Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” Oppenhiemers, chilling words summoned in the atomic age at the Trinity site on the White Sands Missile range in a barren region in the heart of New Mexico. Bucking astronomical odds I had drawn a tag and would be hunting Oryx or Gemsbok as some call them in the shadow and where the first atomic weapon was touched off and the destiny of the world changed forever.
This would be hunt like no other.
Both hunting Oryx and in the desert would be new for me. My first thought was to dive in solo head first like I had on so many hunts. One on one with the animals getting lost in wild nature and the pursuit. I quickly found out this hunt gave you have so little time that can be taken from you in a flash. The name of the game is experience with these strange aloof critters, which I had none, more sets of eyes and smart glassing. No pre-scouting on the base is allowed, no Google Earth maps as the base is blacked out, and the real possibility that your two day hunt can be cut down to just a few hours or simply cancelled at a moment’s notice.
In the west when the tags are drawn there is a buzz on who got what. I let my longtime Internet friend Jesse the president of the New Mexico Bowhunter Association I had drawn my Oryx tag and he jumped. The lucky hunter is able to take three friends with them on the highly restricted hunt. Jesse suggested both he and his father Richard and a long time buddy “JP” all versed in the ways of these strange animals with several taken between them.
Doing the vast amount of my hunting for big game solo I was not use to hunting with others, much less three others. These hunts are magic for me and life events and am cautious about having the magic spoiled by unknowns. I hadn’t met any of them person to person much less hunted with them. It was a risk with such a rare tag. Chatting with Jesse on the phone he told me a story of when his father took him and his 14 year old friend and dropped them off at the trailhead of a wilderness area in New Mexico. He said Richard had left them only with Spartan gear and said “Pick you up in a week, have fun” and drove away leaving them to a week of discovery, wonder and adventure. Remembering similar experiences of my youth and countless adventures that were some of my best life memories I knew Richard was a guy I wanted to meet. Jesse told me JP had broken back just month earlier in an ATV accident but jumped at the chance to go. But then, what’s a broken back to slow down former bareback Bronco rodeo rider whose previous broken and busted bones read like an anatomy chart. I was feeling like I had the right team on my side.
These Oryx had taken a strange path to end up on the White Sands missile range. Tom Boland a previous Governor in the 60’s and avid hunter had decided that there were some international animals that would fit nicely into some of the most barren regions of New Mexico. A few fizzled out, but the animals that really stuck were Beozor Ibex from Iran, Aoudad sheep from the Barbary coast and Oryx from the from some of the most arid plains of Africa.
One of my great loves of hunting the west is the vast lands and the freedom to get lost, moving with the rhythm of the earth getting lost it hunt itself. This hunt is on an active military missile range and it seems the federal government never saw a regulation or procedure it doesn’t like. The road leading up to the hunt would be an array of forms, clearances and rules to be understood and followed to the letter or you would get the kiss of death, “you will be escorted off the base and your hunt over.” An errant picture, down the wrong road, off in the wrong area and surely a firing squad waited or at least a visit from the men in black.
Arriving in New Mexico and meeting the gang Jesse sported million dollar smile and I would find out the eternal optimist. JP had the look of John Ford cowboy and the gait of a guy who had tasted the dirt of many a low budget rodeo ring. Richard was just plain old school cool, smart as a whip, a Renaissance man who could quote Shakespeare, collected art and sported a hat that said “I would rather be hunting.” My kind of guys.
They all unpacked some great stories of back packing deep into the NM wilderness on epic bowhunts for elk and other critters. They told of the haunting close calls and the ones that didn’t get away. Richard winced and shook his head, the type of wince I know too well. Jesse had called a Bull elk into spitting distance the previous year and he picked the wrong split second to pull his bow back sending the bull bolting. Even when the conversation headed a different direction occasionally I could see Richard shake his head and knew he was thinking about that bull. These guys get it and I could see our brotherhood for hunting would draw us together tight It was clear they looked at hunting as more than an activity, it was the life force that drove them on.
I am a curious sort and would probe about Oryx behavior. I would get shaking heads and the best I could get was; well, maybe, sometimes, but you never know with them. I guess they are easy to spook, wicked sharp eyes, can go days without water and seem to follow no really known patterns of behavior. To complicate things even more Oryx are a notoriously a hard trophy to judge. The one solid agreement I could get was you would never eat tastier wild game in your life and pound for pound they can absorb bullets like none other. Tough, strange and tasty Hombres.
