The Road Kills
by Deborah Threedy
I rounded the curve and hit the brakes. Below me, where the road cut down through sandstone ledges to cross the river, two or three cars were stopped in my lane. Several large, brown bags were strewn about the highway. Beyond them, a white pickup lay on its side across the road.
People were scrambling out of their cars but running away from the pickup, to the right side of the road, where the shoulder dropped abruptly down to the willows choking the river banks. They stood there staring down over the side.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement to my left. A calf was stumbling up the hill across the road from me. It stopped and stared straight at me, its sweet face blank and unfathomable. After a long moment, the calf looked back over its shoulder at the commotion below us. Then it hobbled forward on three legs, the fourth flopping limply with every step it took.
I have really bad eyesight, have had ever since I was seven years old. As a child, in the years before I got contacts, I liked to take my glasses off and stare at things like the Christmas tree. Myopia would shatter the tree into a kaleidoscope of glittering colors without form or meaning. When I put the glasses back on, it would snap into focus — an evergreen decked out in holiday finery.
Something like that happened now. The scene before me snapped into focus. The brown bags became cows lying on their sides in the roadway, dead or dying.
I put the car into a tight turn and headed back to the last junction, a mile or so away. As I neared it, another car approached, moving fast. I flashed my lights, the other car slowed, and as we came abreast of each other I rolled down my window.
“There’s an accident ahead.”
The driver, a man, repeated my words. “An accident ahead?” He had kids in the back seat.
“Some cows were hit by a truck. It’s not a pretty sight.” I glanced at the kids and hoped he took my meaning. Then, because he seemed at a loss, I said: “You can’t get through, but you can take that other road there and it will hook up with the highway in a few miles and that will lead you back into town.”
The man looked undecided. I think part of him really wanted to see the mess. But he turned reluctantly onto the other road. I stayed there for another half an hour, flagging down oncoming cars and sending them off on the detour, until the volunteer fire chief who was otherwise the owner of the general store showed up and took over the job.
I don’t want to be, but I am acutely conscious of the animals killed along our highways. I regularly drive a thirty-mile section of road that has the distinction of killing more deer each year than any other road in the state, well over four hundred a year – more than one a day. Notice how I said the road killed the deer. We say that all the time: road kill. But of course the road doesn’t kill anything; it just creates the opportunity.
In the days and weeks after the accident, I heard more details than I’d been able to see. It wasn’t the overturned pickup that had hit the cows, as I had originally thought. No, a dump truck with a load of gravel and no brakes had topped the hill to find a herd of cows and calves at the bottom where the road crossed the river.
The cattle were being moved from winter to summer pasture and in this rural county ranchers often herd livestock down the roads. Many times my truck has been turned into an island as a sea of cows flowed around it. I would creep forward and the sea would part, making me feel like Moses. Some cows would ignore the vehicle; others would glare at me, trying to decide whether to flee or charge. The calves, skittish, would suddenly jump in the air, as if they’d never seen a truck before, and maybe they hadn’t.
The dump truck, unable to stop, had plowed into the rear of the herd, sending cows flying into several other vehicles, before it careened off the side of the road, where the shoulder dropped ten feet or so down to the river.
More than twenty of the cows had been killed, either outright or because they were so severely injured they had to be destroyed. That was probably the fate of the calf with the shattered leg. The highway, the only east-west route in the county, was closed until early the next morning, while bulldozers loaded the carcasses into trucks for the ride to the dump. Some people thought at least the meat should have been saved, but a friend said the carcasses were too badly mangled to be edible: who wants diesel oil and road grit in their steaks?
In the midst of all this death and destruction, there was a minor miracle. The driver of the dump truck had his four-year-old son in the cab with him. Neither were wearing seat belts. When the dump truck sailed off the road and nose-dived all those feet into the willows at the river’s edge, it landed cab-first. The weight of the truck and the load of gravel hitting the engine block compressed the cab like an accordion. The dashboard on the passenger’s side ended up within inches of the seat back. But before the truck went over, the little boy had tumbled to the floor of the cab. The dash had been crushed back over his head. Both he and his dad walked away with only cuts and bruises. And nightmares.
The wreck of the truck was winched up the shoulder and hauled to the trucking company’s yard next to the highway, where it sat as warning and reminder for more than a year, losing piece after piece until it was cannibalized down to the frame. Then one day that, too, was gone. More than once before that happened, I pulled off the highway and sat, contemplating the hulk.
The accident was the talk of the county for awhile, but then the talk moved on to other things: the motel owner arrested as a peeping tom; the lawsuit from when the mayor turned off the RV park’s water; the developer who gouged a road up the mountainside south of town. I, however, was unable to move on. I didn’t understand why. They were just cows. I don’t even particularly like cows.
I’d wake thinking of the cows. I’d imagine some serene, bovine consciousness moving rhythmically down the highway, step after step, chewing her cud, vaguely aware of the sun on her back, feeling secure in the safety of the herd. Then the drone of the engine, the beginning of a slow swing of the head, and then — nothing.
A fragment of an art film has haunted me for years, although I remember nothing of the film except this one juxtaposition of images. In the first frame, the camera focuses on a deer lying dead beside the road, head thrown back revealing the curve of the vulnerable throat, vacant eyes staring into eternity, a tangle of legs. The next shot: a woman, naked, lying beside the same road in exactly the same position.
Somewhere down the road, death will overtake us all. The cows, the deer, you, me. Everything that lives, dies.