Hunting In A Jeep

    One of the most enjoyable parts of our family living in Wyoming was my being introduced to the world of hunting. I have always enjoyed fishing, which I inherited from my dad and many of his relatives. I can remember as a child our family would go to Oklahoma to visit Dad’s kin, and sometime during the visit we would all go to Grand Lake of the Cherokees in Northeast Oklahoma and fish for an entire day. No big boats and no sophisticated hardware, just a few cane poles and simple rods and reels. All the Downings would catch a mess of perch or catfish, and the evening would be spent at a big fish fry at Earl’s and Beulah’s house. After everyone had eaten to excess, the menfolk would gather on the front porch and the women in the living room, and they would all chatter like a bunch of magpies until the wee hours of the morning. I was a quiet kid, believe it or not, and I would sit in the shadows and listen to the grownups talk about their experiences when they were kids during the Great Depression or World War II. I would give a lot of money to have a recording of some of those sessions.
     In Wyoming, however, I had the opportunity to experience hunting, and, looking back, it is my opinion that Wyoming is one of the few hunting states where “pure” hunting is still practiced. Here in Texas, hunting is a major business, what with all the land being private land. The landowners can hold your privilege of hunting for ransom and charge you an arm and a leg for the honor of walking onto their property to shoot a deer the size of a large German Shepherd. Rich landowners can cater to rich hunters by growing their own exotic crop of captured animals, and “hunters” can blast away at these poor creatures which have no avenues of escape. Hunters use deer stands to wait in ambush for their prey, having trained their prey to come to the endangered spot by year round feeding machines. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
     Wyoming is different. Around seventy five percent of Wyoming is federal and state land. Being government property, it is open to all. Much of it is leased to private ranchers for grazing, but the ranchers cannot deny access to hunters. For the seventeen years I lived in Wyoming, I never paid anyone for the privilege of hunting. A hunter had to register with the rancher and promise not to shoot any cows or sheep (which sometimes happened anyway), but it was open country for hunting. Wyoming was a hunter’s paradise. Licenses were inexpensive, though regulated. The Game and Fish Commission did a good job of monitoring animal populations, and hunting permits were issued based on population levels needed to maintain healthy herds. The actual process of hunting was man against animal, and the animal was in its natural habitat. Tracking, stalking, reading signs, anticipating an animal’s moves were all part of realizing a successful hunt in Wyoming. One didn’t sit in a deer stand nibbling on a donut and sipping coffee while waiting for the granddaddy of all bucks to come along.
     During this time, I was privileged to work with my brother-in-law, Buddy Creel. Now that he is an important insurance mogul, he is Jim or James Creel, but to his close family, he’s just Buddy. Has been since he was born, I think. Anyway, Buddy and I worked together to operate a service station and a taxicab venture, among other things. Having a need for a good work vehicle, and with an eye toward hunting and fishing the area, we bought a 1955 Jeep Willys four wheel drive pickup. (See photos) Just like Wyoming offered “pure” hunting, this Jeep was the “pure” pickup truck. It was the antithesis of every pickup on the road today. Nowadays, if your pickup doesn’t have GPS, satellite radio, MP3 connections, leather, four doors, twenty inch rims, blinding chrome trim, tinted windows, and a lift kit, it ain’t much. Our Jeep was a six cylinder, three speed on the floor, no power anything, and a beast to drive. The only thing electronic was a CB radio, which was the cutting edge of technology in those days. I guess it had springs, but you would have never known from the ride. You felt a direct communion between the road and your….um…where you sit. To turn a corner required some advance planning and good arm muscles, and when it came time to stop, you were glad you had been doing your leg presses. Getting up to sixty miles per hour was a challenge because the gearing was so low and also because the Jeep had what is called a worm and roller gear on the steering linkage, which means that in straightaway driving there was about a half a steering wheel area of play in the steering. You were constantly whipping left to right to maintain a straight forward direction.
     The saving grace of that old Jeep was, however, it would go straight up if you asked it to. When you put that thing in four wheel drive, all four wheels went to work. It had a two speed rear axle, and when in “low range” and in low gear, the only thing that would stop it was gravity. Buddy and I attempted hills many times which were impossibly steep, and that old Jeep would just sit there and dig until we gave up and went elsewhere. We had the obligatory gun rack and packed our artillery wherever we went. Looking back, we had no key to lock the doors and never worried about walking away from the Jeep, even with our rifles in the rack.  Can you imagine doing that these days in Texas?  We found an old camper that would fit in the bed that popped up and folded out into a couple of beds, so we were ready for huntin’ and campin’.  To give you an idea of the…um…interesting experiences one can have while hunting in an old Jeep, let me relate the following story to you. 
