Riding bicycles, you encounter roadkill up close and often. And in the rural south, you encounter an extraordinary amount of it. Like most things that we spend our lives accustomed to, I scarcely noticed this for many of my early years cycling in Texas. I only sort of noticed how much less roadkill there was in California, where there was simply far less wildlife to get killed by cars. And while biking across the continent sometime during those college years, I began to notice the regional variation in roadkill; the reptiles and amphibians of central Florida gently yielding to more mammals further from the swamps, then back to sea creatures as the floods of Hurricane Isaac dragged porpoises and fish onto Highway 90. More armadillos in Texas, and whitetail deer lying defeated, serving as prime buffets for turkey vultures.
The circle of life is a cruel reality, but it is reality nonetheless. But that is not what I think of when I see fragments of armadillo shell splintered across the asphalt or an errant deer leg sticking out of the tall grass beside the road. Instead I see something familiar. I see myself lying there, splintered to pieces by a careless driver who thought the text message was more important than driving well. As I ride by on my bike and hear the sound of my tires whish-whirring through the chip-and-seal, I note the remains of animal life with a grim acceptance. An F-250 passes noisily, three-and-a-half tons of rubber, steel, and diesel clatter make a considerate lane change before coasting past at sixty miles an hour.
I notice its tailgate and license plate and realize that I am probably still alive and its taillights are ahead of me. But I might not know the difference between a last-ditch ganglion simulation of existing and actually being alive, a real-life biological version of the Matrix. I shake my head a bit at the freshly-spilled guts of the armadillo I just swerved around on the narrow shoulder. Sometimes roadkill is flattened and black, the product of sun-tanning and tire-treading and a few days of dry aging. Others, it is raw and bloody and reminds us of the grotesque parts contained within our wholes. I wish I could put it all back in its right place and let the critter return to scurrying.
Life and death are balanced tenuously, and we really don’t like to think about that. Our hearts and souls rely entirely on our gallbladders and small intestines being intact and our blood being inside of its various arteries and veins. When things go awry, who knows whether it will be gentle and dark, fading from the top-down or whether it will be loud and ring in our ears, a gradual and conscious loss from the outside in. I wince when my car inevitably hits a butterfly while traveling on the highway; my progress comes at the cost of such great beauty.
I pedal harder, thinking about the secret lives of armadillos, what they must get up to when we are not running them over, the way they were one of the most indestructible creatures in the animal kingdom until we invented cars and high-speed roadways which act in a way that is not in accordance with the laws of nature. Most predators give up when armadillos stop running and roll up into protective balls, but cars plow right over them. Their attempts at armoring up and playing “possum” are futile against many tons of four-wheeled kinetic energy. I have long said that the armadillo is my spirit animal, somewhat because of its stubborn symbolism for all things Texana, but more so because it is a creature that is so perfectly made for the world it was made for and so dreadfully unprepared for the one it now finds itself in. The world we live in is so rarely the world we were made for.
I can relate to the splattered armadillos and the opossums split in two. It is so difficult to live the lives that we were made to live, because you never know what will hit you. And so often, we never know what did hit us. The experience of being hit hard by a car and surviving it gave me a certain insight into the razor-thin line between existing and not. I remember feeling the fade to black and knowing that there was likely nothing left.
Deep in the Ozarks, I encounter a lot of living versions of the creatures that many people have only ever seen dead. Armadillos and raccoons are marvelous creatures, and deer are truly remarkable beings. So are people. It might change people if they would stare at roadkill instead of averting their eyes. We hear about death tolls on the news and envision it as a number, not a plain day with blue skies and normal lives, ended with a sudden crack. It may not be productive to live every second expecting an accidental death, but it is absolutely not productive to live every second expecting everything to go according to plan, to believe that we are made for the situations we find ourselves in, to think that our dreams will come true in a distant future in order to ignore the present circumstances.