One behavior I could pin down is that when they are going to bolt they swish their tail to send them on their way. That swish can set them off on a 20 mile run or just over the hill for apparently the same infraction. Strange creatures indeed.
Once in the gate, past armed guards and radar towers the vast expanse soon sucked up the small gang of trucks whose rooster tails of pale dust were soon blown away in the cold wind leaving us alone. The land was a vast flat basin surrounded by rotten sun scorched rocks webbed with wiry black fingered runt bushes of tangled barb wire. If I was looking for statuesque soccoroo and the subtle beauty of gold toned Canyon country and nuances of desert flora and fauna, this wasn’t it. It was an arid hard looking land studded with vast army spike-headed warriors, some sort of monster Yucca plants 12 feet tall standing grim guard over the flats. Dust devils twisted and spun here and then gone and there again and gone again. It looked like a land that measured rain not in inches but in how many years it had been.
When Oppenhiemer saw his work and what until then had been mostly calculations and theory uttered in awe “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendor of the mighty one”
Phones, GPS don’t work and to complicate matters the meandering roads and two-tracks were mostly unmarked. But we headed south close to canyon lands and far away from other hunters. The roads split off in strange directions and then split again soon we were questioning where we were.
This was a strange land indeed with lonely ghost town from 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but pondering with all the wonderful places in the west why would one pick such a desolate location to put down stakes. But it was the faux target towns that were designed to fine tune the skills those with war on their minds. These eternally doomed villages that had been built to be mock strafed; people cut outs studded some of the towns, while cold war tanks hulks lay here or there. In 1880 a strange clash of cultures when Apache Chief Victorio and his warriors ambushed two companies of Buffalo soldiers in the rocky hills to the east. I looked around and wondered who would fight and die for such a place. A strange land indeed.
Across a wild horizon we spotted our first Oryx, a pair on a steady dust raising run. They ran through arroyo and short canyon, cut by waters and flash floods I could never imagine were once there. The truck bumped along a desolate two track as we tried to figure a way to cut them off to get a look. This was the first time I had put my feet on the ground and everything seemed be pointed or have a sharp edge. Seeing power of the atom unleashed it promted Einstein to philosophize. “The First world war was fought in the trenches, the Second world war was fought in the air, the Third world war will be fought with Atomic weapons and the Fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones”. The cactus, yuccas, sharp edged rocks and wiry dead branches all seemed to want a piece of you and if that 4th war you needed ammo it was as far as the eye could see.
We got a look at the teenage bulls as they headed to the horizon. They looked like two last day bulls, not that I really had a chance at them anyways, they were on the move and nothing was stopping them. Problem is although this was the first hours of the first day, the last hours of the last day was hours away and the clock ticked. And there was the every threat of them taking away the whole damn clock at a whim. The license I had in my pocket was a once in a lifetime tag and I hated the thought of not wrapping it around horn.
We drove deeper through sandy drifts and low rocky hills. What had once been a solid two track had fizzled down looking like it hadn’t tasted a tire in years. It would take the most eternal optimist to call it a road, but that is what Jesse called it. I told him I thought he would have made a fine wagon master for the Donner party. He just smiled. But onward was the plan, there was no turning back.
It was getting late in our first day and we spotted a lone Oryx a mile away high on a low ridge. We would have to hustle if we were to get a look at it before we ran out of time. JP and I ran in a low trot and it felt good to have our feet on the ground and feel our hearts beating hard in the pursuit of game. The land ran out of fold and there was just not getting any closer than 500 yards or so. It looked to be a good bull by his size and bulky shape but too far and too short to time to get a good look at his horn. Didn’t matter he had plans of his own and ending up on my dinner table was not it. A swish of his tail and he was gone and so was the first day.
But we were far from the gate and well; kind of lost.
