I long for the Badlands of North Dakota as earnestly as an 18-year-old boy longs for love. The silence there makes sense in a world of boasting, excuses, and rhetoric. The stories of past hunters is written on the rugged and broken landscape of buttes and basins.

Hunting isn’t the life for most folks, but it’s the life I live for. As Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, “the chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.”

I love exploring what my potential is out on the western edge of North Dakota. Leaving the modern world and exposing myself to the outdoors leaves me better able to deal with the first-world problems I have to deal with when I return. When I hunt out there, I’m beholden to no one, or their standards. I go from feeling anxious to feeling unburdened with no obligations to post on social media. Just an occasional text or call to my wife and daughter back home. I can breathe freely and find the unfiltered version of myself.

When I make my annual pilgrimage to hunt deer in the Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt haunts me to be imbued with the responsibility to be an advocate and help save this place so future generations can enjoy it as much as I do. As a solo hunter, I sometimes feel guilty for hoarding this magical kingdom to myself, hiking and camping along the jagged ridges that took hundreds of thousands of years to form. So when my friend Nick Dusek asked if I would take him with me for his first deer hunt, I was not only excited, but compelled to do so.

Nick is originally from the small town of Westbrook in southern Minnesota. He didn’t grow up hunting, but loved eating the deer sticks and jerky other kids brought with them on the bus to school. During our six-hour drive from Fargo to our hunting spot in the Badlands, he shared with me that his wife doesn’t like venison. The only exception was the time she had venison steak at our house. “She said that was good,” he explained.

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I found a pristine camping spot on public land six years ago when I first arrived in the far-flung corner of North Dakota to hunt pronghorn antelope. From here the Badlands unfold before us in every direction. The current fire ban due to the extreme drought made it impossible for us to enjoy the western romanticism of sitting beside a campfire that evening. Instead, we settled for hovering over the little heat that emulated from the glow of my backpack stove.

The Badlands are an amazing place at night. It has the biggest and darkest sky I have ever experienced. It reminds me I’m a really small single human being in the middle of a wilderness – and the world. We sat and looked up into the cold clear sky and admired the celestial beings that make up the 88 different constellations staring back at us. It was an amazing way to end the first night at deer camp.

I woke up in total darkness to the walls of our tent billowing in the wind. I reached over into the mesh pocket sewn on the inside of the six-man tent and clasped my hand around the headlamp I had put there next to the keys of my pickup. I put the headlamp on, unzipped my sleeping bag, and swung my legs around so I could sit up on the edge of my cot. I flicked on my light, shining it directly into Nick’s sleeping face. I was wide awake and ready for the adventure that awaited us.

“Can you see them?” I asked, pointing up at the ridge. Nick squinted his eyes and scanned the landscape in front of him. Six dark gray dots nestled along the light gray skyline. “Got ‘em,” he finally answered. We both stared at the mule deer for a while in silence. It’s in this moment that I reminded myself of the importance of a good shot placement. My mind began to imagine the butchering process, and the careful movement of my knife blade separating tasty flesh from bone. Fast forward to the bone-in backstraps on the hot grill in my backyard back in Fargo.

Nick shared with me later that in that moment he was filled with excitement. He had wanted to go deer hunting for a long time, but he had no one to take him, no access to private land, and no one to show him how to find deer on public land. The time had finally come, and the mule deer doe tag was burning a hole in his pocket.

I’d love to tell you how Nick got a deer just moments later on his first shot, or his second, or his third try. But I’d have to spin a yarn of a tall tale that wasn’t true. Did our hunt take place in a wild place far from home – yes. Was it filled with adversity and adventure – absolutely. But the truth is Nick learned that hunting can be hard, grueling and sometimes disappointing. The “Buck Fever” syndrome can happen to a first-time hunter with a doe tag. It did to me when I was introduced to hunting 19 years ago.

Nick Dusek with his harvested deer in the morning of his second day in the North Dakota Badlands. Contributed / Jeff Benda
Nick Dusek with his harvested deer in the morning of his second day in the North Dakota Badlands. Contributed / Jeff Benda

But at approximately 8:45 a.m. on day two of our hunt, Nick finally made a nice shot and killed his first deer on public land just two miles from the Little Missouri River. We both shared giant smiles and a congratulatory hug. I stood over the beautiful animal and listened to my loud-pounding heartbeat, reminiscent of my first deer. Hunting has taught me we can’t anticipate what to expect and how to respond. In that moment, Nick went through a metamorphosis from being a computer systems administrator with two master’s degrees to a hunter. And after 19 years of being a student of other more experienced hunters, I had finally made the jump and was transformed into a mentor. It was a great feeling knowing this hunt was about having an impact, introducing someone to what I love, and leaving a legacy. I can’t wait to do it again.

This recipe is a result of finally cracking the code of that elusive perfect use for a venison roast.

One of the best things I ever ate in Chicago was an Italian beef sandwich full of thin slices of beautifully seasoned roast beef soaked in au jus on a long roll. It’s been many years since I’ve been able to make it back to the windy city to enjoy that sandwich again. I created this recipe to enjoy those same flavors and textures of that Chicago experience back here in North Dakota.

Hot Italian venison sandwiches. Contributed / Jeff Benda
Hot Italian venison sandwiches. Contributed / Jeff Benda

Ingredients:

  • One 3-pound deer roast, trimmed of outer layer of silver skin
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 envelope of Good Seasons Zesty Italian salad dressing mix
  • 1/2 teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, dried rosemary, dried oregano
  • 3 cups beef broth (or venison bone broth)
  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers
  • 1/2 cup sliced golden Greek Pepperoncini peppers
  • 1/2 cup shredded Provolone or Mozzarella cheese
  • 1 pound Italian loaf or hoagie buns
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Directions:

1. In a large cast iron skillet or similar pan, combine beef broth and salad dressing mix, garlic powder, onion powder, rosemary, and oregano, and bring to a simmer. Add the hot liquid to a slow cooker and set on low heat.

2. Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the venison roast to the skillet and cook until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes, turning as needed. Transfer the roast to the slow cooker with the liquid. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or until meat shreds easily with a fork.

3. When you are ready to serve the sandwiches, slice the Italian loaf or buns in half lengthwise. Spoon the hot shredded meat mixture on the bottom slice of bread. Next add the roasted red peppers, pepperoncini, and cheese. Butter the top slice of bread and add more shredded cheese to that. Place both the top and bottom of the sandwich on a baking sheet and place in the oven on “Broil” for 2 minutes until cheese is bubbly. Serve immediately.