At 6:30 a.m. on an August morning, I drank the last sip of coffee in my cup, put aside the magazine I was reading, and hooked the leash on the dog. Out the door we went into the fresh morning, which was cooler than usual after the rainfall of the evening before. Our walks were essentially the same every day—up a trail on the hillside behind my parents’ house to the top of the mesa, along the rim on another trail, and back down. That morning I took the trail that comes out on the mesa just where the Fort Lewis College chapel sits a few feet back from the edge. As we neared the top, I saw a deer above us beside the path, peering between the leaves and branches of a Gambel oak. A year earlier on the same hillside with the same dog, I had almost had a run-in with a deer, so I knew to keep my distance. I altered our course to avoid this deer, scrambling up onto the grassy lawn of the chapel, 50 feet from where the deer had stood.
I looked around. The deer was not 50 feet off after all, but 40. And then 30. She was a young doe, and she came on toward us with slow, precise steps. She seemed tentative, but unerring. Perhaps she had a fawn hidden in the brush. I edged away, moving to the road that traces the rim. Zoey kept close to me. My hope was to make a large, semicircular detour to arrive again at the brink of the mesa beyond the doe, where I could take the sky stairs back to town. If she’d settled for standing her ground, the plan would have worked. But instead, from behind the guardrail on the rim side of the road, she shadowed us, keeping between us and the stairs. I was on the other side of the road, with the college campus beyond me. Then she hopped the rail, and I decided to run. The deer kept pace.
A car came around the bend in the road, and I thought about flagging it down. “I’m in danger! I’m being followed!” might have been my cry. But with the approach of the car, the deer retreated to the other side of the guard rail. I thought it would leave us alone now. Surely the deer wasn’t going to chase us down the road, ever farther from the clump of trees where she had been nibbling when we first caught her attention. Yet as soon as the car was gone, the deer again hopped the guardrail. Only the width of the road was between us. Then half.
I didn’t know which way to turn. A bush at my feet was half dead from the drought, and I grabbed a long branch and twisted until it came away from the trunk. It was a skinny branch, about six feet long, more whip than cudgel, and I raised it to wave desperately at the threatening animal. “No!” was the cry out of my mouth. The doe stopped. When she resumed her advance, I yelled again. “No!”
A cyclist went by in the opposite direction of the car, and I thought he grinned to see me waving my branch. He did not slow. Across the road, beyond the deer, a woman appeared at the top of the sky stairs, but instead of drawing the deer’s attention away from us, she went unnoticed by the creature. Even as I was thinking of calling out to her, she turned around and went back down the way she had come. Zoey and I were again alone with the deer in the quiet morning. The deer came on, picking her way across the paved road as carefully as if in the dense brush.
So there we were. She approached, I waved my branch and yelled, she stopped, I took a menacing step toward her and yelled again to scare her off, she retreated two feet, and Zoey and I hurried along the road, trying to make our getaway. It was a game of red light, green light, with me turning my back, knowing she would come after us quickly until I swiveled and yelled. She was getting close. Walking backwards seemed an option until I saw that she was not inhibited even with me facing her. Is this what it feels like to be stalked? You can get away for a minute or two, but your pursuer will not be daunted. You begin to feel helpless. Doomed.
I turned away from the open road to cut between buildings on the campus. What was I thinking? That I would make a last stand with my back against one of them? Some months earlier a bear had attacked and partially eaten a jogger, and although I didn’t think the doe would do the same to me, I had no doubt that she would vanquish me in a physical confrontation: she was younger, faster, more agile, and, with her sharp hooves, better armed than I.
Ahead on a winding cement walkway between buildings, I saw two figures. People. I walked as quickly as I could, Zoey still obediently at my heel. Twice I had to turn and yell and wave my stick as the doe cut the distance between us. I had the attention of the two people, women as I could now see, and I hurried toward them. My first words were not a joking reference to my predicament but an appeal they could not misinterpret. “I’m scared!” I said. The doe was on the lawn, even with me, 20 feet away. I told the women that the doe had been following me for 15 minutes, and I didn’t know how to get away. “I’ve been yelling to scare her off,” I said.
“We heard that,” said one of them. “We wondered.”
Looking back afterward, it seemed so obvious that I could have continued my slow progress toward home on the road, stopping every 10 feet to yell, but at the time, it seemed she might charge at any moment.
One of the women was from Durango. She agreed that deer in town could be aggressive. They had attacked dogs. The other woman was from Kansas, and she said she’d never seen anything like it. The Durango woman told me that the two of them would hold the animal off while I escaped. “I’ll take the stick,” she said, but as I clutched my only protection tighter in my hand, she changed her mind. “No, you keep it.” She bent and picked up a stone. Comically, it was about the size of a peach pit, and when she threw it at the deer, it landed 10 feet short. The deer didn’t react, which irritated the woman. She threw up her arms and ran at the doe, and the doe turned and started away with skittish steps. Fifty feet off now, heading back toward where we had first met, the deer broke from a delicate trot into a bounce—four legs stiff, up and down it went, like a cartoon deer. The Kansas woman and I laughed. The Durango woman clenched her fists in satisfaction.
I gave my thanks to the two women and got their blessing to make my getaway as fast as possible. I took my stick. Perhaps all I’d really needed to shore me up for an extended contest of nerves with the doe was a sense of outrage at her stalking me that matched her sense of indignation at the dog’s presence in her peaceful, early morning.
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