Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The deer trail

Henri Colt
Laguna Beach, California, United States


Sunlight on a hiking trail
Photo by Kevin Mueller on Unsplash

“Ezra, get up! It’s a beautiful morning, and you’re sixteen today!” I playfully shook my son’s shoulder.

“It’s six o’clock, Dad, what are you doing?” He buried his head under his pillow and slid under the covers.

“We’re going hiking, remember?” Every year, rain or shine, we skipped breakfast and hit the trail on his birthday. It did not matter if he was tired, sore from baseball practice, or if it was a school day. It did not matter if my patients complained or if I had to cancel a meeting.

“I already made sandwiches and stashed away some protein bars,” I said after jamming my first aid kit and a few water bottles into my backpack. I tossed Ezra’s hiking boots at the foot of the bed. “Come on, let’s go!”

My wife and I had made a habit of taking the kids rock climbing in the California backcountry when we had the time, but whenever we drove to the mountains, it was the same circus. She would keep her headphones on while my gym-climber daughter insisted on leading because she was better and faster than her brother. I would turn up the radio and let the teenagers have at it in the back seat. We would usually settle the affair by pairing up and exchanging leads. Birthdays were different, though, and today, it was only my boy and me—no risky business—just a safe hike in the woods behind our cabin.

The trail into the San Jacinto National Forest was a short walk from the road heading out of town. For the next few hours, we pushed up dirt with our boots in silence, climbing close to 1,500 feet to Tahquitz and its famous towering rock face that dominated the horizon. I wondered what Ezra was thinking, if he was thinking at all. I watched him lunge one foot mechanically after the other ten steps ahead of me.

“I’ll never understand how you can walk that fast and text without stumbling,” I said.

No answer.



“Have you ever thought about putting your phone away?”

“I was checking the weather.” He did not look up or break stride.

“Anything exciting?”

He waited for me to catch up. “They’re calling for wind this afternoon,” he said. “It’s been pretty hot.”

“We’ll be okay,” I said. “We have plenty of water.”

“I wasn’t worried about the water. Well, anyway, how’s your ankle?”

“It could not be better.” There was no need to tell him the pain started when we hit the trail—three sprains in less than a year. The orthopod wanted me to stay in rehab, but there was no way I could take time off with my busy hospital schedule.

Ezra stashed his phone and started up the trail again. When I was his age, I would not have been caught dead with my father on a day hike. I would have been celebrating with friends and talking about girls. My boasts were nothing more than juvenile bluster to hide my insecurity and manage teenage anxiety. Ezra was different. He was not the most intelligent kid in his class, but he was smart, although a bit childish.

His girlfriend, Cleo, was a year younger and still a sophomore. My wife worried they’d had intercourse, but Ezra always shunned our attempts to talk about sexual responsibility and contraception. I decided to nudge him a little.

“Hey Ezra,” I said. “Do you think sperm think?”

He glanced over his shoulder and rolled his eyes. He probably sensed I would ask something personal sooner or later.

“I don’t know, Dad. You’re the psychiatrist.”

“Some men impregnate women more often than others,” I said. “Maybe their sperm are smarter?”

“Or, maybe they’re not.” Ezra picked up the pace. He took two long steps for each of mine, sliding up the trail like a cross-country skier. I pulled my hiking poles from my pack and snapped them open as I walked. I did not want him to get too far away.

“I read that exercise and special diets improve sperm strength and stamina.”

“Vitamins are good, Dad.”

I continued. “What do you think about natural testosterone boosters?”

“Huh? I don’t think about testosterone.”

“Well, you will be someday,” I shouted. “When you reach my age.”

Ezra stopped in his tracks and waited for me to catch up again. “Dad?” he said.


“Sometimes, I don’t know which of us is a teenager.”

I knocked off his baseball cap and stabbed him in the foot with my walking pole. Then we sat on a burnt-out log and shared a protein bar.

“A thousand years ago, Indian sages described the male performance virtues of a plant called Mucuna Pruriens in an Ayurvedic text called The Charaka Samhita,” I said between bites. “It’s also known as velvet bean, and it’s used for snake bites. You studied Ayurveda for that report last semester.”


