When I was not but a boy, my older brother and father used to drag me out towards Eastern Montana to go antelope hunting. If you’ve not been to Montana, it’s a lopsided state: most of the mountains and trees and people reside in the western half. As you drive east across the state the roads get emptier, the sky gets bigger, and the land gets flatter until finally you believe that you have reached the end of the world, which conveniently enough, is marked with a sign saying “Welcome to North Dakota”.
On these hunting trips, we didn’t quite go that far. Instead, we would load up our sky blue pickup truck, point it east, and drive just a little beyond the center of the state. We’d follow small highways and single lane roads until the mountains became rolling, golden hills. Our destination was a ranch near the town of Two Dot, which like many such places in Montana, gains its cityhood based on the fact that it has a bar - the “World Famous" Two Dot Bar in this case.
As we got farther away from the main roads, we’d occasionally pass large slabs of concrete that were completely surrounded by chain link fences and razor wire. There was usually a security camera mounted on a pole. These places, of course, were nuclear missile silos and were the topic of much discussion back at my schoolyard.
My schoolmates and I firmly believed that our country’s enemies had their missiles pointed at our missiles. However, after much debate and discussion, we rationalized that the Montana silos were far enough from our school that, when the enemy missiles hit them, we would not be vaporized instantly in the blast. However, our school was close enough that we would probably soak up a lot of radiation, but not close enough that the radiation would give us cool super powers. Instead, according to the detailed maps that we drew, we lived comfortably inside the “horrible mutant zone". I hoped that when nuclear war came, the extra eyes that would no doubt sprout all over my body wouldn’t need as thick glasses as my regular eyes did.
The only silo on the ranch where we hunted, though, was an old grain silo. The ranch was large, perhaps as big as some European countries or New England states. The main road led to the farmhouse which, to my continual disappointment, looked exactly like any regular split-level house found in my neighborhood. We’d pull up in front of the house and the stooped and tough looking old man who owned the place would come out and make a little small talk with my dad.
He'd tell us where he had seen antelope on the ranch and how successful other hunters had been. His tired and gruff manner intimidated me but also reminded me a bit of my grandparents. “Be sure to close the gates after you,” he’d always tell us before we drove off.
We’d follow the dirt road through a field filled with rusty farm equipment, their skeletal frames looking like the debris from some future robot war. We’d drive down the dirt road, stopping here and there to shut pasture gates behind us, until the road could no longer be called a road, having declined into two parallel trails that wound through the hills. The tracks crossed a couple of streams and here my dad would stop to put the truck into four-wheel drive, then he'd plunge the truck into the creek, and drive up the steep far bank.
After it seemed like we had driven for hours since we stopped at the farm house - crossing out of our world and into new land without civilizations or houses or anything man made - we’d reach a long valley stretched out between two tall ridges that ran parallel like frozen waves. We’d drive between these waves to the far end of the valley where another truck or two would be parked.
The owners of these trucks were other hunters, guys who worked with my dad. They were rough looking, with knives on their belts, thick wool coats and hats. They were the type of men who could look up at the sky and predict the next day’s weather accurately. “No clouds tonight,” they’d say, “It’ll be colder tomorrow, maybe a little snow in the afternoon." I had a hard time picturing them working in the office where my dad worked.
At night, we’d gather as a group around a campfire, or if it was too cold for a fire, we’d cram into a small camper that one of my dad’s friends had on the back of his truck. They’d talk about past hunting trips and tell the occasional off color joke. Away from the fire, the night sky was brilliant, filled with thousands of stars that did not exist in the sky over my house.
The next morning, the hunt began.
Pronghorn antelope are the second fastest animals in the world, they can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Only the cheetah is faster. However, that didn’t seem to stop us from believing that we could chase them down. Our hunting strategy in theory was this: get up before the sun, climb to the top of the ridge. Sit on top of the ridge until sunrise, maybe drink some hot chocolate from our thermos, and then shoot an antelope that wanders by below.
Our actual hunting experience was this: climb the ridge before dawn. When the sun finally rises, notice that there are no antelope anywhere to be seen. Climb down that ridge and then climb up the next ridge, see some small white spots way off in the distance that might be antelope or a snow patch or a rock. Run as fast as possible to the next ridge, see that it is an antelope, run to a closer ridge, watch as the antelope run away at just near the speed of light, then take a shot at their rapidly disappearing white butts. Repeat until exhausted.
Sometimes this strategy worked, a lot of the time it didn’t. That afternoon we’d reverse our path and make our way back home. We’d drive on dirt tracks until a road solidified. We’d drive past the ranch house, past the missile silos, past world famous bars in small towns. We'd drive until we reached mountains and then cities and then, eventually, we’d be home.
When I was not but a boy, my older brother and father used to drag me out towards Eastern Montana to go antelope hunting. It occurs to me that I haven’t been to the middle of nowhere in a long time. I wonder if it is still populated by animals that can run faster than cars and men who can tell things by looking at the sky. I wonder if under slabs of concrete lay silos filled with the end of the world. I wonder if, in the middle of nowhere, there is still a sea of frozen, golden hills. I wonder if I will every go back.