Sunday, September 26, 2010

Road Kill

By David Phillips.  A true story.

(This is the story of what happened to me on the night of Friday November 7, 2008, on southbound I-25 in New Mexico near mile marker 401.)

I pull in to the travel center at the south end of Pueblo for gas and dinner.  Dinner in this case consists of two energy drinks and an ice-cream sandwich.  The cashier grins as he rings me up.

“This ought to keep you up for a while.”

“I hope so.”

I sign the credit card slip and collect my provisions.  Outside, the last remnants of daylight wash across the evening sky.  I walk back to the pump and climb into the car.  I got a late start, and it’s going to be a long night.  I pop open one of the cans and start the engine.  I have more than enough gas now to get me to Albuquerque.  If all goes to plan, I should be there before midnight.

I’m headed to Phoenix, where my wife and son are already waiting for me.  We travel from northern Colorado to Arizona by car a couple times a year, and usually we do it together.  This time, however, circumstance dictated that they fly on ahead, while I make the fourteen hour trek alone in the family wagon.  Albuquerque is roughly half way, but if I get an early start tomorrow, I should be able to make it in time to have lunch with my loved ones.

I steer the car south onto the entrance ramp.

I-25 stretches out across the prairie, black ribbons of asphalt vanishing into darkness, punctuated now and again by lonely dots of red and white light.  To the west, the Rocky Mountains rise in silhouette against the darkening sky.  In the east, the moon is low on the horizon.


Hours later, the stimulating effects of my dinner having already worn off, I have the stereo cranked to help keep me awake.  With cruise set at 80, the car speeds effortlessly down the highway, following the undulating path carved along the foothills of the mountains off to my right.  I’m making good time.  The roads are clear, and I can see the vast landscape around me bathed in the milky moonlight.  There are very few cars out here, and even fewer towns or other signs of civilization.  This may be the most sparsely populated stretch of highway between Denver and Albuquerque.  I am blissfully unaware, encased in the protective shell of my bubble, cut off from the harsh environs around me, enjoying my music and my heated leather seat.

Suddenly I sense the engine laboring with unusual difficulty.  I silence the music and see the tach somewhere above three thousand and rising.  Then I hear it, the wump-wump-wump of a tire going flat at high speed.  I tap the brakes and the car immediately begins to slow.  I ease the crippled vehicle onto the shoulder, cursing as I check the mirrors to make sure I’m not about to cut someone off.  I needn’t have worried - there’s no one out here but me.

The car rolls to a stop.  I shove it into park and let it idle as I take in the situation.  It’s below freezing outside, so I pull on my heavy winter jacket, hat and gloves.  Don’t want to mess around with mother nature.  I reach back and rummage through my duffle, pull out my flashlight and hang it around my neck by its lanyard.  I heave a sigh and push open the door.

The air is crisp and clear, my breath illuminated by the headlights and the rhythmic blinking of the hazards.  The engine purrs as the car idles.  I look around.  A thin veil of mist shrouds the moon, which lights up the surrounding landscape in an erie glow.  For a moment I wonder if there are animals out here in the darkness.  I’ve travelled this road many times, and know that cattle are common in these parts.  Once I saw a herd of buffalo along the endless stretch of barbed wire fence, actually stopped to turn around and take pictures.  It could have been anywhere.  I wonder if it was here.

I squint into the darkness by the road.  Nothing.

I tug at the flashlight dangling from my neck and walk around the car, checking tires as I go. Left side okay; right rear fine.  Right front - flat.


My wife had asked me days before if I thought the aging tires would survive the trip from Denver to Phoenix.  The tires do need to be replaced, but we’re trying to sell this car, and I don’t want to put any more money into it than I have to.

I pop the hatch.  The back of the wagon is loaded to capacity.  Suitcases full of clothing, boxes of toys, a stroller, a skateboard, jackets and shoes.  The prospect of unloading all this stuff to access the spare underneath is a little overwhelming, especially in the dark.

I remember the last time I had a flat tire on this car.  I was on my way to work and tried to change the tire myself.  I wrestled the car up onto the jack and must have spent an hour trying to remove the lugs.  The guys at the tire store use that air gun to put the lugs on when they rotate the tires, and they were so tight I couldn’t get them off by hand.  Eventually, I gave in and called a tow truck.

