When I pick up a rifle and put my eye to the sights I have a choice; I can focus on the bead at the end of the barrel or I can look towards the distant target, but my eyesight is too poor to see both things at once. I’m not the hero of this story. I don’t even shoot at the ground squirrels that plague my farm for fear I’ll slay an innocent irrigation pipe, or worse, my left foot. But this is a tale of the hunt, another chapter in the saga of civilization’s struggle with Nature, and an account of how the stuffed head of a Mountain Goat came to hang on the wall of one man’s home in the suburbs of Salinas, California. So let me take you back to a starting point very near the end of the story, to this past Christmas and to a sock hung from the mantle of the fireplace in my living room.
Santa Claus is for kids. In my family adults don’t exchange gifts at Christmas. But Julia broke the rules this year when she saw a little button for sale– the kind that you can pin on your shirt. This button displays the little cartoon profile of a goat and above the tiny image floats the word “old.” Old goat. So she thought of me. She bought the button and put it in a Christmas stocking. I suppose her gift came wrapped with a subtle message too; perhaps my beard has grown to long, or maybe I ought to bathe more often. I accepted the gift, and the joke, and pinned the button to the band of my old black cowboy hat.
The “old goat” pictured on the pin is a barn yard goat, Capra hircus. I like goats. I’ve kept a flock for years. Goats are endlessly amusing creatures to watch, beautiful, and intelligent. The wild Mountain Goat that animates big game hunters and sends them on foot into the highest peaks is Oreamnos americanus, a very different animal from the domestic goat. True, there is a superficial resemblance between the two species; both sport beards and horns and cloven hooves, and both animals are related to deer, but they aren’t closely related to each other. The domestic goat comes from Western Asia and has been the companion of man for thousands of years while the few remaining Mountain goats hide in isolated mountains across the American West. Before whites came with rifles, Mountain goats ranged from the Chugach Mountains of Alaska down through the Rockies and the Cascades into Washington and Idaho. In modern times hunters have decimated the population over their natural range, but Mountain goats have been successfully introduced into places as far south as Nevada and Texas. Mountain goats are alpine animals. They are able to withstand profound cold– their coats help them to withstand temperatures as low as −50 °F and winds of up to 100 mph. Where mountain slopes plunge to the sea Mountain goats have been seen on the coast, but they typically inhabit the remote, high peaks, and they’re “at home” up to 13,000 ft. The size of these animals, their beauty, their rarity, and the difficulties a hunter must overcome to find a Mountain goat amid the crags and glaciers and kill it turns the hunt into a quest and makes the horned head a trophy beyond compare. I wasn’t thinking about any of this on the 2nd of January when I loaded my dog, Red, into my pick up truck, put my hat on, and drove out to Chew’s Ridge.
You reach Chew’s Ridge by driving up the Tassajara Road behind Jamesburg. There’s an old Forest Service lookout tower on the top of the ridge at 5082 ft elevation. When you arrive at the summit you see why they built the tower there; the view is spectacular. To the south and west stand the mountains that make up the rocky heart of the Santa Lucia Range; Cone Peak, the Ventana Double Cone, and Devil’s Peak. To the north and west and you can see over the Carmel Valley and Jack’s Peak to the mouth of the Salinas Valley where it spills into the Monterey Bay and across the bay all the way to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the blue distance. Look north and east and you see Palo Escrito Peak and the ridge line of the Sierra de Salinas. Paloma creek drains off towards the Arroyo Seco Gorge in the east. The Gabilan Range, the San Benito Mountains, and Kreyenhagen Peak lie beyond. After my father died we scattered his ashes on Chew’s Ridge, just down the slope on the north side of the lookout. He was a botanist and he did a lot of work in these mountains. We lived on a field station at the foot of the ridge. As far as final resting places with views of forever go, Chew’s Ridge is as good as any. I try and visit the spot a couple times a year.
Red and I saw the first snowflakes on the windshield of the pick-up truck as I drove past White Oaks Camp. “You’re going to enjoy this,” I said. Red is a Pyrenees Mountain dog and she loves snow. Soon there was a stripe of muddy snow between the tire tracks down the middle of the dirt road and then a solid white blanket covered everything. I put the truck in four wheel drive. Where the road crests the ridge there was eight inches of fresh snow on the ground. We got out and Red ran in circles, licking the snow and rolling. The pine trees with their trunks charred black by past wild fires stood out stark against the snow and the massive ancient oaks loomed in the mist like ghosts.
