Wilderness Meeting


Christine Walden, MD1

Accompanying artwork: Tatum Howlett

Perm J 2020;24:13.122 [Full Citation]

E-pub: 11/22/2020

This is a story and illustration from the upcoming book 100 Little Stories of Big Moments published by The Permanente Press.

Most of the stories and poems were written by clinicians in 15 minutes in writing workshops about meaningful moments in their work and life of practicing medicine. Professional artists were asked to create a visual representation of the story.

The clinic day was busy. As often happens, I get to run when, by my precise calculations, there is just enough time before sunset. I check the outside temperature, change into gear, stretch (joints creaking)—the usual routine—some variation of what I have done since I was a kid in some sport or other, while perusing 10 minutes of the news, or weather channel. I grab my phone, keys, a collar, and a leash. I get Kayla, who barks and bounds around in excitement at the sound of me hastily lacing my trail shoes.

A short drive to the trailhead, a gate at the fire road into the national forest. I set the GPS watch, though sometimes I don’t want to know how slow I am … and I start to jog up the first and steepest half mile. It is a weekday, so I will have to be vigilant. Maybe no one has been up here today. I won’t need to call out to Kayla to “be nice” in case we meet the rare hiker, their dogs, or a horse. With just the right tone, I try to tell her they are friend not foe. I scan the Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest and scrub oak on either side of the dirt road. Kayla sweeps in front around and behind me, in an unpredictable serpentine pattern. When I see her dun shape out of the corner of my eye, in a place unexpected, I have to remind myself that the soft jingle of her collar means she is not a mountain lion. She grins that happy lab grin. I figure Kayla and I are about the same age, corrected for dog years. She too will be a little stiff in the morning, but bless her soul, she has no recollection.

We have been up here countless times during the past decade. As my feet follow the same dirt trail, I drift into that familiar REM-like state. I think about my kids, my spouse, patients I’ve recently seen. At the top of the first steep incline I remember the desk-sized rock that had fallen onto the shelf road from the cut above, after one winter thaw. It is still here, shoved off to the side of the rock-strewn road.

I catch my breath during a short downhill and remember the Search-and-Rescue guy I saw up here with a huge hiking staff with a metal spear on the end. What was he worried about? I think about the fresh deer leg, tufts of fur seemingly untouched. Probably last night’s kill. Who is guarding the leftovers for tonight’s dinner, somewhere nearby, out of my sight?

The dirt road climbs again around confusing switchbacks. Around one bend is a view of red rock spires, sandstone hoodoos, and rocky fins in the valley below, and, on this bluebird day, 40 miles beyond, the grey steel towers of the Denver skyline.

I scan the northwest sky between the ridges for any sign of a thunderhead. Storms can sneak over the ridge fast and barrel down the Rampart. Like the thunderstorm that exploded the Waldo Canyon fire last June. Kayla continues to run into the forest on one side of me then the other. Once in a while I call to her so she will turn and peer behind me. I relax, the rhythm of breathing, feet stepping between the rocks, without even seeing or thinking about it. I move without consciousness, daydreaming.

I ignore the inevitable little stones that get in my shoes. Little pieces of Pikes Peak granite. I think about the annoyances of the day. Pound them with my feet.

We are in “the wilderness” (defined as more than 1 hour from definitive medical care). Kayla leaves me to my thoughts. I don’t have to talk to anyone. Solitude. Yet I feel I am being watched, paradoxically protected.

After climbing a little over a mile, Kayla and I drop another half mile to the stream. Bear Creek. Aptly named. Cascading down Bear Canyon, “a gorge of singular majesty,” as described by Isabella Bird in 1873. Kayla gets to the water first and as usual leaps in for a drink. Once, with her downhill bound, she flushed a flock of pheasants out of the brush on the bank. They knocked her about the head with their wings. She looked so offended and dazed.

The stream records the recent weather. Today it is low. Two springtimes ago it was raging. Kayla leaped in. She disappeared. One, 2, 3, 100 heartbeats. I checked the downhill side. Eventually, it seemed like forever, she crept dizzily up the bank, confused. She had been sucked into the drainage pipe under the road. She had been “maytagged.” I watched her carefully as we continued on, under the sharp profile of Indian Head Rock. She ran it off, seemed fine. The mounded rocks higher up in the steep canyon look like wise Ute women, with their heads covered by shawls.

Today is one of the first warm days of May, and Kayla and I run past the creek up the higher loop. We are on the dry south-facing slope. I am watching my foot placement carefully. I do not want to step on a rattlesnake warming itself on the sunny trail. Snake hopping. Visual perception to motor cortex takes the limbic shortcut, unconsciously shifting my center of gravity in midair to avoid stepping on a snake.

In one inhalation I smell something. Like musk mixed with pungent body odor. Just a fleeting whiff. Kayla darts off into the brush, then comes back. We round a bend and there he is, in all his mahogany and brown, two- toned majesty standing on his hind legs waving his paws. Me, screaming for Kayla to come back before one of us gets mauled. Kayla barking at a bear 6 times her size. Tension. Time stands still. I plead silently. Please don’t kill my dog (or me).

The bear drops to all fours, turns, and lumbers away.

I carefully continue back to the stream crossing, then the 2 miles back to the truck, thinking about Ute spirits. Later, I consider it a privilege to have seen the bear.

With respect, and with my dog, I will keep coming back here.


How to Cite this Article

Walden C. Wilderness meeting. Perm J 2020;24:13.122. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/13.122

Author Affiliation

1 Castle Rock Medical Clinic, CO

Corresponding Author

Christine Walden, MD (christine.b.walden@kp.org)

Artist Information

Tatum Howlett is an artist based in the Pacific Northwest who specializes in comics and illustration.

The story “Wilderness Meeting” was originally published in leaflet, 2016;4(2). Available from: http://leaflet-ejournal.org/archives-index/item/wilderness-meeting-2


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