This time, I think I’ll skip the part where I try to remove the wheel myself.  Slowly, I close the hatch.
“Are you alright?!”

Her voice is scared, desperate.  She gets this way when she thinks I’m in trouble and there’s nothing she can do about it.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, does our insurance have a towing benefit?”

Cell phone coverage is sketchy out here, and we have a hard time carrying on an intelligible conversation, her voice drifting in and out as the gentle wind plays with the delicate radio waves that connect me to the rest of the world.

“I don’t know.  I’ll call and find out.  Where are you?”

Good question.  I look around.  To the north, the highway stretches across a shallow valley several miles wide.  Nothing to see but a couple dots of white light on the highway, cars headed the same direction as me.  I wonder if they’ll stop.  To the south the highway vanishes on the horizon less than a mile away.  On either side, swaths of dirty snow bathed in the dim moonlight litter the high prairie.  Not so much as a farmhouse porch light in any direction.  Stranded at night in the absence of discernible landmarks, I begin to feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere.

We hang up.  I contact information and track down a towing company.  The lady who answers the phone has the rasp of a pack-a-day lifer whose nicotine soaked lungs have aged before their time.  She sounds like Marge Simpson’s sisters.  She asks the same question.

“I’m not sure.  Sixty or seventy miles north of town?”

Las Vegas, New Mexico is probably my best bet.  There may be a reputable tire store in one of the small towns behind me, but I do not want to backtrack.

She asks if I can see anything that will help her son find me.  There’s nothing, I tell her.  Just me and the car.  She collects some details - make, model, color, plate - and tells me help is on the way.

I hang up again.  Nothing to do now but wait.  Shouldn’t be more than an hour.  Two at the most.

The cars I saw just moments ago speed past, one after the other.  Neither of them so much as slow for the disabled wagon on the shoulder.  So much for the Good Samaritan.  I watch their tail lights recede toward the horizon.  I can see now that I’m on a gentle grade, and by the glow of their headlamps, I make out the crest of the hill about half a mile up the road.  The first car is about to disappear over the hill when something flickers on the shoulder.  Something green.

I stare.  As the second car approaches the same point, the thing lights up once more.  A mile marker shimmers in the beam of light and disappears.  The tail lights vanish over the horizon.

I think for a moment.  Should I risk it?  What could happen?

I kill the engine.  The headlamps automatically shut off, leaving nothing but the hazards to compete with the moonlight in the inky murk of the darkness.  I set off on foot along the shoulder.

Mine is a sedentary life, and I’m not in any shape to jog the distance, especially in this cold.  So I set off at a brisk stride, wanting to spend no more time than necessary away from the sanctuary of my vehicle.  As I move forward, the rhythmic, blinking glow of the hazard lights dims until eventually it’s just me in the moonlight.  After a few minutes I look back.  The car is surprisingly far away already.  Beyond it, a solitary pair of headlights punctuate the darkness across the broad, shallow valley.  Miles away.

I press on.

The open road is my friend, and I am comfortable traveling alone by car.  I grew up in western Canada, and my dad and I went on road trips with some degree of regularity.  Everything in western Canada is spread apart by unimaginable distance - unimaginable unless you grew up in the Territories or Alaska.  I remember one trip in particular, we were traveling at night along the Trans-Canada Highway, headed west across the open plains of Saskatchewan.  I remember the moonlight that night, unusually bright, lighting up the landscape so you could see forever.  Then, as the miles clicked by, a thick fog gradually enveloped us, so that after a while, you couldn’t see more than a hundred yards up the road.  Dad and I squinted through the haze in front of us, wary of the possibility of danger.  Then, all at once, the fog ended, as if a curtain had been torn away, and the night sky was crystal clear once more, the highway stretching off for miles to the horizon.  I looked back out the rear window and saw what looked like a luminous cliff, a thousand feet high, stretching north and south as far as could be seen, receding quickly as we sped west across the prairie.  I’ve never seen anything like it since.

