The Night of the Deer

I hadn’t seen Owl’s mouth since the first week out, when Dave from Bakersfield clumsily rolled a boulder over his foot. Owl howled that time loud enough to shake a rain of pine needles onto our heads. New as we were then, we probably laughed at him a little, and nervously watched our bear-like leader for the warning signs of a charge. Instead his beard closed back around his mouth, we all worked hard until knocking off time, and then Owl plonked his steel toe booted foot in the creek until the swelling went down enough for him to take it off. We soaked nearby, quietly wishing for a beer, for a joint, a mattress, a day off, absorbing our first lesson with the creek’s icy chill.

That first week some of us had been wiry punks like Jenna from Fresno, dark goths like Trevor from San Jose, or slick drifters like Bob from Long Beach. We were all there, with various degrees of voluntary, to learn how to work hard and live through an entire day of sobriety. We had all lived through lesser measures – boarding school for delinquents, living with grandma across the state, day jobs, and strict curfews and home drug test kits – but the six month stint of hard labor in the backcountry was a step up for all of us.

We’re now five months in, and sitting around the campfire reading our bi-weekly mail deliver, we all look like Owl. Beards, dirty overalls, white tshirts now brown with sweat, beat to hell boots, hair wild with campfire smoke and creek water and bandanas, we look like the rough street kids who live in the park in the city, but without the dogs. And we smell worse. Five months in, we’re finally starting to figure life out. We’re building trail ten times faster now. Our crew hasn’t had a fight in weeks. There’s a kinship now. Instead of plotting our individual escapes back to the city and a first big score, we’re enjoying our weekends together hiking up into the high country, moving fast without our tools. We are excited for each other’s letters – we cheer with Jenna over good news about her brother’s new baby, we help Dave get over a breakup letter that was for the best.

Owl’s letter is from the office and it has a picture with it. His beard parts like two bears unclasping from a hug. His mouth appears, but this time no howl. No sound at all. We aren’t laughing – it’s us in the picture, covered in blood, firelight gleaming off the bottle in Bob’s red hand.

A few months ago, an old guy with a huge pack came hiking through around dinner time. We got to chatting with Morton the old Marine and he offered to give us a survival skills lecture in exchange for our beans and cornbread. We were still cynical then, but Owl was excited and it sounded better than listening to his harmonica. That was how we learned to snare a deer and butcher it. We talked about it all that weekend never really believing any of us city kids could do it. Mail delivery came Monday on the mule with Linda the camp cook. I had a new pair of boots my cousin sent (to replace the too cheap, destroyed shells dangling from my feet.) Also, tucked away in the packaging – just as requested – a bottle of Jager and a dozen joints, which somehow made it past scrutiny into my tent. I thought, this weekend we’re going to party. Four of us headed out Saturday morning, half jokingly laid a few snares around the lake we’d hiked to, laid out our sleeping bags and built a fire. There was an argument, but in the end peer pressure won out. We got fucked up. It got dark. And then we heard the deer.

I woke up to realize that

  1. it’s noon
  2. I’m now sunburnt
  3. I’m hungover
  4. I have a huge knife in my hand and a bottle near my head
  5. I’m covered in blood and it’s sticky
  6. my three friends are scattered around also covered in blood
  7. there is a deer’s glossy dead eye staring at me

I scream and run into the lake. As everyone else wakes up, I try to disguise the bonfire’s burn holes in my sleeping bag with additional dirt, recover my camera from a nearby bush, bury the bottle, vomit and bury that too. Then we bury the deer, silently take vows of silence, and head back.

We cleaned up our act, worked hard. I even took pictures of wildflowers on the weekends. I had put that night far behind me, and sent my film to a different cousin to get developed. It was the summer after Ted Kazinsky was arrested. I mentioned our hair and dirt, right? So when this acne-scarred sixteen year old working the drug store photo developer in Palo Alto sees our group shot from the night of the deer – blood like war paint, bare chests, wild hare, knives, no deer insight – he freaks. Calls the cops, who freak and call the Park service, and so on until the photo shows up here in camp with the letter says that Owl has to walk us out of the woods. We’re fired. We’re disowned.

Leaving wasn’t pretty. The fact that we would be out of the woods soon brought back some of our old selves. Bob from Long Beach got angry, even pulled his knife out. In the end, the remainder of our shocked crew helped us pack up and we started the two day walk back to the nearest dirt road. Owl led us out silently, only stopping once slowly to shake his beard, and then got on with teaching us how to walk back into the world.