Writers on the Range: Little sympathy for the deerly departed
It’s 5:30, dusk scudding into darkness. A fawn stands on the centerline of Highway 20, gazing with vacant curiosity into my Pathfinder’s grille as the truck’s brake pads challenge the laws of physics having to do with objects at rest and in motion. A car is barreling down at us from the other direction. The shoulder drops off abruptly into rollover land, so swerving is out of the question. That’s how people get killed or maimed around here, careening into ghastly wreckage while the deer blithely prances away.
So we are locked in a fractional moment of inevitability, random creatures on a cosmic collision course. But that’s not the deer I hit.
There are road signs on State Highway 20 at each end of Washington’s Methow Valley that purport to list the to-date tally of road-killed deer and an eye-popping estimate of the resulting vehicular damage. Everyone who lives here knows that the signs aren’t regularly updated, but the point is well taken. Our roadsides are grotesquely adorned with the blasted and bloated carcasses of muleys and whitetails whose heedless determination compelled them to test the mutability of a jacked-up F-350 supercab sporting a snowplow. But deer don’t know the difference between a beefy rig and a beater Subaru because — and I implore you to clear children from the room before they are disillusioned by this primal truth — Bambi is an idiot.
Dumb as a rock. Stupid as a stump. Dense as a linzer torte, and thus, eventually, dead as a doornail. That “deer-in-the-headlights” look isn’t about fear. It’s decision paralysis, because at that moment, the deer’s thought process about an object moving toward it is nothing. Fight or flight? Nah. Just stand there. Thump. And because they don’t fly any better than they reason, airborne deer make hard and typically fatal landings.
We Methow Valley residents are at a strategic standoff. Even long-timers have given up on predicting deer behavior. Driving slowly doesn’t always work. The animals are in evolutionary stasis and have no apparent learning curve. They stand by the side of the road like kids at a school crossing, muzzles up, ears cocked, eyes forward, looking for all the world like they understand the situation — until the instant they inexplicably bolt into the precise zone where you cannot possibly slow enough to avoid them.
There’s a good reason there aren’t any “why-did-the-deer-cross-the-road?” jokes.
We choose to live among them and coexist. We mean each other no harm. But cute? Please. When they aren’t creating livelihoods for auto repair shops, deer are garden-wrecking cougar bait. Every so often, a mountain lion wanders into downtown Winthrop, and within 100 yards of the quaint Western-style boardwalks, the big cat takes down a couple of the municipal deer. This thins the herd but alarms the human residents.
We all have our deer-miss stories. That night on the highway, the fawn escaped with a last-second pirouette and we all proceeded safely. A few days later, in about the same spot in broad daylight on dry pavement, a full-grown buck of the in-season shootable variety exploded out of the ditch directly in front of the Pathfinder. If the animal had just kept moving we both would have been OK. But it stopped, and I could not. The truck clipped the deer’s left hindquarter and the deer somersaulted off the far embankment — the same one I chose not to drive over a few days earlier. The truck was barely damaged. But the sound of unyielding metal punching into flesh and bone stays with you.
It was, in an odd way, something of a christening: After 27 months and 26 days of residence in the valley, and after a couple of dozen hair’s-breadth misses, I got my deer. Or it got me. Since then, I’ve had many more screeching decelerations but no collisions. Which only means that No. 2 is probably out there somewhere.
One night last winter, after it had snowed a few times and overnight temperatures dropped into the single digits, I was cruising through Winthrop when a doe ambled across the road in front of me. It was head down, wearing its shaggy winter coat, and it looked tired and hungry.
That’s one for the cougars, I thought, and for a moment felt sorry for her. But at least that would be a natural death, and neither my truck nor my conscience would bear the marks of her demise. I hoped it would be our closest encounter of any kind.
Don Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News in Twisp, Washington. Unfortunately, he says, after writing this he hit a deer while driving, and the resulting damage cost $1,500. The deer staggered off.
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