“You writers are all the same when it comes to hunting Coues deer,” the editor told my friend. “First you glass for hours and hours, and then you shoot a ‘gray ghost’ so far across the canyon you need the Hubble telescope just to see him.” The guy finished his tirade by saying, “Coues deer hunting must be the most boring sport on earth.”
Maybe, but that wasn’t exactly my experience.
Little Kids and Big Machine Guns
We were met at the Hermosillo airport by a bunch of little kids wearing military uniforms and toting machine guns. When I stepped to the front of the line a girl who looked like she was fresh out of junior high school started interrogating me.
“What’s in that camera case” she demanded in heavily accented English?
“Ahhhh . . . um . . . cameras?” I said hoping that was the right answer. Then I added, “my guns are in that black case over there.”
“The guns are fine, I don’t care about the guns.”
“I have my permit, here I’ll show you.”
“Just keep your hands where I can see them. I don’t need to see the guns or the permit. I want to see the cameras.”
I opened my case and as she walked a circle around it I swear she put a monocle in her right eye.
“Very interesting. Professional?”
Thinking that perhaps she was a photo bug and recognized quality equipment, I smiled and gave her exactly the wrong answer.
“Professional is not allowed.”
“Oh no, no, no . . . you misunderstood, it’s the language barrier. I am just a deer hunter who likes to take pictures.”
“Do not toy with me. I think we need to step into that small, unlighted room over there to discuss your cameras some more.”
Three big, mean looking ninth graders headed for the room ahead of me, all carrying long rubber hoses. I started looking around in a panic trying to find anybody who would help. The first person I spotted was Lynn, our television camera guy, who had stepped outside for a smoke. He was approaching with a nicotine-fueled grin on his face and a huge video camera hanging off his shoulder. The young Gestapo lady spotted him at exactly the same time.
“You can go now,” she told me as she slammed my camera case shut and pushed me down the corridor. Then, pointing at the video camera, she demanded of Lynn, “Professional?”
I collected my guns and exited the airport, not bothering to wait for his answer.
A Modern Man
That night, we stayed in a hotel in Hermosillo before starting the long drive to Coues deer camp in the morning. In the bar, there was a one-man mariachi band playing American rock and roll music and an effeminate Mexican cowboy shimmying alone across the dance floor. As the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” transitioned to a Mexican rendition of “Hound Dog” the cowboy crossed the crowded barroom to our table. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, or maybe it was the margaritas, but when he asked the crusty old hunter with a mustache and a black cowboy hat to dance rather than the pretty blond lady seated with us, nobody seemed surprised.
I must admit though, we were when he said yes.
“Go ahead, my ‘friends’ said, as they all pretended to eat one, they call them ‘Mexican Candy.” I knew I was being set up, but figured “what the heck.” If they truly were good I would miss out if I passed. If it was a set up we would all get a good laugh. After all, how bad could it be?
Turns out “Mexican Candy” translates roughly in English to “a pepper so hot that if you eat one it will melt the hair off your head and the clothes off your body, leaving you steaming, screaming and naked.” Apparently, there is only one pepper hotter on earth and it’s banned in all civilized countries.
My mouth was on fire and the water pouring out of my eyes and nose was doing nothing to put it out. Even though I spit the little volcano into my hand and threw it out the truck window the residual juice in my mouth was enough to cause near panic. My vision blurred and everything started spinning around. My stomach was being consumed by the fires of hell and trying to empty itself at the same time. My entire body seemed to be a raging inferno, while sweat was gushing from every pore. It felt like somebody had turned a butane torch on in my mouth and cranked it up to high, and I expected my teeth to start exploding from the heat any second. I hoped that I would soon pass out from the pain and that they would simply leave my body under a shady cactus for the coyotes to eat. Although I doubt even Mexican coyotes liked their meat this spicy. As my companions roared with laughter I emptied several water bottles, ate all the bread in the lunch box, writhed on the ground gobbling dirt and vowed I would kill them all if I survived.
About the time I started to think I might, a bunch of cowboys rode up on their horses with a mountain lion they had shot. I wanted a better look at the lion and tried to wipe the tears from my eyes. With the same hand I had spit the chewed up bean into a few minutes earlier, as it turns out.
“What’s the matter with that gringo’s eyes,” one of the cowboys asked? “They are all red and puffy looking and there is a lot of water running out of them. He looks like he is in a lot of pain and to be honest his face is starting to look a little scary. Look, now he is dumping all the stuff in the cooler in his face. He is screaming pretty loud too, and it’s starting to spook the horses. Is that blood running down his face? Why is he speaking in tongues?
“Did one of you give him some Mexican Candy or something?”
Surfing the Canyon
I was about four feet off the ground and falling, but the slope was so steep that I had already traveled about ten feet forward. Gravity finally won out over geometry and I realized I was about to hit the ground hard and exactly where the biggest buckhorn cholla cactus in Mexico was growing.
