Words by Katie Hutton | Photos by Daniel Hublein
In the foothills of the Chinati Mountains, 30 miles from her home in Marfa, Texas, Kate Nye is camouflaged from head to toe, her pointer finger poised alongside the trigger guard of her rifle.
Through her scope, she eyes a mature, Texan Rocky Mountain cow elk. She’s chosen this one with the help of her guide, Trent, of Cibolo Creek Ranch. Kate is poised but also nervous; the weight of the rifle is light in comparison to the gravity of the moment. If she takes the shot, it will be her first at a big game animal. Two hours of searching has come down to these sixty seconds of adrenaline-fueled deliberation.
This isn’t a normal day for Kate. While her hands are familiar with ivory piano keys, elk ivories are something she has yet to perceive.
A classically trained pianist, motorcycle enthusiast, and certified pilot, she has traveled a long way from her Pennsylvania upbringing, landing 2,000 miles away in a small, west Texas desert town.
“I love the pace of life in Marfa,” Kate told me recently. “The gravel roads to get home remind me a lot of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.”
But that’s where the similarities end. The densely wooded hills of her childhood scarcely allowed a clear view of the blue sky overhead, let alone an opportunity to harvest an elk.
Kate’s father is an avid pilot, motorcyclist, falconer, and whitetail hunter. In many ways, she has followed in his footsteps. She piloted a plane before she could legally drive and bought herself not one but two motorcycles.
At eighteen Kate hit the open road for Boston where she studied classical piano and singing and spent summers performing in France, before moving to Texas.
She eventually migrated towards a career in the beverage industry, and for years she worked at a Texas distributor of spirits and wine until the lure of the micro-business brought her to Marfa and Marfa Spirit Co.
Kate had done it all — except hunt. But that changed when she was sent an invitation from a familiar place.
Kate had previously spent time at Cibolo Creek Ranch — a unique oasis in the desert landscape, boasting hundreds of springs, and orchards — harvesting sotol plants for Marfa Spirit Co. But this time she returned to Cibolo to harvest an elk.
When asked to join the hunt, Kate agreed, so long as it wasn’t a trophy hunt. “I think that the essence of providing for yourself and for the people around you is that you go out and find your food,” Kate said. “You grow it, you hunt it, you gather it. I'm very much in support of that.”
“You grow it, you hunt it, you gather it. I'm very much in support of that.”
The unsuspecting cow elk is still in her crosshairs. Normally calm, cool, and collected, Kate’s agitation is palpable. Her focus is challenged by her awareness of the photographer and videographer there to document the moment of truth. What if I miss? Or even worse, what if I make a bad shot?
She had spent the long hours before first light envisioning this scene, and it was those quiet conversations with her guide, Trent, that keep her grounded now, even as her nerves try to take over.
She steadies her breath, exhales, and fires a clean shot through the elk’s shoulder at 275 yards.
Trent watched the animal through his binoculars. Kate recalled: “After I pulled the trigger, he very calmly said, ‘You got it.” I whipped my head to him and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he just nodded and said, ‘You got it.’ I turned back towards the herd of elk and I said, ‘Fuck-yeah!’ under my breath.”
“People that saw that [on video] started cracking up but it wasn’t a sense of dominating, it was a relief,” explained Kate. “This was my first time pulling the trigger on a living thing, that moment I was so relieved that it wasn't a bad shot, it was a release of so much pressure.”
Kate, Trent, and crew watch from their lofty vantage point for ten minutes to make sure the cow stays where it has fallen. According to Kate, her nerves end there, with the recognition that her cow is down for good. Then the hard work begins. They descend through a maze of thick brush bristling with stickers, a trek that tears them up as they battle their way forward.
This is Kate’s first up close experience with an elk, an animal she has only glimpsed in the distance a handful of times before now. A wave of emotion unlike anything she’s experienced overtakes her as she kneels alongside the animal, gently stroking its hair. When she looks up at the photographer, she has tears in her eyes. She marvels at her overwhelming sense of appreciation, at her luck in being able to participate in this hunt.
