A View From the Top
AND THEN THE VULTURE EATS YOU (with apologies to Don Kardong)
By Gordon Cherr,
“And Then The Vulture Eats You” is an entertaining book of short articles and stories about ultrarunning, edited by John Parker. Parker admittedly borrowed the name of the book from fellow runner par excellence, Olympian Don Kardong, who once commented: “The marathon is like a vulture sitting on your shoulder during all the other events. And then at the end of the day, the vulture eats you.”
This quote came to mind late this afternoon while I was running around Lake Overstreet. I was coming up on another runner while traversing the long downhill section on the south side of the lake, when around a curve I saw my fellow traveler beat a sudden and hasty retreat off the trail and into the forest, circling back out a few dozen yards further down the trail, apparently no worse for wear. I was wondered what had caused him to execute that sudden maneuver, when I unexpectedly came upon two huge vultures standing in the middle of the trail. It was apparent that they intended to exercise their squatter’s rights, I was just as determined to claim that portion of the trail for me and my fellow human beings. I slackened my stride not one wit, but readily gave way when I smelled what they were grazing upon, a rather rank dead possum, whew, a ten out of ten on the old stink-o-meter. Fahgetaboutit, you guys can have the trail if you are willing to put up with that. I followed my compatriot’s sojourn into the woods and then back, well out of smell range.
This was but one of some marvelous encounters with wildlife I have been privileged to experience recently. About two weeks ago I was running the “Forbidden Trail”. I can’t tell you where that is because it is off limits to runners, bikers and other trespassers. Personally, I have cultivated an attitude about “No Trespassing” signs over many years. To me they really say “Enter Here” with a big flashing arrow pointing the way in. I have been chased periodically by Plantation Security and other private security brown shirts, never caught but for once at Lake Buena Vista, on an off limits golf course near Disney World. Those guys can run the open field with the best of them and know how to tackle too, but overall my record is almost spotless.
Anyway, while toiling on the trail this particular day I came up upon a small herd of deer. Five or six of them melted back into the woods, but not one larger buck with a fairly sizable rack of antlers. He refused to budge off the trail. I suddenly remembered last year’s Internet video clip of a big male deer somewhere, kicking the stew out of some guy for no damn good reason, perhaps you’ve seen it too. Pretty amusing, wasn’t it? Hmmm, it was kind of early for spring, but what if this guy was in rutt? What if I was being mistaken for a rather comely doe? The consequences of being butted, stomped and trampled into the dirt, on the one hand, or else being unable to sit for a week, on the other, did not thrill me. I didn’t want to shout at the guy, it was the Forbidden Trail you know, I didn’t care to draw any attention to my presence. I could get shot. Like Perky the Duck.
I kept running at the guy. Man, he was getting bigger and bigger with every step and he showed no signs of fear or of giving way. At about 60 feet I was committed to whatever might happen. I started waving my arms wildly (no affect except to intensify his unblinking stare). At 40 feet, I picked up the biggest stick I could find and flung it at him (no discernable affect). At 30 feet I slowed down and reached into my waist pack for my trusty Whoop Ass 17%, 3 million Scoville unit, pepper spray. Would this stuff even work on deer? Unfortunately, the first thing I grabbed was my prescription Epipen (I’m allergic to bee stings), maybe I could epenephrine him into submission? By 20 feet I had secured the Whoop Ass and was ready to do some real damage. By 15 feet he yawned with disinterest and walked off into the woods. Phew…
And a few weeks before that on the Blair Witch Trail, I came upon two Pileated woodpeckers standing side by side on the trunk of a water oak. Being off in the ozone, as usual, I didn’t see them until I passed by the tree. They were equally startled. One took off to the left, the other to the right and directly at me. It was a miracle that he did not make me into a human shish-kabob. Those birds are big too, about 2 feet tall with an equally impressive Woody the Woodpecker beak. Couldn’t you just imagine being carried in on a stretcher, into the emergency room at TMH with Big Bird burrowed up to his eyeballs in your bleeding rib cage, flapping and squawking (both me and the bird)? What an embarassmen!. Thank God I have coverage with CHP instead. Why, I could just call my personal physician, who shall for the time being, remain nameless, and have him remove the bird. The doc is my buddy, I could call him on his cell phone. What, call the office in the morning you say? What, how many days for an appointment? Oh, you’re in Carrabelle, out on the boat? No, I do not want to see your PA instead, even if she was an amateur ornithologist prior to the time you hired her. Luckily none of that came to pass. Don’t make a habit of testing your friendships, especially over some bird.
