I brake for squirrels

Originally published in August 22, 2015 edition of the Mountain Messenger.

I brake for squirrels. I also brake for any other animal that comes across my path. If I can, I also swerve, but only toward the mountain, never toward the cliff.

In 11 years of driving the Friars Hill Road, I’ve dodged a lot of animals. This morning, I dodged one bunny, one dead possum, one peacock, one truck full of hunting dogs and one dead snake.

I often think there ought to be a video game called Grand Theft Friars Hill, where, as a driver of a stolen pickup truck, you fly around the tight curves at top speed, trying to not hit all the wild and domesticated animals who jump in front of your car. You know, kind of like how I drive every day, except I didn’t steal my car – I just drive it like I did.

I’ve hit a few animals, too.

So far, I’ve hit one deer, three possums and a couple squirrels. Not bad, I think, given all the animals I haven’t hit. I’ve got a neighbor who has described driving on our road thusly: “You drive as fast as you can, knowing that around the next turn, you’ll encounter a deer, a bear, a horse and buggy or a herd of cattle being moved from one field to another.” Does that mean we slow down? Heck no! We’re late!

Now, that same neighbor hit a bear last year. Can you imagine? It was awful. He got out of his car to check on the bear, which was injured, but he was unable to help it at all because it was also agitated. My neighbor was devastated.

Hitting a deer is a lot like that, too. I mean, deer are cute! They are also large, and dangerous when frightened, and, they don’t look both ways before they cross the road. The deer I hit was a baby, and oh Lord, just imagine the feeling of having killed Bambi – you’re just absolutely sorry, and at the same time, you’re grateful you didn’t mess up your car. Ugh. I don’t even like to think about it. After that, I installed some of those deer-whistle thingies on my front bumper. I don’t know if they work; I haven’t hit anymore deer, but I’ve probably just been lucky.

One thing I’ve learned is deer seldom travel alone. When I see one in the road, I automatically check the shoulder to see if it has a buddy following behind. Usually, it does. When I’m driving with passengers, the rule is that if you see one, you must shout out the word, “DEER!” to give the driver a chance to move her foot from the gas to the brake pedal.

Raccoons also travel in groups. One of the cutest things I have ever seen was a family of raccoons peering up from the road at my headlights, the little masks across their faces making them look like the most charming burglars in the world.

It’s always a thrill to see fox. One night, I saw two, and I went home and excitedly reported it to my family with the enthusiasm of having seen a pair of famous people, like I had just spotted Vanna White and Pat Sajak on the side of the road. I was over the moon.

Of course, I think everyone’s favorite animal to spot is a bear. When I see a bear cross the road, I always come to a complete stop, roll down the window, and stare. Encountering a bear is like stepping back into Medieval times, when the world was strange and scary, and the forest animals were feared. When the bears stare back at me, I imagine they are looking at me like I’d make a tasty lunch, or maybe like they’re casting an ancient spell on me. In actuality, I know they are really just frozen in terror at the sight of me and my loud, rolling man-machine. Eventually, I drive on, leaving them to head further into the woods and do their bear things, like eating berries and playing tambourines. But, oh, I am thrilled for days.

Seeing a bear in the road always seems like good luck to me. Unless, like my neighbor, you hit it. Then, I think that’s a lot like breaking a mirror – seven years of bad luck and maybe a thorough haunting by the spirits of the forest. And, when you live out our way, that’s a helluva lot of spirits.


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