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The Dog In The Road

There's no helplessness quite like the kind a dog can engender in you. Gold-flecked eyes shot through with pain burned into mine, the message as clear as anything could be on a night that dark. "Please fix this. I'll be good." But I couldn't fix it. I could only stand there, on the white line in the middle of the two-lane desert road, and hope the oncoming cars saw me in my dark clothing in time to slow and swerve around us.

I never learned the dog's gender. I didn't want to move her. Let's just go with "her." She was a good dog, a chocolate lab, who'd been running through the Joshua trees with a friend and crossed the road at the wrong moment. No tags. No collar. But she was sleek, and clean, and though she suddenly could not get off the pavement, was in obvious pain, and suddenly surrounded by strange people in the dark she neither growled nor snapped. When there were no cars oncoming I knelt beside her, stroked her head, told her she was a good dog and that help would be there soon and that everything would be okay. She lifted her head toward me. A thin trace of blood ran from her muzzle to her left foreleg.

I got there a couple of minutes after she'd been hit. The kind young man whose pickup truck she'd run in front of was there, talking to her and pacing, beside himself in the aftermath of the accident. He wore his guilt and worry like a cloak. She was lying in my lane. I stopped, rolled my window down, and he asked who he should call. When I got out to help direct traffic around the dog his relief was palpable.

Alta Loma Road is the main alternative road through Joshua Tree. It's narrow and dark, and people regularly surpass 65 miles per hour along its less-developed stretches. I drive it every day, nearly. I constantly feel squeezed between the bright, insistent lights in the rear-view and the possibility of a sudden flash of eyes and fur in front of me trying to get from one copse of creosote to the one across the road. Some of that insistent traffic is almost certainly Angelenos taking the shortest route to the National Park; most of it is probably blase locals in a hurry to get home. Once we strap ourselves into our cars the outside world doesn't matter as much. It becomes a simulacrum, not all that real, and we speed past it without much thought for the consequences.

Except when those consequences end up staring into your eyes, pleading with you to do something, promising to be good.

I will say this for my neighbors in Joshua Tree: more of them stopped to help than I'd expect in most other places I've lived. Within about ten minutes another local pulled over to help direct traffic, a friend of the young man with the pickup truck. Fifteen minutes after that two women, apparently a mother and teenaged daughter, pulled off the road and tended as best they could to the dog. The young woman was dressed as if she'd just returned from a dance class, and her bright reflective white leotard probably did more than anything else the rest of us did to keep that dog safe. The rest of us were dressed in dark desert drab, and even with four vehicles pulled over with flashers and headlights going we were apparently invisible to the 99 percent of drivers who tried to barrel on past at 55 per. Once the dancer got there they slowed down more.

The dog was alert and patient, and seemed to trust us, and yet what could we do? Without a litter we couldn't even move her off the pavement. The best possible prognosis for her was a broken hip. Far more likely, and far more ominous, was a broken back. She didn't move her hind legs once while I stood there. Had we moved her we might have sealed her fate, worsened her injuries, especially if she had flailed or snapped at us in her pain. I stroked her head, looked in my car for the blanket I thought might be there (it wasn't), yelled at drivers who couldn't be bothered to swerve more than a foot from her muzzle, thanked the ones who crept by at a safe distance. After fifteen minutes the dog started to whine, and tucked her nose in between her legs as though she'd given up hope that we'd be able to get her back to her bowl and bed.

The next twenty minutes went on forever.

And then a Yucca Valley police officer showed up, perhaps 40 minutes after I did, with lights and radio and obvious experience with injured dogs. I filled him in with what little I'd figured about her condition. He sized her up with his bright flashlight. He said something about internal bleeding. Suddenly I was in the way. I went home.

Animals die along this road every night. Dogs and the occasional cat, wild rabbits, coyotes, birds and bats, snakes. The young man in the pickup truck last night was kind and sensitive and appalled at the injuries he probably couldn't have avoided inflicting. He stopped to do what he could, and a group of people joined him to try to help. That happens seldom. He could as easily have driven on, leaving the dog to die beneath the wheels of a speeding F-150 with a driver busy texting. Had he hit something other than a clearly domesticated chocolate lab he may not have stopped.

Dogs beg our sympathy. We anthropomorphize them without apology. We feel free to interpret what we can read of their intentions and desires. Sometimes we even get it right. They've lived with us for 15,000 years and we with them, and where our sentiences overlap we can communicate. We sympathize with them the way we might not with a snake or a wild rabbit.

I have spent more time than most living in places where the wildlife is protected, and I've often wished there were 15 mile per hour speed limits throughout the desert, enforced by rangers with radar and tasers. We spend millions of dollars to protect the wildlife and then let people drive over that wildlife at 80 miles per hour on their way to Las Vegas.

But it wasn't until last night that it really sank in. I don't know what happened to that sweet, trusting, patient dog after I left. I don't know that I want to know. Her eyes shone in my mind until late last night, and then again this morning. Her fear and pain and quiet pleading haunt me. Despite myself, I am ashamed that I couldn't give her what she asked me for. But last night, standing there with her, it struck me that she was perversely lucky. She, at least, could hope that the humans standing around would help. Every night animals die along this road with every bit of her pain and fear, but without the calm optimism that a few useless humans nearby might eventually figure out how to help, without so much as a small car pulled up onto the shoulder with its lights flashing vainly to warn oncoming traffic away from hitting them again.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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