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Poetry Flashback, "Traveling through the Dark"

The WRite Life


Yesterday was difficult.

When I say this my mind seeks to place my feelings in perspective. Nothing tragic happened.

The kids and I were to fly to Seattle to visit my sister’s family. Slowly the plans we made months ago denigrated.

We planned to fly out of our small-town in Redding, California to Seattle, Seatac Airport two days after Christmas during their school break. We planned to stay a couple of nights in their cabin near Seven’s Pass Ski Resort. We planned to go skiing and snowboarding.

The roads to get to the cabin were too snowy. The cabin has no electricity. It was going to be -5 degrees at the resort, making it too cold. By the time I packed, I knew these two activities were not going to happen.

On the joyful side, it was snowing in Seattle and the gorgeous town where they live in Snohomish. So, I kept my children’s, Elias’s and Anika’s snowsuits and boots and gloves and scarfs in their suitcases.

Then because of the snow in Seattle our predawn flight was canceled. I woke hopeful. I thought surely a new flight would come down, or we could even drive to Sacramento. But everything was booked, full, delayed, or cancelled. My daughter kept asking when we were leaving? Could we drive to San Francisco for a flight? My nephew up north asked me to drive. I considered both options because as a mother that is what we do, maybe I can drive four hours south to head up north, maybe I can drive 12 hours over three snowy passes.

I spent hours looking up flights on the computer.

I was on hold for over three hours with the airline to only be disconnected. I placed my number in a call back system over 24 hours ago and still nothing. This is the part that made my nerves on end. The fact that getting hold of someone was and still is impossible. I decided to drive to our small airport. I knew that the airline agents would be there two hours before the flight from SeaTac landed. I would talk to them and get my children and I on a new flight.

My daughter and I walked around the empty airport for almost an hour. There was not one employee, not at the baggage claim, or any of the three airlines, or any of the car rental desks. We then learned that the flight from Seattle was three hours delayed.

It was getting late. I hadn’t fed the kids. All I had eaten was three pieces of Christmas candy. I decided to call it a day.

It was dark. There are no street lights on the road toward my home. Hardly anyone was on the road this Sunday evening after Christmas. I drive up Placer Road that leads from town to our street every day, often many times of the day. Anika was in the front seat with me.

I wasn’t speeding, maybe going 55 miles an hour. I saw the deer. He was a teenage buck. He wasn’t looking at me like I was told they would, the whole deer in the headlight cliché. He had his eyes on something across the road.

I didn’t slam my breaks, but I did press on the break pedal. I didn’t swerve like I was told not to do. “Hold on Anika.” I knew the buck wasn’t moving. The deer didn’t even seem to notice the car or the head lights.

There was a loud bang and a thump.

“You ok?” I asked. I was clam, quickly assessing the fact that she was okay.

“Yes,” Anika said.

As soon as I could I pulled over.

I was thankful we didn’t end in the ditch. Our car didn’t turn over. I got out on the darken road to check out the damage, though I knew this was wrong to get out of my car in the dark, on a road where people speed, drink, and drive. The front in was broken and sticking out, the light gone.

I searched the road for the deer.

I turned the car around, not knowing what I would do if I found the wounded deer, knowing to stay away if I did. It is often discussed at family functions how many people get killed by deer every year. Yes, from car accidents. Yes, from being thorned in the gut when hikers surprise them.

I don’t own a gun. Or even a sharp knife. I grew up knowing it is best to put wounded wild animals out of their misery, but what was I to do if I found the deer?

This poem that I read while in college kept playing in my mind:

Traveling through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;

she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,

alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,

then pushed her over the edge into the river.

William Stafford, “Traveling through the Dark” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota,


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