by the Night Writer
In the last 30 years I’ve driven between Minnesota and Missouri in all kinds of weather and in all seasons. Spring and early summer are the most scenic times. Missouri has always seemed to be kind of a brown state to me: mud and wet clay in the winter and baked dust in the summer, while in the fall the leaves seem to turn dry and brown all too quickly. It is a hilly state, however, and a welcome contrast to the flat lands and straight roads of Iowa that we aim our way across to get there. In the spring time the hills are green with trees, turning blue-gray as they hump their way to the horizon. Come summer, a humid haze hangs over these hills like an old gym sock, making your mouth dry just to look at them.
Spring, however, also seems to be the time when various critters get a touch of the wanderlust and a desire to see what’s on the other side of the road – especially if it’s female. Disney would say they are twitter-pated, but they are often twitter-pasted. Whether because they are distracted or, conversely, perhaps too single-minded, the animals don’t pay sufficient attention to what must be the mind-boggling closing rates of oncoming metal and rubber monsters. This particular trip seems gorier than most as we see a steady collection of gob-smacked fauna on the shoulders of the road, in the medians, and often on the highway itself. Dogs, cats, deer, ubiquitous raccoons, rabbits and sometimes unidentifiable flats of fur are garnish for the vultures we frequently see loafing in the skies ahead of us, recognizable by the spread, finger-like feathers at the ends of their wings. From the time I spent working on a road crew in this state, however, I know this is also the season for the most unlikely of road warriors: turtles.
When you think of how many swift animals such as deer and rabbits get turned into pizza it is strange indeed to ponder what impulse could incent an unimpulsive tortoise to cross the road, and the ugly odds against a successful arrival. Still, they are shattered left and right this time of year. Does Darwin know about this?
At one point, I’m driving as we cruise down a relatively straight stretch of two-lane Highway 63 when we see a black shape that looks like a large serving platter in the middle of the oncoming lane about 100 yards ahead. It could be a piece of rubber from a blown tire. I’m trying to categorize it as my wife asks, “Is it roadkill?” I’ve noticed, however, that it has actually moved a little closer to the other side of the road as we watched, and I’ve also noticed an empty flat-bed truck with a red cab coming our way. “Not yet,” I reply. “Snapping turtle.”
Sure enough, the truck has edged over and I think it’s trying to straddle the snapper; turtle shells can be hell on tires. Instead, about 50 yards ahead of us the left front tire hits the turtle at 60 miles per hour. I’m expecting squish but instead it’s boom as the turtle blows up like a grenade; blood, parts of shell and parts I don’t even want to try to describe go flying up into the air as high as the roof of the truck. I’m too shocked to look at anything but the road so I don’t see the face of the driver as the rig sweeps by us so I don’t know if he’s smiling or gulping.
It’s probably two miles before I reach back into the box of ju-jubes on the console next to me.