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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2019

Road Kill We Have Known

Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the possum it could be done.

Road kill can’t be high on anyone’s list of favorite topics. But they are out there, an all-too-common feature of our back road bike rides. The more miles we log, the more of them we encounter. Most of the time we try not to notice; to avert our eyes from the ugly mess and to hold our breath until we’ve moved beyond the olfactory range of that thing—ugh!—whatever it once was.

But like hills and headwinds, potholes and panoramas, dead things in the road are a staple of our rides. We can’t help but notice them, even as we try not to. And if you do log enough miles, sooner or later you will come to some larger sense of the scope and nature of those poor ex-critters. Any veteran rider, for instance, can tell you that the possum is the hands-down champion of road kills, at least along the roads of Northern California. (In the wide open spaces of the American west, jack rabbits seem to be high on the list as well, and although we do have them here, they’re not as prevalent as road kills. I’ve never ridden in Texas but I am told armadillos occupy the same niche in the road kill hit parade as possums do here.)

Possums. Technically known as Virginia Possums (all the ones in North America, although there are dozens of other varieties in other parts of the world). I see them around my country place all the time. I have a grudging sort of fondness for the homely marsupials. They are truly prehistoric survivors: they have been around, doing their possum thing, in pretty much their current state, for hundreds of thousands of years. By any yardstick of Darwinian survival of the fittest, they have to be considered a great success. And yet nothing in their long career down the ages has prepared them for life in the world of cars and trucks. They never got that memo. And frankly, for all their success at sticking around, no one would ever suggest they’re brilliant thinkers. So, 100-plus years into the age of the automobile, they still haven’t figured that one out.

Next on my personal accounting of local road kills are probably skunks. Boy, do we ever give those road kills a wide berth when we roll up on them. Skunk road kills seem to proliferate at certain times of the year and although I haven’t done any research on this, I’m guessing those waves of dead skunks correspond with mating season. Randy male skunks get a whiff of irresistible girl skunk spunk and they’re on the move, along the way forgetting anything they ever might have learned about passing cars. We males of the species can relate. Anytime you let your little brain do your thinking for you, trouble is never far away.

Next up—or down: squirrels. Red squirrels or gray squirrels…doesn’t matter. They are both traffic-challenged. They are said to be quite bright when it comes to outwitting squirrel-proof bird feeders but they too are having a hard time getting up to speed on life in the world of cars. Or even bikes: I know of a number of bike-squirrel encounters that have resulted in dead squirrels and crashed bikes. Their tiny brains somehow decide it would be a good idea to try and jump through a bike wheel…call that one a squirrel-o-matic. I have a theory about squirrels. (File this one with my theory about skunks.) Their movements are so erratic that we have a term for it: “squirrelly.” My thinking is that, to survive being captured by foxes or hawks, they need to be unpredictable to keep the predator from learning their behavior. So in moments of stress, those little brains go into random-sort mode, like a bingo-ball popcorn machine. They jump forward, then back, then to the side…who knows which way they’re going to jump next? They don’t even know themselves so how can the hawk get a read on it? That may work well with their traditional adversaries but not so well with cars. Cars don’t care. A driver—or bike rider—may try to swerve around one but all too often, the squirrel’s patented avoidance antics don’t work. Their zig-zag path still leaves them under the wheels.

Tied for fourth place, just off this podium of dubious distinction, are racoons and house cats. Racoons are another animal said to be very smart but they also have a hard time with cars. I once came upon the sad sight of a mama coon with four little ones, all laid out in a row along the side of the road. I say “house” cats to distinguish them from other wild felines like bobcats and pumas, but I have to guess some at least of the dead cats out there were feral, with no house to call a home. Although some of the dead cats may have been unloved and unmourned, most will have been someone’s pet. As much as we think our kitties are domesticated and tame, there is still that streak of wild in all of them. It’s part of their charm. And if they are outdoor cats—as most rural cats are—they will roam and occasionally not return. I found my old pal Sooty curled up at the foot of my driveway one chilly winter morning. He looked like he was taking a nap until I noticed his gray fur was covered in white frost. His night-time rambles took him across the road one time too many.

