It’s the August before our senior year in college and we’ve spent the whole summer in Grinnell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and by this point we’re so restless that tonight we decided to make the hundred mile round trip to Iowa City to see a shitty movie—America’s Sweethearts, totally not worth the trip—but of course the movie wasn’t the point, the point was the novelty of getting out of town and sitting in a real theater and eating buttery popcorn and not spending yet another night at the dingy college pub we’ve basically lived in all summer.
But now it’s late and we’re driving on a dark two lane country road and I can’t see anything and I’m doing my best to keep everyone alive, because at the beginning of the summer I almost killed us all.
Two months earlier, same car, same group of friends. I was driving and they were doing rumpus and we were going to Des Moines for some reason, probably the same reason: that we were bored, that it seemed like a good way to pass a summer afternoon. That time, we were on I-80, going fast—75 or 80, probably—when something ran out in front of me. A rabbit, maybe. Or a fox. It all happened so fast. I swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control of the car and we went swinging wildly, sickeningly, across the lane and off the road, down into the weeds and wildflowers on the side of the highway, and finally came to a stop inches from a telephone pole.
Two inches more, and I would have killed everyone in my house.
We fell out of the car in dazed relief, stumbling through the goldenrod and phlox, milkweed and blackeyed susans, clutching at their stems to reassure ourselves that we were still here.
A state trooper had been behind me and caught the whole thing on his car camera. “Next time?” he told me. “Just hit the rabbit.”
“Just hit the rabbit,” I repeated. I could see myself in his aviator glasses. I looked like a ghost.
He smiled at me. “Just hit the rabbit.”
I understood. Except… I didn’t want to hit the rabbit.
My parents are both very nature-oriented, and they taught me from an early age to look out the windows, to pay attention, to see nature. That’s a red winged blackbird, see the red on its wings? Those are sandhill cranes; they often fly in pairs. Come to the window; there’s a fox in the yard. My mom taught me to scan the treeline at dusk for deer; they like to hang out on the edges of cornfields. My dad taught me to see red tail hawks along the highway and told me that when you see a hawk, it’s a sign that everything is going to be okay.
Now, I see wildlife everywhere, even in the city. There are woodpeckers and cardinals and peregrine falcons and great blue herons and turtles and muskrats and coyotes and opossums and raccoons and rabbits. My friends tease me that spotting wildlife is one of my super powers. Sometimes it feels like a different way of being in the world entirely. Other people don’t see what I see.
A few months ago, I drove to Iowa and saw vultures the whole way. Three hundred miles from Madison to Des Moines, through the road cuts in southern Wisconsin, above the Mississippi River bluffs, over the modest curves of central Iowa. In groups of three and five, fingered wings outspread, circling circling against the bright spring sky. They were there as my friend Cam and I drove to dinner one night. “It’s a big weekend for vultures, huh?” I joked.
“What do you mean?”
I looked at him. “Are you kidding me? We’ve seen probably fifteen vultures in the last ten minutes.”
“I didn’t see any,” he said.
“What? How is that even possible? They’re everywhere.”
He shrugged. “I was looking at the road.”
I look at the road, too. And the treeline, and the telephone poles, and the sky, and the river. Last summer I saw a young buck wading across a stream at twilight and it felt like a gift. And every time I see a red tailed hawk, it feels like a message from the world that things will be okay.
“Just hit the rabbit,” the state trooper told me, and my friends picked it up, half joke, half not-joke. I understood it intellectually: that the lives of your best friends are not worth sacrificing for the life of one wild rabbit. I came from a place where that was never a question. Where I come from, parents are at least as worried about their teens hitting deer as they are about drinking and driving. Country roads are strewn with roadkill: farm cats and coyotes and deer. When people tell stories about hitting deer with their cars, they focus on the damage to their cars, how lucky they were to walk away relatively unscathed. No one ever feels sorry for the deer.
