The deer hunters: How two liberal, anti-gun girls learned to kill for their dinner

A formerly gun-shy news editor gets familiar with a .44 magnum rifle on an intitial hunting trip, and gets a skinning demonstration at Johnson's Deer Processing in Madison. Photo: Graelyn Brashear A formerly gun-shy news editor gets familiar with a .44 magnum rifle on an intitial hunting trip, and gets a skinning demonstration at Johnson’s Deer Processing in Madison. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

A few weeks ago, I stopped at a gas station on 29 just north of the Albemarle County line and texted C-VILLE staff writer Laura Ingles. I had just spent some quality time with an eviscerated deer.

“That. Was. Awesome. I’ll send you a gory photo if you want.”

Then came the picture of a buck with a small saw at its neck.

“Oh…my goodness,” she texted back.

The whole thing started in November with a conversation about deer meat.

We were at a picnic on her cousins’ property outside Scottsville, sampling a heavenly, savory venison sausage dip. Somehow—rather quickly—we got from “This is delicious” to “We should go hunting” to “We should write about it.”

The point we made to each other was hardly revolutionary: If you want to eat local, eat clean, reduce your food’s carbon footprint, and have a real relationship with what you consume, you can’t do much better than shooting a deer and packing your freezer with venison.

So why the wide cultural gulf separating people who grew up taking a sick day on the first day of general firearms season and those who spend a solid chunk of their paycheck each week on locally sourced groceries from Whole Foods? Why is hunting for rednecks and grass-fed beef for snobs?

We’re squeamish about killing things. We didn’t grow up doing it. And, maybe most importantly, guns freak us out.

But none of our reasons seemed all that sound as we scarfed the dip. If you want to eat an animal, you should have to face the fact that it had to die first, we thought, and we’ve grown to like a lot of things we never touched as kids. Brussels sprouts, for instance, and bourbon. The guns were harder to get our heads around. How do you get past a deep distrust of firearms, especially when you’ve spent two and a half decades developing it? When you are that friend on Facebook who takes the bait every time and starts the fight about gun control? When the sound of shots fired—even on TV—stops your heart for a moment? When stories of tragedies caused by madmen with assault weapons ignite painful memories?

We had an idea of where to begin, anyway. We drove to Walmart for apprentice hunting licenses and blaze orange caps, and went in search of some teachers.

In the weeks that followed, we found some answers. While we never dragged a deer out of the woods, we did get a pretty comprehensive hunting education, from firing first shots to feasting. And the experience has sparked many more conversations—about killing animals, about whether it’s O.K. to like the feeling of your finger on the trigger, about the disconnect in our gun culture that sends people running to their familiar corners when the conversation turns political. And that’s been the best takeaway. If two girls like us can learn to appreciate a deer rifle and the job it does, maybe next we can talk about outlawing hollow points. Over venison.

Graelyn: “I have to start here.”
The first time we meet Charlie, we’re in the cramped parking lot of Wyant’s Store in White Hall, and he’s about to take us to a remote hollow and hand us loaded guns. An old friend and neighbor plays poker with him weekly, and set up the outing. Charlie’s not wild about us using his last name—the weapons he’s brought along are valuable and a popular target for thieves, and he grimaces at the thought of any more people knowing he has hunting acreage up against the mountains.

But the 62-year-old Crozet native is still willing to lead our little caravan—me, staff writer Laura Ingles, my photographer husband, and the mutual friend that brought the motley crew together—to his property. The word of a friend is enough for him.

We drive up 810 and onto gravel roads with names like Slam Gate and Break Heart, then ease into a field dotted with shrubby evergreens. Buck’s Elbow Mountain—where I grew up, and forever home to me—is about a mile distant, but the day is so clear and bright it feels close enough to touch.

Charlie’s grandmother owned the land before him, and he’s hunted there since he was a kid tagging along after his dad. It’s good deer land, he explains, mixed field and forest, with water here and there. It’s also a good place to learn to shoot, and Charlie is the right instructor for us.

