What was it with all of the dead Armadillos? This was the weighty question I found myself pondering as I bicycled down Louisiana Highway 71 south toward Alexandria.
Bicyclists develop a thick-skinned attitude toward road kill. The shoulder we ride on contains the flotsam and jetsam of two worlds, the highway and the land next to it. Broken car parts, discarded (often smoldering) cigarette butts, empty beer cans, fast-food trash, and dead animals come with the territory. Maintaining a sense of humor is important.
To keep myself amused, I would sometimes make up tombstone epitaphs for the animals. Here lies Spot, who was finally cured of chasing cars. Or how about this: Old Tom had been warned time and again about not chasing girl kitties on the other side of the road.
A couple of friends of mine who operated the Lung Association Trek Program in Sacramento after I went off to Alaska, developed a different approach to roadside debris: a scavenger hunt. I’ve blogged about this before. On the last day of the Trek, participants would be given a list of different items they were supposed to collect— things like an empty pack of Camels, a Budweiser beer can, a McDs’ cup, plastic from a broken brake light, a sail cat, etc.
“A sail cat? What’s that?” you ask.
A sail cat, simply put, is a cat who has met its demise at the wrong end of a logging truck. Think of it as a pancake with legs. After a week or two of curing in the hot summer sun, you can pick it up and sail it like a Frisbee. Even your dog can join in the fun. It gives a whole new meaning to chasing cats. Of course, Fido may prefer to roll on it. Lucky you.
A particular scavenger hunt was described to me. One couple had actually found a sail cat and brought it into camp. Naturally they won, as they should have. But the story goes on. After dropping the unfortunate cat into a dumpster, the couple packed up and headed home. When they arrived and opened their trunk, there was kitty. Scary, huh. Turns out another couple had slipped the cat into the trunk. With friends like that, eh, who needs enemies. That should end the story, except it doesn’t. Both husbands worked for the State of California. A couple of days later the perpetrator of the prank received a large interoffice mail packet at work. He opened it. Out slid kitty. The end.
One person’s road kill is another person’s feast, right? Somewhere I have a newspaper picture of my brother Marshall chowing down on an armadillo when he was in Florida. I checked the Internet and there are a number of recipes, so I assume it is edible. Marsh said it was. And I saw a lot of happy buzzards along Highway 71.
None of this explains the sheer number of dead armadillos, however. After six or seven I began to lose my sense of humor. Were they migrating across the road in large numbers at night? Had the people whose job it was to remove roadkill gone on strike. I never did figure it out, but I am happy to report when Peggy and I drove the same road to Alexandria a couple of months ago, we didn’t see one dead armadillo.
I really hadn’t planned on going to Alexandria, in fact the jaunt added a hundred miles to my journey. Motels and bike repairs had reduced my cash to around $50, however, and this was still a time when ATMs didn’t grow on every corner. Alexandria was the nearest city that accepted my particular brand of plastic. The town, I quickly learned, was not bike friendly, at least at the time. Few cities were. And I had the misfortune of arriving at the height of rush hour and then immediately getting lost. My already low sense of humor dropped another notch.
Several map checks persuaded me that a narrow bridge making a steep climb up and over a small bayou provided a way out. A long line of commuters was struggling to get through the bottleneck, and, judging from the honking, not happy about the delay. Adding to my woes, there wasn’t enough room for two cars and me to co-exist side by side on the bridge. Steeling myself, I forced my way into the insanity and became leader of the pack, adding several more minutes to an already long day for the homeward bound. I swear there must have been 10,000 cars behind me. At least it felt that way. It was one hell of a parade. All I needed was a baton.
I have to hand it to the good folks of Alexandria, however. Not one of them honked at me. Several waved when I pulled off the road on the other side. A couple of young women even rolled down their window and whistled. Up went my sense of humor.
I found a motel that fit my budget that night and the ATM the next morning. Heading out of town I became lost again, of course, this time on an expressway where drivers were competing with each other to see how fast they could drive beyond the speed limit. My thoughts turned to the armadillos and their unfortunate end. The first exit found me departing the road at a speed that would have impressed Mario Andreotti.
I pulled into the driveway of a mortuary to check my map again. Much to my surprise, the double doors opened and out popped the mortician, who made a beeline for me. My mind leapt back in time to an early Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western where the mortician measured strangers who rode into town to see what size casket he should build. While laughing to myself, I still checked the mortician’s hands to see if he was carrying a tape measure. Turns out the mortician was a minister and the mortuary was a church. He invited me in for coffee, a morning snack and directions. As I left, he handed me his card. “If you have any problems between here and Mississippi,” he told me, “call and I’ll come out and give you a lift.”
Soon I was heading out of town on Highway 28 to rejoin Louisiana 84, my original route across the state. From there, I biked on to the mighty Mississippi River. The route from Alexandria proved to be quite varied. I biked past dark swamps, lakes, shacks, mansions and cotton fields that were once worked by slaves. Finally, I arrived at Vidalia and the imposing Vidalia-Natchez Bridge that would take me across the Mississippi and out of Louisiana. The historic town of Natchez and the Natchez Trace were waiting.