The first time I ever hit anything with my car was freshman year of college. Ali was with me that time, too. She had come home with me for Thanksgiving and we were on a dark country road outside of my small Wisconsin town, and something – an opossum I think – ran in front of my car and then it was under my car and we both felt it hit the undercarriage, bump bump, and it was awful and it made my heart hurt and there was nothing to do but drive on so that’s what I did. Because sometimes you hit things with your car. That’s life, right?
Sometimes when I’m in a bad place, rawer than usual, depressed, sad, I drive past roadkill and think about the moments right before they died: the hard asphalt under their feet, bright headlights rushing at them, the crush of metal against feathers and bone.
When I told Cam this, he was horrified. “You have to stop doing that.”
“I don’t know how,” I said.
Sometimes it seems like we don’t have a choice in this world: that harming the earth is part of the bargain we’ve struck and it’s best not to think about it too much. When you go to the grocery store and you forget your cloth tote bags, you can’t let yourself think about how sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them and die. When you’re filling your car up with gas, you can’t get too fixated on the number of otters and seals and seabirds who have died in oil spills. You can’t hold it all in your heart and make it through the day alive.
Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit.
For the rest of that summer, I practiced every time I drove. I would go around a curve in the road and think, “Ok, pretend there’s a rabbit. Keep going straight. Don’t swerve. Don’t jerk the steering wheel.” I imagined that I could be a different kind of person, the kind who asks about damage to the car first and the deer later, the kind who drives straight and true, the kind who keeps her eyes on the road and doesn’t get sentimental about the casualties of the modern world. A pragmatist. A realist. I tried to adopt a little bit of macho swagger. Yeah, I could hit the rabbit if I had to. So what?
And maybe it was even true. Maybe I could. I do have a streak of Midwestern pragmatism in me. Given the choice between the lives of my friends and the life of one wild rabbit, I knew I should sacrifice the rabbit. But I resented the hell out of that choice.
I wanted to find another way of living in the world. One where I didn’t have to choose between humans and animals. I wanted to believe we all have an equal right to be here. I wanted to choose both. I wanted to protect us all.
It’s late August and it’s after midnight and it’s foggy as hell and I am peering through the darkness so hard my eyes are starting to hurt. And then it happens, as I knew it would: a blue flash in the darkness.
I hit the brakes.
My friends stop laughing. “What? What is it?”
“I thought I saw something.”
As if it’s scripted, they all yell together. “JUST HIT THE RABBIT!”
And it’s a joke and it’s not a joke and it’s the state trooper and a summer of practicing for this moment and a lifetime of pragmatic country people and I get it. I know. All my friends are in the car and it’s my job to protect them and I should just hit the goddamn rabbit.
But I don’t.
I slow the car to a crawl and we creep through the darkness and then the fog parts and there it is: a cat. It’s a cat, and it’s sitting in the middle of the country highway, motionless, staring at us.
“I knew I saw something,” I say, vindicated, and my friends say, “A CAT? GODDDDD” and the cat watches us as we inch past it, and my friends wait for me to speed up again but I don’t because I’m still nervous about the cat, the way it sat in the road, the way it watched us, the way its eyes caught our light and bounced it back at us like two small moons.
We creep around the curve and the thick summer fog swirls like something living. The road is full of shadows and the fog twists and rolls and lifts and I stomp on the brakes once more.
“What now?” my friends ask, but I don’t answer because they’re right there, five feet in front of us: an entire herd of deer. They’re perfectly still, silent, each over 100 pounds, standing like dark ghosts in the middle of the highway. An entire herd of deer.
Five feet more, and I would have killed everyone in my house. Not to mention the deer.
That cat saved our lives.
Not hitting the rabbit saved our lives.
So. Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit, it’s true.
But sometimes you just have to see the rabbit. See it soon enough and you don’t have to hit it at all. You see it and you slow down in time and that night you both get home safely.
It’s another way of being in the world.