When we’re behind the wheel, it’s easy to fall into “Don’t look, don’t see” mode. A car enwombs driver and passenger alike, insulating them from the many of the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around them. Not long ago a driver ran down a cyclist, dragging her several hundred yards. The driver continued on without stopping, thinking, she later said, that she’d just hit a deer or a dog. Only when she got home and discovered a bicycle lodged under her SUV did it dawn on her that she’d struck a human being. (The cyclist died of her injuries, by the way, but the driver wasn’t charged. Apparently, this was a mistake any driver could make.)
Only a deer. Only a dog. Only a cyclist. Life is cheap on America’s highways, and the open road is littered with the bodies of the ones who didn’t get away. Not many cyclists are left where they fall, of course. We still have enough respect for human life to collect their remains, if not enough to prosecute their killers. (A mistake anyone could make.) But our other victims mostly remain on the asphalt where they died, food for crows and other scavengers. Which is, after all, only the natural order of things. Still, it’s hard not to be struck by the evidence of the automobile’s power to kill and main.
Unless, of course, you choose not to see. But this easy option isn’t open to cyclists. We can’t help but see what lies on the road we ride on. And if the dead have lain in the sun for very long, we can smell them, too.
Which means that many cyclists only know our rarer and more elusive species of animals because they’ve seen them lying dead on the highway—or struggling to get across a busy road before a speeding car crushes them beneath its wheels. How many riders have seen a snapping turtle anywhere except on the highway? Or a living shrew, darting in and out of the deep forest duff, in its never-ending quest for enough food to fuel a heart that beats hundreds of times a minute?
Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I know these animals when they’re “at home.” But I still see far more of them dead on the road before me. Maybe you’ve never made the acquaintance of a shrew. OK. Here’s one that didn’t make it:
Or maybe you’ve never seen a weasel going about his business, sinuous and sleek, patrolling the rocky shore of a river or hunting under the pines? Well, if you haven’t, it’s not really a surprise. Weasels move fast, and they hunt by stealth and guile. They’re not easy to see. But this one—a least weasel—had no trouble holding still for my camera:
Then again, he didn’t have much choice, did he?
And what about birds? Cedar waxwings aren’t rare, and while they prefer wild fruit, they’re sometimes seen at feeders. But they’re shy. It’s hard to get near them. I didn’t have any trouble getting close to this one, though:
He died in my hands after being struck by a car.
Don’t get me wrong. I like riding. I really do. But each ride adds to an already overlong list of absent friends. And each small body that I scoop up and carry off the road to some grassy patch on the verge reminds me just how vulnerable we all are. A fumbled cell phone, a flirtatious tickle in the ribs, the cry of a colicky child in the back seat… Too many drinks, too many hours without sleep, too many pills,… And then it’s Did I hit something back there? Must have. Helluva bang. Still, it was probably just a dog or a deer. Too late to stop now. Couldn’t do anything, anyway. I’ll check out the damage when I get home. Have to keep the wife (or the boyfriend or the boss or the insurance) from finding out, too. Damn!
Meanwhile, a few miles back, something unseen drags itself slowly and painfully toward the refuge offered by nearest roadside ditch.
Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were it’s teeth concealed?
You seem to ask. …
I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws your were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
Philip Larkin, “Myxomytosis”
How many of us take the time to look beyond the beauty strip? And how many of us really want to? After all, it can be downright painful to see what lies just outside the frame of the photos in the tourist board’s brochures. But if you ride a bike along the highway, hike less-traveled trails, paddle on public waterways, or just walk the city streets to do your shopping and pick up the mail, then you really can’t avoid seeing what lies in front of your eyes, can you? And maybe that’s a good thing.
In any event, we think it’s worth the effort. To that end, Tamia Nelson’s Outside will take another look “Beyond the Beauty Strip” every month. And any number can play. So if you have an example that you’d like to share, please send it along.
Send a Comment