Slow is not always beautiful, but it's the best way to experience the West — for better or worse. When I'm cross-country bicycling, I'm out in the air where I can smell everything, including the road surface, petroleum exhaust and carrion, especially deer that have died after being hit by vehicles.
Of course, roads are necessary in the rural West — without them we'd be even more isolated than we are — but they are also one of the most disruptive events for wildlife in the history of evolution. Zipping along at 65 or 75 mph or even higher speeds, we become agents of death to all manner of other creatures, whether they walk, fly or slither. And sadly, we don't even realize what we're doing. What happens if we try going slower? If you really want to know a place or a road through a landscape, walking or riding a bicycle is the way to go.
Once, on a cycling tour that took me up the Pacific Coast into Canada and back through the Rockies, I traveled through the Northern Sierras. The day was hot, the asphalt was sticky and I was irritable as the evening came on. Worse, the only campsite I could find was sandwiched between the highway and the shore of a lake. Though the occasional car would burst past, I was able to doze off, but then the full moon started to rise, the wind shifted, and the breeze carried the sickly smell of carrion.
The next morning, I was on the road early, and I paused to rest before I tackled a steep hill. Suddenly, a strangely dressed man stepped out of the trees and walked to the edge of the road. He was a curious sight. A big, fully bearded fellow wearing a white cotton robe that fell to his ankles, exposing bare feet in flip-flops, he also wore a poncho cut from a brown wool blanket.
He thrust a piece of paper into my hand, and I read the message written in big type: "We're monks who don't believe in violence of any kind to animals or humans. Don't eat meat and throw away your leather. Goodbye and good luck."
I must have seemed like a poor customer for his message as I thrust my leather bike shoes into the pedal clips. Struggling to shift gears, I sat back on a leather seat and gripped the handlebars with my leather gloves as I pedaled hard up the hill. Then, at the top, I smelled a dead deer before I even saw it.
I was pedaling through continuous violence, I realized: Every day, I smelled carrion and saw dead birds, skunks, beaver, chipmunks, snakes, dogs, cats and other animals mashed into the road's surface or lying just off it. In Montana's Bitterroot Valley, I even spotted some flattened fauna that looked like it might have been a mink.
Name an animal, and a car has probably killed it.
But probably the worst of it was my realization that most of us never seem to give it any thought. There are exceptions: I heard a story about a Zen teacher at Tassajara Monastery in California's Big Sur, who would ask his driver to stop at every dead animal. The monk would get out, bow, and bless each roadside carcass.
One time, my wife hit a small deer on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. I got out and decided to move the poor thing off the road. I grabbed two of its legs and swung it off to the side, but was surprised when the small deer uttered a moan. I left it along the road, thinking it was going to die, but feeling certain that it was better if it didn't get run over a second time. I stopped at the same spot days later and there was no sign of it. I hope it survived.
I know that sometimes hitting an animal smashes a car as well, and I know that sometimes people are killed in such collisions. I've come close. One dark night, my wife and I were driving our pickup down that same Kaibab road when we hit a cow. It was a big cow, which, I guess, turned out to be lucky for us, because it stood so high off the ground. When we hit it, our radiator and hood took the impact, and we were unhurt. Of course, the cow didn't survive.
Now, whenever I'm in a car, insulated by metal and the power to speed through the world, I try to drive more slowly than almost anybody else. And I bow, or silently nod my head, to all the destroyed creatures that I know are lying on or just beside the road.
Writers on the Range is a syndicated service of High Country News (hcn.org).