Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Roadside Zoo

Just another life-or-death road trip

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time on American highways, in California and New York, in Connecticut and South Carolina, on the Bluegrass Parkway and in the Poconos—researching books and articles, attending book festivals, visiting family, and just running around. Along the way I glimpsed a massacre-worthy body count of animals killed on the roads. On a research trip to Maine, from the highway my wife and I saw more dead animals than live ones. I became morbidly fascinated by them. That smudge on the road was amphibian, I would think, his cold humor drawn to the stone warmth of highway on a passionate night. Overturned, an ottoman would aim its wooden legs like this dead possum. The immigrant coyote? A wild rug flung on the carpeted ditch. And all those raccoons, their comic bandit role forgotten in these deathbed scenes.

We saw carrion crows earning their name. We saw dead squirrels, woodchucks, rabbits, a chipmunk, a red fox. We saw—and smelled—both striped and spotted skunks. Occasionally there were pets on the road too, stretched cat or Lassie bulk, fur still playful in the wind. I kept remembering my drive through Mississippi earlier in the year, all the Ovid forms of topiary kudzu. On that jaunt I became so used to roadside animal shapes that even tire shrapnel drew for me the silhouette of a cockatoo.

In western New York, during the Maine trip, we saw buzzards (turkey vultures) hulking like the angel of death near a wooden cross that marked the roadside demise of a different species. It reminded me of an experience my friend Denny Adcock had on the Natchez Trace. He was bicycling alone in an area where trees grow in dense array right up to the shoulder of the road. As he rounded a curve at high speed, he interrupted the mid-road feasting of a pair of buzzards. Caught off guard by the sudden proximity of this human, the birds were eager to escape but unable to because the woods were so close and thick. Instead they had to fly alongside their two-wheeled companion for several hundred feet, rolling their eyes sideways at his disconcerting ability to keep up with them—surely the way birds in Kansas must have felt when they saw the evil neighbor who captured Toto bicycling through the air within a whirling tornado. Animals are usually so much more aware of us than we are of them; it’s fun to surprise them now and then. Loren Eiseley writes about catching crows off guard during his walk on a fogbound morning. Disoriented, apparently unaware that they were so close to the ground, the birds responded to his sudden appearance as if he had begun magically strolling their own turf in the clouds.

Ironically, so many roadside deaths inspired gallows humor. I remembered my brother’s frequent joke in the late 1970s, whenever a summer insect smashed into his green Nova’s windshield: “He won’t have the guts to do that again.” Then suddenly humor was forgotten. On the interstate near where New York and Pennsylvania meet, a state trooper passed us with lights flashing and siren screaming. Soon we rounded a bend to see ahead his silver patrol car parked sideways in the highway, its lights still flashing red and blue as it blocked both lanes. We slowed. Beyond the blocking car, a dark bulk sprawled in the road. Had something fallen off a truck? No, this limp mound had recently been alive. Not a human being, though. A deer? Too dark, too round. “A bear!” Laura exclaimed.

As we came to a stop, as another car did so in the passing lane beside us, the trooper got out of his car and went over to peer down at the animal. We could see now that it was a young-looking bear, perhaps an adolescent, as large as a man; they stand six or seven feet tall at maturity. It was elegant even in death, the rich umber of the body fur, the lovely burnt sienna of its muzzle: an American black bear, Ursus americanus americanus. These bears are smaller than their cousin the brown bear and, to me, more beautiful in the darkness of the body contrasted with the cinnamon muzzle. The echoing subspecies name applies to those from Montana eastward to the coast and south to Texas; other subspecies are recognized in British Columbia, Florida, California. This is the bear you’re likely to encounter in the Smokies, the one that tourists risk their children’s lives with in pursuit of cute photos. It’s the kind of bear I saw there in my childhood in the 1960s. I remember a cub caged by the highway, awkwardly drinking a bottle of Coke near Cherokee, North Carolina, back when the region specialized in exploiting white America’s cartoon parody of Native Americans, hawking rubber tomahawks and rainbow-dyed chicken-feather headdresses.

After a quick survey of the crime scene, the trooper returned to his car, pulled on short black leather gloves, and performed what was surely the strangest and most unexpected act of his day. He bent over and grasped the bear by the wrists as if arresting a passed-out drunk, turned its limp arms in a different direction, and dragged the animal across the slow lane and onto the right margin of the road. The task required muscle; I watched it and realized the meaning of dead weight.

We drove on, saddened. Later Laura and I wondered why this animal’s death moved us more than that of its smaller fellows. Was it because we seldom glimpse a bear? Were we unconsciously thinking of this individual’s life as more precious because its species is less common or more exotic to us? Did we identify more with an animal closer to our own size? None of these answers seemed right. Why did our empathy leap across the few yards between our car and the dead animal? We realized that we had both experienced this feeling of sympathetic identification with another creature. But why? We talked about it as we drove along and finally we realized what had hit us both, unconsciously but immediately. The tragic sprawl of this human-size creature, its undignified end on the highway, were brought home to us by the sight of its limp paws as the trooper grasped its wrists and dragged, by our surprising underside view of the lighter paw pads visible against darker fur, so vulnerably exposed.

I think my immediate affection for dogs arises in part from my hands’ memory of touching them, my knowledge that their fur would be soft and warm if caressed. When I see bears at a distance—the one that sat beside a road near the Canadian border a few springs ago, for example, watching the sunset and lazily scratching—I don’t think about how their fur feels because I’ve never touched one. They don’t inspire a visceral sympathy in me as might a dog or another human. But our glimpse of these paw pads, which probably were still warm and pleasingly rough like a pup’s, drew our eyes and imagination to the creature’s mammalian similarity to ourselves. I could feel my own animal palms grasping the steering wheel. I saw this bear not as a potentially dangerous omnivore or a huggable teddy bear but as a fellow being who experienced hunger and the pleasure of assuaging it, sleepiness and the luxury of dozing off. Both of us got up each morning without knowing whether we would survive the day.

And no doubt the bear felt fear and pain in its last moments on the highway, before the terrible impact resulted in consciousness receding like a tide. I found myself replaying the memory of our own nighttime car crash a few months before, the sudden slam from behind, the deafening noise and explosion of shattered glass—our momentary conviction that we were about to die. Suddenly there was a chill in the air. I turned up the thermostat and looked for a highway exit. I needed to pee and also a glance at the dashboard told me that we would soon need fuel. I was reminded of sitting beside a friend as he died in a hospital room and realizing only a few hours later that, no matter what tragedies I had witnessed or shared, I still had the urge to eat lunch.