I’m standing naked in a Walmart parking lot at 1am in Payson, Arizona. It’s cold raining and I’m completely sober. Not exactly three words I thought I would be using to describe the after party of a successful elk hunt in AZ, but none the less here I am.
If I were with my buddies on this hunt we would have been shit faced drunk celebrating my first elk. We still may have ended up naked in a Walmart parking lot at 1am, but not sober. Hell if I had anyone with me on this hunt we’d be closing down the Buffalo Grill with aching backs from packing a bull off the mountain. I would have told the story so many times by 1am they would have cut me off. My buddies weren’t with me on this trip, I didn’t have a guide, I didn’t even have a strange dude I picked up at Home Depot to help me. I was solo. Not that my buddies wouldn’t have come, they wanted to, but flying across the country,from New Jersey to Arizona, missing work and family just to watch me shoot an elk is a lot to ask. I wanted to come alone anyway. A solo hunt on public land for my first elk, that’s what I wanted, halfway through the second trip down the mountain with a giant hind quarter strapped to my back I was regretting it, but that’s what I wanted.
When it rains in Arizona it fucking rains, hard and fast, there’s a hacky dick joke there but I’ll skip it. They have a monsoon season that runs from the middle of June until the end of September. My hunt was the early rifle in the last week of September, so it was mostly over. It didn’t start raining until I pulled into the Walmart parking and it was over by the time I had clothes on. It felt like hours but in reality maybe 15 minutes. My dad described the monsoons in Vietnam as raining up. I could see what he meant. I didn’t show up to the Walmart naked. After a long day of packing a 4 to 5 hundred lbs animal off a mountain racing the Arizona sun, losing the meat was a huge fear of mine. Then finding and getting the meat to a butcher, after that day all I wanted to do was drink a few beers in my shitty hotel room and pass out. I almost made it.
In The Beginning
When I dreamed of this hunt, well it wasn’t my dream hunt. My dream hunt is a pronghorn hunt. Lame in comparison to an Arizona elk hunt to some, but since I was in the third grade and learned America had it’s own antelope it conjured images of the African plains. I used a Bowhunter magazine to do a report on the animal. Since then I planned to one day wander out west in search of pronghorn. So I guess you could say I was a little let down when my wife gave me the dates of her business trip and, my free hotel, since they didn’t align with the AZ pronghorn season. In fact not much of any season aligned with the dates, not bear, couses deer, or javalinea, none of those, just one elk. Not a just any old general elk hunt, an early rifle hunt in September. I figured the chance of drawing that hunt would be slim to none, but what the hell. At the very least I’d do some fishing and glass whatever wildlife I could.
I suppose I should explain the tag drawing system a bit, or as much as I can, I don’t fully understand it still. Think of it as a lottery, in fact that’s what it is a lottery. Your odds are better in some units then others, but your hunt success odds, of course, are better in the harder draw areas. I submitted for a middle of the road unit, not far from where I was staying and it was nearly all public land. I pictured my name going in a hat with thousands of other wishful hunters for that hunt. I pictured an old timer standing in some wood panel walled firehouse picking the names and reading them aloud as an old girl with a number 2 pencil writes the names down. I can see his arthritic hand reaching into the hat pulling to many at once, the extra tickets falling to the ground a long with some poor bastards hopes to bag an elk. As they fall there is one ticket lodged under his finger nail that is at “I’m to old to trim” length. He plucks it out and reads the name “Curt Babcock”. The old girl yells back “Burt Abock?” In reality a computer picks the names.