They also say that everything goes in slow motion when you are in danger and I believe that’s true. It seemed like hours as I headed for this cactus and I could see every spike. There were thousands of these lethal little daggers, every one with my name on it, and my mind’s eye could see each one penetrating my delicate flesh. In the cartoons the character can change direction in midair by waving his arms, or if he pumps his legs fast enough, make it back to the edge of the cliff, but none of that was working. Me and this cactus were about to get intimate whether I liked it or not.
The mistake was when we decided to take the direct route across the deep canyon, rather than walk the miles needed to go around the end. The ground in this part of Sonora is covered with loose volcanic rock, and getting across it is like walking on marbles. No matter where you place your foot there will be a rock that is just off center of your weight, which will cause your knees and ankles to bend and twist into unnatural shapes and force you to stagger and stumble. These lightweight, abrasive rocks will stick to your boot like a burr and roll along as you stagger, causing your balance problems to escalate, often to the point of no return. Cursing doesn’t help and rage only makes things worse. You can’t bully your way through and begging brings no results. If you curl into the fetal position, lie on the ground and whimper, the guide just walks off laughing. By the end of the day your boots will be in shreds, your shins and hands will be bleeding and your ankles, knees and hips will hate you intensely. If there truly is a hell you can bet that this is the stuff they use for pavement in the streets. It’s relentless and no matter where we hunted, the ground was covered with these rocks. It is the most aggravating thing I have ever walked on anywhere on earth and like a nagging wife it never lets up and never goes away. I should have predicted the results of a short-legged, overweight gringo trying to negotiate a canyon covered with these rocks and steep enough so that a description of “vertical” would only be a little white lie.
My Mexican guide danced over the canyon walls like Ali in his prime floating on the canvas, but I had yet to master any form of grace. I was doing my best to keep up with him when I started sliding down the steep canyon wall. It wasn’t so bad at first, as I “surfed” my way across the tops of the loose rocks. In fact it was kind of cool, until I hit a very big, very solid boulder. My feet stopped, but the rest of me had way too much momentum built up and I was launched head first over the boulder and on a flight path down the canyon.
I crashed into the cactus, plowing through it like a bulldozer, completely flattening it. Then I started rolling down the steep bank. The ground was covered with all that volcanic rock, which is as abrasive as a coarse diamond grinder and it started shredding any exposed flesh. It also shredded my clothing, so any covered flesh was soon exposed, and shredded. My gun flew off my shoulder and was spinning down the hill beside me on its own trajectory path, with sparks flying each time it hit a new rock and little pieces of stock spraying off with every impact. My binoculars had a rhythm where they would hit a rock, bounce up to hit me in the face and then repeat. Gravity was adding velocity and I was spinning out of control until this time I really did think I would die. I grabbed at anything and everything in a desperate attempt to stop. Most of what I grabbed was loose rock and anything I grabbed that was anchored was covered with spines and thorns. The pain in my hands, back and my left arm was intense, but what I remember hurting most was my right index finger. My trigger finger. I guess I must be a dedicated hunter because oddly enough my thoughts were on how I was going to shoot a Coues deer with my trigger finger ripped off.
I finally grabbed a very large boulder, which pulled loose from the ground. Not knowing what else to do, I hugged it to my chest like a scared little boy with a teddy bear. It provided a keel that stopped me from spinning, although I continued to slide down the hill. With the rock dragging like an anchor and my boots digging in the dirt, I was finally able to stop.
I looked like a road kill; shredded, bleeding and covered with cactus spines. Showing the sympathy I have come to expect from hard men, my guide grunted something I guessed was Spanish for “are you dead?” I moaned back a yes, and assuming I was lying, he continued down the hill.
The Long Way Home
I was pretty sure my left arm was broken. It was twice its normal size, black as Saddam’s heart and it hurt like hell. But it still worked, and we were a long way from a hospital. So I gobbled Advil and endured. By the time we hit Hermosillo it had been a couple of days, and I figured one more wouldn’t matter if it meant seeing my own doctors.
What I didn’t count on was the inefficient Mexican airlines or the Nor’easter that was about to hit Chicago. It’s amazing how much Advil you need to survive a four day trip home. Turns out the arm wasn’t broken, but as my doctor said while looking at the X-Rays, “It damn sure ought to be!” He put it in a cast anyway, and then gave me a huge bill and another bottle of Advil.
The guy collecting payment for the hospital started talking to me about Coues deer hunting. “I have read all about it in the hunting magazines,” he said. “All you do is sit and glass for days and days, and then you shoot at really long distances at this little deer everybody calls ‘the gray ghost.’ If you ask me it sounds pretty dull.”
The burns were healing, but talking was still painful, so I blinked my swollen eyes twice for “whatever,” tucked my cast into the sling and headed for the door, leaving him alone with my check and his fantasies..