Last Thursday, while idling at a red light, I witnessed a desperate attempt at escape. The rest of the story I got from Channel 8 News, the Press, and my neighbor, Dave Greeno, who was driving his tow truck down the East Beltline when the final scene unfolded.
Four deer broke free from the narrow confines of Plaster Creek, an urban waterway running through Grand Rapids that’s as filthy as it sounds. I was on my lunch break from the architectural firm where I work, headed east down 28th Street and stopped at the Kalamazoo Avenue intersection, when the deer crossed a grocery store parking lot and plunged into traffic. All four were does, and to my human eyes they all looked the same, especially at that speed, at that blur. The deer didn’t hesitate. They were bigger than most deer I’ve seen during my walks in the woods, all obviously mature. They knew what they were doing, even if they were influenced by The Grays, which may make animals crazy from a sky full of clouds the way some go crazy from a full moon. The four of them must have detected some slender opening through the city that, like their trails through the woods, was invisible to most human eyes.
This is the season when invisible streams are visible again, the in-between season. The Grays. This is my name for the narrow crawl space between the last snow melt and the first spring rains when the skies stretch and smooth out from horizon to horizon. These are the early March days when low clouds are like flat stones and I’m wishful for a wind gust, for any movement in the atmosphere.
The four deer rushed into the congested intersection as one mass. They were headed north up Kalamazoo when the first deer, who seemed to lead them, was clipped in the chest, went down in the middle of the street, and lay still. The second and third wove through traffic. Cars screeched to stops, some swerving to avoid the deer, others swerving to avoid other cars. Then all of the traffic was still, and the fourth deer, falling slightly behind, leapt onto the hood of a Jeep in a metallic clatter, scraping its hooves over the surface until it was continuing on, through the new gridlock, following the other two deer to the golf course across the street.
I work in Grand Rapids, where I specialize in the art of enclosed space. But I live in Allendale, by the Grand River, surrounded by shrinking farmland and a growing college town. A nature trail coils through these woods at the university, over the bills and down the ravines, until it straddles the river for about a mile. I come here most weekends for a walk, and have been since moving here five years ago, wanting to somehow distance myself from urban living and usually Failing. Over the five years, I’ve only seen other people in these woods twice. Both times, the people and I startled each other. It’s far more common to see deer.
Indian Trails Golf Course is eighteen boles of flat Fairways with scattered trees, and in March, during The Grays, is empty of golfers. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out to see the three remaining deer cross the practice green near the road and continue in a direction that can only be described as due north. When they ran behind the clubhouse, I lost sight of them for good. But I imagine them stretching their legs in the most perfect ease, feeling a soft, trimmed turf under their hooves more perfect than any they’d ever felt. I imagine them slipping into long strides under the low skies, catching their breath, and for those few moments when they were free from the chaos of traffic, mourning the one that had led them.
Today on the trail, The Grays are at their most grim. I have to stop halfway and turn back on some of the loops. Mild temperatures have melted the lingering snow and the river has let itself go, gorging on the flat flood plain between the hills. If there were ferns and wildflowers and green saplings, they would drown. But those are things for April, and this is the season of sticks and stones and little else, except for deer sightings, which occur through the gray branches of the end-winter woods. I walk the trails of mud, which chirp and smack with each step and make my cheap hiking boots turn heavy, clogging the tread until they’re as bald on the bottom as old penny loafers. I grab saplings as I skid down the bills and admire the deer that bound through the mud with the same grace they’ll exhibit over the baked, cracked earth of August.
When the stoplight turned green, we all drove slowly and arced out of our lanes to avoid the blood-soaked body of the first deer.
I saw twelve of them today. Groups of three, then four, then five. The first was a doe with her two fawns. Their fur was different from most I’ve seen. It lacked a warm chocolate hue, and instead was gray with white flecks trickling down their backs, becoming larger and turning all white near the hindquarters. Maybe in the coming months, the summer sun will add a richer tone to the fur. Maybe in March, it reflects the sky like the cold, quick waters of the river.
Or it could be The Grays. What if these animals have some powers of camouflage, blending with the clouds and branches and the silt left over from the floods? Think of the fawns. They’ve known nothing but The Grays in their short lifetimes.
Channel 8 picked up the story once the deer had made it to East Grand Rapids, after the three of them cut through the golf course and adjacent cemetery, probably leaping gravestones like hurdles. They must have run the three-mile stretch down Plymouth Avenue, over sidewalks and through front lawns, until they reached the mansions and oak-lined streets of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The news reported several near-misses with cars at the intersections in East Grand Rapids, but since all were four-way stops, the traffic was moving slowly and had had time to brake.
The event that made the lead story on the six o’clock program occurred in front of Blodgett Hospital on Plymouth, where an ambulance, screaming southward in flashes of red–in a direction opposite the deer–swerved to miss two of them but hit the third, remarkably skidding as it swerved and actually balancing for a precarious few seconds on two tires. It then turned into the curved drive leading here to the emergency doors. Hospital officials report that, thankfully, the patient inside the vehicle was not harmed further by the events of the collision. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the deer.
The newscast said little else, except for briefly mentioning the first deer that was killed in front of me, and having no human explanation for such a run. They also reported that the two remaining deer continued north, eventually leading to a final incident on the East Beltline.