Then there are the more exotic road kills, from deer to buzzards, from wild pigs to weasels. Over a long cycling life, I think I can say I’ve seen almost all of them. Perhaps the most remarkable and saddest one I ever saw was a gray fox along a road down in Santa Ynez Valley. It was lying there, looking entirely untouched. Not a hair out of place. As handsome a creature as this world will ever produce. I stopped to admire it and perhaps to mourn for it a little, and that’s when I saw it had a big fat mouse in its jaws…hind legs and tail out one side, head and front paws out the other. If it were feeding only itself, the fox would have simply chewed that mouse up and swallowed it. But I figure that mousey morsel was being carried home for a den of kits. I pictured those hungry little kits, waiting for mom to return with something good to eat. Perhaps they were old enough to eventually fend for themselves…but probably not.

On a happier note, there are the road kills that turn out not to be dead after all. Climbing—slowly—up Spring Mountain Road out of St Helena, I passed what appeared to be a dead gray squirrel. Didn’t think anything of it until a rider behind me said, “Oooh, that squirrel is still twitching!” I circled back to see. Got off my bike and gave it a nudge with my toe. The little eyes popped open. It looked up at me, got at least some of its brain back on-line, and suddenly rolled over and scampered off into the woods. Maybe it had been whacked hard by a front bumper in mid-leap and got its bell rung but was not otherwise damaged…?

On another ride, on a small climb just north of Marshall, I saw a tiny fawn lying next to the road. It looked as perfect as that gray fox. No obvious damage. I thought it would be a shame for that lovely little body to end up mushed into pulp by passing cars, so I decided to lift the body off the road and put it back in the tall weeds. But when I picked it up, the eyes popped open and the four spindly legs unfolded like assorted implements on a Swiss Army knife. I set it back down and it stood there for a few minutes and finally wobbled off into the trees. I hope its mom was nearby, watching. I hope it did not have serious internal injuries. 

We even had an encounter with a human road kill once…or not-quite road kill. On a quiet side road out near Monte Rio, four of us rolled around a bend and pulled up short at the sight of a man lying in the middle of the road, apparently dead. Certainly out cold anyway, with blood running across the road from a head wound. Wearing a pair of jeans but nothing else. This was back before cell phones so I went racing up the road, looking for the nearest country cabin with a phone, but before I got there the Monte Rio fire chief went flashing by in his red pick-up. So someone else had already called it in (But had not stayed with the body? Weird.) I never read anything about it in the paper over the next days so I figure, whatever was ailing the guy, it wasn’t a fatal condition. 

OwlBut my best back-from-the-dead road kill encounter happened on Crystal Springs Road, over in Napa County. I and two friends were climbing an easy grade when we passed a bird standing in the road. I assumed it would fly away as we approached but it didn’t. It just stood there, not three feet from my bike as I passed. Then I realized I was looking at an owl. How often do we see an owl, anywhere, let alone up close? This was too good to pass up so I got the guys stopped, gave my bike to someone to hold, and squatted down in front of the bird. It was a saw whet owl…a small, beautiful bird. It just stood there looking up at me. Perhaps it had flown into the side of a car and got knocked silly? I put my hand down on the road, palm up, right in front of the owl, and without any other prompting from me, it took a couple of steps forward and walked into the palm of my hand. I stood up and held my hand up, right in front of my face, eyeball to eyeball with this wonderful creature, those two big owl eyes like beaten gold medallions. Each of us got an up-close look at this fierce little ambassador from the wild world. Then I walked over to the side of the road and held my hand out at arm’s length and the owl took wing and flew off into the manzanita scrub, seemingly none the worse for whatever had befallen it. What a moment…what a magical, what-just-happened? event. A treasure plucked out of an everyday bike ride.

Not too many of the road kills out there get up and walk—or fly—away from whatever had happened to them. Most of them are toast…food for scavengers. We may feel that little thump when we run over a critter in our cars. We may feel badly about it for a minute but that’s about all the bandwidth we devote to the matter…unless it’s a deer through the windshield. But out on our bike rides, we see the full spectrum of carnage inflicted on the citizens of the wilder world by our cars and trucks. It’s hard to imagine too many road kills resulting from collisions with horse-drawn buggies. I suppose they must have happened but not too often. Now? It’s a whole new equation. 40,000 human road kills each year in the US alone. How many possums, skunks, snakes, deer, birds? Countless millions. It’s a heavy toll of death and pain we inflict on all our companions along the roads when we tootle around in our big metal boxes. Remember the witty bumper sticker: “My karma ran over my dogma”? Funny but all too true.  Seems to me, there is probably a rising tide of karma chasing along behind our cars…a billion or so ghosts, from spotted fawns to fox kits. And remember that other equation: a bike on the road means one less car on the road. Now, if we can just keep from running over anything on our bikes—even crazy squirrels—we’ll be headed in the right direction.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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