Hunting school in eastern Washington isn’t the first place you’d think to find an ER doctor. But Ramesh Reddy, who usually spends his days trying to save lives, was driven to learn what it feels like to take one — and to truly understand what it means to be a meat eater in the modern world. (Illustrations by Peter Striffolino)
My ears popped as we descended into the twinkling lights of Spokane.
I felt both a sense of unease and excitement. Traipsing into the wilderness to camp, let alone hunt, was something so foreign and unknown to me that it might have been an expedition to another planet. Brown people like me didn’t camp or cavort in the wild.
My colleague and friend Kyle and I set out by car for our destination, the Human Nature Hunting School. A three-hour trip on long winding roads led us from civilization to increasingly remote and mountainous terrain. To the north of us was the Canadian border, to the east was Idaho.
As I drove this endless two-lane highway, my mind drifted to the events leading up to this moment. Twelve months earlier, I had discovered Steven Rinella, the celebrated American hunter and author. I devoured his book, Meat Eater, and became obsessed with the idea of learning to hunt.
Speaking to a vegan at a book signing, Rinella once mused, “I admire the idea of deer more than the individual deer, and I can assure you that I know more about deer than you ever will, and I’ve learned that through hunting for them, and I probably care for them in a way that is deeper than anything you will experience from having a more removed perspective on it.”
This philosophy encapsulated everything I wanted out of hunting. I didn’t want to be distanced from my food, sheltered from the reality of what it means to eat meat. I longed to pay the karmic price for a meal.
I’m an emergency physician, and against all logic, I was about to wade knee-deep into a pursuit where success is measured by an outcome that I try to prevent on a daily basis: death.
I had recently started to wonder about the ethics of food — not only the environmental impact but the moral one. Should something die so I could slather it in ketchup and wedge it between two buns? Particularly when I had options that didn’t require something to meet an untimely demise?
Vegetarianism was starting to creep into the outer perimeter of my brain, but I quickly banished the idea. “For god’s sake man. Don’t you enjoy feeling full!?” I scolded myself. Somewhere deep down, I felt, teleologically and anatomically, humans were meat-eating creatures. Humans have been hunting for hundreds of thousands of years.
Eating meat had always been something reflexive, necessary almost. A meal divorced from meat felt naked and hollow. For some, simply giving it up is a straightforward answer to this dilemma, but the truth is, I didn’t want to give it up. Hell, I wasn’t going to give it up. So, how could I bridge this cognitive dissonance? In my mind, there was one answer. Hunting. I would kill my own meat, and in doing so earn the right to eat it.
For a while, I dismissed this bizarre pre-occupation as some fleeting mid-life crisis, but the urge to learn this ancient skill only became stronger.
The irony of this pursuit did not escape me. I had spent the majority of the last 15 years trying to save people’s lives. I’m an Emergency Physician, and against all logic, I was about to wade knee-deep into a pursuit where success is measured by an outcome that I try to prevent on a daily basis: death.
I approached hunting like I did everything else in my life — full-on. I read everything I could get my hands on and was fortunate to have some guidance from a local hunter, Nick, who took me under his wing when he could. Nick and I had many conversations about killing and its meaning. Nick explained that it was nothing he looked forward to; it was just a necessary part of the harvest. Unlike most of us, Nick looked his meat in the eye and took ownership of its death. For the average meat-eater, there is no consideration that the Saran-wrapped, red slab sitting on white styrofoam was once a living, breathing animal.
It took a few months, and a few uncomfortable stares as the lone brown guy at the range, but I got my gun license and learned enough archery to hit a target reliably from inside 20 yards. I decided my intense self-study would culminate at the “Awaken the Hunter” program offered at the Human Nature Hunting School, one of the few hunting schools in the world.
I redirected the drifting car back off the rumble strips as I snapped out of my daydreaming. Kyle gave me a look of fleeting consternation as I straightened the car out. Kyle, an emergency physician like myself, had also recently become curious about hunting and decided to join me on the journey.
