The birds chirping just before dawn awakened me. We were camping in Big Meadows campground in Shenandoah National Park. I felt around in my duffel bag for my running shorts, socks, and a T-shirt. I pulled them on, unzipped the tent, and stepped out with my sneakers in one hand.
Out at the picnic table I put on my shoes and stretched. I could see a faint glow where the sun would soon make its appearance over the Piedmont region of Virginia, just east of the Blue Ridge.
There were traces of frost on the edges of the leaves on the bushes around the campsite. I decided I'd take a short run and then start a campfire before my family got up.
I figured I'd take the little trail to the ranger station and then the asphalt trail beside the campground road down to Skyline Drive a mile away. I could loop around the visitors' center and come back down the trail to the campground. That would be about three miles or so - just enough to work up a sweat.
I saw no signs of activity as I left the campsite. At the ranger station I took a left onto the path out to Skyline Drive.
A strip of vegetation that varies in width from less than a yard to more than 20 feet separates the campground road from the path. At first my running was slow and awkward; I was cold and stiff. But the sky was lightening in the east, and the morning bird song was getting louder. The sun was melting the morning frost, and the run was warming up my chilly legs. I saw a couple of deer grazing in the distance.
The rangers warn visitors to watch deer from a safe distance and not to try to approach or feed them. The night before, a few deer had passed near our campsite, but whenever anyone made a movement the deer would leap away, leaving us with a flash of the white blaze on the underside of their tails. I admired the graceful way they ran through the forest, barely making a sound.
I tried to run as gracefully as I could, trying to minimize the noise my running shoes made on the asphalt path. After about half a mile I was in the groove, moving easily through the beautiful high plateau of mixed woods and meadow at 3,400 feet.
The sun was fully up now, and it was burning off the mist. I noticed wildflowers growing along the edge of the wooded areas. My body felt as if it was rolling along on automatic pilot, effortlessly.
Then I saw a herd of deer about 200 yards ahead of me. There were about a dozen of them grazing together, including some fawns. Half were on the broad wooded slope to the left of the path, and half were in an area of grass and bushes to the right of the path. I knew that as soon as I got near enough they would turn tail and run.
As I drew to within about 50 yards of them, the large doe nearest me stopped grazing and looked up at me. I looked at her eyes - about three times the size of mine - and she looked at mine. She stood still as I approached. My pace remained unchanged. The deer all stopped eating and watched me draw near.
I knew they were about to bolt.
And then I reached them. I ran right past that first big deer and her fawns. I passed within inches of them. None of them moved at all. I didn't change my pace. I ran through the middle of the herd of deer without causing so much as a stir.
I looked back and saw them resume their grazing, seemingly unfazed.
"Did that really happen?" I asked myself.
I kept on running to Skyline Drive, around the visitors' center, and back to the trail along the campground road. When I looped back to where the deer had been, they had moved to another area across the road.
I glided effortlessly back to camp, feeling as graceful as a deer.