From the near distance, if you are lying very close to the ground in the high desert hills, where the soil is hardpan and hollow and unmuted by grasses and moss, the sound of a deer approaching is like a pulse: equal parts soft thudding clod and ground shake. For a moment, you think it might be a heartbeat. You think it might be your own.
The same is true for other senses. In the desert, judgments are sand-slippery. The high, dry, uncluttered air does something strange to the sun; horizons flatten out long, heat shimmers melt together with prairie reeds, and distances skew. Mountain height is a gambler’s guess. There is little telling what is solid and what is just light given an approximation of form; you’ll never know for sure until you approach and find it either there, or not there. Set off for a soft meadowed rise an hour’s walk west and arrive in ten minutes, find nothing but a patch of grass, a beetle, strewn rocks.
Like the angle of the sun on either end of a day, sound too comes long and low in the open desert. I was just waking, still in half-dream when I heard her. Midmorning and the nylon flap over my tent had burned away the last of its dawn dew; cast my blankets in a gentle greyed blur.
In another place or another time, the sound of animal steps approaching my flimsy outback shelter might have alarmed me. They have, as a matter of fact, terrified me. There was a time, a decade earlier, when I lived a summer in a different tent, lashed to an abandoned platform in dense woods a quarter-mile inside the Tongass rainforest. By the standards of northerners, Baranof Island, a muskegged stretch of forest and fjord in Alaska’s mid-southeast archipelago, isn’t particularly remote. But it is remote enough, and the Tongass dense enough, that the bears there are an isolated genetic mystery: an enormous species of towering humped brown sharing more DNA with polar bear than grizzly. And Baranof has one of the highest concentrations of bear, in any shade of brown, anywhere in the world. Encountering one in the wild was the main thing you hoped didn’t happen and knew sometimes did. That summer, footfalls in the early morning forest would catch in my throat and gut, compete with the sound of my heart thudding into my ears, and send me deeper into my sleeping bag, cursing the flimsiness of nylon and my logical mind. What the hell am I doing here don’t panic this thing’s barely capable of keeping out this goddamn rain let alone bears stop panicking.
But the high desert prairie of eastern Washington holds another sort of wilderness altogether; and it is, on the whole, a gentler one. It didn’t occur to me to worry. Besides, I was hardly alone. My camp-mates, the whole group of them, had gone downvalley early and now one or another had hiked back up to tease me for sleeping in, to rattle and lurk around my tent. I was sure of it. Heartbeat, then steps, clearly steps now, and close. Something nudged the low nylon over my head. A prank.
Then, outside the front opening, from under a hem of rainfly, like high heels poking from beneath dresses in a closet, hooves. I pushed the nylon aside and there stood a mule deer.
She ignored me. She had bee-lined for my tent, mashed her head against the sidewall, and waited for me to open the door, but she didn’t acknowledge me. And deer, in general, don’t. They don’t look you in the eye. If they stay in your company at all, they’ll direct their ruminant gaze just off the bow of you, at some distant, more fascinating point beyond the horizon of your shoulder.
I reached up, not sure what my hand was planning to do until it was resting against her side neck. Firmly, confidently, I told myself. Like touching a horse. Do deer bite? She stayed where she was. She didn’t bite or even move. Sniffed the air. Flicked ears forward and back. She was unfazed. Have you ever scratched a deer’s ear? They are so much bigger than you would think: longer, pointier, heftier than seems reasonable. They are gigantic rabbit ears, magnified, weighty, and coarse-haired.
She seemed in no hurry, so I supposed I wasn’t either. And there we stayed for the last of the long morning: her standing, me sitting at her front feet, scratching her jackrabbit ears as we both gazed a deer-stare across the waking hills. Maybe she was, like me, calculating tricks of light: listening for what in the wide out-there might be solid, might be real. Maybe she was judging distances.