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It's Nelly's World

Oh Deer

alec vanderboom

Working part-time at Time-Life in the eighties gave me many things. A place to be in the middle of the night once a week; free telephone calls to anywhere; all the insipid magazines to flip through in down-time that one could ever want; an acerbic, brilliant proofreading partner who could keep me awake with his commentary on every aspect of American mismanagement of life; full health benefits, and, equally amazing, ten dollars cash in an envelope to buy take-out from the Japanese noodle shop; upon a temporary firing--followed quickly enough by re-hiring that it didn’t matter--a check for a thousand dollars that bought my first motorcycle. And something that just now reminded me of this whole gravy-train episode: records and books from the freebie table that held the outcasts from the critics’ desks. One night I took home an album called How Did You Find Me Here by someone I’d never heard of, and bet you haven’t either, named David Wilcox. It featured an image of an acoustic guitar, which is no doubt why I expended the effort to pick it up, and a promise that among its tracks was a song titled “Eye of the Hurricane.”

I learned to love that album, with Wilcox’s honeyed voice and tight, classic songwriting lines. It plays now in the background. And that one song has new resonance now.

It is about a girl who buys the farm on her Honda Hurricane.

The tank is full, the switch is on,

The night is warm, cops are gone

Rocket bike is all her own;

It’s called a Hurricane.

She told me once it’s quite a ride,

It’s shaped so there’s this place inside

Where, if you’re moving, you can hide.

She wants to run away, but there’s nowhere she can go

Nowhere the pain won’t come again

But she can hide, hide in the pouring rain:

She rides the eye of a hurricane.

Tell the truth, explain to me

How you got this need for speed.

She laughed and said,

Might just be the next best thing to love.

. . .

We saw her ride so fast last night

Racing by, a flash of light.

Riding quick, the street was dark,

The shiny truck she thought was parked,

It blocked her path, stopped her heart.

But not the Hurricane.

It can be one of many things, what can get you. Or you can fit together several of them to make your own individualized catastrophe. Often, deer figure in the scene.

The way motorcyclists hit deer is sometimes impossible, sometimes spectacular. The bike may stay upright; it may go down. Riders die, or they live through it; the deer always go. They explode upon impact.

Think about that.

As a motorcyclist I am supposed to hate them. They are, as one friend says, The Enemy. The appropriate response is to want to kill them before they kill you. This is the American way, after all.

But I love deer. I cannot hate anything that is made of fear, and pure beauty, and has to come up against us.

They call them “forest rats,” and I hate hearing that disparaging term; it comes from the same place that thought up "gook," and "nigger." Makes all of them easier to wipe away, diminished like that. But who in fact made deer so plentiful? Their inflated numbers are another creation of our penchant for killing; we took out the wolves and coyotes, too, so now there are no controls. We need not control ourselves.

I had a wonderful stop in Hendersonville, drinking coffee and talking with a friend. I should have been watching the clock. Because I should have gotten on the Blue Ridge Parkway an hour earlier; I needed to make Roanoke that night. Which meant I had an hour and a half of that lonely byway, made mysterious by the dark, after sunset. The deer had reclaimed the roadside; their heads raised, startled, at my headlight. They were the armies of the night, and I had invaded their territory. Fortunately, the BMW, aka the Blender, was as silent a goer as a bike can get. They watched me go by. But I could only do so at thirty miles an hour. There were so many. And though I was frightened—or at least, respectful of the possibilities—I still felt privileged to be in their presence.

The next day, after enjoying the remainder of what is surely one of the great motorcycling roads of the world, I had to face the clock again, and hop onto I-81 for the race home. The Parkway had been my gift to myself, but its wrapping paper was now torn aside.

The happy rhythm, the growing intimacy with the physics of riding the turns on the parkway, made me feel cocky and invincible. So I forgot things, important, basic things. Do not follow trucks. Do not follow anyone closely. Especially trucks.

It emerged from under one of them so quickly I could not do anything, swerve, move over. I fixated on it, and in one portion of a second it was burned onto the film of the inner eye and even now I cannot get it out of my sight. A foreleg first. Then a head, black eyes staring, shocked. Then a brown body, and the crunch of my wheels as it went over, through.

If it had been something solid, made of wood or metal, you would not be reading this. Or, if I had been going slower, it might have brought me down.

A hundred miles later I pulled up next to the pump. I looked down as I put my heel to the sidestand, and what I saw made me ill—at the same time I smelled it, which made me more ill. Not only physically, but right in the heart. I had brought that dead deer with me, dripping from every part of the machine, covering my boots. It had baked onto the engine; hair was caught behind bolts. I felt tears pushing behind my eyes, and maybe only some of them were of relief that I had escaped a spill to which I had been so close.

She had not escaped. She had no hope to. They have been made, by the same evolutionary pressures that made us, to wheel and throw the predator off track. How to hate the dead? And I saw, hanging in threads from below me, that what is inside them looks exactly like what is in us. We are the same under the skin.

Today I walked with Nelly on one of our old trails; we have missed our walks lately. It was nearing dusk; their time. I would have felt lonely, as I sometimes do this time of day, out in the woods far from anyone. Except I knew they were there, watching. And that I find myself wondering if I am more like them than I am like you.

Postscript: The above was written well before the news that several riders on the Iron Butt Rally, which just finished yesterday, were the victims of deer strikes, and one was hurt critically. This kind of news makes me feel nauseous with sadness. Do I want motorcyclists to go down in collisions with deer? No. Do I want to go down myself? No. Do I like having to split my sympathies? No. Do I not even understand why I must? Yes. I feel the framing of this problem is what has gone seriously wrong: Ride a bike; must desire to kill.

"Solve the deer problem!" say the posters on the riding forums. But it's not the deer's problem.

Bring back their predators. Control human numbers. I hope I am ready for the flak this is going to cause to rain down on me.