We crunched through the snow up a side road to the lookout tower. When Red and I got to the top of Chew’s Ridge we found ourselves in the middle of a cloud so thick I could hardly see the brush that presses up around the tower. I walked to the northern edge of the clearing and looked out into the white. I knew that down below us a half mile and a thousand feet or so, hidden in the mist, is a flattish, grassy, open area sprinkled with pines called the Bear Trap. Back during the Mexican times vaqueros used to ride all the way out there from Monterey to catch grizzly bears. They built a square cage of pine logs stacked one across another and lashed them tight together with strips of wet rawhide, three walls and a roof. They left one side open for a heavy pine wood door which was propped up by a sapling pole stripped of branches and leaves. For bait they’d hang a deer carcass from the roof. Then they’d tie a riata to the sapling pole and slip back into the brush to wait. A bear would inevitably come by– the hills were thick with them then, and as the Grizzlies were the lords of all they saw, afraid of no one or anything, they’d lumber right into the cage and rip at the meat. The hidden vaquero would tug on the riata, which would pull at the pole, which would fall to the ground and release the trap door to fall, which would imprison the bear. The vaqueros would then climb up on the cage, drop the loops of their ropes through the spaces between the pine logs and catch the bear by the head and each foot. When the bear was subdued they’d roll it onto an ox cart for the 40 mile ride down the trail to the arena in Monterey. Crowds would gather to watch the bear fight for life in a death match against a long horned bull. I comfort myself that every once in a while a vaquero got eaten when the bear hunt went sour.
When I was a kid there were old timers around who could still remember where the rotten pine logs had laid in a pile, which was all that was left of the bear trap that gave the meadow its name. They showed me where it had stood, but there was nothing left but grass. Below the Bear Trap though, near Carmel Valley Road, there was a hunting club that we called “the Fish Pond,” because of the murky lagoon back that lay behind a ring of rickety cabins. Most of the hunting club members were retired cops from Monterey, Seaside, and Del Rey Oaks, men like Al Hall. Of course his friends called him Al “K” Hall. The cops must have done some hunting, but mostly they drank. Steinbeck would have loved these guys. The County Sheriff’s deputies visited the club several times too, or maybe I should say, “they responded.” For example, two cops got drunk and one of them shot the other- a hunting accident. Then there was the time a cop went fishing in a row boat on the pond, got drunk, got tangled up in his fishing line, fell overboard, and drowned. Fishing accidents are hell. And then there was the time a cop got drunk, tripped, fell on his face into the fireplace and burned alive.
One day I went over to the Fish Pond with Jimmy. Jimmy had the ranch across the road from the hunting club. When I was a kid I used to help him with the chores. He was sore because the cops had been poaching does on his ranch and leaving the gates between the pastures open. Deer hunters are supposed buy deer tags- hunting permits- from the California Department of Fish and Game, and they’re supposed to tie the tags to the antlers of any buck they shoot to prove they had the right to kill it. They’re also supposed to ask permission before hunting on private land. Jimmy was reminding the cops that they didn’t have permission to hunt on his ranch when Officer Golden of the Fish and Game drove into the yard. He stayed in his pick up.
“Had any luck, fellas?” he called out. He’d heard some shots and was sniffing around.
“No luck this year,” one of the cops said.
“Hell,” said another cop. “No luck last ear either. We still got a fist full of old deer tags we never used.
“Don’t believe ‘em for a minute,” Jimmy said to Officer Golden. “Does haven’t got antlers.” He turned back to the cops. “I guess you could tie the tags to their ears.”
The cops chuckled, but Jimmy was half serious. He took hunting seriously. He was born in 1911 and came of age during the Great Depression when food had been hard to pay for and hunting had been a necessity; if you kill all the does, where is the next generation of deer going to come from?
My mood and my head were both starting to feel heavy so I took off my cowboy hat and knocked off the snow. The “Old goat” button looked back at me and I had to smile. Jimmy had an old goat named Bill. For Jimmy, a .30-06 was practically an extension of his trigger finger, and even years after he spent much time hunting he still could load and shoot a gun with a speed and accuracy that was practically instinctual. Good old Bill almost made Jimmy regret a perfect shot.