Mountain ranges jutted out all around as we turned into a winding unmarked dirt road that carved its way into a clearing, a timber-frame cabin at the base of the valley. We parked our car next to a sizable fenced-off vegetable garden. We unbuckled ourselves, exited the vehicle, and stretched like cats.
We were surrounded by an expanse of pine, fir, and larch. It rose from the clearing in all directions. A tapestry of green, capped by the blue sky. The air felt cool, and it had a sharp bite. It was noticeably less dense, unencumbered by human pollution. I felt my palate reset.
We were met by Bruce, the bearded and languid camp leader in his mid-forties who strolled out with his hand extended.
“You made it, guys! And earlier than we thought,” Bruce said, welcoming us to the camp.
He looked like a cross between John Wayne, Hemingway, and a yogi. I’d heard him on the phone previously. Still, it didn’t register until I met him in person that his slow, deliberate cadence meant I was never sure when he was finished speaking. Bruce was a structural engineer, but his real passion was hunting, so he set up a parallel career helping people reconnect with nature through hunting for food. This was the mission of his school. He’d built a cabin with his bare hands on 330 secluded acres of family-owned property. He was joined by an assistant and our camp cook, Mr. T, a giant Danish Viking who trained as a classical chef and worked in Seattle.
Our classmates arrived one by one, a motley crew of middle-aged professionals brought together in the middle of nowhere from different corners of North America. We engaged in small talk and exchanged introductions.
The Engineer was funny and eccentric. He was dressed in hardcore camo. A jiu-jitsu black belt and an amateur comedian, he was an avatar of Joe Rogan, only smaller. The Financier was an aspiring survivalist who wanted to add hunting to his repertoire of skills. He was a single dad living in Atlanta, who I suspected had some money to burn and adventure in his soul. He had his blood type displayed on his backpack.
The Architect was the most perplexing. Pleasant enough, but distant. He had a hipster vibe and had done a lot of interesting things, including studying Chinese holistic medicine. He had moved from Brooklyn to the West Coast for a high-profile design job with a major corporation. He mentioned that he was a new father, and he was looking to connect with nature. Maybe he would show his son this type of lifestyle someday. We were all there to learn the ancient art of the hunt, but part of me wondered whether we were all just working out our demons in the woods.
Since the weather was agreeable and there was plenty of daylight, we decided to camp outside. I was embarrassed to admit that I had never camped before, but Kyle gave me some tips. Some were immediately useful — avoiding condensation in the tent, sleeping in dry clothes, going to the outhouse twice before bed to avoid midnight trips, keeping your light and water bottle right by your head — for others, it was too late. “You should have brought a warmer sleeping bag,” he said, showing me the temperature ranges on it, and I had no pad to protect me from the bumps and chill of the ground. Nevertheless, I managed to set up a tent in a valley of birch trees below the cabin. It was amazing to me that an entire human shelter could fit in a backpack. Once assembled, I wondered what it would be like to sleep with just a thin, water-resistant polymer sheet between me and the elements.
We reconvened at the cabin, and Bruce began the first meeting. We had a packed schedule over the next few days. It wasn’t hunting season yet in Washington, and none of us had Washington state hunting licenses except him. The goal was for the group to learn enough skills to head back home and hunt in our local areas.
Bruce began with an exercise. “I want you to close your eyes and imagine a bubble around you, just around your body. Now expand and push it in all directions 10 yards.”
For a second, I thought “Is this guy fucking serious? A bubble?” But that feeling evaporated quickly. Nobody laughed or rolled their eyes. When you are out there away from civilization you start to feel it in your soul. I decided to go with it, bubble and all.
“Now expand it another 50 yards,” he continued, our invisible bubbles growing with his words. “Picture your bubble stretching deep into the ground, integrating with the land. Now imagine your forcefield extending hundreds of yards into the forest. Feel the connection with the trees, the birds, the animals. Now open your eyes and get ready to go.”
