First Elk Bugle

I was five or six the first time I had the living daylights scared out of me by the bugling of elk. We were high up in the Rocky Mountains, lost in the deep-sea darkness of the wilderness at night, and I was perched on the roof of my parents’ car. My mom had wrapped me in a flannel blanket and set me there to see what I could see—and what I could sort of maybe see through the blackness, and what I could most definitely hear, had me equal parts terrified and rapt.

We lived in Boulder, 2,000 feet of elevation away from Rocky Mountain National Park. As a kid, trips to the mountains seemed long to the point of being inhumane. I measured the drive in the number of episodes of Full House I could’ve instead been watching. Despite my protestations, we made the trek to the park almost every weekend. I hiked, looked for bighorn, and collected creek water samples in empty Tic Tac containers. The lake I’d declared my own, with my beach, was just around the bend from where we waited that night for elk.

But that place, the moraine of our vigil, felt weird and unfamiliar at night. We were lined up with a number of others across from a stand of aspen, a known hotspot for elk dating. Family friends were a car away, but there was enough darkness between us and the others for me to feel completely at sea. Adding to my anxiety were the highlights I’d latched onto from a horror novel my Dad had kindly synopsized for me on a previous nature expedition—he took a particular Dad kind of pleasure in telling me about a breed of demon that disguised itself as bits of shredded tire along highways. Even if my parents hadn’t propped me and my thermos of goulash up on the roof, I would never set foot on that meadow.

From where I sat, the elk looked like black afterimages, the not-quite-real signs of something moving. What was real and immediate were their calls—the distorted, netherworldly gargle of sound that passes, if you’re an elk, as a love song—and the smack of antlers. My mom waded into the grass just away from the car, and I held that thermos of goulash tighter. I was two Full Houses away from home, at night, without light, in a valley boxed in by mountains. There was enough scariness out there beyond the car for me to relish where I was, snuggled in the blanket that later saw my dad through a blizzard-bound night on the floor of an A&W. I sensed that I was right to be unnerved. There was the wild and there was I, a little precarious on the roof. But I had, too, a feeling of comfort and thrill at the dark, of being safe at the edge of the world.