In nature, life is a brutally simple equation of predator and prey; the appetite and the appetizer; the blood-crazed cravings of the carnivore and the perpetually vigilant and angst-ridden state of the carnivee. It’s a harsh and merciless reality for most, and why gentle ruminants don’t have bleeding ulcers in all of their many stomachs is one of nature’s inscrutable mysteries. Another day. Oh dear.
That’s the basic law of the jungle, anyway, but as we all realize, it’s not the only law, and there is a condition worse than terror. It is boredom, and even the beasts of the wild are susceptible to it, and if you don’t believe me just head out to some really boring stretch of backcountry road and check out what ground squirrels do for amusement. That’s right… they play chicken with traffic. Like similarly situated teenagers, a time comes in the life of rural ground squirrels when they realize there’s nothing shaking in their jerkwater burg or ever likely to be, and so they adopt an attitude: I’m gonna have fun, damn it, if it kills me.
I had a particularly harrowing encounter with this disaffected breed while riding over Highway 33 in the Los Padres National Forest, one of the finest motorcycle roads in Southern California. I was riding a V-Rod behind an SUV occupied by a pair of older couples—nature lovers, judging by their license plate, which said “birderz.” They were cruising at sightseeing pace through God’s country, and I was cruising behind them waiting for the road to straighten out enough to pass. And here come God’s little kamikazes, three ground squirrels dashing out from three different directions for an exhilarating game of chicken with the SUV tires. Right in front of the vehicle the three actually collide with each other. I kid you not. Damned if all three don’t bump heads at a full gallop and react by getting into a chirping tiff, a regular rodentine pissing match right in the middle of the road with the SUV bearing down. The driver hits the brakes. Hard. He locks ’em up, puff of smoke from a tire, the ass end getting sideways; ground squirrels still arguing, me hard on the brakes, the rear end of the SUV rushing up, the possibility of ending up on a slab with “birderz” embossed on my forehead, a sickening possibility. I realized to my horror that I was about to become the victim in the first recorded instance of a ground squirrel winning at a game of chicken.
But I didn’t, managing to pull up short, skidding and squealing (me, not the tires) just as the SUV got back on the gas, the driver doubtless feeling godly and humane, having allowed the little buggers to live—at least until the next car came along and the game started up all over again. And all this magnanimity cost him was nearly punching my ticket, and giving me a good case of posttraumatic stress syndrome in which I now dream frequently of being beaten to death with binoculars by crazed and foaming birdwatchers.
Hey, I love little furry creatures as much as the next big meanie, but I’ll tell you this: You’re just as likely to nail the little bastards by taking evasive action as by rolling straight on and letting them sort out their own fate however they might. If they were looking for a break they wouldn’t be there in the first place.
That’s the skinny on ground squirrels, anyway, but it’s not the case with that most aggressive and unpredictable of all highway beasts; that excitable and menacing demon in a dog suit: the dread bike-chasing cur. They’re the worst. A bear won’t chase you. A bull, coyote, mountain lion, wolf, wolverine or hyena won’t chase you. A black rhino will shoot you a look but won’t nip at your tires. Only the bike-chasing cur will molest a rider on the road, and how they go about it will depend on the basic character of the cur. Conventional wisdom long held that the best way to deal with the encounter was to come to a stop in the belief that the dog will get bored and go away. That rarely works. Even a normally amiable but bored dog will usually hang in there, importuning you with tongue lolling and tail wagging to get rolling again so the games can begin. And if it’s one of the more malevolent specimens it will get close, barking and baring its teeth, and if you try to give it a swift kick you’ll likely fall over. It’s deadly serious business at times, and twice in my career I’ve been hounded off the road, and one other time I probably would have if I’d seen the cur coming, but I didn’t until he was right on me and got brained by my highway peg as he went for my boot. I felt bad, the dog felt worse.
The optimum approach, I’ve discovered by trial and error, is to slow down when you see the cur make his move. Slowing down takes a lot of the fun out of the caper for the cur, and ratchets his enthusiasm down a notch. Then when the dog trots abreast, drop a gear and twist the wick hard. You’ll leave anything but a whippet in the dust.
That strategy works in any except the truly unexpected situation such as that which befell while I was out riding with a buddy—we’ll call him Malcolm (he has warrants)—last month. I was a moderate distance behind my roadie as we rode a remote stretch of narrow country lane. A pair of good-sized dogs walking unleashed with their owner on the roadside thought it would be great sport to have a go at my buddy’s bike and darted straight at it as it passed. So excited and focused were they by the chase that they failed to register my presence behind him. I never had a chance, and T-boned one of the dogs with my front tire at speed. I saw it coming a panic-stricken split-second before impact and was fully resigned to a spill on the pavement.
Miraculously, the bike took the jolt dead on, knocked the dog sideways, and kept tracking straight up the road. By the time I pulled over to see if the dog was all right and inspect the bike for damage, the dog was a football field away yelping at a dead run. But the dog’s owner, a burly blustering fool, came charging towards me yelling and calling me names. Like there was a damn thing I could have done about it; like I hadn’t nearly been done in by his damn dog; like anybody with a brain in their head would let a half-domesticated animal off the leash on a roadway.
Some people shouldn’t have dogs. Some people are better suited to raising ground squirrels.
It’s all right here in the diaries…