When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is important to walk slow. You are not exercising, you are out looking for antlers, and antlers won’t appear to you if you are too focused on breaking a sweat. Your feet will slide on the snow where it is packed, and they will sink where it is loose and pillowy. Usually you will go in up to your ankle, but sometimes you will fall all the way to your knee or even your hip, a quick drop that leaves you breathless, your exhale still floating somewhere above your head. Sometimes you will step forward, ready to sink, but the snow will be unexpectedly hard. It will not even crack under your weight, and you will wonder about the physics of snow, why it sometimes holds you up and sometimes pulls you down.
It is important not to expect to find anything. Antlers do not reward greediness. Pick up every little bit of fuzz you spot, no matter how un-antler like, no matter how soft and wispy. Hold onto it even though each passing breeze threatens to loose it from your grasp. Little bits of fuzz come from animals, too, even if they lack the hardness of true bone.
If you’re only in it for the antlers, you are bound to be disappointed.
When you come to a fork in the road, take the way that calls to you, even if the map says otherwise. Remember which footsteps are yours. Bring enough water and dress in layers. Even though it is fifty degrees and sunny when you set out, the temperature can drop fast once the sky moves from bright to dusk. Dusk is when the mountain lions come out, so walk tall and sing a song to yourself, loud enough that they can tell you are person and not prey. If one does come, remember you are supposed to fight, not flee.
Out here, the deer shed their antlers in December, January, February, the cold, white months that reward a watchful eye. How they shed, you don’t actually know, but you picture them dancing in the snow, a careful choreography that involves no pain, only joy, the way you used to feel sometimes but now feel less and less. You can’t remember the last time you felt the way a deer dancing on its hind legs in the snow must feel.
When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is easy to get discouraged, when you have spent days walking past neat piles of scat and weaving patterns of tracks but have found nothing but antler-like sticks. It is easy to think that you are simply not the kind of person who finds antlers in Wyoming in January. It is easy to give up.
But then you will crest the summit, and as you walk straight into a ceiling of blue sky, you will see something up ahead, on a patch of ragged grass where the snow has melted. Probably it is a stick, you will think, but your heart will beat faster, your body overruling your reason. Your reason will remember all the letdowns of the past, but your body will know only this moment, the creaking of the snow, the movement of the clouds overhead, the stick-like object that has awakened an electricity that runs through your flesh.
Still, you will tell yourself it is a stick until the moment you are right above it, standing over it in wonder – wonder at its curving prongs, its desiccated stump. Wonder that you could have ever mistaken a stick for an antler, the latter so much more solid, impossible to break, impermeable to decay. Wonder that you are the person standing here, on this day, in this spot.
You will feel a weight that you did not know you were carrying fall away. A lightness will rise from the base of your spine. And as you pick up the antler, its surprisingly smooth surfacealive in your hand, your legs will start to move towards home.
Claire Miye Stanford‘s work has appeared in Front Porch, Word Riot, Booth, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, Grist, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is based in Minneapolis.