We are cruising along the highway in the dusky hour, the Uncompahgre River winding below us. It is October in Colorado, and the blazing yellow cottonwoods seem lit from within. Scrub patchwork the hillsides in rust. It is breathtaking and heartbreaking, a reminder of the way we all strive to shine, and will all ultimately die.
This is what I’m thinking when my husband, Dan, in the passenger seat, calls out, “Deer!”
This deer is not poised to dart onto the highway but is already lifeless on the shoulder. It wasn’t there when we passed this spot two hours ago on our way to our son’s weekend soccer tournament. This points to one thing: the possibility of fresh meat.
We are a hunting family and have never turned away the gift of wild meat, no matter the packaging. I turn the Subaru around in the gathering dark and Dan jumps out to perform the edibility checklist (Eyes glassy; body still warm; not mangled). I text our friends: We’ll be late for dinner.
We heave the awkward mass of the mule deer into the back of our Subaru. Her feathery, black eyelashes are speckled with dust. We push against her bulk, which contorts to fit the small space. I tuck her dirt-caked hooves under her. A trickle of blood escapes her mouth.
Our 13-year-old son, Col, is riding separately with soccer buddies, but our 11-year-old daughter, Rosie, is in the back seat with her friend, coincidentally named Fawn. Rosie has been protesting since Dan first uttered the words that put this roadkill project in motion. “Daddy, it’s gonna smell the car up. And get blood everywhere. Please, just let it go this time.” Something larger than blood stains is at stake.
Something like fitting in, being liked and passing in the ever-changing adolescent theater of normalcy. The fact that Rosie has assisted in meat-processing since she was 2, bellying up to the butcher table in princess tulle, is irrelevant here. It doesn’t matter that when we were still home schooling, Col and Rosie made artistic roadkill badges, taking to the rural highways with Dan, looking for opportunity. Gutting an animal was a science lesson, both kids gaping at the gumdrop-shaped heart, the rubbery trachea that once shuttled breath from outside to inside. And without ambivalence they devour any wild meat — squirrel, grouse, elk, deer, bear, European dove — no matter the route it traveled to our kitchen.
These days, Rosie is an air traffic controller scanning for cultural norms. Fitting in confers a coveted safety, a life raft to which she clings, knowing that those who are different stand out like capsizing ships.
Like me and Dan. I don’t shave my legs or wear makeup. We live in an 800-square-foot house and our two cars combined are 47 years old. Neither of us have smartphones, making the question “How old should you be before getting a smartphone?” particularly discouraging for our kids.
We’ve made it a practice to want less, valuing time and simplicity. Meanwhile, every week there’s something new that Rosie needs, something that in my quest for simplicity, frugality and a modicum of environmental sustainability is mystifying. Three different pairs of sneakers? “Yes, Mom,” she sighs, knowing what she’s up against. “One for hiking, one for P.E., and one for everyday school.”
The deer, though lifeless, maintains a large presence in the car. Rosie is furious. “Your hands are bloody. Our car smells disgusting.” To me, the doe smells like dusty hide and cold nighttime earth. We ask Fawn how it is for her. “Well,” she cranks up her small voice, “there’s this dead deer behind me and its tongue is hanging out. So, that’s kind of weird.”
Dan drops us at the restaurant and heads into the night to find a place in this unknown town three hours and two mountain passes from our home in Durango, Colo., to gut the deer, crucial for cooling off the body before we butcher her tomorrow.
The gutting goes flawlessly; dinner is wild and raucous, kids outnumbering adults and engineering complex trades for French fries. At 9 p.m. we pull up to our suburban basement Airbnb, leaving the doe in the car, windows down. Dan has removed the meaty prize of the heart, which we slip into our cooler.
The next morning we wake, feed children, and leave them in front of dual TVs, Rose and Fawn watching Barbie cartoons while brushing their hair as if it’s a sport. We find a secluded pull out along the river and heft the doe onto the grass. I slosh the back of the Subaru with river water, rinsing blood from the rubber mat while Dan removes her luxurious hide for later tanning.
“Thank you, beautiful girl,” I say, admiring her perfect floppy-eared deer-ness. We whittle meat from bone as the sun lights the candles of cottonwood crowns. The cooler fills with zip-locked bags containing flawless chunks of the choicest meat. Something about this work — directly engaging with the source of our food, taking her wild life into ours — counteracts what I find challenging about these soccer tournaments: the investment of time and resources, and the packaging of our children’s wildness into the conventionality of sport rather than the unstructured adventures that once filled our weekends.
We stash the blood-flecked bones in the willows for wild creatures, gather up the children and head to the soccer field. Rosie begs to visit a nearby Target. We don’t have one in our town and she’s never been. The other soccer moms have already shopped and are joking about telling their husbands how much they saved, not what they spent.
To our daughter, shopping there seems like an American rite of passage. The promise of a hit of pleasure glows as bright as the store’s iconic red bull’s-eye.
“So you can buy some shiny trinket that loses its appeal one day later?” Dan wonders.
When the kids were younger it was easy to broadcast our lifestyle on the singular station of our family. Now, outside influences grow louder. While I feel celebration in living my values, for the kids it can feel like deprivation. And I yield, I do. Rosie owns three pairs of sneakers (beaters for hiking; athletic for P.E. and turquoise Converses for school). I bought liquid soap for our bathroom so her friends “will feel more comfortable,” despite the large, lovely batches of deer tallow soap we’ve made.
I’m wary about creating a wall of rigidity against which the kids will necessarily rebel, and equally wary of giving into strategies that temporarily fill their loneliness, boredom and cravings to fit in.
I give the girls $ 10 each and drop them at Target. They simmer in excitement. My hope is that in tasting the full flavors of consumerism — its joy and heartache — Rosie will eventually find her own wisdom. I’ve delighted in her self-made sparkle since she was 2, perched on a chair mixing spices into raw, ground elk in plastic princess heels, her shoulders dripping with purses. Her flair is as authentic as my practicality.
Thirty minutes later the girls tumble out of the store with cucumber-scented face wipes, gum and mild euphoria. Col’s team gets spectacularly crushed. We drive home over mountain passes coated with snow.
The following night soccer practice is canceled. The four of us gather for dinner — deer heart fajitas — savoring the wild and complex flavors of this life.
Rachel Turiel is a freelance writer living in Durango, Colo., and working on a memoir.