Elk Camp
Picture of Janet


Elk Camp

Reading Time: 8 minutes

My dad told me, “Janet, don’t ever judge how someone grieves”.

He said it in a voice that was at once commanding but filled with saddness and resignation, his thoughts on the loss of my uncle who died too young and suffered considerably. The family was swimming in grief, lost in the currents.

“They will find their own way, don’t listen to any criticism you might hear how they do it.” 

I never thought too much about going to Colorado to see where Jake’s accident happened. If evidence from all the homemade crosses and flowers scattered along roads is evidence, journeying to the site of a life-changing loss is one way people look for peace. Jake’s Uncle Brian went back and his prayers and the homemade cross he placed there were healing for him and me, when he shared them. Several of Jake’s friends have found their way up that mountain, each grieving in their own way, and as their journeys have been shared with me, some have found what they were looking for and others have not.

This past week was Bob’s first trip back to elk camp since Jake died and for reasons that didn’t have so much to do with me, I offered to share the drive up from Texas. He seemed glad and the plan evolved into Bob and I sharing the drive up that he, Jake, and Brian had traced two years ago, driving through the night and arriving at the old elk camp with enough time to make a pilgrimage to the tree and pray.  We would drive back to Grand Junction where Jake’s journey to heaven was completed and I would kiss my husband goodbye, he would leave for the new elk camp and I would take the plane home, the same route I took two years ago to get here, a symmetry that seemed fitting.

The whole way up Bob didn’t seem as nervous as I was inside.

I prayed often, the words were “just hold me Lord”.

I had made a wooden plaque, not high class, but then neither Jake nor I would have ever been described as high style, although we might have liked to be that once or twice.

The trip up was good. Bob shared with me the whimsy, the pee stops, comments, and jokes they all played on each other. At one point on the ridge of a beautiful canyon, Jake wanted to hit a golf ball into it. Incredulously,” Bob had asked, “Why, Jake we won’t even be able to see where it goes?!

I smiled, wiped a tear so Bob wouldn’t see. That was my Jake.  

Bob showed me where the helicopter picked Jake up as we passed through Paonia and began the climb up the mountain to their camp. Bob made a comment about how many roadside memorials there were on the road. Other families had journeyed up here, their hearts bound in grief. Rounding a corner I knew we were at the place. I was surprised at high up the accident site was, I was surprised at close to camp Jake was when it happened, but the place was just as I had seen in my mind.

The whole way up I had been resting in God’s hand, praying that he would let this visit not be devastating but healing.  Bob and I got out the car and the dark dead fall woods were thick and overpowering. I didn’t go there predetermined for what I was going to feel or God was going to show me, but I didn’t expect the wound of my heart, which I know will always be there, to be opened so easily.  I was surprised at how… bereft I felt, how sad the site was for me. Frankly, it was overwhelming. Bob sat in the spot where he held Jake and I sat with him. A long time, but not long in real minutes passed and finally, we got in the truck, I was torn apart. We didn’t have enough time. I wanted to go by myself there. I wasn’t able to be still and let God although I think He was trying.  I didn’t know if I could ever go back. Why did I feel so bad? Where was the peace?

Trying to understand, I did what I did most of the trip, I just let go and let God. There was nothing else to do. In the meantime, current reality took over and we had to get to the airport. We had right under two hours to get there in time for my flight. Neither Bob nor I could remember anything about how to get anywhere so he was relying on me and my GPS.

In some ways, even though I wasn’t there, Bob and I were reliving that horrible time of getting Jake to Grand Junction and then once there, reliving my trip from Texas to the Grand Junction airport.

Basically, every decision we made was the wrong one, we got stopped by a train, backtracked, lost half an hour, got behind trucks, got to the outskirts of Grand Junction, saw a sign that said airport, headed down that way and when it looked like it was going to the middle of nowhere, turned around (mistake), went through town, raced through every light, stopped people on the street to see where the airport was.

This trip was fast going down hill, with Bob and I at the bottom, emotionally drained.  

We got to the airport as my plane was taking off and I told Bob I would spend the night in the airport  or take the leg to Phoenix and stay there so that Bob could go onto Elk camp.  It turned out neither of those was an option and I tried to steel my emotions for the possibility of a long night in a Grand Junction hotel alone. This last half of this trip was turning out to be a trial that I honestly hadn’t expected, one that left me wondering. What are you trying to tell me God?  While I was asking this and rescheduling my ticket for the morning Bob was talking to Elk Camp. I got in the car, and Bob said, “You care coming to Elk camp. The guys offered”.  

A bit stunned, I had not counted this an option.