“I’m what you’d term a gun nut,” he says, matter-of-factly. He has a big collection, and he’s brought five weapons with him today, some sleek and beautiful, others bought for practicality or nostalgia. A civil engineer, he takes obvious joy in the workings of his guns, explaining to us at length the difference between the lever and bolt action rifles, how the caliber affects recoil, and how the way the metalwork is screwed onto the stock influences accuracy. He loads his own cartridges and has even been known to cast his own bullets.

A lot of this is lost on me, to be frank.

When my siblings and I acquired a second-hand Nintendo in 1995, my mom threw away the plastic shooter that went with the Duck Hunt game. We never had Nerf guns, and even squirt guns were frowned upon. More than once she stormed out into the woods after spotting strangers with shotguns walking up the hollow behind our house to order them off our property.

Guns were dangerous, and a love and fascination for them unhealthy. So then, by association, was hunting. To wield a weapon and go out of your way to take a life was suspect behavior.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t know a lot of hunters growing up. At Western Albemarle High School, season opener days were understood holidays for a lot of my classmates. I just grew up bringing colored pencils and a sketchbook into the woods, not a rifle.

I’m grateful for that upbringing. But I’m also curious as I eye Charlie unloading his weapons, and I want to know what I’m capable of. I don’t believe firing a gun—even shooting a deer with one—is going to make me depraved. Nor will it instantly imbue me with some kind of deeper cultural understanding, or make me a member of a club I was shut out of before. But I do know if I want to try my hand at hunting, I have to start here.

Laura Ingles takes aim with a .243 Winchester. Photo: Christopher Seiz

Laura: “Oddly satisfied.”
“All right. Now, which one do you want to shoot?”

I look from the lineup of rifles on the ground to Graelyn, then back to the guns. Which one do I want to shoot? Not a question I ever thought I’d have to consider.

Like Graelyn, guns had never been part of my culture growing up a middle class suburban girl from Charlotte, North Carolina. Aside from firing a BB gun at summer camp when I was 9 and hearing rumors of a pistol going off in some idiot’s pocket in my high school cafeteria, my experience with weapons was essentially nonexistent.

I enjoyed eating venison my aunt prepared for family gatherings in Powhatan, but the world of firearms and hunting was completely foreign to me. I didn’t hate guns, per se, but having never been given a reason to develop a strong opinion, I spent most of my life impartial.

In the spring of my freshman year in college, my feelings toward guns changed. I developed a hatred so deep that the mention of a gun, or the sound of shots like in the M.I.A. song “Paper Airplanes,” gave me goosebumps. And not the kind you get looking at a sunset.

So even though I knew it was coming—hell, I signed up for it—I freeze when Charlie takes the guns out of their bags. I stare at them, hands shoved in my jacket pockets, and am suddenly back in Torgerson Bridge on April 16, 2007, the day Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech and killed 32 students and faculty.

I wasn’t in one of those classrooms, and I don’t claim to know how it feels to face a gunman. I didn’t hear shots from down the hall, watch my professor barricade the door to save my life, or curl up in the fetal position under my desk praying not to get hit. But I have friends who did, and I’ll never forget standing silently at a Torgerson window, watching police cars fly across the hallowed Drillfield (a beloved part of campus never touched by vehicles, comparable to UVA’s Lawn).

Not a day has gone by that I haven’t at least briefly thought of those hours I spent on lockdown wondering why my roommate wasn’t answering her phone, or remembered the following weeks of dodging TV cameras every time I stepped out of my dorm, where the first round of shooting occurred. Five years later I still brace myself when people ask me where I went to school, and visiting the Drillfield memorial on my trips to Blacksburg still puts a lump in my throat. And when tragedies like the recent shootings in Aurora and Newtown hit the news, my heart breaks all over again.

“Um…that one, I guess,” I say, pointing to the bolt-action .243 Winchester that Charlie had said kicked the least.

The rifle I’m about to shoot is on the opposite end of the firearm spectrum from the deadly semi-automatic handguns and more than 400 rounds of ammunition used by Cho, but it doesn’t matter—guns are guns, in my mind.

