This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
Jonny’s GPS is screaming at us. The blue line is redirecting or at least attempting to, as we sway in and out of bars.
“That wasn’t a road,” I tell him.
“I don’t know, it seems to think it was.”
We’re out in the Finger Lakes to celebrate the start of his new job on Monday. There’s a winery that has been on our list to visit. But, we’re stopping for a hike first. And even though it’s only about an hour and a half from where we live, it feels like a completely different place.
On our drive up, there were still some trees with leaves. And as the road curved up around a valley, my eyes betrayed me and I looked over to watch the trees grow. Small homes scattered the ledge and I imaged, out loud, what it would be like to wake up to that view each morning.
“Just let it redirect us. I’m not driving down that unpaved, single lane ‘road.’”
“I know, I know.”
“I guess my Subaru was made for this though, it’s like the commercials.”
My tires crunch over the slope as we move further into the hillside. I can almost feel the stone edges embed themselves into the thick, black rubber.
“Jonny, there’s no one here.”
“It’s state-land. It’s going to be well-marked. Maps says there’s a parking lot.”
My music stops playing.
“Jonny, there’s no cellular out here.”
“We’re fine. It’s fine.”
Finally, we find the spot. The “parking lot” is a mowed patch of grass off the side of the road. The “well marked” trail consists of a place to scrap off our shoes before embarking.
“I wish you told me how dead this place would be. We should have brought something. A knife, some sort of protection.”
“Jess, it’s fine. We’ll be fine.”
The trail is, to his defense, well-kept and designated by thick red paint on the trees. It’s also stunningly beautiful, awfully quiet.
“It’s hunting season, you know.”
“Why would you tell me that.”
“I mean this is a state trail, so we’re fine.”
I pull the bright yellow coat tighter against my body, flip Jonny’s hood inside-out so the orange sticks out.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Wear bright colors?”
It’s deeper in the woods when we come across a stream. It’s small, barely a jump over—even for me. But it’s the mass of gray out the corner of my eye that interests me. Whatever’s there is rounded but slightly, like the lurch of a stomach. Shrouded in wildflowers and stiff stems, it’s hard to make anything out clearly. Could be a rock, could be something more.
“I think that’s a deer,” I tell Jonny. Sort of yelling over to where he is. “I’m gonna get closer.”
“Not too close, okay. Looks like a rock, anyway.”
“No, it’s a deer. It is. Do you think someone shot it?”
“They would have gotten it by now.”
“But it’s so perfectly positioned. It’s in a ravine. It just stumbled here to its death?”
“I guess so.”
We keep walking. In the branch of a knotted, shedding tree, a pine branch is snapped off, two cones perched in the center. I tell Jonny people pay big bucks for this stuff at Wegmans, and that we just found it the real way, for free. He asks if I’m going to really hold it for the whole time, and I say at least until I get tired of it.
I can’t stop thinking about the deer. It’s a joke in my family and amongst my friends—at least in my head, because I perpetuate it—that I have a sixth sense for deer. I relate it to growing up in a more rural area turned suburban. The families of deer that were misplaced by prefabricated homes gone up before there were even people to buy them. How we’d drive slowly up the curve to school in the deep dark of the morning, our hazards flicked on and off as cars passed by, just incase they caught a pair of yellow eyes.
So I’m accustomed to them. I don’t have to look. They just appear in my periphery, and it’s like we catch each other.
I went to school downstate and would often drive the Taconic, an infamously horrific mess of retention walls and thrillingly snug roadways. Even there, white-knuckling the steering wheel with eyes glued to the car in front, I’d catch the tail flash out from the woods. I’d se the yellow of their eyes. It was like I could hear their walk.
The first piece of writing I ever got published was about a deer carcass I came across on a walk. Again, I was downstate. Again, it seemed to find me as much as I found it. I went back inside and thought about those remains for hours, days. I returned at least twice to visit.
It seemed to mean something. Why I found it, alone. Why it was waiting for me. I wasn’t sure if it was an omen or a curse. But I went anyway, time and again—and looked.
Now, we’re heading back to the car. When we reach the same stream, I step off to the left.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not going to get too close.”
I keep walking until the deer tells me to stop. Close enough to where I can see its belly isn’t as fresh and full as I thought. That bones are starting to poke through, that he’s been out here for a while.
I place the branch of pine down by my feet. I tell the deer to rest. I let it know that I’ve seen it, I’ve registered its passing. That it didn’t die alone.
Jonny laughs at me, and I do, too. It’s saccharine and silly. The sort of woodsy nonsense I slip into once we’re out here, in the cold and quiet. But it feels right, like something I’m supposed to do. That pull or demand to make sense of the world we’ve stumbled upon that all of us, but especially artists, must feel.