Skip noticed the first “National Forest” signs shortly before noon. The twists and turns of the small highway seemed at no useful interval, so any speed-limit signs were constantly undermined by the cautionary yellow curve signs disallowing him to get anywhere near the actual limit for more than a few moments. He had no knowledge of where he was “supposed” to end up, but after one o’clock and another flurry of curves, the park signs began to change, informing drivers about upcoming campsites and attractions. He was looking from sign to sign seeking an answer. A rectangular sign reading “Camp Site A” came into view and rolled by without an impulse. The twinge of frustration after hours of near purposeless driving bubbled up. Several hundred yards later another sign and another. He wondered if the National Forest was his destination or would this trek take him into another wilderness. He looked to the next sign which read “D Trail” as peripheral movement crossed into the road from the left. He hit the brakes as his vision drew into the middle of the road. The screeching of tires occupied his senses completely for a full second, and then stillness. A female white tailed doe, standing a car length away, in the middle of the road, casually looked at the hatchback and twitched an ear. The deer grunted in his direction and sauntered up the little drive leading into the forest on the right. He followed. The canopy leading up the hill reminded him of the trail he made at home. The drive straightened out to end in a parking lot which was sparsely populated with the vehicles of fellow park visitors.
Pulling into a space at the back of the lot, he wondered if the authorities would pursue someone so insignificant. There was no reason to believe that he would be responsible for any public displays of dissemination. He looked around the lot to other vehicles, and the deer watched. Detecting no one, he climbed out and stretched then reached into the car to retrieve his bottle of water and wondered into the center of the lot next to a black Escalade. The deer snorted. He looked over to the creature and noticed that there was a trail sign at the end of the asphalt. The brown sign verified that this was the entrance to “D” trail. The deer stared at him twitching an ear every couple of seconds. He returned to the car and opened the back hatch gathering a jacket, his backpack already filled with some basic provisions and his Swiss army knife. As he approached the deer began to walk past the sign, and as he crossed the trail’s threshold the crunch of gravel under his shoes marked the passage into something unknown, a new path.
The sounds of the forest filled his perception, as he strolled down the trail letting his imagination ponder what could be awaiting him. A sharp grunt drew him back into focus. The deer was only twenty feet ahead. It stood next to another small wooded sign reading “Hiking Trail D.”
“What now?” He asked.
“Come with me,” the deer said in a clear, smooth feminine voice. Skip stared.
“Can all animals speak English, or is it just in English speaking countries?”
“Path Maker, the wind and the water spoke of your exodus. The forest will provide you with defense against the hunters. They are coming.”
“Who is,” his voice raising an octave with worry, “The religious office guys?”
“They are hunting you now, we must go,” the emphasis on the last word was followed by another sharp grunt. He looked back down the path towards the parking lot. He would have to leave the car there which worried him. It marked his location. This didn’t feel like running any longer; it felt like becoming trapped.
“Are we fighting the hunters? You know, like taking a last stand?” He was still looking back down the trail. He heard the deer adjust slightly on the gravel.
“No, we are not. There are other hunters here. They will hunt. You are a path maker and must make and follow more paths in this life. You should not hunt.”
He nodded. His eyes searched the surrounding nature. The ground was littered with fallen tree parts, rocks, and smaller plants struggling to find the sunlight above and the nutrition below. Looking up the graveled strip of trail, the truth occurred to him at last. He knew why he was here. It had to be the answer.
“You brought me here on purpose.” He took a few steps closer to the deer. Her tan fur, thin and shining, moved to a quick rhythm of breath. She twitched an ear at him. “I am like bait, right?”
“Yes. Nature has seen fit to remove your hunters. You have taken this path. They have followed your tracks here so that nature may deal with them. It will decide what creatures may exist and for how long.” She studied the man for a moment longer. “Are you ready now?”
“No.” He looked up the side trail marked by the little sign. “Will I always have to answer to animals and “nature? Am I a pawn now for what it wants?”
“Every plant and creature is of use to nature, it is all things and all things are a product of it. Every living body makes up the whole and their roles are so small that they cannot see the whole. This is why path makers are so important. Even though we cannot see the whole, path makers create the trails and discover the routes. Those who are in need of direction might be shown their way through you. The teachers and the navigators keep all of us safe.”
“Smart deer.” He opened his pack for a water bottle. After a couple of long draws he said to the deer. “Let’s go.”
“Yes, Path Maker.” She turned and trotted up the trail. Occasionally she would spring ahead for a bit, stop, and eat something off of the ground or from a nearby shrub. She would then bounce past him back down the trail. Sometimes she would be gone for several minutes then upon returning, report that nobody was following. The hike had slowly turned into more of a climb, and even though it wasn’t an extremely hot day, he had begun to perspire. There were small outcrops of rock only fifteen to twenty feet tall perfect for climbing and sitting on which they used for rests, encountering exactly zero other people thus far. He had heard a few planes flying over in the distant sky, jets carrying people completely oblivious to the man and a deer traipsing around in the forest below. The sun was sinking on the horizon, and he was sure that they had traveled several miles. The coolness that evening was a welcome change to his damp condition, and the comforting environmental change improved his mood and put a jump back into his step. He didn’t mind pressing on at this point. He had begun to think about what was to come next. Maybe hide in the woods until The Inquisitors Office forgets about him. That was unlikely. He didn’t have the know-how to survive in the woods for long, even if the local animals were giving him tips. He decided to press on as an observer, who, at this very moment was quite entertained by the long hike and amazing talking deer which accompanied him. This was better than sitting at home worried about the authorities. He was glad for listening to the little bunny. By the time nightfall had come, he was thoroughly enjoying the hike unaware of any impending danger.
They spent the night on a soft bed of pine needles, and the doe brought him a branch of berries in the morning. He saved the last of his water after a few short sips and drew in a breath of morning air.
“We will move towards the river today. There is a small abandoned boat there for you. You will escape this forest on the water where you do not leave any traces.” The deer’s cool smooth voice reminded him of a school counselor.
“What am I to do after that?”
“You are the path maker. You will find your way.” With that she began to walk off. After a few hours the smell of fresh water became strong, as they came upon a small river no more than sixty feet across. The doe knelt down to drink from the water, and he gazed around at the mid morning forest.
“This way, path maker,” the deer said as she made her way up stream along the bank. The smell of the water was invigorating. He had not smelled a river in years it seemed, and he promised himself he would never stray from nature for too long again. The bank was relatively easy to traverse, and he only had to move away from it a few times to avoid a fallen tree or degraded bank preventing him from passing by the water’s edge. A little brown bird flew down and circled around the doe’s head chirping wildly. After a few grunts from the doe the little brown bird flew off.
“Why didn’t the bird talk to me?” Skip asked, mostly of himself.