Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.Phillip K. Dick
My good friend Jan, with whom I have been hiking since I was a young woman, encouraged me to share this story with my readers, a story I had told her many years ago. I hesitated. “Nobody would believe it,” I said.
Maybe not, but here is your chance to read the story of one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had on the trail or elsewhere. Believe it if you wish. . .or not. Either way, it is a good story.
I was about midway through a long loop in Washington’s North Cascades on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail called Lakeview Ridge, not far from the Canadian border. Hikers who know this stretch of trail will likely agree that it is one of the most spectacular trails anywhere in the nation. Many thru hikers on the PCT consider it the best part of the entire route. To the west the hiker looks below to Ross Lake, rising above it the jagged peaks of the Picket Range, so named because they resemble the outline of a picket fence. The view to the east is more gentle, the rolling ridges of the Pasayten Wilderness, a native term that means “water from round topped hills.”
I was nearing the end of my hike for the day, and though the vistas had lifted my spirits, I was tired as I began the descent from the ridge to Hopkins Lake, where I planned to camp for the night. A doe appeared shortly after I made the first switchback, and then again at the next one, and so on all the way to the lake. Each time I would start a new switchback, she would be there waiting for me, as if expecting me and wanting me to get a move on. I was certain that I was seeing the same animal at each switchback, for she had a large scar on her right hind flank that served as an identifying feature.
When I made it to the lake and chose the perfect campsite, she was there too, circling around the site as I set up camp. I stopped paying much attention to her, preoccupied as I was by setting up my tent and other camp chores. Finally I sat down on a log to inspect my stove, which had been giving me grief on this trip, producing an undependable flame. I had extracted a minute cleaning needle from the repair kit, when I noticed the doe very slowly continuing her circuit around where I sat, only now she was coming closer and held her head down, as if exercising caution in her approach.
I set the stove down. I knew then that I had to give this animal every part of my attention, to be totally present in her world. Something wonderful was happening. I did not know what it was yet. She approached ever more closely until I could feel her breath, which smelled like sweet grass. I could hear her heart beating. Or was it my own? At that moment I could not tell the difference between myself and this wild creature, between my world of thought and action and hers without names for things. Finally she touched her soft nose to my face, a spot on my cheek. As I write this I reach up and place my hand there, the spot where the doe touched me with her soft nose so many years ago. Then she ran off, as if startled by her own behavior, and I did not see her again.
I do not know why this happened, curiosity perhaps. In the 1970’s, far from the nearest trailhead, hiking and backpacking were not yet spectator sports, so habituation to hikers seems unlikely. I only know that for a moment I became part of a wild world in which two hearts beat together, and I felt the soft dark nose of this animal on my face. I feel it still. It is not the kind of experience one easily forgets. Sometimes this soft world opens up to us with moments of grace. Be ready. Put the stove down.