There it was in my mail box, a small white envelope from the Arizona Game Commission. In all honesty I knew it was coming, Arizona hits your credit card as soon as you win the tag. I would like to tell you it was a dramatic cheering “YES!” when I found out, but my reaction was “who the fuck stole my credit card in Arizona?” then I kind of went oh yeah. I spent the summer learning more about elk than I could imagine ever learning an animal. I studied hunting forums, google maps, topo maps, I listened to podcasts, watched videos. I studied their eating habits, sex habits, sounds, size, you name it. I picked 10 spots to hunt over the course of 4 days and whittled that list down to 6. Two for each day, a morning glassing “tit” and an afternoon with a nice hike in between. A “glassing tit” as I’ve heard it perfectly described by westerner hunters is an out crop of rock or something where you can use your binoculars to view lots of ground. The idea is to find an elk and get into shooting range without bumping it, easier said then done. Now since I’m doing all of this scouting in Arizona from New Jersey I used google maps and a free trial of an app. I bought a new rifle, .300 win mag, tried a few types of ammo. Bought new westerner camo and boots. Here’s a huge tip, I bought my boots in the beginning of the summer and wore them everywhere, hiking fishing everywhere, brake your boots in. I was ready.
As Colombo would say when a suspect was feeling like they got away with a crime “there’s just one more thing”. One huge thing, one 400 to 800 lbs thing. I’ve never seen an elk in real life. Sure I’ve seen videos, both hunting and nat geo type, I saw head mounts in bars even life size mounts in hunting stores but I’ve never actually seen them. I live in Jersey cut me some slack. My first thought was a zoo. I found a zoo right here in NJ that advertised elk. I packed my wife and kid up and we headed to the zoo. My son loves trains so of course we had to ride the little choo choo around the zoo first. Eventually we made it to the elk enclosure. I found it odd the enclosure was small and had Bison in it. We circled it 4 times until I realized there were no elk. I mean the sign said elk but no elk, just two mangy Bison. Much like a toddler I then threw a small albeit embarrassing fit. My F bombs gave way to laughs when I thought of all the suburban white collar Jerseyians running around the state thinking Bison were Elk. After striking out trying to find a game farm or another zoo with Elk, I tried to accept the fact that the first elk I see maybe through cross hairs of my scope. I asked my buddy Bill what he thought, I take Bill’s hunting advice to heart, Bill said “Listen dude, you’re hunting solo on public land in a state you’ve never been after an animal you’ve never seen. If you see an elk shoot it. Just make sure it’s an elk.”
Fear is the number one factor for people to fail at obtaining a goal. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds about right. That and laziness, I believe I have a touch of both. Okay a little more than a touch. Being aware of both helps me conquer them. Well all but one.
I have, or had I’m still on the fence, a huge irrational fear of flying. This wasn’t always the case. I use to fly for work all the time, but one day out of the blue I couldn’t fly anymore. I avoided it like a cat to water, I opted out of family vacations and business trips. Any hunting or fishing trips would have to be driven to. This fear really bothered me, I hated it. One day my job offered me a project in Houston, I knew it would involve a flight, but I said yes determined to over come the fear. I figured my job depended on it. On the day of the flight I made it to Newark airport’s parking garage, where I started shaking, crying, and hyper ventilating. I ate two fast acting chew-able Xanax, nothing, I ate two more, still shaking, I ate two more. I ate seven Xanax and was still frozen with fear. So I drove to Houston that day, happiest god damn drive of my life.
So now I had to get my ass to Arizona. I bought the ticket, knowing what could happen and knowing a Xanax fueled drive was out of the question. Everything was fine until the night before the flight. I thought this time “I’m going to do it, tomorrow I’ll be in Arizona hunting Elk” then full melt down. I stay in meltdown mode until I got to Newark airport’s parking garage. Then like a switch was flipped I grabbed my stuff, went in, got on the plane and got my ass to Arizona. Not one Xanax needed.
I landed in Phoenix on a Sunday morning at 9 am. My plan was to drive to Payson, the nearest town to the area I was going to be hunting, check in to my hotel and head out to do some scouting. After a mix up with my rental, I picked up my soccer mom car and headed out after one of North America’s largest game animals.
