Two twenty somethings on a bear hunt to New Mexico
The Saga of Pik and Tippy
I still look back at my twentieth year with mixed emotions. On the bright side, I was happily married, at least as far as I knew. It was a time when my dreams, like kites, easily took flight but were quickly grounded by a wallet too light to sustain them. I had vivid daydreams of great hunting and fishing adventures. However, my real-life outdoor stories usually started with “…after we slipped though this barbed wire fence…” In short, I was all hat and no horse.
So I was as happy as a two-petered pup when my sales manager Dick Turner called my best friend Robert Richardson and me into his office to inform us that we had jointly won the company’s annual sales contest. The really cool part was we got to pick our own award. He handed us a ten-page brochure listing all of our options. “Take your time. There are four tickets there. Talk it over with your wives and let me know next week what you decide,” he said.
Robert and I sat there in his office giving the brochure the “guy” scan. We had the challenging task of choosing between family trips to any of 12 resorts in the Caribbean or an all expenses paid bear hunting trip for four to New Mexico. Being the responsible husbands we were, we wrestled valiantly with the decision at hand. Should we risk exposing our wives to potential sunburn, hurricanes, trinket poisoning and who knows what else? Or, choose instead to risk our lives in hopes of getting them each a new fur coat. Dick later commented that Robert and I set a new company record for the fastest award decision ever made.
But Dick didn’t know how good our wives looked in natural fur. Robert and I agreed it would be better if we didn’t mention the resort option or the extra tickets to the wives. They certainly wouldn’t want to vacation without us and as with wives everywhere, too much information is “not good.”
In retrospect, we probably should have paid more attention to the brochure details, or lack thereof, relating to the bear hunt. While the resort descriptions used four color photos with glowing descriptions of white sand and blue waters, the bear hunt brochure mentioned dogs, horses and “rustic” accommodations. Only later did we come to understand that the term rustic comes from the old Nordic term for swatting bloodsucking insects while trying to sleep on the ground in the rain surrounded by man-eating rodents. But at twenty, the term set off no alarms. Our young wives, being much more intuitive about the potential meaning of “rustic,” did not even ask to go along. In fact, after Robert and I signed our new life insurance policies, the girls high-fived their support of the whole endeavor.
We got off the plane in Santa Fe and found our guide, Pik Rawlins. He was easy to find. In the crowded airport terminal we could see the crowd parting like a herd of cattle diverting instinctively around quicksand. Standing in the middle of the void left by the startled human traffic stood a dust covered old coot with his feet wide apart and his hands on his hips. How can I describe Pik Rawlins? If NASA had radar capable of tracking all known human life forms, Pik Rawlins is the kind of guy that could have flown under the radar so-to-speak. He was kind of stealth human. Later we determined that due to some unusual childhood diseases doctors had to remove his sense of humor, his respect for human life and all concept of personal hygiene.
Robert and I broke through the crowd and into the void occupied by Pik. “You my hunters?” he asked. “If you’re Pik Rawlins, then we’re your hunters” Robert replied. Pik stood there looking around for what seemed like a long time; his thoughts working in him like bees in an attic. The smell emanating from Pik was composed in equal parts of road kill, body odor and wood smoke. It was suddenly obvious why the crowd gave Pik his space. “You got some adults with you boys?” he finally asked. I guess Pik did not get a lot of twenty-year-old bear hunters. “Nope, we’re it.” I said. Pik took a step back and looked at us like we had smallpox. After a hard stare, he said, “We better get one thing straight boys, I aint your gol-dern baby sitter.”
Trying to steer the conversation in a more positive direction, I asked him “so how’s the hunting? Been finding a lot of bears lately? Pik’s perpetual scowl deepened “It don’t matter and I don’t care. All you got to know is that I got your money, you got four days left and daylight’s burning.” With Pik you got the rustic stuff right from the get go, especially when he was upwind.
