The White DeerWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
The bloodline running through my mother’s lineage reaches full-blooded Native American just a few generations back. I presume this is where I inherited my quick temper, fetish for women in Thanksgiving-themed clothing and penchant for gambling. If Hollywood Casino Toledo ever dresses its hostesses in pilgrim and squaw gear and allows me to bark the f-word every time a slot machine drains my wallet, I may take a pillow and some basic toiletries and live under the turkey and mashed potato station at the Epic Buffet.
One thing I did not inherit from my Cherokee forefathers is an affinity for the outdoors. My refrigerator, television, couch, books and bed are indoors, so there is no motivation to dwell outside in the open weather with bugs, the sun and other inconveniences. If I had been a member of a Cherokee tribe when buffalo roamed the open plains instead of enclosed Walmarts, my name would have been “Dances with Air Conditioning.”
But my recent efforts to exercise at least 60 minutes each day by taking long walks has pushed me further from the womb of my living room into the harsh, natural-lit realms outside. When I can, I prefer to take these walks on the Indian Crossing Trails Park in my Tecumseh, Mich., neighborhood. The entrance to the trail is about a quarter-mile from my home, a good warm-up distance. The park covers 130 acres and offers a maintained, woodchip-covered trail that winds along the River Raisin for one mile. Two other trails wind deeper into the woods and add optional distance to the walk. By hiking the full trail, then backtracking to the half-mile point and returning home, I can rack up three-and-a-half miles and more than an hour of exercise.
I have made this trip close to 100 times by now, through dry summer days covered in a green canopy, muddy fall afternoons exploding with color and crunching-snow mornings in the gray winter. I am never alone on the trail, as many people and their dogs utilize the paths, but it still offers a tranquil slice of solitude that provides stark contrast to walking through Downtown Toledo, dodging cars and trying to time the walk light at intersections.
In addition to the physical results of walking the Indian Crossing Trail, the silence and beauty of the experience offers some mental benefits. The rushing water of the River Raisin and the wind through the trees, punctuated by the hoots and trills of geese and other birds, provides a gentle soundtrack for the brain to tackle a problem or just ease into low gear.
As I have grown bolder in my explorations, I have taken the deeper paths, which wind far from the open river trail into thicker trees and foliage. As I am wary of coyotes, mountain lions, boa constrictors and feral cats, I look for a strong broken branch with a sharp point and carry it through the deep-woods paths, brandishing it like an amateur Gandalf. I have never seen a coyote, mountain lion, boa constrictor or feral cat in Indian Crossing Trails Park, but there are some aggressive-looking squirrels always circling around, undoubtedly plotting an Ewok-style attack.
Deer rule the park. There are always deer in the background, leaping through the woods in packs.
Deer are beautiful animals with a reputation for being gentle, but when alone in the woods armed with only a broken branch and an overactive imagination, even Bambi can look like a wendigo. So as the weather has grown colder and the deer venture closer and closer to the trails, I have grown more hesitant to take the deeper paths. I have seen what a deer can do to a car. I imagine if one were to rear up and plant its hooves in my skull, the resulting brain damage might require a drastic career change, from journalism to, say, politics.
I cannot imagine being a Native American hundreds of years ago in those very woods, having to sneak up on a deer, cut its throat, gut it and harvest its skin and meat. No thanks. My educated guess is that my Native American ancestors were the ones who discovered slower, more easily hunted foods, like corn and apples.
The first time I took the outer loop at Indian Crossing Trails Park, I found a large rock adorned with a brass plaque. “The White Deer of Tecumseh,” it read. “2004-2007. She roamed free and captured our hearts.”
Contemplating a pure white deer living in the woods through which I walked, and morbidly imagining that the poor animal undoubtedly met its fate at the end of a hunter’s rifle or the front of a rushing car, I was daydreaming along the unfamiliar path when, about 10 yards in front of me, several large deer raced across the trail and bolted into the woods. My heart reached its maximum rate for the day and I stood still, watching the deer dash away and experiencing an overwhelming déjà vu.
I used to live in an apartment building on a South Florida beach, and would swim in the ocean nearly every day. I explored further and further out as weeks drifted by. One day, something — maybe a dolphin, maybe a school of fish, but maybe something scarier, toothier and hungrier — swam so close to me that it brushed my skin and its swell lifted me up in the waves. I was frozen with fear until I could make myself swim to shore, and I have never ventured that far into the water again; not in the ocean, nor any lake, nor any Marriott Fairfield Inn hotel pool.
That same sense of primal near-miss galvanized me to turn around and head back to the more familiar and open paths where I have never seen the deer tread. I wondered if my discovery of the white deer memorial, combined with the spirits of my Native American ancestors, had summoned the pack of deer. A warning? A greeting? A coincidence?
I could easily Google “White Deer of Tecumseh” and learn about the animal that is memorialized in the park, but I prefer the spirit over the knowledge. I can imagine that white deer leaping and running with the ghosts of the Native American warriors and farmers in the park. I can also imagine those deep-woods trails will be my new deep ocean — territory I will choose to respect and avoid in my non-warrior cowardice and modern-man preference for the comfort of the indoors.
I wonder how many laps inside the casino it would take to equal three miles …
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.