop thinking about Scott long enough to give in to sleep. He seems both outdoorsy and indoorsy, funny and serious, smart and kind. When he spoke of his grandparents, his love for them was so real I could almost touch it. He made me laugh out loud when he admitted that he has accidentally joined several parades. (In one, he and his brother took a wrong turn and found themselves driving between floats in a gay pride parade. "What did you do?" I asked. "We smiled and waved.") Our blind date replays in my head on a continuous loop. I can't wait until Saturday. I want to learn everything about him.

Exhausted, I drag myself through work the next day. When I arrive home, a paperback book is leaning against my door. Angle of Repose. It is inscribed: TO LILY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND HAPPY READING! SCOTT.

I call to thank him but he's not home, so I leave a message. As soon as I hang up, I phone Larrison to recount the date and analyze the gift.

"I think he likes me," I conclude. "If he just wanted to be friends, he would have lent me his copy of the book, not bought me a new one."

On Saturday, Scott swings by my apartment in his twelve-year-old red Toyota pickup and drives me to the party. Afterward, we go to his house, where I meet his giant white dog, Bob. Bob barely swishes his tail at me before lunging toward his leash. He wants a walk, and we oblige. We walk down dark streets and through empty city parks. We walk over footbridges that span the black, swirling Deschutes River. We walk past lit windows framing families washing dishes and winding down for bed. We walk slowly, to let Bob sniff around and, mostly, to savor each other's questions, stories and jokes.

For the next week, I come home from work each evening and fix myself a quick dinner, then go to Scott's house. Together, we walk Bob all over town. We talk and laugh and listen. And then for some reason, when bedtime beckons and it's finally time to say good night, shyness overcomes us. Nine days pass by—countless hours spent talking about everything we can think of—before we work up the nerve for one kiss. Don't get me wrong, the kiss is slow and sexy and loaded with sweet promise. It's just not enough.

The next night, Scott has tickets to hear an author, David James Duncan, give a reading. I've never read any of his work, but Scott's a fan. As we walk to the Tower Theater, an old art deco building, Scott tells me about The River Why, Duncan's philosophical novel about fly-fishing. Instead of bait or lures, fly-fishermen try to attract their prey using pieces of fur and feathers tied to a fishhook to mimic a real, juicy bug. Many fly-fishermen, including Scott, catch a fish for the thrill of it, then let it go. Fishing is a passion of Scott's, and apparently many others in Bend share it, too, because the theater is packed when we arrive. We settle into our seats, and I make sure our arms are touching on the armrest.

Before one reading, Duncan explains that one of his students was recently bothered by the practice of catch-and-release. She told him that it amounts to taunting fish since it serves no practical purpose like, say, harvesting food. So Duncan responded with this humorous essay from the fish's perspective. It opens with a fish feeding on insects as usual until one particularly ferocious bug bites back, piercing the fish's lip. The fish panics as the vicious fly refuses to let go. Suddenly, a benevolent angler steps out of nowhere, finally offering relief from the evil bug. Then the angler, the hero, sends the fish on its way.

As Scott walks me home, our arms linked, I ask him to take me fly-fishing sometime. But by the time we get to my apartment, I've forgotten all about fishing.

"Want to come in?"

"Sure." Scott smiles.

I unlock the door and rack my brain for what to say next. Something witty. Something about how much I like him. Without a hint of desperation or overthinking. The door closes behind us. We look at each other.

I don't need a line. I need him.

We collide like two black holes. Lips. Arms. Tongues. Legs. Teeth. There's no time to build sensibly from delicate pecking. We've wasted so much time already, with our stupid talking and walking. We rush to uncover the physical facts that have been ignored during this otherwise thorough courtship.

Summer arrives, and the days get longer but never long enough. The nights are also too short. On weekends, we spend every minute together. Some days we sleep late and walk downtown for brunch at eleven—it's two o'clock in New York, I tell myself. When the snow is melted off Black Butte, per a local rule of thumb, we plant a garden in Scott's backyard. And then one weekend, he takes me fishing. Fly-fishing will turn out to be my gateway drug to hunting.


On Sale
Jun 12, 2012
Page Count
336 pages

Lily Raff McCaulou

About the Author

Lily Raff McCaulou lives in Bend, Oregon, where she writes a twice weekly column for the Bend Bulletin. In 2010, she completed a prestigious Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she researched this book.

Learn more about this author