Pik was kind enough to let us show him that we didn’t need “adults.” He let us carry all our luggage, gun cases and four days of supplies to what served as his truck. He said the reason he parked a mile from the airport was he didn’t like folks disturbing what served as his dog; the one curled up on the floorboard of the truck. The dog’s name was Carlos. The fact that is was the closest free parking didn’t escape our silent notice.
On the ride out to the cabin Robert and I bonded as never before. We never felt closer. Mostly that was because in the crowded, dusty, reeking truck cab every time Robert or I tried to put a foot on the floorboard Carlos would suddenly growl violently and pull back his lips as if to say, “If you want them ankles to remain attached to your legs, get them away from me.” Pik’s response to our pleas for help was “Don’t rile em boys. That dog’s a killer…he’s also crazy.” Our first view of northern New Mexico was comprised mostly of what we could see between our boots, which were firmly planted on the dashboard.
They say that people act like their dogs or that people’s dogs act like their owners. We were certainly able to see that bond between Pik and Carlos. When we pulled up to the cabin Carlos hopped out, jumped up into the truck bed and pissed on everything we owned. “Unload the gol-dern truck,” Pik bellowed as he stood pissing off the cabin porch. “Put everything here on the porch and let it dry out.” Pik added helpfully.
As Robert and I started unloading the truck, Robert asked, “How many dogs you got Pik, I mean Mr. Rawlins?” After some scowlful thought, Pik replied, “Had 18. Bears got five, worms got two. One died on account of sexual orientation.”
“Sexual orientation?” Robert gawked.
“Yeah. We stopped to rest on this narrow hogback ridge at about 10,000 foot. One of the dogs gets it into his head that this would be an ideal time to add to his sexual resume. After surveying his options, he trotted over to one of the pack mules with that “love the one you’re with” look in his eye. In no time, he was humping that mule’s leg like a poodle on a preacher’s wife. He was just getting that feeling-good grin when it dawned on the mule that this panting pumping pup firmly attached to his right hind leg was not someone of which mother would approve. That’s when that dog’s space walk started. Had that “What-was-I-thinking?” look on his face for bout 2,000 feet. In this business you got to be able to replace a lot of dogs.”
“With so many replacement dogs, how do you remember their names?” I asked. “Don’t,” Pik spat. “Only two get names. Carlos my bar dog and Tippy my strike dog” It was obvious that with Carlos along Pik could get a seat in any bar in the lower 48. “Strike dog?” I inquired. “Here’s how it works boys. When we hunt bears Tippy’s the only dog that I turn loose. Tippy’s got the special kind of nose that allows him to pick up the scent of a bear even if it’s a day old. He can also tell the difference between a bear and say an elk. Tippy follows the cold trail pretty quiet-like and when the trail turns hot Tippy will let us know. Then I turn the other dogs loose to help tree the bear. Everything depends on Tippy and that nose of his.”
After a proper sun drying, we began moving our stuff into the cabin. I don’t know if the rat tracks in the bacon grease was the first thing I noticed about the cabin. It could have been the smell, the dirt, the light shining though the gaps in the walls, the one-inch thick mattresses on the metal bunk beds or that the one room cabin was no more than 12’ x 14’. On second thought, it was the rat tracks in the bacon grease.
Taking a closer look at the frying pan and bacon grease, Robert whispered, “I don’t know if we got rats or javalinas.” Pik saw us looking at the rat tracks. “I told you city boys, I aint your gol-dern babysitter,” Pik reminded us. “In case yor wonderin, I leave them ventilation slits in the walls on account of the gas Carlos passes at night.” Later, Robert and I agreed that only one word accurately described the gas vents in the walls, inadequate.