It is time to call her Dad.
“He was over the moon,” Kate remembered. “He's always a proud papa and he wanted to know all the nitty gritty details, he’s been telling all of his friends about it,” said Kate. According to her, his prime concern had been that in the heat of the moment, her trigger control would be jeopardized, but his worries were for naught. “It's not an easy experience to put your mind and body through, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Since that day about four months ago, Kate has reminisced about her first hunt, and how it happened on soil so far from the place where she was raised. “I knew I made my father and my grandfather so proud, but also at the same time like, ‘what the hell y'all, like, why is it taking till now? Why are you guys not here with me?” said Kate, admitting that she would have loved to have experienced this hunt with them, long ago.
“I knew I made my father and my grandfather so proud, but also at the same time like, ‘what the hell y'all, like, why is it taking till now? Why are you guys not here with me?”
“I grew up eating venison that my father shot every year, but the only thing that's been passed down to me are the recipes,” she mused. “I was never invited to hunt, but I also never asked to join. I think women coming into this space have to realize that while you may not have been included, did you actually try and ask? The answer probably would've been yes. You just have to speak up yourself.”
She may have been late to the hunting party but Kate now has a chest freezer full of elk meat. “It's really beautiful to be able to share this meat,” she said. “I know exactly where it came from and sharing that with my friends, having them over for dinner and preparing a beautifully marinated backstrap, harvested just 30 miles south of where our table is, is pretty cool.”
Hunting allowed Kate to appreciate her own capabilities, learning to control her body, physically, mentally, and emotionally; from the zen of stalking an animal for hours, to the adrenaline-filled sixty seconds prior to taking the shot. An endeavor that tethered the life of this elk to her own.
“And this bottle of sotol will bring us that much closer too. We're trying to bottle the land out here, the experience. I think that's a great story to tell too in liquid form.”
Morgan Weber, the owner of Marfa Spirit Co, proposed tying all of these entities together by creating a pechuga-style sotol out of one of the hind quarters of the elk, as a limited-release bottling from the distillery - Kate’s first elk hunt in a bottle.
While the Marfa Spirit Co. imports Sotol with a capital “S” from Mexico, they have also been dabbling in making desert spirits themselves from the sotol plants in Texas harvested at Cibolo ranch, which are called Far West Texas desert spirits.
Pechuga technically means “chicken breast” in Spanish. It typically refers to a style of spirit associated with the mezcal tradition where a protein and some fruits from the local area are wrapped in cheesecloth and placed inside the still. The steam will pass through a teabag essentially, and those vapors will pick up all the aromas of those ingredients inside of the cheesecloth.
“The idea is to put a hind quarter of native elk and orchard fruits that have come off of the ranch in there. So we plan on harvesting apples, peaches, and apricots to pair with the elk this summer and then imparting the desert spirit with all of those aromas. A true West Texas regional representation of what our terroir stands for. We're bottling the experience of this ranch.”
Kate is a modern-day renaissance woman, exploring the far reaches of her ability, chasing that internal horizon line. She also possesses a heart for lending a hand to women a few paces behind her on the road, whether that be behind a piano, on a motorcycle, or learning to hunt. As Kate put it, “Just because you haven't been invited doesn't mean you shouldn't ask — ask to be included. That puts some accountability in your hands, you have control of that situation. Don't let other people have all the power.”
“Just because you haven't been invited doesn't mean you shouldn't ask — ask to be included. That puts some accountability in your hands, you have control of that situation. Don't let other people have all the power.”
There are two sides to every coin and while Kate encourages women to speak up for themselves, she also sets an example of humility through her willingness to listen to the experts. “I ask a lot of questions of those who know more than me, getting one-on-one time to hear from them what their beginning was like is so helpful.”
In Kate’s words, she’s lived many different lives, but life in Marfa is distilled down to the perfect elements. “Music and outdoors and spirits - I feel like I've found the best parts of life.”