My hotel seemed fine, I checked in, got changed from “travel clothes” to “hunting clothes”, and headed out in the Tonto National forest. It was at this time I realized I woke up at 2 am eastern, flew across the country, and it was now 1pm Arizona time. I’m not sure I had any physical or mental energy left to head into the mountains of a state I’ve never been after an animal I had yet to see, but that’s just what I did. I arrived at the trail head I had put the most internet scouting time into. I guess it was my plan A, a two and a half mile hike to just below the Mongolian Rim. There where two rock out crops one looking north toward the rim and the other looking south from below the rim. I thought I had enough time to hike to the one looking north. I threw my pack on, slung my rifle over my shoulder and started up the trail.
The air was dry and what is commonly referred to as “hot as balls”. The wind was blowing pretty hard and loud, but inconsistent. I took my top camo off so I was just in a T-shirt. With the heat, the hike, and the wind I figured I’d be a swap ass mess if I rushed up to the spot, so I decided to walk slow and even if I couldn’t get up there that first night at least I’d get a lay of the land and may be see some sign of elk. It didn’t take long to see the first sign a simple track, I have never been so excited to see a track, my heart race as if I had seen an elk. Being from New Jersey I’ve seen a lot of deer tracks and since dairy farming is still a thing in north jersey I’ve seen a fair share of cow tracks, these where neither. I knew it was an elk and after a few more steps I confirmed with elk shit. The sign was old, but in my head I told myself “I put myself in a spot in Arizona where elk had been, by looking at a computer in NJ” it was a strange feeling it almost felt like a successful hunt already. I hiked further, but got confused by a chunk of private land. I didn’t want to push it so I figured I’d head back study the map again and come back in the morning after a good nights sleep. I found more sign and fresh, this was the spot, I was excited as hell. Then I found a fresh rubbed tree, and fear crept in. I’ve heard elk described as angry forest horses, by the look of the tree you don’t want to be the stress relief of an angry forest horse.
I felt like I was in the right spot. Yet still was the aching feeling I have yet to see an actual elk. I’d hoped to at least see one by now, the possibility of having to decide weather to shoot the first elk I’d ever seen was still on the table. I drove slow looking left and right, but no elk. Although I did see my first mule deer and jack rabbit,so that was cool.
I woke up the next morning still tired but before sunrise, shit I was still on east coast time so it wasn’t hard. I was up and out in minutes heading back up to where I had saw the sign the day before. There was a horse farm and a few houses just before the National Forest Fire Control road I used to get to the trail. As I passed the farm to my left I noticed two horses and there in the middle of the road standing in my headlights was the first elk I had ever seen in real life. A mother and a calf, at first I had thought that the dudes horses were out but nope, not one but two elk. A mile up the road stood a bull, standing in a yard eating some poor bastards tree. I watched him for a min and continued up the road now with no doubt I was ready to shoot.