On the bright side, we figured that Carlos consistent gaseous emissions were the reason we did not see a single living cockroach inside the cabin during our stay. Occasionally, you would see one looking in the window and whining as he slowly starved to death. Even cockroaches had better sense than to be cooped up with Carlos. “Why does Carlos get to sleep in the cabin while Tippy has to sleep outside,” Robert asked. “Had Tippy sleep inside during a blizzard a few years back.” Pik reminisced. “After one night in here with Carlos, that gol-dern dog couldn’t smell anything for a week.” We figured the real reason Tippy slept outside in the weather is that he had a choice.
Robert laid claim to the bottom bunk. I guess he figured that if he needed to make a break for the cabin door, he would have a head start. By putting all the clothes I brought with me on what served as my mattress, I was able to change the sleeping-on-metal-rods-and-wires feel to a more comfortable sleeping-on-a-lumpy-piles-of-clothes feel.
Just before turning out the Coleman lantern, Pik told us that he would have breakfast ready at 4:30 am. We were then expected to help saddle the horses and gather the dogs. To our great surprise, he also informed us that our attendance was required at sunrise services. His final admonition was “I intend to get a good night’s sleep so I won’t put up with no foolishness.”
Not long after lights out, with the inside of a cabin blacker than Darth Vader’s mascara, Robert and I bolted upright to the sound of not-so-little feet scurrying across the floor in every direction. “You hear that?” Robert whispered. “Sounds like they’ve got you surrounded down there.” I whispered back, suddenly glad for my elevation. Pik had just started to snore when Robert levitated off his bunk. “Ohhh NO!” he exploded trying to keep it to a whisper. “What now?” I asked from the safety of my perch. “A rat just ran across my chest!” Robert hissed, trying not to hyperventilate. “Pipe down.” I told him. “It could have been worse. At least the little bastard didn’t stop for a snack.” After an ominous pause, Robert replied, “That was no little anything!” “Take out your flashlight and let’s take a look.” I suggested. After a little cautious feeling around, Robert found his flashlight and turned it on. The first three rats we saw were nothing to write home about. The fourth one was sitting on a shelf. “Isn’t that a beaver?” Robert asked in awe. “No. A beaver would not be sitting on that shelf eating one of your tennis shoes.” I said.
Suddenly there was a blinding flash, a Hiroshima-like explosion and the mega-rat in the spotlight exploded into a pink mist. As Pik slid his smoking 357 Magnum back under his pillow we could hear him through the ringing in our ears say, “I told you boys, I ain’t your gol-dern babysitter,” and then something about this being our last warning about any more foolishness. Needless to say, we made sure that Pik was not disturbed. In our threat assessment, sharp teeth and deadly diseases could not compete with an ill-tempered old coot with a hair triggered 357 Magnum.
We awoke choking to a cabin full of smoke. Before we were awake enough to panic properly, we heard Pik’s voice, “Breakfast is ready.” The voice came to us through a haze comprised of equal parts burned bacon grease and Carlos-gas. Robert, yawning like a heavy metal rocker stranded in Salt Lake City and used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the dust off the table. As far as we could tell, breakfast was comprised of fried eggs, fried sausage, fried bacon, fried biscuits and fried potatoes skillfully presented in the form of a glob. We ate in silence trying to see each other across the table in the smoke filled cabin. “You boys will be pleased to learn that there aint no more rat tracks in the bacon grease.” Pik informed us with what served as a grin.
After we had finished our morning chores and had the dogs and horses ready to go, it was time for the sunrise service. As we stood there looking at the first dim rays of the approaching sunrise, Pik took off his hat, raised his hands and loudly proclaimed.” “Oh Lord! Bless these bears for the ass whuppin they are about to receive. Amen”
After four hours on horseback, the only ass whuppin of importance to us was the one our saddles were delivering to Robert and I. We were about to ask for a rest, when suddenly, Tippy changed from his cold trailing note to full voice. Things started happening fast. Pik let the other dogs go and bailed over the edge of the mountain on his trusty steed. Our horses fearful of being left alone in the mountains with a couple of greenhorns sailed over the edge after the rest of the team. Thus began our first sphincter-wrinkler.