Women are not allowed in elk camp and while I knew that men wouldn’t be that hard headed about the rule if special circumstances dictated it, this wasn’t the time to go.

Geez, I have always wanted to be a part of this, then here when I am at one of the lowest times emotionally, I am going to elk camp with clothes I have been wearing night and day for 36 hours, inappropriate ones at that, I haven’t brushed my teeth, forget what my face looks like after crying all afternoon, and Bob is upset because we haven’t eaten.

Fast moving up old hills to this new elk camp there was nowhere to eat. I have no idea how I am going to be received. It’s not just so much about the exclusion policy but this is also the first time some of these guys have been back with Bob. Some of them roomed with he and Jake.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, let me give you a hint.

When you ask God for something, don’t second guess Him.

Sometimes you have to get to the worst place for God to get you where He can give you what he wants you to have.

The camp is at the top of the mountain and we rode a ridge for an hour that was precipitous on both sides. In the dark you couldn’t see where mountain slashed down to valley and the night sky studded with stars began. When we turned into camp, it was a clearing, wide open, and the terrain was very different than the dark wood falls of where the accident was. In one direction, you could see the lights of Grand Junction.

When we arrived, all four guys came out to meet us and I was nervous again.

They could break the rules but they didn’t have to be happy about it, and besides this was the first time they had been together with Bob and not Jake.

We unloaded our truck and with a great deal of pride, they took me on a tour of the camp, the outhouse, the heater that fed warm air to the sleeping tent, the hand washing station, and the mess hall. This being a tradition for 10 or so years, this is a real camp and while I knew there was a lot more to hunt camps then the shooting, I was beginning to sense how much. 

Then quietly, without much fanfare, and with open hearts, they showed me where they had made me a bed on a cot, in the tent, we would all sleep under one roof, apologizing ahead of time for male behaviour.

Kenny, the alpha hunter, had elk burgers going and asked if we had eaten, they would be ready in minute, beers all around. We sat over food, they showed me maps of the region. I learned how a hunter thinks and plans, as a group, when the daylight comes. I listened to their anticipation and their joy in being here together, in having the opportunity to understand the natural world around them, in the commaraderie and bonds that had and would be forged, as thy spent time together. They got around to talking about Jake, gently steering into conversations about the various pranks he had played on his uncles. There was congenial laughter, bawdy remarks, tempered or so they assured me, and they took me into elk camp that night, despite my gender, the same way they accepted Jake’s first and last trip with them. The talk whined down, plans were made for my return to Grand Junction in the morning and it was my turn to hit the outhouse.

Jake’s uncle Jim showed me where everything was, the outhouse faced out to the mountain to vast Colorado below it. I told Jim I didn’t need the light and as I sat there on the toilet seat, (yes, it was that fancy) listening to the sounds that only happen at the top of a mountain, in Colorado, where the trees are losing leaves and fall is coming and you have the chance to be a part of something special. I looked out at a million stars, no light other than those, and not sure I have ever had a more perfect place to pray and never a more unusual one.

When you need some alone time with God, he can supply the place.

Each man had his role for turn- in, light the heater, secure the trucks, I guess mine was just to be thankful. You might not think to call elk hunters gentlemen and they might not think of themselves as instruments of ministry from God, but these men were. I was so grateful that they talked about my Jake, they let me share in elk camp, and they treated me the only way the lone woman invited to elk camp should be treated, not any differently. I realized then that if I hadn’t missed that plane, I would have missed a big part of what Jake’s last week on this planet was about. Jake loved male camaraderie; it was part of why he was such a good soldier. This was as much what that week was about as the accident was. We got up at 5am to leave for Grand Junction and I walked outside the tent to wait for Bob. I looked up at the night sky, soon to have an eastern morning glow, so close to Heaven on that mountaintop.  The stars were the most peaceful I have ever witnessed. 

On the plane to Phoenix, God spoke to my heart. I had a thought about what would Jake say to me about going to the site and elk camp and everything, if God allowed him to come down here, to help me through this.

This is what Jake would say.

“Mom, you felt sad at the site because it was sad, it was a horrible thing, just like all tragedies of life on earth are. I ‘m really sorry you and Dad, and John, and Josh and Grandmother and Uncle Brian, and Uncle Neil (he would list everyone here but I am hurrying to send this and no slight would Jake have allowed to anyone who might read this) had to suffer about this. But Mom, God knows what he is doing. Trust Him. I did and it’s going to be okay in the long run. When you come to heaven, you will see. Love ya Mom”

Bible verse today : Ephesian5: 15-16. There fore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. 

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