Later, Bruce led us on a hike into the mountains, showing us how to use binoculars to “look through the forest,” how to estimate your yardage — your distance from a target — and read deer signs, the tracks, the scat, the scrapes against trees and bushes. Finally, after about 45 minutes, he took us to a location in the forest and left us there. We weren’t sure how long we would be there, but we would sit quietly and write down everything we heard, saw, or smelled.
I’d been practicing this even before the bubble exercise, and I found my senses were heightened for this moment. I recorded the patterns of the wind, the shadows created by the sun, the scamper of squirrels, different tracks in the mud, even the types of birds.
Bruce eventually returned and took us further into the forest where he had strategically placed replica deer and conducted an exercise to see if we could identify where they were. This took surprisingly long and emphasized how difficult it is to make out a deer or elk in the woods. We humans may have our own camo, but theirs is better. We also conducted our own exercises to identify each other moving in the wood. This was extraordinarily easy. I realized how obvious and clumsy we must appear to the animals.
We swung back and hiked to camp. Bruce disappeared while we sat on the deck of the cabin. The sun was descending. One of the things I had never considered in my modern daily life was daylight. How precious it is. Out in the woods, you race against the sunset. After the sun went down, I became keenly aware of how much I could not see in the forest at night. Humans are not creatures of the night, but others are. I gripped my headlamp tightly.
“Gentleman, there is an animal down, and you need to follow a blood trail,” Bruce said.
An animal that has been shot often bolts away, leaving a blood trail, only to lay and rest in its final spot as it succumbs to the bleeding. The skill of following a blood trail is one of the essential components of a hunt.
We followed a blood trail created by Bruce to a clearing deep in the forest. He showed us how the blood trail disappeared, then reappeared—forcing you to explore and connect the dots. We tracked the trail into the forest, and then there it was, not a deer or another wild animal, but a freshly killed hundred-pound sheep on the ground.
“Everyone set your hands on the animal and take a moment,” Bruce solemnly said.
In the frigid cold at twilight, all of us placed our hands on this literal sacrificial lamb. Bruce procured this animal for the course, and it was dispatched just shortly before we were to find it. He set the whole thing up. Fresh death feels eerily close to life. The heartbeat and respirations cease, but the heat is still trapped. It was a sadly familiar feeling. As an Emergency Physician, I’ve had patients suffer cardiac arrest right in front of me. I’ve felt the lifelike warmth of their skin even after the heart has stopped.
“Let’s go over how to process the animal,” Bruce said.
We proceeded to gut the sheep. Neither Kyle nor I had ever butchered an animal. We had both dissected cadavers in medical school and done surgical rotations, not to mention the invasive procedures we do for work. It felt familiar enough that Kyle and I went to work automatically, with Bruce kneeling beside us. We started by removing the intestines as a whole. It has to be done carefully. If you puncture the bowels, you will contaminate the meat. Then we started to remove the solid organs, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and spleen.
I cut the heart out and handed it to the Architect. Wide-eyed and pale, he stood there partially repulsed. “What do we do with this?” he said. “I’m pretty sure we are going to eat it,” I said with a hint of uncertainty. But, as we would find out later, the heart is surprisingly tasty once you cut out the valves. All students took turns taking out the internal organs, then we dragged the sheep to the cabin and raised it on a large hook — horror movie stuff to the unsuspecting onlooker.
We skinned the animal before darkness completely engulfed us and left the remainder of the carcass hanging outside high in the air where other animals couldn’t get to it. It was cold enough that the meat wouldn’t spoil. Finally, we took in some lamb organs, which Mr. T prepared for dinner.
I noticed Kyle was not himself after supper.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It felt like I was mutilating something, man. It made me feel like a serial killer,”
I thought of the sheep. That sheep had died for us — for me. But for what? I wasn’t so sure anymore.
That night was freezing. I put on every layer I had and was still shivering in the tent. With no floor pad, I felt every bump and rock in the ground beneath me, but it was oddly spiritual being so connected to the environment and surrounded by the sounds of the night. I drifted off into a broken sleep.