I found myself onboard a thoroughly panicked horse sliding down a slope so steep that his ass was bouncing down the gravel slope. My feet jutted straight out in the stirrups and I leaned back so far in the saddle that I was afraid I was going to hit my head on the mountain slope behind me. But for one small piece of equipment I would have slid right up on the horse’s neck. This device became the entire balance point around which I valiantly attempted to remain in the saddle. Not coincidentally, it was also the single place of impact for every bump, thump and slam we encountered during our decent. Later, Robert and I both agreed that there is a special place in hell for whoever invented the saddle horn. Whoever he was, he never spent any time on horseback sliding down a mountain.
When we got to the bottom of the mountain we found the dogs milling around. Tippy had a kind of sheepish look on his face as we watched an elk bound up the face of the next mountain. Robert and I plopped onto the ground glad to be alive. Meanwhile, Pik was having a conniption fit. For the next 15 minutes Pik chased Tippy around screaming at the top of his lungs about how this was the last time Tippy was going to get away with lying about elks being bears. Given the language he used, I figured Tippy had at one time been in the Navy.
Robert and I were tempted to let the humor of the scene in front of us get the best of us, but the sight of that 357 Magnum keep us in touch with our sane side. Finally, in a fit of cussing and wheezing Pik roped Tippy. As he dragged him toward the tree under which we sat, he continued to vent. When he got to the tree Pik threw one end of the rope over a limb and hoisted Tippy into the air. Our jaws dropped as we watched Tippy’s execution. “I can’t abide a lying dog.” Pik explained as he turned to get a water canteen from his horse.
While Pik was otherwise occupied I took out the one-time camera I had brought along and took a picture of the now lifeless Tippy swaying gently in the breeze. I advanced the film and was about to get another shot when out of nowhere Pik appeared and slapped the camera out of my hand. In the blink of an eye, he pulled out his 357 Magnum and blasted the little camera to smithereens. “People don’t want to see no pictures like that,” he said. He reached over with a knife and cut the rope attached to Tippy’s carcass. “Leave em lay,” Pik said “Maybe the critters got a use for a lying dog. I sure as hell don’t.”
We started back to the cabin riding along in stunned silence with our spirits lower than a snowman’s blood pressure and so dark that even Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon could not have lightened them up.
After an hour in the saddle, a little unwelcome gallows humor began to creep in. Whenever Robert was sure Pik could not see, he tried to make me laugh out loud by grabbing his throat and pretending to strangle himself. He pantomimed Pik slapping my camera away and shooting it with his finger. We both almost laughed out loud several times, knowing if we did so we might be Pik’s next hanging victims. Every now and then Pik would look back at us. He saw only two Cheshire-Cat grins beaming back our total approval of anything he might have done, a lie so blatant that it would make even the Pentagon blush.
To our everlasting surprise, but not to Pik’s, we found Tippy sitting on the cabin porch. He still had the rope tied to his neck, but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. “Tippy, you better learn to leave them elk alone before your luck runs out” Pik said as he scratched Tippy behind the ears and fed him a biscuit Pik had saved for just this occasion.
The next day our luck changed, in a manner of speaking. With Tippy now sounding like a bullfrog, we struck a hot track and the same wild chase started all over again. This time however, the dogs changed from their chasing sound to their treed sound. “Hurry up back there. They got em treed.” Pik yelled back at us. “We’re falling as fast as we can.” Robert and I replied in unison.
About half way up a mountainside we broke into a clearing to find the dogs baying at a small cave in the ground. When I had won the coin toss with Robert to determine who got to shoot the first bear, I thought myself lucky. Now I wasn’t so sure. The cave entrance was about three feet in diameter. At about six feet in it took a sharp turn to the right. With a flashlight I could see the bear’s paw. “Well, there’s your bear,” a satisfied Pik said. “I thought I would get to shoot one that was treed.” I whined. “When them dogs bark treed, its treed.” Pik replied with finality. Being surrounded by Pik’s pack of killer dogs took away my natural desire to argue the point.
