SEPT. 24, 2002, IS BURNED IN MY memory as the day I became an outlaw of the forest.
On that day the Forest Service closed the entire 694,187-acre Angeles National Forest because of fires burning above Azusa, Glendora, San Dimas, Claremont and La Verne.
I would not have it. I donned my Sherwood green and vowed to continue to take refuge in the hills. I would steal my hour a day from the Forest Service Man and give it to my impoverished spirit.
The area where I hike almost daily before work is nowhere near the fires, I rationalized. And I can restrain myself from throwing matches around. I would neither get caught in nor start a fire. One hour, once a day. That's all I asked. Except I didn't ask. I didn't tell either. I just sneaked in.
One entry point to the forest is known only to natives of the area like myself, a place I gambled would not be patrolled by the Forest Service, despite the big "Forest Closed -- No Entry" sign it had posted.
Before the ban, this section of the Angeles hosted few hikers and bikers. After the ban, you could hear a pine needle drop.
Thus commenced the two best hiking months of my life. My rambles with dog Auggie among the pines and oaks and the underbrush tangled with wild cucumber vines lulled me into a sort of reverie. As I absently picked at the toasty brown wild buckwheat and pungent white sage, my mind wandered hither and yon to valleys of the past and fields of the future. I sorted through a lot of mental baggage -- failed relationships, guilt over unfinished business with my father, who had died unexpectedly -- filed some and tossed a lot out.
That was before the deer.
A few days after the hikers and bikers cleared out, the California mule deer figured out that they had no need to make themselves scarce. I heard them before I saw them -- a faint stirring of brush and a surprisingly loud thumping of hoofs. I saw a flash of white deer rear. Drinking at a stream, they hadn't expected us.
"Auuuuuuuuggieeeeeeee," I yelled as my big black Newfoundland tore down the hillside. Auggie slid to a stop on his butt like Scooby-Doo confronting a pirate ghost as the deer galloped out of sight.
This scene repeated itself every day; sometimes two or more took off as soon as they sensed us. It was terribly exciting for Auggie, and I gave up on trying to make an older dog slowed by hip dysplasia behave. I ran to keep up.
Then one day I realized: Chasing deer is fun. I could see the appeal of hunting. I didn't have any interest in killing the deer. I just liked the mad pursuit. We began to sneak up close enough to see antlers, hoofs, flanks, eyes. Then they were off, and so were we, thrilled in a primal kind of way.
I felt like Artemis with her pack of hounds, though I was minus the quiver and my pack was just one gimpy Newfie. People try all sorts of things to get to that still, silent point I had found through walking meditation. I recommend chasing deer.
A few weeks later, the Forest Service issued the all-clear, the hikers and bikers returned and the deer disappeared. My hikes with Auggie resumed their old pace. We saw quail, we saw migrating geese, we saw fat gray squirrels. Nice, but ....
In deer withdrawal, I found myself staring morosely at my computer screen at work, the last lines of the famous Bobby Burns poem running through my head:
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer,
A-chasing the wild deer and following the roe --
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.