Nemethy: Near and deer

The magnificent whitetail deer. Photo by Ron Abfalter.

The magnificent whitetail deer. Photo by Ron Abfalter.

Editor’s note: This essay by Andrew Nemethy first aired on Vermont Public Radio.

Most of us rarely notice passing seconds. My own life runs on minutes and hours – the few minutes I always seem to be late, and the lack of enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done. But seconds? I just don’t think about them much.

That all changed in the blink of an eye on Interstate 89 just south of the infamous Bolton Flats. It was around 9 p.m. and my daughter and I were returning from a visit to Burlington when I went eyeball to eyeball with a whitetail – mano a deero I guess you could say – at 70 miles per hour. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I can tell you that my heart went from zero to 70 as if I’d just chugged a whole pint of five-hour-energy.

That was followed by a litany of involuntary exclamations that might not even be permitted on late night cable. and then as the adrenalin deflated into a twitchy weakness in my feet, I had a sharp awareness of how one second can crash into your consciousness and life as powerfully as a whole month of humdrum.

To bastardize a little Robert Frost, I was suddenly very grateful for the step not taken. Had I been a second later, the deer might have stepped into the travel lane directly in front of my car, instead of as I saw it, frozen on the white line in the middle of I-89 as my car whizzed by, so close I could see his/her eyes bug out as I swerved to avoid a collision. So close I could have reached out and patted its nose or scratched an ear. I wondered if it could see me through the window, looking equally startled.

A second is usually inconsequential in the large scheme of things but the close call left me thinking how slim a distance it was to an unhappy and disastrous convergence of my fate and the deers on a warm and benevolent night in Vermont. I could have ended up with a busted-up car, a trip to the hospital or worse, and I’m pretty sure I know what condition the deer would have been in.

After the near miss, I began oddly wondering where that stolen second came from. Was it getting my seat belt buckled on the first try? Not fiddling with the radio because it was already tuned to the Red Sox game? As I continued homeward, suddenly wary, I also wondered: Why does the deer cross the road?

After the near miss, I began oddly wondering where that stolen second came from. Was it getting my seat belt buckled on the first try? Not fiddling with the radio because it was already tuned to the Red Sox game? As I continued homeward, suddenly wary, I also wondered: Why does the deer cross the road? It’s not a joke, of course, though Chief Game Warden Col. David LeCours chuckled when I asked him and said, “Who really knows?”

In 2010, there were 2,592 collisions between deer and vehicles, which is a lot when you think about it – which most of us don’t. He said that number is down from past years when the herd was bigger and collisions numbered almost 4,000. And of course that doesn’t include close calls like mine. Or the 100 moose collisions in 2011, which are often far more serious due to the animal’s size: 18 people have died in moose-vehicle collisions since 1985.

According to auto insurer State Farm, there were more than one million deer-vehicle collisions between July 2010 and July 2011, which is actually a decline from previous years. In case you’re wondering, Vermont is small game when it comes to deer accidents: Pennsylvania leads the way, with 101,299 and Michigan is second with 78,304, says State Farm.

I have, unfortunately, a history with deer. Or maybe, deer have a history with me, sort of a karmic convergence. Perhaps I was a wolf in a past life and dined on a few too many whitetails? All I know is in my some 40 years in Vermont, I’ve had at least six collisions and am not kidding when I say deer seem to be trying to get me.

Some of this has to do with eight years of coming home from work as a newspaper editor at 2 or 3 in the morning, when deer seem to think they own the roads as they conduct their nocturnal perambulations. In one stretch, I had three collisions in just two years around my home area of Calais, including one where the deer jumped over a spring snowbank and right into the passenger side of my car, knocking off the mirror and kissing the window.

Another was a clear deericide: Standing by the road and choosing the exact right second to jump in front of the car as I slammed on the brakes and swerved to avoid him, leaving my battered Subaru hood dented as it slid up and then off to the side and amazingly ran off, leaving me shaken. I doubt it survived. This doesn’t count at least as many close calls with deer skittering across the asphalt or gravel roads to get out of the way or standing by the side of the road as they were caught in my headlights, immobilized by indecision.

What this all means I’m not sure, except that a century or so of automobiles has clearly not been long enough for the evolutionary process to adapt deer to the dangers of vehicles, as well as they have learned to be inherently wary of hunters and coyotes.

As for me, that close call has given me a new appreciation of a much underestimated risk of life in the country, not to mention that sometimes, a second of time can be pretty valuable.

Andrew Nemethy

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