I am snapped back to my present surroundings in an instant when something tugs at the right pant leg.  From behind.  As if I had snagged a tree branch.  But the road is clear.  The shoulder is fully twelve feet wide and, except for the occasional smattering of gravel, clear of debris.  I look down as something bounds in from my periphery.  It makes no noise, but looks like a dog, frenetic, constantly moving, its grey coat glowing silver in the moonlight.

I’m stunned, my defenses piqued, and at first I don’t move.  It circles around in front of me, prancing like a prize fighter assessing an adversary.  For a moment I wonder if someone abandoned their mutt along the highway, and this thing wants to make friends.  As it moves in hyperactive frenzy, it almost looks like its tail is wagging.

Then it lunges.

I hurdle backward, instinctively evading what my subconscious has now determined to be a threat.

“Hey!” I shout.

Still it makes no noise - no growling, no barking - but it lunges again.  And again.  I spring back and forth on the shoulder, a prize fighter myself, now doing whatever I can to avoid contact.  Instinct has taken over and I am no longer headed for the mile marker.  Instead, my motions begin to carry me back toward the car.  But how far away am I now?  I don’t dare take my eyes of the animal as it circles and lunges again.

I hear the voices of my memory now, telling me everything I’ve ever heard about fending off an attacking animal.  Make yourself big.  Make loud noises.  I undo my jacket and hold it open as I jump up and down, flap my arms and shriek like a crazy person.

The animal pauses, regroups and lunges again, apparently unfazed by my pretense of aggression.

The moonlight casts just enough light for me to be able to focus on this thing.  I lunge forward, then back, side to side, using the whole width of the shoulder as I move myself backward, toward the car, unable to take my eyes of the animal, hoping that the rhythmic blink of the hazard lights will start to penetrate the darkness soon.

Then I steal a glance back at the car.  My heart sinks as I see it’s at least a football field away.

I remember the flashlight dangling around my neck.  I fumble for it, grasp it in my fist, take aim and flash the thing in the eyes.  It’s designed as a tactical flashlight, very bright, with a button on the butt to facilitate just this kind of action.  I flash it over and over.  It regroups again, taking a moment to reassess its prey.  As it pauses, I put as much distance between us as I can without actually turning around or taking my eyes off of it.

Then it charges, lunges again and again, seemingly unaffected by the glare that must surely be causing it to lose its vision, at least momentarily.  The thing has to be rabid.  I jump and scream, partially in an effort to maintain what I hope is a ferocious presence, but mostly out of naked fear.  It’s going for my legs, and each time it advances, I try to leap out of the way.

Synapses fire off a thousand thoughts in my panicked imagination, constantly evaluating and reevaluating the situation and any possible means of escape.  This thing is close enough to step on, but something tells me it would be imprudent to try to kick it.  What if I miss?  What if I slip and fall?  I wonder if I should take the flashlight from around my neck and use the lanyard to take a swing at the animal, but this idea too is discarded in milliseconds.  My instincts tell me that waving an unprotected appendage at the animal may end with my hand or foot lodged in its mouth.

There’s a woman in Arizona who encountered a rabid fox on a hike just days before.  The fox attacked, eventually locking onto her arm as she tried to fend it off.  She had to hike over a mile back to her car before she could pry its jaws open and dislodge it.  With no ready means of transportation at my disposal, I’d rather not suffer the same fate.

It lunges, and this time I feel it make contact.  Left shin, just below the knee.  It knocks me back on my feet, but doesn’t get a solid bite.  Rather, it glances off, circles around and faces me again.  As I scramble to regain my balance, I feel the sting, and wonder if I’m bleeding.

I glance back at the car.  Still too far.  If I turn and run, it’ll overtake me in a second.  Then what?

It lunges again, and again I leap out of the way.  Suddenly the road glows as the car I saw mere minutes ago approaches at full speed.  The intensity of the light increases as the car closes fast, illuminating the mangey animal.

It’s a coyote.

Panic, as adrenaline floods my system.  My breathing suddenly becomes shallow and my step has a renewed spring as I dance and weave my way back and forth across the shoulder of the highway.

The car passes without slowing and I wonder what the driver thought of the person dancing on the side of the road, jacket hanging open, arms waving.  Too late.  Tail lights recede quickly over the crest of the hill, and just as it disappears from view, I see the mile marker flicker in the beam of the headlamps.  Then it’s gone.

