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Branching Out: What could be more important?

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I assumed it was a sobriety check and downshifted. My truck was packed for camping and a bluegrass festival; I would drive through the night. Emergency lights split the darkness, spinning and flashing on a scene so horrific I gasped at the sight. A cow elk — her eyes wide, head thrown back — and blood, blood everywhere, shining in my headlights.

Gripping the steering wheel, I howled. What! Why! Why? Home, just get me home. Two miles away, inside, racing and pacing, the questions consume me. Why was she still alive? Why had no one put her down? How long had they been there, letting her suffer? Who the hell did this? How fast were they going?

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I had to go back. I had to see her, to make sure she’s relieved — euthanized.

I changed into Carhartts, grabbed a snap blade utility knife and my headlamp and drove back. I pulled onto the shoulder, slowly, tentatively. I gave my driver’s license and conservation ID. They wrote me a salvage permit. I knelt at her body, immense and glorious, running my hands over her, willing her to forgive us. Damp wildness wafted up. Dirt and gravel clung to her coat.

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The officers left. It was just the cold black night, me and her.

As my hand glided over her lower belly, taut and round, I felt an unnatural protrusion and stuffed my thoughts on what that meant. Instead, I gathered a pinch of her hide, and gently, reverently began to slice.

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Stars wheeled over Sopris as I worked. My headlamp and high beams in the highway grass at 2 a.m. must’ve seemed abnormal. The vehicles on 133 flew onward, sometimes revving as they passed.

Hands sticky with blood, tissue under my nails and pants soaked, I heard a car pull to a stop on the opposite shoulder.

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“Hey! I heard something about a moose over the radio! Is that a moose?” he called from his open door.

“No. Cow elk.”

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“Oh. I was hoping it was a moose. I was gonna ask for some steaks!” he hollered, and then he was gone.

Working the hide from a quarter, the Exacto blade nicked at beautiful, functional, miraculous fascia: a web of glistening white tissue that moves and glides between our muscles. I sliced deeper, through dense maroon tissue, muscles that had carried this cow through a harsh Rocky Mountain winter.

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Standing, I sagged under the weight of her leg. Cold, soaked, I could barely clear the ground hauling it to the truck bed. Blood squished in my socks and I pondered the driver. Do they consider the animals that share this river valley? That it’s not all about us? Had they hit an animal before?

En route to a wedding half a lifetime ago, I hit an elk. Our windows had been open to the autumn air, to the burble of the river and the tang of dying leaves. We heard the bugling first — those primordial screams and grunts that damn near unleash a soul. I tapped my brakes as ahead of us in the dusk, one after another leapt from the willows. I didn’t think. I was so awed.

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The physical impact of a straggler against my grill was sickening. Our heads spun and we watched a yearling slide about 40 feet down the asphalt, dead on impact. Two fingers of Jameson in a bar that night failed to douse my shame.

I’ve “driven the shoulders’’ ever since, never wanting to feel that way again — or to cause such suffering again. My speed on 133 nearing dusk is about 45 — how fast can I slam my brakes to a hard stop? I try not to flare when pissed off commuters or tourists, Audis and trucks, gun it past me. And I try so hard not to wish them ill… I’m a hypocrite when I do. The last two times I’ve been in an accident, my immediate thought has been of my child — so grateful she wasn’t with me.

I sliced out backstraps and tenderloins ever so slowly, almost done. Belly partially opened, a massive organ slid out in a flush of fluids. All elbows and knees, a most perfect elk calf, sleek as a seal, spilled onto the grass in a single gush. Whoever hit this cow killed not one being, but two. I just stared: two-inch lashes sealing eyes that would never open; a shiny, slick muzzle that would never nurse.

Who ever gets to see something like this? I brought a baby elk into the world! Still born; still a miracle. I knew the moment I saw her belly in the emergency lights — so full, so round. I knew I would release her to the world, cheated as she was by a human’s carelessness.

Emergency lights have always undone me — the last I saw of my own mother, I was six or seven years old. I watched them roll her body into an ambulance and right out of my life. After 52 hours of labor and an emergency birth, my newborn quit breathing. I watched, frozen in the stirrups, as they pumped her tiny ribcage, and willed her to breathe. Today, she is the most incredible miracle I have.

Bringing her into this world, being a part of creating life, has made me so much more aware of all the sentient beings out there. I really just wish everyone would slow down on 133. What is more important than protecting life?

Photo by Geneviève Villamizar

Tags: #Branching Out #death #elk #Highway 133 #life #trauma
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