He nods, and I slowly lean down to pick it up.

“What about the safety?” I ask, jerking my hands back. “How do I know if it’s on?”

Charlie smiles and picks up the rifle.

“See this?” he says, showing me a silver switch. “That’s the safety—it’s on. And none of these guns are loaded right now.”

We situate the gun between two adjustable leather rests on a table in the middle of the woods. Charlie shows me how to unlock the safety, load the bullets, and hold the rifle properly. Once I am (relatively) comfortable with holding the gun tight against my shoulder and going through the motions, I unlock the rifle I never dreamed I’d be holding, adjust my plastic ear covers, and carefully peer through the scope at the two paper targets 25 yards away.

I’m still surprised at how calm I was. I don’t remember what I was thinking as I lined up my first shot, but I’m pretty sure it was less “Oh my God oh my God!” and more “Huh. This is weird.”

After several seconds of squinting and aiming, I take a deep breath, tighten the butt against my shoulder, and focus on the right-hand bullseye with my finger on the trigger.

My buddies from Tech who are seasoned deer killers told me I’d love the feeling of shooting a gun, that it was a rush like no other. Until this moment, I simply did not believe them.

I’m not prepared for the surge of power that floods my entire body. I immediately let go of the rifle and jump back, stunned but oddly satisfied. (Graelyn caught my face in this moment on my camera, which can only be described as completely befuddled shock.)

With no shooting experience and a sense of aim that leaves much to be desired, the thought that I might have actually hit the target doesn’t cross my mind. Charlie squints into the distance and says “Well that’s a dead deer, right there,” and I scamper to the stump to look at my target like a child running to retrieve a putt-putt ball.

Photo: Graelyn Brashear

The experience of picking up a firearm and later taping my paper target to the wall next to my desk didn’t change much for me, except now I feel slightly safer around someone handling a gun. I also have a new appreciation for the stories my second cousin—two generations my senior and the host of the picnic that started this story—loves to share about the years he spent as a child running around in the woods of West Virginia with a 12-gauge single-shot shotgun.

As the fifth boy in the family, Albert Booth “got the dirty deal” when he went hunting with his brothers, and was always the one to haul the squirrels and pheasants back to the house. Until one day, when it was pouring down rain, and their dog ran a tiny brown squirrel to the top of a grape vine.

“He was just sitting there, all hunkered down like he was freezing, and I heard my brother Lloyd say, ‘Hey, let Albert shoot it!’” Al said.

So with a carefully lined up shot from a gun balanced across his brothers’ shoulders, he shot his first animal—from about 12 feet away.

“It was all shot to pieces,” Al laughed. “There was nothing to eat of that thing. But it was my first squirrel, so I took it home and skinned it. I kept that tail for a long, long time.”

As his brothers entered high school and discovered sports, hobbies, and girls, the family shotgun became more readily available, and Al just couldn’t get enough. By the time he hit sixth grade, he carried the gun with him on his 5-mile walk to school, sticking any winnings under a rock in the creek and stashing the gun and shells in the warehouse of a little shop half a mile from the school.

“As soon as school let out I’d run down, grab the gun and those shells,” he said. “Usually I just got squirrels going back and forth to school. Never deer.”

Seventy years later, Al hasn’t outgrown his boyhood fascination, and proudly shows off his downstairs trophy room and collection of 20-plus firearms. He started out as a little country boy running through the woods with a shotgun as big as him, and is now a big country boy riding through the woods on a fancy 4-wheeler, checking his night-vision deer cams and climbing into one of half a dozen tree stands he’s built on his property. Aside from the year he spent in the military, he said, he has brought home at least one deer every year since he turned 11, and visitors never walk away from that house without half a pound of venison in hand.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had preconceived notions of hunters and their culture. Though camouflage and taxidermy still don’t particularly appeal to me, I’m starting to understand people like Al and this passion of theirs.

