Monday, March 24, 2008

Strangers in a Strange Land...

While it’s still fresh on my mind, I wanted to relate to this humble blog an experience I had driving back from Charleston at 2:00 am last night.

I should mention here that it was never my intention to drive back so late. I had hoped to leave before dinner time to maximize the daylight – I don’t have issues with night-driving, but I definitely don’t prefer it – but as it happened, I didn’t leave until close to midnight. South Carolina, if you don’t know, doesn’t have the densest of populations, so these highways can be very dark and lonely late at night, especially in the low country. Miles and miles of nothing.

So, like I was saying, at about 2:00 am, I was passing through Clinton, SC, a little town about halfway between Columbia and Spartanburg, when I noticed a pack of red lights in the distance. For the most part, this had been a solo trip with very little contact with other vehicles, but for some reason, a little ways ahead of me, several cars were tightly gathered up and moving very slowly. I thought, “That can’t be good.” I slowed down and approached the cars gently, and noticed they were in a close single-file in the left line, moving at about 15 mph. I was getting ready to pass them on the right when I noticed movement on the right side of my periphery, after which I slammed my brakes and almost lost it.

There, just slightly off the road, barely inches from the edge of the emergency lane, was a massive herd of deer. There were so many, one couldn’t possibly count. Some were grazing contentedly; others were bounding back and forth from group to group. Some were pawing the ground nervously right where the asphalt met the grass, and still others were standing stiff, watching our small caravan of cars move past. Our lights caught their large, oval eyes with flashes that seemed electric as they passed from animal and animal.

I gradually removed my foot from the brake and eased myself behind the four cars I had seen before, ingratiating myself into their little club. We crawled along veeeery slowly, because, frankly, the deer were making us just as nervous as they seemed to be of us. Occasionally, one of the bucks (I assume they were bucks… rather large antlers and all) would venture out into the road and stand there, almost like he was waiting for something. Away from the rest of the group, these bucks seemed large enough to tip a car if they wanted, and the flickering shadows caused by our lights only seemed to make them appear larger and more powerful. After this happened a few times, most of us stopped braking altogether and just continued on, but it was incredibly nerve-wracking all the same. Gradually, other cars filed in behind me ever so cooperatively, until I would guess there were about 12 cars or so making their way past this giant family of deer.

There is no way to impress upon you the sheer number of animals hanging out by the side of the road, but I will tell you that we went on like this for at least 2.5 miles, and there was no break in the lines. I don’t know how deep their numbers were back into the trees, but their bodies were taking up almost all of the space on the embankments between the treeline and the road. The point is: there’s just no telling.

I had turned off my music immediately, but I remember eventually snapping to the realization that I should open my windows a smidge, just to catch whatever sounds I could. The sounds of our cars idling and our brakes expelling air drowned out most everything, but I could hear the faint sounds of munching and the soft bleats of whispered deer-conversations, as well as the intimidating sound of hooves on asphalt.

So, this went on for at least 45 minutes (I know, but I barely noticed), when suddenly, a signal must have been given, because the deer began to venture out onto the road en masse. We all pounded our brakes and held our breath. The deer weren’t afraid of us at all, it seemed, and before we knew it, they were walking, as placid and nonchalant as can be, between our cars, over to the median and across the other lanes. All of the stories I had heard about “deer in headlights” didn’t seem to apply. They simply traveled through us like we were nothing more than very loud, very bright bits of forest.

I don’t pretend to know the mind of a deer, but as all of this was happening, I had to wonder… what must they think of us? Do they realize there are hunters and meateaters lurking in those big cages? Or do they consider the cars to be large, noisy creatures with unnaturally bright eyes but otherwise harmless tempers? I got my answer, sort of, when a beautiful doe crossed in front of my headlights about halfway through the migration and came to a stop. She seemed to be looking at me, but after meeting her eyes with my own, I realized she was probably looking at my lights. She tilted her head slightly to the left, putting my fender directly in her sight, as if to issue a challenge. Then, and I almost missed it completely, a fawn tiptoed across the road, his mother’s body between us. I could see the whites of the mother’s eyes, so I could tell she wasn’t completely comfortable, but once her baby had reached the median, she huffed and sniffed at my car and moved on.

I don’t think I breathed the whole time.

It was magical, really, in that way that magic is fascinating, mysterious, creepy, and wonderful all at the same time. I wonder what my human cohorts were thinking as they experienced it with me. I hope that if any of those other cars had kids in them that their parents thought to wake them up so they could see it. I know that if I were sitting in my car with my mouth open and my eyes as wide as saucers, the kids must have been beside themselves. It would be something to remember for their whole lives. I have no idea who those people were or where they were going, but it was a thrill to share the experience with them. I think I might have been really freaked out, and not in a good way, if all of that had happened to me alone.

It’s entirely possible that there are people who wouldn’t be moved or touched by an experience like this. Some might have been utterly put out; we did, after all, get stuck for almost an hour. But I definitely feel like it was a magical moment - like seeing a shooting star or a butterfly landing on your hand – and I like to think my friends in the caravan felt it, too. I couldn’t help but feel camaraderie with them – we were like strangers in a strange land. This herd of deer has been trekking across the grassy hills of South Carolina for time out of mind, their ancient routes and pathways etched into their minds with the clarity of their own heartbeats. It isn’t they crossing our interstates, but we crossing theirs. I’m glad that I and my fellow drivers were respectful and appreciative enough to let these deer travel unmolested. It was the hospitable thing to do.


Erin G said...

on the INTERSTATE? wow.

it makes me kind of sad when I see animals out like that (though I have never seen the massive numbers that apparently you did last night)... I feel sort of guilty that there's a road in what used to be their front yard. I am all for progress, but I still have that twinge of guilt.

what were you doing in charles towne?

Mary said...

We're used to seeing deer along the roadsides in Minnesota, Reeva, but never so many that we couldn't count them. We are in awe simply seeing one; we'd have been dumbfounded by what you experienced. Thanks for sharing. Marvelous.