The next day, a light snow began to fall. The weather could change at the drop of a hat at this altitude. Snow or no snow, we had work to do. We practiced firing rifles at long-range targets. We worked on archery skills. Then we got to work on the sheep hanging on the hook. We took it down and butchered every part of the animal. This took us hours. Bruce showed us where each cut of meat came from. We even saved the hide to tan. No part of the animal was wasted. It was snowing more heavily, and our hands started to freeze and become clumsy. We had to light a fire to keep warm. We thawed our hands as the smoke blew in our faces. From that point on, everything smelled of an intense combination of smoke, lamb, and death.
The third day was spent going over gear and hiking in the mountains, spotting herds of elk and deer. Bruce also placed targets at various spots on our hike, and we practiced shooting at them from different locations. During four hours of climbing steep terrain, as snow changed to rain, we took in the beauty of this special place, pausing to discuss hunting and some of the skills we had learned. We were exhausted and freezing by the time we returned to camp.
That night, as the darkness approached, the temperature plummeted. Everything started to freeze. Throughout the forest, branches buckled and broke under the weight of snow and ice. Kyle and I decided to move to the small shack built in the woods, which Bruce provided. It had a solid roof and offered some protection from falling branches and debris. The others moved into Bruce’s cabin as it was unsafe to camp in a tent.
We both lay in the pitch dark as freezing rain and snow belted our structure. Branches cracked throughout the forest like small explosions, some hitting our roof. The forest canopy sounded to be collapsing all around us. Perhaps it was the combination of sleep deprivation, cold, and the complete darkness, but that night felt psychedelic.
“Where are you at with all this? I’m not sure, man. I have a lot to think about when I get back,” I said.
“I don’t know. A lot is going on in my head. It feels like a lot of death,” he responded.
We awoke in the morning to snow and ice covering everything. Trees had collapsed all around us. Coming out of the shack to the scene of destruction felt like emerging from a bomb shelter, grateful for the silence and the blue of the sky. Perhaps what we all needed was more exposure to austere conditions to appreciate our lives.
We gathered by Bruce’s cabin to survey the scene and the damage. A large tree had fallen right by the house. The road from the camp was littered with trees and snow. I was ready to head home, but I wasn’t sure how we would get out.
Suddenly, I spotted a white-tail doe a mere seventy yards away trotting through the snow in plain sight. I signaled the others.
“A natural hunter,” Mr. T whispered with pride.
“Put the crosshairs on it and see how it feels,” Bruce urged. He handed an unloaded rifle to me.
This was a test in my mind. I stood with the rifle butt buried in my shoulder and my hand on the trigger guard. I centered the deer between the crosshairs. I could feel my adrenals squeeze — sweaty brow and heart racing. The doe turned to look in my direction.
When two eyes look back at you, you see life behind them, no matter how basic the organism is. I briefly locked eyes with this creature through the scope of the rifle. I saw its soul and, with it, my humanity.
I saw the countless patients that died a violent death, almost like a montage in my mind. The wife stabbed 20 times by her husband in a fit of rage. The young boy shot on his way to school. A litany of tragedies all came back to me in that instant.
I had always wondered who was on the other side of the equation I was trying to solve in the ER. Who was the person that plunged the knife or pulled the trigger? Well, that person was me now. As I followed the deer with the scope, a tiny fawn appeared. They both stood together and quickly trotted to the edge of the forest. Then, they turned back to look at us one last time and disappeared like ghosts.
I lowered the rifle. I knew at that moment that I would never cross the line. I didn’t have it in me. I felt the dueling emotions of disappointment and relief. When I started this, I wanted to believe that any self-doubt about killing would be overridden by my belief that hunting was imprinted somewhere deep in my DNA. Where did this leave me? I wasn’t sure.
I know that if success in this endeavor is measured by death, I am an abject failure.
I can live with that.
Illustrations by Peter Striffolino, 2022