“So what are you gonna do now?” Pik asked as if I had a clue. “Maybe we could smoke him out,” I offered. After lapidating it a while in his old cerebral gem tumbler, Pik said “If that’s the way you want to do it, then it’s OK by me. After you and Robert pile some brush at the entrance, he can help me take the dogs down the mountain where they won’t make so much noise.”
After we had set a small fire with lots of green stuff for smoke, Pik handed me his 30-30 Winchester and said, “If he comes out while we are gone, use this.” As it worked out, my plan would have succeeded except for a few pesky laws of physics. Smoke goes up, bear is down. Fire goes out. Hunter is now alone. As far as I could tell, the bear didn’t even sneeze.
My only hope was that the bear would leave from boredom. Meanwhile I set up my vigil on top of a big rock that was about 20 yards away from the bear. For a while I sat on top of it, then I hid behind it and finally I sat down in front of it only 10 yards from “my bear.” Mentally I practiced every possible scenario. The bear comes out fast, the bear comes out slow, and the bear sticks his head out giving me a good shot. The one scenario I didn’t spend much time on was one where the bear makes a sprint out of the cave and kills me before I can get off a shot. Instinctively, I pulled back the hammer on the trusty 30-30. Its distinctive “click” somehow calmed my nerves. I held the gun centered on the entrance to the cave knowing that I might only get one shot off before it was “too late.”
I was somewhat disappointed when Robert and Pik returned an hour later. “Didn’t hear no shot,” Pik observed. “There’s a reason you didn’t hear a shot. My bear is still in that cave,” I said handing Pik back his gun and rubbing my butt muscles back to life. Pik levered open the action on the 30-30 and looked inside. “Well, I figured that another reason I didn’t hear no shot was that you was too dumb to chamber a round into the chamber and I was right. You don’t think I was going to hand a greenhorn kid a gun with a chambered round do you?” My knees slowly turned to jello as every one of my carefully planned scenarios passed in front of my eyes followed by the sound of the hammer falling on an empty chamber. “Those tears must be from the smoke,” Robert offered in my defense.
“Daylight’s burning,” Pik observed. “What you gonna do now?” In a flash of inspiration I said “You still got that flask on you?” Pik said “Of course.” “Hand it over and I will tell what I gonna do next.” After draining the flask, I announced, “Give me your pistol. I’m going in after him.” “It’s your bear. Do what you want,” Pik responded. I was really hoping he was going to make an argument for a saner plan if he had one. Unfortunately, Pik was not long on sane plans. With the whiskey kicking in at just the right time, I began my belly crawl up to the cave entrance. I put the pistol in my left hand and held the flashlight in my right. My general plan was to reach my left hand around the bend at the bottom of the cave and pull the trigger.
It was only after I had crawled into the entrance that I realized that it was no bigger around than me. Once my head was in; I could hear that bear uttering a low growl. Sweat was pouring off me when Pik and Robert decided to become comedians. Silently they snuck up behind me and each grabbed one of my legs while raking me with their fingernails and issuing convincing bear growls. I came out of that cave entrance with enough velocity to carry me fifty feet down the mountain. Robert and Pik had wisely made good their escape into the woods. If I had wanted to find and shoot them it would have been easy. All I had to do was follow the howls of laughter.
Instead, I used my adrenaline/whiskey-high to rush the cave. I jammed myself far enough down the entrance to let me point my pistol around the corner and pull the trigger. My first impression was that I was in a metal trash dumpster and someone had just exploded a hand grenade next to me. My second thought was “Why am I surprised at how bad this bear’s breath smells?” The bear made a break for it. Our heads met and the stars came out. I felt myself flying through the air like a badly shanked punt. The one doing the punting was a 400-pound bear that I had just shot in the foot.