Graelyn: “I’m starting to get it.”
Target practice is over. Laura has headed back into town and lunch—hot beans and barbecue from Wyant’s—is behind us. I climb into the back of Charlie’s pickup and we rattle down the road, through another access gate, and across a field waist-high in bluestem, the mountain looming in front of us. I am thinking about the conversation we had an hour earlier, when Charlie asked me what I’d do if I did bring down a deer this afternoon.

“I would—” is as a far as I got. “I hadn’t really thought that part through,” I said sheepishly. I refrained from adding “Hopefully not freak out?” We talked then about field-dressing and the availability of enough cardboard boxes in his truck to tote deer parts, and whether I had a cooler at home large enough to ice meat down in. It was around the point where I was contemplating bloody deer haunches in a box in the back of my Honda Fit that it really hit me that I might actually end up killing an animal within a few hours.

When we come to a stop, we hop out and Charlie helps us get our bearings.

“Right over there is where we’re headed,” he says, pointing across an open, stream-fed hollow to a low rise thick with trees. “I got a big buck there not long ago. They have a tendency to come right over that ridge.”

He is a good and patient teacher, carefully explaining things that have been second nature to him for decades: Move slowly in the woods, and that includes your head and limbs. Should you see a deer, don’t gasp or shout. Don’t expect to see or hit anything more than about 100 yards away—the undergrowth is too thick.

Even though I’ve been shooting guns all morning, I feel a little jab of unease when he hands me the .44 Magnum rifle I tested out earlier. But I remind myself that there’s no bullet in the chamber yet, and I pull my blaze orange cap down and sling the gun’s incongruously cheery purple strap over my arm. We tromp off, falling silent as we step over the brook and into the woods. I try to do the fox walk I was taught as a kid, stepping down on the outside of the foot, mindful and quiet. Turns out it’s hard to do in three layers and Ariat boots with a rifle on your shoulder. I’m certain my crunching steps are sending unseen deer running.

We regroup at the top of the hill and scope for hides within waving distance of each other.
“This is perfect,” Charlie says, pointing me to a brushy spot next to a tall white pine. “You can lean up against this tree, and these branches will break up your line a little bit. If you need to get my attention, just whistle.”

He heads back to his own spot and pulls out his iPhone (“I’m not a very patient hunter,” he explains). I have no service, but even if I did, I know I wouldn’t be playing Angry Birds. I’m too preoccupied with staring in front of me, alternately scanning with binoculars and gripping my gun with my gloved hands. I’m well aware I’m sending mixed mental messages out into the underbrush. I am both willing deer to step into sight and hoping they all have pressing business elsewhere.

Eventually, I chill out. I spent much of my childhood sitting in the woods, so that part comes naturally to me. I settle into the remarkable feeling of doing very little with purpose, and revel in the sense of unfocused calm it brings. It’s not unlike the mental loosening that comes after two or three days of backpacking, when you’ve knocked out the items at the top of your consciousness and have long spells when you actually run out of things to think about.

I’ve never been a meditator; I am the fidgeter in yoga class, the one thinking about grocery lists instead of downward dog. But I think this—this mellow alertness, this active waiting—is a pretty close estimation. In the past, when people would tell me they loved to hunt because it afforded them quiet time in nature, part of me would silently call bullshit. After all, you’re headed out to kill things. Loudly, most often. But after a couple of hours, I’m starting to get it.

I’m starting to get stiff and cold, too.

What I don’t get is a deer. The sun is dropping low. I have work waiting for me at the office. I ease out of my hide and chirp to Charlie, who follows me out a few paces to say goodbye and then returns to his tree. I hike back to his truck alone, stash the rifle, toss the keys in after, and head out across the field in the direction of my car, my feelings waffling between relief and disappointment. Lesson of the day: Hunting is often uneventful.

I still don’t know how I would have handled an actual kill, but I was a little shocked at how much I liked learning and trying. When I talk to Charlie on the phone about it later, he’s not surprised.

“Because of the Wild West images—Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty, Gunsmoke and John Wayne and all that—it’s usually the menfolk doing the gunplay and the women being worried about them,” he mused.
“There’s sort of a macho residue from that history of how guns came to be such a part of American culture.” But he’s heard from others that females are the faster learners among the ranks of novice shooters. “And I think I saw this the other day,” he said of our woods workshop. “The women really take to it, and are more proficient more quickly.”