Bill was a stinky, ornery, brindle colored beast with naughty yellow eyes and a massive rack of curving horns that made him look a bit like a Bighorn Sheep. He’d been a cute kid once, a poor choice as a pet for some child, and the stupid parents that bought him had never bothered to get him castrated. So he got big, reached sexual maturity and started to smell. It’s really a mistake to let an un-castrated male goat become familiar; they move quickly with age from being affectionate to feeling dominant, and when they start butting their inferiors to prove that dominance, the silly, would-be pet owner can end up as a victim. Well some friend of a friend of Jimmy’s had gotten Bill as a kid, rough-housed with him when he was small and cute, and when he grew large enough to be dangerous, the didn’t know what to do with him they dropped him off at the corral. Then one day we slaughtered a steer.
At the edge of the corral, under the shade of a live oak tree, we had a walk-in cooler where Jimmy used to dry-age beef. The cooler was the back end of an old Formost Milk truck and there were a few steel steps to mount to enter the box. We’d hung the beef carcass from a limb outside the cooler and split it down the spine into halves with a chainsaw. Then we cut one of the halves along the rib line to make a quarter– it probably weighed 250lbs and it was greasy and hard to hold on to. Jimmy and I were struggling to haul the quarter up the steps into the cooler when Bill charged. He crashed into Jimmy from behind at the knees, driving his kneecaps into the metal steps and causing him to fall backwards into the dirt with both the quarter of beef and me landing on top of him. Jimmy’s face was red with pain and he let loose with a blue streak of invective, but as he staggered to his feet he swept up the .30-06 that he’d used to dispatch the steer. Quick as lightning he slammed the bolt home, raised the gun, and drew a bead on Bill’s horny head. Then…..then nothing. Jimmy let the rifle barrel dip.
“Look at that son of a bitch,” Jimmy said. “He’s proud of himself.”
It was true. Rancid old Bill was across the corral, all puffed up with glory, pissing on his own beard out of joy and curling his lip.
“I can’t kill him,” Jimmy said, “but he can’t live here.”
So we ran Bill up the cattle loading chute and into a pick up with stock racks, drove him up the Tassajara Road and jumped him out the back just past the Chew’s Ridge summit where there’s a barbed wire corral for Forest Service pack animals and a horse trough. With water, a view to die for, and more brush than a goat could eat in a million years, Bill was only short a few lady goats from being in heaven.
It must have been a year later that Jimmy had to meet some guy who lived in Greenfield. They decided to meet half way, so we drove down to Miller’s Lodge on the river. When we got there his friend hadn’t arrived yet so we went inside. A couple of old boys were at the bar bragging. “…. so then I made the kill shot,” one of the men said, letting out a lungful of blue smoke.
His friend was looking into a mug of beer. “You’re not going to believe this,” he replied, “but I bagged a Mountain goat last month.”
“Bullshit,” his friend said. “This is as far from Salinas as you’ve been in a year”
“I killed it here, up in the National Forest,” he said.
“I can still hardly believe it myself. I saw the tracks first. I was up on Chew’s Ridge, about half a mile down that jeep trail that drops off to Miller Canyon. The tracks were so big I thought it must be a monster buck, so I went back in the evening and hid up behind the spring. He came down for water, and… BANG!”
“You’re full of shit. There’s no Mountain goats here.”
“Yeah, I probably got the last one.”
“Hey, my word is as good as my aim; I’ve got the head mounted and it’s hanging on the wall of my den.
copyright Andy Griffin 2011
Photos by Andy Griffin: the ‘spooky forest’ is at Chews Ridge; the pin is his Christmas present; and the goat eye is of one of Andy’s billy goats
Upcoming mystery boxes in Los Gatos and Santa Cruz:
Los Gatos Thursday, Jan. 27th from 4-6pm (brussels sprouts, chantenay carrots, and butternut squash are also offered!)
Santa Cruz Wednesday, Feb. 2nd from 4:00-5:30pm (brussels sprouts, chantenay carrots, and butternut squash are also offered!)
Like us on Facebook if you do that sort of thing. Andy posts small tidbits and photos during the week.
Mariquita Farm 2011 CSA page (boxes start in March)