“And Chinese men believe rhinoceros horn cures impotence. That is why they are going extinct in Africa.”

“Chinese men are going extinct in Africa, Dad? Eh, I don’t think so.”

“Very funny, Ezra.”

“If you’re worried, Dad, you can buy Sperm Motility Boost on the Internet. Are you and mom planning another kid?”

I laughed. “Absolutely not, but you do know sperm is an endangered species.”

Ezra handed me a bag of peanuts. “Sperm is not a species,” he said.

“Details, details. Climate change and receding glaciers threaten our survival, but sperm counts fell from 113 to 66 million per milliliter in fifty years. That’s a reproductive crisis in the making.”

He pulled out his water bottle. “What’s your point, Dad?”

“My point is that despite dwindling numbers, it only takes one to fertilize an egg and make a baby.”

I thought he was going to choke. When he finished coughing, he said, “You’re hilarious. Is that your way to tell me to be careful?”

“I’m just saying the egg is the origin of all questions. It’s the inspiration for Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be.’ It’s the source of every chicken’s predicament.”

“Okay, you’re nuts.”

“No, really.” I stood to make a big oval egg sign with my hands for emphasis. Then I popped a handful of peanuts into my mouth. “Sperm attack an egg the way teenagers cram into a Miley Cyrus concert.”

Ezra laughed so hard I thought his head would burst. “Jeez, Dad, nobody crams into a Miley Cyrus concert anymore.”

With that, he grabbed my arm to pull himself up. I guess I didn’t steady myself enough, or perhaps he was heavier than I expected, but I fell forward and tripped over the log. While trying to regain my balance, I twisted my ankle.

“Shit.” I immediately knew I could not put weight on it. I hobbled over to my backpack and rummaged for my first aid kit. Ezra looked worried. He pulled out his phone.

“No need to call for help yet,” I said, flashing an ace bandage and a Sam-splint. I also swallowed a couple of Advils and took a sip of water.

“Dad, I’m checking the Forest Service website. There’s a fire around Saddle Junction. We have to get out of here pretty quick.”

“Yeah, how far are we from the fire road?”

“The contour map shows we’re several miles away with all the switchbacks, but if we take that deer trail we passed, it’s probably not more than a mile.”

The tall grasses were flattened along a foot-wide trail heading west through the forest. I knew the area. “It will be a steep incline,” I said. My son had taken off his shirt and was cutting it into large strips with his pocketknife.

“We can cushion these between the splint and your ankle bones,” he said. “I’m fine with just a T-shirt.”

“Okay,” I said, folding the splint in half lengthwise. “If you stabilize my ankle, I can set up a stirrup, and we can bind everything tight with the ace wrap.”

Ezra kneeled and grabbed onto my hiking boot to steady my ankle. “Let’s hurry,” he said. “The wind is picking up, and I smell smoke. I think we should use the deer trail.”

After setting my foot inside the stirrup, I made a figure-8 bandage to hold everything in place. Ezra helped me stand and handed me my hiking poles. He had already put both of our packs on his back. I leaned onto my poles and limped forward. My son kept a slow but steady pace, not more than two steps ahead, always looking back to make sure I was all right. The trail was steep and narrow, but with his help, I got around boulders and climbed over fallen trees without stumbling. The wind had picked up, and the sky was a hazy yellow by the time we reached the fire road. Two firefighters greeted us. We quickly told them our story.

“Someone can drive you down to the trailhead,” they said. “From there, you can get back to town.”

Ezra called his mother to explain the situation. Minutes later, we climbed onto the back of a pickup truck and watched passing fire crews prepare their gear. A couple of airtankers flew overhead. Ezra was tapping on his phone again.

“Really?” I asked, “who are you calling?”

“I’m texting.” His fingers crossed the keyboard faster than I could breathe. Then he looked at me and smiled.

“And?” I said.

“Cleo’s not pregnant, Dad.”



HENRI COLT, M.D., is a physician-writer, award-winning medical educator, and adventure traveler whose short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Active Muse, Red Fez, and elsewhere. He is the editor of The Picture of Health: medical ethics and the movies (Oxford University Press). He is Professor Emeritus, University of California, and a medical ethicist.


Fall 2020  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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