I’ll buy it. Though I’m still thinking about a buck with my name on it.

Graelyn: “I didn’t kill it, but I could have.”
It’s a Google search that brings me face-to-face with my first dead deer.

Joe Johnson is a meat cutter by training and a Madison County farmer to his bones, and I find him online, on the webpage devoted to his side business, Johnson’s Deer Processing. His family has owned land in Northern Virginia since 1770, and while he learned his trade in supermarkets and the slaughterhouse, he always wanted to raise his own beef on his own land.

His wife Carol wasn’t born to the same life. “I’m a Yankee,” she says, grinning. A Queens native, she came south in 1987 to work for then-New York governor Mario Cuomo in Washington. “I loved the governor, but I didn’t like the politics on Capitol Hill,” she said. “Imagine that.”

But she’d grown attached to Virginia, so she went to work for a NoVA law firm. Not long after, she met Joe through a friend—at a rodeo, of all places. “Joe’s gonna lie to you and tell you he was riding the bulls, but that’s not true at all,” Carol laughed.

Since then, cows—and pigs, and, increasingly, deer—have been a big part of both their lives. Running a commercial slaughterhouse on their own farm was too costly an endeavor, but Joe built their processing facility so they could butcher animals for their own table. At first, they just took in deer for a few hunter friends, but then word spread. Twenty-five years later, they’re busy almost nonstop once hunting season starts. From October through early January, Joe said, “we cut every day but Saturday.”

It’s late afternoon when I pull up at their place (“turn left at the sign with the antlers on it”) and park behind a beat-up pickup with farm plates. When I walk through the bay doors of the barnlike processing building, I’m greeted first by a warm and smiling Carol and Joe, then by the sight of a gutted buck propped on its back on a sawhorse, legs akimbo, torso gaping wide and emptied of organs. We’ll get to him later.

“You want to try one of our hot dogs?” Carol asks, pointing me to the vast walk-in where they store venison sent away to be made into specialty meats. “We’ve got chili cheese dogs, regular dogs. I’ve got kielbasa, and some brats.” My money’s no good here—bring a deer and you can get the ground meat turned into sausage for a fee, but it’s illegal to sell game outright.

A quick tour of the other refrigerated rooms charts the path that buck will take. There’s the cutting room, where the expert knife-wielding happens and loins and sirloin tips are vacuum-sealed, and then the main freezer, where customers’ boxes of cuts are decked out with their kill’s antlers.

But first comes skinning and deboning. Back out front, I look askance at an eye-level hook clotted with blood and bits of fur. “We always get a hanging weight first,” Carol explains, because head, hide, and bones are heavier than some hunters realize. That stiff buck waiting for the knife looks big to me—I keep thinking of the dimensions of an oversized Irish wolfhound—but it will likely only yield 30 pounds of meat, says Carol, and that’s assuming the gunshot didn’t cause too much tissue damage. We lean over the carcass, and she points out the cuts they’ll get from it.

“This here is the true tenderloin of the deer—what we call the fish loin,” she says, pointing to a pink, loaflike section of muscle visible through a veil of connective tissue in the lower back. “Then the loin, or backstrap, is what runs down the whole animal in the back. Out of the hindquarters, you’re going to get your sirloin tip, which is your thigh, and then your bottom round and top round. That’s your London broil cut in the store.”

The Johnsons’ young friend Eric Robinson, a neighborhood kid who’s been helping them out during the busy season for a decade, takes it from there. His hand saw whines through the forelegs before he grips each front hoof and snaps it off with a brittle crack. Then, with a few deft touches of an ultra-sharp skinning knife, he slits the hide down the leg, grasps it, and tugs. It pulls away from the muscle with a sound like someone tearing a thick rind off an orange. He works quickly, cutting and peeling away the hide, sawing off the head and dumping it in an industrial-sized garbage bin—all the leftovers go to Valley Protein and then to bone meal or dog food—then stringing the carcass up by the hind legs to finish the job. I watch in silence with Carol and Joe. A country music station is playing in the background. Eric takes three songs to strip the deer completely.