I was as ready as I could be to I suppose. I mean I’m still preparing to pull my rifle up on a game animal I’ve never hunted in a land I’ve never been, and now that I know exactly how big these animals are I was more nervous than before. As I drove up the fire control road I noticed a small group of elk feeding across an old burn, there was one small bull mixed with a few cows and calves. Two bull elk with in 15 minutes damn this was not what I had expected. I could have got out right there and went after that elk but it didn’t feel right so I continued up the road which brought me closer to the top of the ridge. At the top of the ridge I spotted another group of elk further out and feeding down the ridge. In the middle near the back of the group there he was the elk I wanted to go after. He was to far away to see how big he was but I could tell he was big enough for me. I got my binoculars out but with my shaking hands I still couldn’t tell. I drove back down to the bottom of the ridge, noticing the first group had moved off the burn and deeper into the forest. I thought the group with the bigger bull would continue down the ridge and hopefully follow the first group. My plan was to get below the small bulls group hike in ahead of them and call the bigger bull down with cow calls once in position. I read with elk in September you don’t really have to be quite but you have to be fast. By the time I parked my soccer mom ride grabbed my gear and really ran up the ridge and out in front the first group of elk were already there. My heart was racing with nerves and from running. I could tell the cows were on to me as I saw them moving the calves faster nearly running now. I stopped and called with a cow call. The cows now blasted out of there, I thought “shit I blew it”, but just as that thought crossed my mind I heard him. Before this hunt I may have listened to a thousand elk bugles on-line, but the first time you hear one in the forest is indescribable, here is where I’ll try. The sound was magic, it felt as if my ears had eyes and the just saw a unicorn. I was like I was on skull island and King Kong himself just screamed from the top of the ridge and was heading toward me. I read in preparing for this moment that when a bull screams at you keep answering him. I called again and his scream grew louder and closer. At this point I realized I was telling this wild beast screaming his guts out that I was hot cow ready to breed, this sent a shiver down my spine. It was then I heard a softer and even closer bugle. This one came from about 80 yards it was the smaller bull. I could tell he wasn’t calling to me he was responding to the bigger bull. I could now see the small bull 80 yards and feeding on a small trees leaves. I’d call the big bull bugled back then the small bull would look up the ridge and make a soft bugle. In my head I tought there is a chance the small bull calls off the bigger one before I ever see him. I at this moment have a bull elk standing broadside at 80 yards. I heard my buddy Bill’s voice in my head “dude you shoot the first one you see”. Rather then wait for the smaller bull to blow my chance and go home eating tag soup, I steadied my rifle against a small tree, put my cross hairs just behind his front shoulder, I took a deep breathe, cleared my mind and squeezed the trigger.
I could tell it was a good hit as he ran up the ridge. The feeling that came over me was too much I sat down right there as he disappeared up the ridge. For sure he would be down just out of sight. At that point no matter what game you hunt and no matter how many great shots I think I’ve just made, doubts creep in, what if. I got on the blood trail, it was a good one. I climbed the ridge and climbed and climbed, every step thinking “he’s got to be down right here”. More steps and he kept going. I thought ” May be I’m pushing him” I’d stop and listen and go a little further then stop again. The blood kept going. I neared the top of the ridge and there standing 50 yards near the top stood an elk. A bull elk, it looked like the one I had just shot but it didn’t look hit. I raised my rifle, but if this wasn’t my elk I didn’t want to shoot two, that’s a big no no. I waited until the elk turned broadside then I saw the blood,it was him, I shouldered my rifle again. The second shot again in the vitals and he dropped. I was nearly in tears as I moved into 25 yards rifle ready when he stood up. I didn’t want to shoot unnecessarily but I wanted this over. he took a step to the left and I shot again. He wobbled 5 yards and there he died.
It was over. The level of exhaustion after the adrenaline wore off was nothing I’ve ever felt. I stared at the animal not letting emotion set in I snapped a few photos and quickly started quartering. By noon I had the elk packed out and to the butcher. I went back to my shitty hotel room showered then went and had a few beers at the Buffalo Bar and Grill in town trying to wrap my head around what just happened. I was to tired to put in a good amount of celebration and alone. I headed to my room to sleep, the next day I’d meet my wife in Phoenix at a resort far away from the where I had shoot the elk. There the hunt would be over.
Oh so how did I end up naked in a Walmart parking lot? As I laid my head down that night in the light of the TV as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded blows I noticed something crawling on my bed. I jumped up like a kid on Christmas. Bed bugs. I spent the next few hours fighting with the hotel, bagging anything that could be washed and throwing out anything that couldn’t. At 1am I was at Walmart changing in the rain from bed bug exposed clothes to a pair of freshly bought shorts and sweatshirt. I spent the night not sleeping in my car waiting for the laundry mat to open at 6am. After a solo elk hunt and pack out, bed bugs, Walmart, rain, a night of no sleep, and laundry mat small talk, I met my wife at the airport and told her about the greatest hunting day of my life.