“Connecting with the wilderness allows us to live in the flow of a meaningful, joyful life. Embracing this state of connectedness or oneness with other living beings including animals, as opposed to feeling an “otherness” or “separateness” brings a sense of harmony and enables us to be at peace with oneself and the world.” – Sylvia Dolson
After enjoying a final cup of coffee at the Lewis Mountain Campground store, I hopped back on the trail and headed north. As I descended Hazeltop near mile 919.5, I saw the first of more than a dozen deer I would see in Shenandoah National Park (SNP).
As I approached the Big Meadows area, I saw another deer sitting in the grass off to the right. I decided to stop for a snack, so I sat down by a tree about fifteen yards from her. She looked at me but didn’t move. I chugged some water and then pulled out a Clif energy bar. As I did so, the deer stood up and stared at me. She had that “Fob, I want a bite of your Clif energy bar” look in her sultry eyes. Then she cautiously took a step toward me. With my heart racing just a tad, I pulled out my phone and started recording her. Next, I violated the principle of “keeping wildlife wild” by holding out my Clif bar. Intrigued, she took another step toward me and then another. At this point I should have stood up and left. After all, she should eat natural food. She should fear humans. She could get spooked and injure me or maybe get a disease. My head told me this maybe wasn’t a good idea. My heart told me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I should go for it.
My heart won out. I wiggled the Clif bar and she kept moving closer. Just a couple of feet from me, she stuck out her neck and licked the bar. I didn’t have a good grip on it and it fell, causing her to jump back a step. Continuing to film, I picked it up and held it out again. She approached and gave it a few more licks. She was so close I could almost smell her breath. She then decided it wasn’t for her. Or maybe she smelled my breath. Clif bars are nutritious and delicious, but they require a lot of chewing to get down. Perhaps she wasn’t up for that. She eventually slowly walked away. It was a really cool wilderness moment that I will never forget. It wasn’t necessarily the right/textbook thing to do, but it was certainly the fun, cool, and memorable thing to do. I won’t do it again because I’ve done it once. But would I do it again a first time? Absolutely! How often can you live a happy, magical moment that you will remember the rest of your life?
Fresh off this wildlife encounter, I took a short side trail to the Big Meadows Lodge where I had a Caesar’s salad and seven glasses of pink lemonade. Why? Because I could. This is SNP, the second happiest place on earth…just behind Disney World. I hiked on, passing two more deer and a small snake (#11) near Fishers Gap.
After 16.7 miles I arrived at the Skyland Resort and Restaurant around 4:30 p.m. This is a fairly upscale place so I assumed a room would be out of my price range. But since I was close, it was worth a shot. The normal price was well out of my range. The “thru-hiker rate” was substantially less, but still more than I wanted to pay. Then I thought to ask if they had a military rate. Bam! Bada-Bing! It was even less than the hiker rate and within my fair and reasonable range. So I got a 1-room cabin and took a nice hot shower.
I put on my less funky set of clothes and headed to the Skyland Restaurant for the fried chicken basket (1807 calories, according to the menu) which included half a fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, and steamed cauliflower. The waitress brought me the dessert menu and I selected three large scoops of ice cream…vanilla bean, chocolate, and signature blackberry…coming in at 1026 calories. As I swallowed the last bite of ice cream, a guitarist took the stage and sang and played for the next couple of hours. He asked the audience where we were from. I didn’t answer because I don’t know. It’s complicated. I’m just an American. He then asked the thirty audience members…day hikers, vacationers and me…who had seen a bear this week. Every single hand went up but mine. This hardly seemed fair.
As I laid there that night in my soft cabin bed, I reflected on my near perfect day. Where in the world do you have a close encounter with a deer, a Caesar salad with lemonade, a fried chicken dinner, three scoops of ice cream, live music, a hot shower, and a soft pillow and bed to sleep on? At Shenandoah National Park, I say, the second happiest place on earth.
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