I feel my chest starting to tighten as I gasp lungs full of freezing night air.  The congestion hampers my ability to scream at the beast, my voice slowly going hoarse, almost like an anaphylactic reaction.  My legs burn as lactic acid thins my blood.  Certainly my body is not used to sustained output, but this is a decidedly inconvenient time to find out just what the limits of my physical fitness might be.  I begin to wonder if I’ll actually make it to the car.

The animal lunges, turns, regroups and lunges again.  It will not let up.  I am a dervish of constant motion, arms waving, voice rasping, bouncing, prancing, always moving backward.  It attacks again and again I jerk out of the way, somehow managing to sidestep its advances.  But the animal is closing the gap, and crush of fatigue is starting to wear me down.  The car still seems so far away.  How long can I keep this up?

I grew up in a Christian household, and I remember stories from my childhood, told to me by Sunday-school teachers and people at church, of individuals who had rebuked animals in the name of Jesus.  I’ve always professed to have a faith in God, in Jesus Christ, but I always wondered if the fantastic stories were really true.  How could they be?  How could an animal be affected by the utterance of a name when screaming and the threat of physical injury will not stave it off?  But I’m desperate and somehow, when all other possibilities of defense have been exhausted or deemed too dangerous to attempt, this idea suddenly seems plausible.

I bark it out as loud as I can-

“In Jesus name-”

That’s all I can get out.

And the animal stops in its tracks.

I continue to jog backward toward the car as quickly as I can, uncertain how long this dubious measure of success might last.  The animal takes one step forward, then another.  I don’t take my eyes off it for a second.

It stops, looks up and down the road, and saunters across the highway to the median that separates the northbound lanes from those of us heading south.  I can barely make it out in the moonlight.  I shine my flashlight across the road, just to be sure.  Two eyes glow back as the animal continues its course parallel to mine.

I check the car.  Thirty yards and closing.  I jog faster.

The animal matches my pace, but does not stray back onto the roadway, despite the absence of cars.

At last the orange glow of the hazards cuts the darkness, and the ground lights up in rhythmic sequence.  Almost there.

Then, I’m at the bumper.  I set my hand on the hood, as if to make sure it’s real.  One last look across the roadway, where the animal has stopped and returns my gaze.  I sense now that it knows I got away.  Or that it let me get away.  Not one to gloat before victory is assured, I open the car door and hastily climb inside, slam it shut behind me. I point the flashlight back across the roadway.

The animal is gone.

* * *

“I never heard of nothin’ like that before” says the police officer.

That seems to be the standard sentiment as I repeat the story again and again, first to the tow truck operator, who pulled the car south; then to the emergency room staff, who cleaned me up, and the state trooper, who peppered me with questions; and finally to this kindly officer, who drives me from the hospital to the Super 8.  Tomorrow I’ll sort out the car and the tire and continue the journey south.  For now I need sleep.  It’s after 3 a.m.

I drop my bags on the hotel bed, kick my shoes off.  I undo my jeans and notice the gaping tear in the denim where the animal made its mark.  Through the hole I can see the hospital dressing that covers the wound.  I watch it for a moment, like it might do something.  I step out of the jeans and notice for the first time the tear in the back of the other leg, where the thing first tried to take me from behind.  I wonder for a moment what might have happened if I’d tried to change that wheel by myself, kneeling down next to the car with my back to the wild, oblivious as the approaching menace closed in… a shiver crawls up my spine.  This all could have ended so much worse.

The police officer’s voice rings in my ears.  “S’probably rabid.  Them things don’t usually come out like that 'less they’s something wrong with ‘em.”  He shakes his head.  “Coyote, huh?  Jesus Christ.”

Jesus Christ indeed.

I peel back the covers, crawl in and shut off the lamp.  A trace of moonlight seeps through the heavy curtains that separate me from the night.  Weariness overtakes me as at last I close my eyes.  In the darkness I can just make out two pin pricks of light, staring at me from across the highway.

My eyes snap open.  There’s nobody here but me.

I close my eyes once more.  Slowly, finally, the sobs wrack my body as I cry myself to sleep.