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The Gift of a Deer: A Hiker's Path to Peace and Connection

Thomas Larsen

March 20th, 2023

DALL·E 2023-03-19 22.34.29 - add much more falling snow.png

Some years ago, I was hiking in the mountains of Southern California with my nephew who is just a little more than a year younger than I. It had snowed all night, and in the morning, it was bright and pristine. The blanket of snow laid out the night before was fresh and nearly untouched, save for the small tracks of birds visible on the delicately silky surface. We walked and talked about things I no longer remember, taking the familiar path from the family cabin to the stream and its suspension bridge. It was common for us to find the bridge iced over in the early morning, but to find it covered in snow so deep our knees got wet was a stunning surprise. The handrails themselves held nearly a foot of snow. As we pushed our path across the bridge we poked windows in the snowy wall every few feet, sometimes dropping a whole section of snow to the streambed below.


Across the bridge was an old church camp that emptied out every year once winter showed her face. It too was nearly untouched, though now we could see the tracks of other animals, some whose tiny tails left lines in the snow, others whose dog-like paws sunk nearly as deep into the snow as our heavy feet. As we continued down the path towards the church's millpond, we saw a couple of squirrels chasing each other across the path and up into an ancient cedar tree. The cedars were the tallest trees in the area, and they seemed to be always reaching for the sky. On each Cedar, there was a little plaque that said "Praise be to God, dedicated by_" and some family name. My mother said they were old when she was a kid, so surely few of these families, if any, knew they had a tree dedicated to God in their family's name.


The Millpond is one of my favorite places to fish and skip stones in the summer, but there was no stone skipping that day. A layer of thin ice covered the pond, and snow crowded its edges. From the waterwheel, you could peer into the center of the pond and see brown and rainbow trout dart in and out of view. We dug through the snow to find a rock big enough to break the ice, but none of the rocks we found would give, so we gave up and continued down the path that followed the brook down from the millpond. This path was much easier to walk because the trees overhead formed a thick canopy and the sheer cliff walls to our right blocked much of the wind, leaving little room for snow to build up. The path followed the cliff walls for some time, then meandered back and forth over the tiny brook across felled logs and makeshift bridges. Soon enough we found ourselves on the trail to Alto Diablo Peak.


The peak itself is not as devilish a thing as its name would suggest, but the trail to reach the peak can be daunting, and in some summer following, I returned to conquer the peak. At this time, however, I had no desire to reach the top, only to enjoy the path and its beauty. As we climbed the increasingly steep trail, my nephew gave up and decided to sit on a ridge overlooking the valley with its stream and bridges. From his view, he could see the smoke rising through the trees from our cabin's chimney, meeting and mixing with the dark, gathering clouds. I decided to go a little further up the trail and leave him to peacefully watch God's art as it unfolded.


As I climbed, the tall sugar pines and cedars gave way to pinyons and junipers whose branches reached mere feet taller than I stood. My view of the peak became increasingly shrouded as I climbed up into the clouds. Snowflakes began lazily falling on my black wool coat as the small breeze that had accompanied us throughout our tiny trek died off, leaving my part of the forest silent but for the tiny chime of snowflakes drifting into pine needles. I decided to stop and just listen to this enchanting song that I had never before heard. It was like tiny bells harmonizing in an ice chorus. It wasn't as loud as falling rain or as harsh as the tiny claws of a mouse tickling your attic floor, but it was the most peaceful and nearly silent sound I had ever heard. I sat there for nearly fifteen minutes as quiet and still as I had ever been. As my mind slowly drifted into a state of meditation, my eyes grew heavy; not from being tired, but from being completely relaxed. I closed my eyes for a time, still listening to the snow fall.


When I finally opened my eyes, the air around me had turned white and visibility fell to just a few feet. My heart began to pound as I thought of trying to find the trail in these conditions. But just as I was about to get up from my resting place, a large young male deer walked into view just three feet from me. He was sniffing and nibbling at the juniper berries that hung from the tree closest to me. His majestic form calmed my nerves and filled me with awe. I could see his eyes and knew he had not yet spotted me. His antlers, merely three points, tickled the branches of the tree as he ate. A clump of snow fell to the ground between us and he jumped back, startled by the movement of the snow. He quickly recovered from his fright. I watched as he moved from one berry to the next, then one branch to the next, then finally one tree to the next until he was nearly out of sight. I slowly stood up to continue watching it through the trees and watched as his graceful figure faded as silently and peacefully as the snow that fell between us.


My heart and mind were full of wonder as I carefully retraced my tracks back to my nephew.


The further down we hiked, the greater the visibility became. At one point, I looked up the hillside and thought I saw the young buck looking down at us from between the juniper trees, but whether I truly saw him or it was just my mind wishing to see him again, I will never know. We finally reached the trailhead, and followed the brook trail back across the felled trees and makeshift bridges, along the sheer cliffs to the millpond, from the millpond to the snowy suspension bridge, and from the bridge back to the cabin. We opened the cabin door, smelled the burning fire, and felt its intense warmth. Freshly made banana pancakes sat on a tray in the center of the large round wooden table. I took off my coat and scarf and hung them to dry by the fire, and placed my boots on the hearth, then sat down to eat. I never told anyone about this nearly sacred experience I had that morning.


For me, this moment has always been a point in time for me to refer to when life gets crazy. I think, for me, that it represents the possibility of a peace that exists out there, which is actually, and tangibly, accessible to me. At first, I don't think I really knew how significant and rare an occasion that was, but I knew that it was something for me to cherish. Now, I imagine it as a mental safe-haven that I can return to in my mind. I am sure the details have developed in my mind over time, be it the closeness of the buck or the number of points on his rack, but I feel like the accuracy of my memory is fairly sound because the details are what made it such a profound moment for me to commit it to memory as I have. I've been in many other beautiful situations in my life (hiking, camping, traveling, and exploring), but in my mind, this one moment still stands out above the rest for the peace I felt.

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