       One October as the elk season finally arrived, Buddy and I decided to take the Jeep up to the Big Horn Mountain Range west of Buffalo, Wyoming, to begin our search for a prize elk. Elk were the crème de la crème in hunting circles where I lived. Moose were OK, but hunting licenses were almost impossible to get even for Wyoming residents. Mountain sheep were trophies for horn hunters, but Buddy and I were “pure” hunters; what we shot, we ate. We did not kill for sport.  We did not go in for "recreational" shooting of varmints, be they chipmunks, prairie dogs, or coyotes. We were true to our ancestral hunters.  On that crispy morning we headed out on Interstate 25 north from Casper to Buffalo and then headed west on Highway 16, rising in altitude from 5,000 feet to over 10,000 feet. It was an arduous climb for the Jeep, but given time, we finally arrived at our destination, far up into the mountains at the near end of a barely recognizable trail.
     Snow had already come to the high country and hung heavily on the trees and covered the undergrowth. The evening of our first night was cold and still, and in the camper with no heat (we’re MEN!) our breath left its foggy print. We awaited the dawn with anticipation. When it finally arrived, we traipsed around a bit but saw nothing and decided, since the grass is always greener somewhere else, to go down the road a piece. Consider this also; we had no maps. We had a Wyoming map, and we could tell roughly where we were, but up in the high country we were sort of flying by the seat of our pants. So we drove along a bit, scanning the area for any movement. In a few minutes we came to a stream. It was a beautiful waterway, rushing down hill with noticeable rocky rapids and about 25 feet across. I looked at the water and asked Buddy, “Well, Bud, what do you think…can we make it?”
     To which he replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s not deep…let’s go for it!”
     I gunned the Jeep, we hit the water, and the whole front end of the Jeep disappeared under the water! We were so shocked I guess it saved us, because I sort of froze with my foot on the accelerator…and that Jeep plowed through that water and up the other side like a land based submarine. We felt pretty good...for about fifty feet, and then the Jeep died. Well, we got out and surveyed the situation and could see no damage until we looked under the front of the Jeep. There was gas dripping from under the engine. Buddy slid underneath and took a look. To understand the problem, you have to know a little about old motors. In those days, many vehicles had an exterior fuel filter on the side (in this case bottom) of the engine. This filter consisted of a glass bowl with a filter inside through which fuel flowed. This glass bowl was held on with a metal clip, so you could pop the bowl off to replace the filter when needed. Unfortunately, this glass bowl happened to be right above the front differential of this 4WD Jeep, and, when the Jeep plowed through the creek, we must have hit a submerged rock, pushing the differential up against the bowl and knocking it off. So where’s the bowl? We began to retrace our tracks all the way back to the water’s edge. There, about ten feet out in the icy water we could see a glint of reflected light. Buddy waded out and picked up our missing bowl. When the differential hit the glass bowl it had knocked a chip out of the bottom to the point that the bottom of the glass was a hair thickness…but it wasn’t broken through. We put the bowl back on the filter clip, and, as best as I remember, reinforced it with some tape, and off we went.
     To make a long story short and to stay with the subject of the Jeep, I will say that our hunt was unsuccessful, and later that day we decided to head back to Casper. If you look at a map of Wyoming and the Big Horn area, you will see that Highway 16 west of Buffalo meanders south and west toward Tensleep, Wyoming. Buddy and we decided that, rather than go back east on 16 and south on IH 25, we would take a back road south behind the mountain range through Mayoworth, Wyoming, and reduce our distance to home. It was still, even with that, 90 or so miles. We headed south along this country road from Highway 16, and in a very short while it began to get a little rugged…OK, it got a lot rugged. We realized that sooner or later we were going to have to cross the mountain ridge to our east, and, sure enough, suddenly our narrow, rocky, barely single lane road started heading at what appeared to be a 45 degree angle up the side of the mountain. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I can tell you that on my side (driver’s) the cliff went straight up and on Buddy’s side, just outside his door it went straight down…way down.
     But we didn’t fear….the old Jeep was chugging along, the four wheel drive was grabbing, and the engine was hardly working, what with the gearing…..until it stopped. I began to crank on the engine. No success…it would not fire. Being shadetree mechanics both of us, we knew about fuel, oxygen, heat, etc. After awhile I took the fuel line off the side of the carburetor, and Buddy cranked the engine. Not a drop of fuel came out. After much deliberation, we decided that the hill we were climbing was so steep that the fuel pump was not strong enough to pull the fuel from the rear tank up to the engine. What to do? With an American ingenuity that helped the Colonies defeat the British and the United States to win two World Wars, we found an empty milk carton in the camper and a bit of hose. We siphoned some fuel out of the gas tank into the milk carton and then disconnected the fuel line at the engine and ran a hose from the milk carton to the carburetor. Buddy cranked the Jeep, and it started right up! I rode on the front fender of the Jeep holding the milk carton while Buddy drove to the top of the mountain and partly down the other side. Once we were tipped in the downhill direction, we hooked the fuel line back up, and we were rolling again!
     In a few hours we were nestled back in our home, snug as a bug. We were disappointed we did not have a successful hunt, but we had lots of fun. Looking back, I would not repeat this experience now for all the gold in China (exaggeration). The trouble with getting older is that risks become too risky. But this memory I will treasure forever. And, Buddy, I still miss you, man.