I must have seen hundreds of deer by my old house in New Era. When I was a kid, I used to walk through the woods with an old spiral notebook and a dull pencil, searching for animals like deer, hawks, and raccoons and making a small vertical mark for each sighting. I was more observant then. I walked quietly. Wearing a pair of leather moccasin slippers, I glided between trees, always holding out hope that I’d spot a bear. And during the brief moments when I predicted and envisioned my future life, I was always living up north, in the Upper Peninsula, in a log cabin where deer would eat out of my hand and bears would rumble past my front window in the middle of the night.
What transpired over those two miles between the hospital and the Beltline is sketchy. We know that the last two deer made it to the wooded campus of Aquinas College as they pressed ahead, northward, further into the urban heart of the area. According to the Press, students “sprinted for cover behind trees and parked cars, and one of the deer apparently bounded completely over a parked vehicle. ‘It was a small cat,’ said Ashley Dombrowski, 19, ‘but the deer flew right over it without slowing down.'” Several other students reported seeing the deer race through the parking lots of the campus to Fulton, where, in unison, they turned sharply to the east and continued down sidewalks like humans who had determined a route beforehand and were following a mental map. I imagine them slicing through front yards and then once again taking long strides as they cross the expansive green grounds of the Grand Rapids Dominicans. If they’re anything like humans, their rising heartbeats would start to drown out the sounds of traffic as they neared the edge of the city.
The two deer made it down Fulton, through the low-lying areas of the old wetlands, until they reached the divided highway of the East Beltline. They crossed the southbound lanes without incident, slipping through another opening in space and time, a window between traffic that a stoplight farther up the road must have caused. After hitting the grassy median they then, according to my friend, Dave Greeno, turned left simultaneously, pushing north again, skirting the limits of the city.
They must have envisioned the same thing as me: living up north in deeper woods with wilder animals. Though I see many deer by my house, along the widening and slimming river, I have to remind myself of the illusion. I sometimes feel nature reclaiming itself along the trail. The wooden bridges–which students made just a few years ago to cross the wide gullies–have collapsed. The seasonal flooding lifted them off their foundations and sent them splintering into the water, or carried them farther down stream before dumping them along the banks. The boardwalks through the swamplands have buckled and split. The steps made from old railroad ties are caked in moss, rotting, and being swallowed by the soil.
And there are deer everywhere. But it’s because this is where the new houses are pushing them. As a kid, I used to approach with silent steps, trying to get as close to the deer as possible. Now I make sudden movements, waving my arms over my head and sometimes shouting out sounds that aren’t really words. This sets them running. I’m training them to fear me.
Dave Greeno was driving his tow truck down the southbound lanes and saw the deer running up the median in the opposite direction. He quickly steered into the left lane to make a U-turn. Dave’s an opportunist, and he sensed business.
The deer came to the interchange of the Beltline and I-96. The concrete and congestion snared them as they crossed the overpass. When Dave approached, he was forced to come to a stop like everyone else in the new traffic jam. One of the deer had been lair and suffered what he believed was a compound fracture, the femur “sticking out of the flit like a broken arrow.” The wounded deer hobbled between cars, crossed the on-ramp, and lay down alongside a tree just off the road. With three of its legs delicately tucked underneath its body and the fourth splayed to the side, the deer, according to Dave Greeno, lay down its head and died.
Blame The Grays. I do. Among other things. The media made no attempt at blame. Where would they begin? But Channel 8 did mention that the fourth and final deer continued, according to witnesses, to run north, toward the botanical gardens. Dave said a child, sitting in the back seat of one of the stopped cars, stretched his arm out the window and waved to her as she sprinted by.
Some of the runs are hidden from view–slender trails weaving through the brush, too narrow for most people to travel down. Some of them are completely invisible, cutting through cities we thought were our own.
I sometimes discover the first type. Today, on my walk, I have to avoid a part of the nature trail that’s choking. Old oaks have fallen and died, and no one has come with a chain saw to carve new pathways. Another part of it’s blocked by thin, thorny branches that rise from each side and are over the path, clutching each other in the center like kids playing London Bridge. I left this trail to find another way, and that’s where I found a run made by deer, slicing nimbly between obstacles. I only took a few steps down it before feeling guilty, like I was trespassing, and worrying that my human scent would scare them off their own paths.
The botanical gardens. I smile at this, imagining that final deer striding through the green grass under the still, gray skies, along the glass building and surrounding sculpture park. Whether any employees or visitors to the gardens saw her, I don’t know. There were no reports. There’s no story in a lone deer running through a semi-rural area.
Here I envision her bending east, toward Ada, where there are more woods. She doesn’t slow and doesn’t scramble, but runs in tune with her own set pace and her own decision, slipping through an opening in the city like it was a heavy, closing door. She probably makes it to Cannonsburg State Game Area, but I don’t think she’s foolish enough to stop there. She probably curves north again, into the farmlands, and then into the thickening woods. She knows what she’s doing.
And she’s probably still heading north, to live where I once saw myself living. I try not to think about what will happen when she comes to the Straits of Mackinac and can’t cross. Maybe she’ll wait for the winter freeze, running in place or in small, tight circles at the tip of the Lower Peninsula, waiting for the ice to become firm enough for her to race across the water, and then making the final leg into the deep woods, where all the trails are invisible, even to people like me who are looking for them.
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Carolina Quarterly
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group