As it dangles there, now just a meaty mass, Carol asks if I want to hold the hide.

“Sure!” I say. It’s only later, when I’m listening to my recording of the afternoon, that I realize I was trying really hard to sound chipper.

I don a single blue rubber glove and take what she hands me—a surprisingly heavy thing, like a soaking wet beach towel, furry on one side, patchy-slick on the other. It occurs to me that it’s the removal of this droopy, ruglike, and rather lovely thing that has, in my eyes, turned the creature in front of me from animal to dinner. From a recognizable and recently living thing that runs and sleeps and eats to something that, well, I would eat. I didn’t kill it, but I could have. I think.

And I’m O.K. with that. I think.

While I’m a little relieved when Carol, so comfortable weighing the heft of raw, red muscle, admits she used to be a little squeamish about all of it, I find myself wanting to emulate the relationship they’ve built with their food. They’re far more comfortable knowing where their meat comes from. And like Charlie with his handmade slugs, there’s craftsmanship in what they do, and they take pride in it.

“It is an art form,” Carol said of cutting up an animal. And considering how many Americans eat meat, it’s one that’s understood—let alone practiced—by surprisingly few. “Even in the grocery stores today, there are so few trained butchers any more. I mean, there are meat cutters, and they do a good job. But they really wouldn’t know how to break down a carcass. Everything they get in a grocery store comes in a box.”

To say nothing of shoppers. “People have no idea what they’re eating,” Joe said. “They really don’t.” But he thinks attitudes are changing. Some of it has to do with the recession. People who hunted only as a hobby are hunting for food now, he said—they’ve watched customers’ interest climb in recent years.

And others are coming into the fold. “The foodie crowd is educating each other,” said Joe. “There’s nothing healthier than a deer when it’s done properly.” Organic—check. Free range—check. Tasty—check, depending on who you ask.

“I understand there are some people out there who don’t live it that way,” said Carol. “But that’s the nature of the beast.”

Those words stick in my head as I wipe blood off the soles of my work flats, get into my car, and drive off with a wave. We could all do with a little more understanding, I think, of the nature of our beasts.

A few days later, I take some thawed venison chuck from my fridge and ponder it. The deer it came from once wandered a few miles from my home in the city. This ground and flash-frozen hunk of its hindquarters was given to me by Laura’s cousin the night we first started talking about trying our shaky hands at hunting.

I decide on meatloaf: easy and familiar, ketchup glaze. Nothing fancy.

It is delicious.

This started out as a story about food, and as something of a social experiment. And, if I’m being honest, a bit of a gimmick. Us hunting, we thought. Girls with guns. That’d be a trip.

We set out to see if there was a place for us in the Cabela’s culture, if there was room in the ranks of the pickup-driving, gun-toting hunters for a couple of girls who have never had more than an intellectual understanding of the fact that our meat was once alive. Laura wanted to know if she could shoulder and shoot a rifle. I wanted to see if I could handle some blood on my shoes—and maybe my hands—from an animal I planned to eat.

We could, and we did. And we gained some perspective. If you’ve never handled a single-shot deer rifle, you don’t understand that it’s not the same thing as a Bushmaster semiautomatic, and until you get that, you don’t understand that you can like one and want to outlaw the other. That you can be a hunter and support an assault weapons ban. That a society that lives with guns, owns guns, fires guns—and yes, genuinely likes guns—doesn’t have to turn its back on regulating guns.

As with every difference of opinion, the solution often springs up out of the common ground. Maybe it’s not so ridiculous to think we can find that common ground in a lever-action repeating rifle designed a century and a half ago, a few hours with friends in the woods, and a venison loaf.
And there’s still time to bag that deer. If you’re looking for us on January 5—the last day of hunting season—we’ll be in the woods.—Graelyn Brashear and Laura Ingles

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