My best near encounter was with a panther out on Bradfordville Road about 10 years ago. Living in Northshire, I was finishing up a long Sunday afternoon effort, about half a mile from the front entrance of the subdivision. About 80 yards ahead a medium brown tawny figure streaked across the road and leaped the 6 foot tall fence onto the Mettler Plantation land. A deer I figured initially, they are plentiful out here. But in the blink of an eye I could see that long pendulum-like tail, and when he leaped the fence, he snaked over it. If you’ve ever seen them do it, deer jump in a parabolic arc. No question in my mind. It is amazing how suddenly being thrust somewhere away from the preferred end of the food chain galvanizes your attention to the most minute details of your surroundings, and brings the speed of a 10 megaton blast of adrenaline to your tired legs and feet. No, I don’t care whether you believe me, I know what I saw.
Once David Yon and I had our path crossed by three black bears while we were running in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. He thought it was funny because he knew that he could outrun me if push came to shove. I did not share his devil-may-care sense of humor. More recently, before the Refuge was ravaged by Hurricane Dennis a few years back, I was on a similar run with Billy Perry. We were running atop one of the dikes and looking in the tidal pools on each side for alligators, of which there were many. Off in the distance we spied some sort of critter on the dike. It was far away but it was big and dark black. I honestly thought that it was a calf or small cow. Some discussion followed but we continued on our way towards it. It suddenly snapped into focus. It was not a calf or a cow, instead it was a sizeable feral hog grazing or digging in the short grass. Billy and I agreed that this was not good. If that hog decided to come our way we would never outrun him, never outfight him, there were no trees to climb, and a hasty exit into the tidal pools on either side was really not an option for obvious reasons. Right about then the big boy looked up at us, still approaching but now not from a very safe distance. His eyesight would not be good, but his sense of smell would be impeccable. When he finally cast a glance our way we began to scream at him at the top of our lungs. Somehow this startled him into running away in the other direction, had he come our way instead we both would have been dead meat. He thundered out of there faster than a thoroughbred. Many sighs of relief followed him.
One hot summer afternoon, several years ago, I was running alone on the Munson Hills. I came upon this beautiful small corn snake laying crossways on the trail. He glistened in the summer sun. I picked him up to look more closely, they are harmless constrictors. Beautiful alternating bands of red, yellow and black, they can closely resemble coral snakes. Coral snakes are members of the cobra family, and while they have tiny mouths and likewise tiny fangs, are generally docile and rarely bite, their venom can be fatal. Fortunately, it is easy to tell these snakes apart, just look at the ordering of the colorful bands (from a safe distance) and repeat this phrase: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, friend of Jack”). So, I am holding this guy and not in any particularly secure manner, and he is slithering around on my arm and hand, and I seem to recall this little ditty about “red on yellow, red on black” and I decide to put my education to good use,and guess what? I got “red on yellow” and not “red on black”, and I got a problem too. That coral snake was the first snake to ever orbit Leon County. He may still be up there for all I know.
One other time we took a trip to Yosemite. What a glorious place! Of course I was going for a run as soon as we checked into the lodge. Interestingly, there was a wood carving of an enormous brown bear just outside the lobby. Standing upright on his hind legs. Like more than 10 feet tall. I was joking about it with the clerk who mentioned that the carving was actually quite realistic and life-size. Hmm…
I mentioned that I wanted to go out for a run. He pointed out some trails for me and said that it would be wise to avoid any trails that might go near the garbage dump. Hmmm…
I asked him about the bears that might be about and he said that it might be a good idea to not surprise a bear, that some runners wear bells to announce their presence so as to not startle a bear, as a startled bear might attack. He said that there were brown (grizzly) bears and smaller black bears. He also said that I could tell which was which if I happened upon any bear scat on the trail. How so? I asked. He stated that brown (grizzly) bear scat usually had bells in it. Ha ha. Very funny. Hmmmmm…
I did go for a mountain run that afternoon. I had planned on about 4 miles out and 4 miles back. The run out was uneventful, but upon turning around and heading back, I had an awful unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. I kept turning around to look behind me, eventually I found out that I could turn my head about 180 degrees from the front and look behind me and still run down the trail. Probably looked like the kid from The Exorcist with her head spinning around. No bears were seen, I guess I grossed them out or something. “Look at that poor skinny human with the head on backwards. He isn’t worth the effort.” But I did take the rest of the visit off from any running. Don’t push your luck sometimes.
Speaking about animals and on that note about luck, let me close by stating that a running friend from England emailed me yesterday about local celebrity Perky the Duck. Seems like that is big news on the continent and in Great Britain. Who shoots a duck and then sticks it in the refrigerator without cleaning the kill first? Yuck. I am not eating over at the Tadlocks, should I ever get invited. Then the poor duck dies on the operating table but fortunately, was resuscitated by the veterinarian. Now there is some question about whether her injuries will ever allow Perky to be released back into the wild.
That poor animal needs to be able to get as far away from humans as possible. Sounds like a good strategy for many of us.