By David Feela
It wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t help. A car coming from the other direction pulled to the shoulder a short distance beyond the scene. The driver must have witnessed what happened, was probably as surprised as me, but she wasn’t getting out of her vehicle and neither was I. Who has the time to certify in first-aid training when it comes to resuscitating a 300-pound brown bear?
I should start at the beginning, though it happened so quickly I hardly remember if there was a beginning. My pickup was traveling about 50 mph along the gentle curves that Colorado Highway 62 carves out of the mountains on its way up toward the Dallas Divide. The highway on the Placerville side of the summit is a two-laner, with towering rock walls to my left and a steep descending embankment to my right. A creek rushes through the crease, well below the highway, but much of it is obscured by the lush mountain flora.
The blur that crested the embankment and into my path was hardly recognizable at the moment of its appearance. I tugged the steering wheel toward the center line to avoid it, but the car coming from the other direction narrowed my options. The brown bear, charging up the embankment like a fur-encrusted meteor, struck my truck on the passenger side, just behind my headlight. Thump. Another thump against the passenger door panel. Then it was over. That quickly. Less than a thought. Barely a paragraph.
The number of animals we dispatch on our highways must be phenomenal. By one estimate, a million lives a day, including birds, mice, squirrels, snakes, rabbits, prairie dogs, gophers, skunks, raccoons, turtles, frogs, cats, and dogs. We call them roadkill, not fatalities. The bigger ones, however, like deer, elk, and bear, make us sit up and pay attention.
My bear remained motionless, dead still I thought, until I watched her head rise from the road surface and twist, a bit like a periscope, looking around. She then made a valiant attempt to stand, rose on all fours until a front leg buckled and she collapsed again into a heap. She moved as if she’d been drinking, weaving and wobbling, a 50 mph highball altering her brain.
A few inert seconds passed that seemed to take full minutes before she made another attempt to stand. I’m watching like a gawker at this scene of misfortune. I’m thrilled she’s moving; I’m horrified to watch her struggle. I want to get out of the truck and help; I don’t want to get out of the truck and help. I’m a wreck, literally and figuratively. Then she puts all her bear-like prerogatives into their proper perspectives, stands, twists, and before I can say Holy Bear Shit! she lunges off the road, back down the embankment from which she first came.
She survived! I still can’t believe it. What a rugged piece of fur and flesh. I climbed out of the truck and cautiously approached the shoulder, peered into the natural abyss at the side of the road. No sign of a bear, just the sound of a rushing creek. I shouted, “Sorry!” but I had the feeling forgiveness is just a human sentiment, an indulgence we rely on for the assurance of salvation.
The car that had pulled over to observe my drama started its engine and drove away. There was no blood on the pavement. I turned back to my truck to inspect the damage, to see if I could leave the scene. In addition to the crumpled panels, a chunk of plastic near the headlight had been sprung like a flag. I knew the wind would tear it loose, so I found a roll of black electrical tape in my tool bag and fastened it. The tire had plenty of room to roam inside its wheel well. I could drive, and with a Wallflowers CD playing I could make it home with one headlight.
The next day I took the truck to a body shop for an estimate. The manager concluded it would cost over $4,000, and it would take eight to ten days to make the repairs. I’d chosen to drive with a $500 deductible. Ah, I thought, when it comes to suffering, we make ourselves into the best victims.
I do wish the bear a long life, but if she woke in the morning with throbbing headache I wouldn’t be surprised.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/.