As was explained to me later, I was “lucky” that the bear thought I was dead. Fortunately “my” bear was about to run into a little bad luck of his own. As the bear raced down the hill, what with his bad foot and all, he lost his balance and tumbled right into the pack of bear dogs Pik had taken down the hill.
Meanwhile Pik and Robert picked me up and dragged me along on their high-speed chase down the hill toward the bear/dog confrontation. As best I remember, the bear stood up. “Shoot!!” Pik demanded, handing me the 30-30. Proving that even in my mentally diminished condition I had learned from my previous experience, I emptied the unfired round that was in the chamber and jacked another live round into the gun. “Shoot the gol-dern bear before he hurts Tippy,” screamed Pik. I brought my rubbery legs under control and raised the 30/30 trying to find the target. From my perspective there were three bears going in and out of focus in random order. I picked the middle one and fired
“Why are you boys walking so funny?” Robert’s wife asked us as we hobbled off the airplane back in Dallas. “It’s the cowboy way,” I replied. “I don’t remember cowboys moaning and groaning as they walk,” my wife observed, “and I bet they don’t stink like you boys either.”
Feigning his most wounded-pride look, Robert said, “Well, that smell is on account of all the rustic we had to deal with. Pik says most folks get used to it in a week or two.” “Our new walk is the natural result of time in the saddle,” I said. “The more time cowboys spend in the saddle the more moaning and groaning they do.” “Seems to me that cowboys on TV don’t walk all leaned over like you two,” Robert’s wife chipped in. “Don’t you ‘all worry. If there is a God, Steve and I will be walking tall in a few weeks,” Robert said trying to change the subject. “You got yourselves a couple of quick healers,” I said to the wives hoping that Robert’s recovery forecast was true, but knowing he wasn’t even close.
As got into Robert’s K-5 Blazer in the airport parking lot, the wives climbed into the back seat. Robert’s wife said, “Tell us about our bear coats.” “Well, it’s like this,” Robert stammered. “Those New Mexico bears are actually rug bears not coat bears like we thought. You have to go over into Colorado to get yourself a coat bear,” Robert concluded, looking at the girls in the rearview mirror as he looked over at me for support. “Yeah, a couple of gorgeous babes like yourselves wouldn’t want to be caught dead in a New Mexico bear coat. It would be way too embarrassing,” I contributed. “So we had to make that mangy, flea-ridden, dog chewed, stinking old bear into a rug.”
After a way-to-long silence from the back seat, Robert’s wife said, “Soooooooooo, other than a couple of stove-up aromatic cowboy wannabees, what did you bring us?” Robert and I looked at each other with a rising sense of panic, knowing there was no acceptable answer to that particular question.
Before we could think up a reasonable lie, the wives leaned forward from the back seat and each of them dumped a small tourist sized pail of white sand onto our laps. The moist sand came out as one big heavy glop that landed squarely between our legs. It could not have hurt more had they dropped bowling balls. “Quit your screaming! You big babies,” they said in unison.
As Robert and I wiped the sand carefully off our laps and the tears out of our eyes, Robert’s wife explained, “The day you left we called Dick Turner to thank him for the award he had given you boys. As it turns out there were a couple of unused Caribbean tour packages sitting on his desk. Dick said we were entitled to them and was a bit surprised you boys forgot them. Lord only knows that we, your adoring wives, would not spend five glorious days on the beach without bringing home a little token of our feelings for our husbands,” she concluded. “Nice tans,” Robert offered to the smug faces he saw in the rearview mirror.
It took about a year for the taxidermist to send me my bear rug. That was also about how long it took me to recover from my various injuries. It was also how long it took for the girls to tire of regaling us with their tall tales of Caribbean adventures. To this very day, every time that I look at that bear rug it gives me a splitting headache and I curse again the son-of-a bitch that invented the saddle horn.