We made it back to the truck and the sun was going down and we needed to hustle to make it back to the gate for the drop dead out of the base time. Pretty much we knew we were south and needed to go north. “Two main roads, can’t miss-em” was the word. Well we “missed em” and instead dead north included full circles and every direction on the compass. But I can’t remember a day I had more laughs and enjoyed the company of a great group of guys than that day. We were lost and then got some how unlost. Our GPS tracker would have looked like a plate of pasta but we somehow made it and after a brief scolding for being late we were told that the day number two of the three day hunt and been cut in half and Sunday, the last day was going to be a tossup if we got to hunt at all. So the advertised hunt short cutting was coming true. Although we had seen a few Oryx they were a wary bunch. We had our work cut out for us.
Day two a late start and again, deep south and on the look. Finally on a low ridge that dished between two hills at the foot a one of the largest mountains in the range stood two Oryx on alert. If you stop the truck in view these spooky Oryx will soon be on one of their never ending runs. So we kept on driving up over the next hill a mile away. We drove over the top of the ridge and set up and old trick I use to use when I hunted antelope as a kid. We would slow down and never really come to a stop and JP and I would bail out of the far side of the truck into the ditch as the truck accelerated away leaving us behind. It worked, but by then the always nervous animals had started to walk up over into some sort of hidden pocket. We were hoping they would hang up there. When they moved out of sight we started to run the half a mile to get around a mound and out of sight and try to flank them. I figured if we were able to crest the hill and they had slowed or stopped we might have chance to look at them. Slowly making our way to the hill top I was in the lead with my .270 Winchester short mag that had a belly full of Federal Hornady and one I always kiss for good luck in the pipe. By the time we made it to the hill edge the Bulls could be mile away. We were running out of unseen terrain, my last hunt had been an archery elk hunt I had was thinking the wind was great and in our faces. The wind would be a blessing.
There I caught glimpse of one of them at about 70 yards, they were close. We eased to the ground out of sight and slowly crab walked and belly crawled to the crest of the hill to get a better look. We knew there were two of them; the other animal had to be just out of sight. The one we could see was a juvenile bull and he was in the clear in a small fold in the land hidden from any points of view except where we were. I looked hard and could see the tips of the horns of his buddy in some heavy brush a bit lower in the belly of the gully. The time was ticking, we waited for what seemed like an hour and the other bull just stood there. I had gotten a bit better look at his horns and could see they were not what I had my heart set on but the hunt was coming to a quick end and I wanted to taste that legendary Oryx meat.
But still I wasn’t sure. I hoped the one hidden by the tangled brush was a bigger bull. Then as if some divine omen you could hear a quail calling from over the ridge. He was coming our way. After a few minutes a lone quail hopped up on to a rock 10 feet away from us calling clear clean notes in the chilly air his head turning and bobbing at these strange things that were on his hill. This set up was just too perfect. The moment felt right. Was I going risk not having my hunt come full circle for a few more inches of horns? Not this time. If the bull below gave me a shot, trophy or not I was going to take it. We had been there a long time and needed to make something happen or they might stand there for six more hours. I was trying to inch forward over the gritty ground to get a clean shot at the bull below when his buddy saw my movement and bolted 20 yards up the hill. The hidden bull followed and then both stopped spinning around and quartering towards us. They looked like twins, their sharp black, powder grey and ivory markings striking in the morning sun. They were close and filled the scope. The gun cracked lightening and the bull fell in his tracks from what I would find later was a high heart shot. It was all just too perfect to pass.
As I drove back to Colorado I knew I would hunt with this crew again, too much fun, too many laughs, too many great stories and tempered by their seriousness of hunting. We had talked about a Wyoming antelope hunt and were looking forward to it sharing country that is special to me. I would find out that wouldn’t happen, not the way I thought it would. Richard, a vital man full of life, hardcore backpacker would fall ill just days after our hunt. He would never recover from that unknown illness and Jesse would say he lost his best friend and after hunting with them it was clear those were just not words. But the man I got to know in Jesse is product of Richards’s smart and wild sprit and that spirit lives on and Jesse has a son of his own. Got a feeling Richard is hard on the bugle of that bull he spooked figuring out a way to send that arrow true.
When Oppenhiemer saw his work and what until then had been mostly calculations and theory uttered in awe “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendor of the mighty one”and prompted Einstein to philosophize. “The First world war was fought in the trenches, the Second world war was fought in the air, the Third world war will be fought with Atomic weapons and the Fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones”.