The Great Porcupine Attack
[The following events took place in the space of no more than three minutes. But we need to keep in mind that in the course of great disasters the space-time continuum changes; events unfold in slow motion. This narrative records the events in that slowed time to ensure that no crucial action or thought is missed. But the reader must keep in mind that to a rested and rational observer what follows would no doubt have appeared not in slow motion, but speeded up, like a Buster Keaton featurette.]
“What the hell?” Ken muttered from the lower bunk.
”What is it?” I asked, trying to read my watch in the dark. It was either 12:05 or 1:00, depending on which hand was longer. I noted that I’d been asleep for over four hours and, wonder of wonders, I didn’t yet have to pee . . .
“I think there’s something under the camper. I hear scratching . . .”
Rousing from the dark of dreams to the dark of midnight in the Rockies, I ran the short checklist of possibilities: Bear? Maybe a grizzly? Couldn’t be. No grizzlies in Colorado anymore. Black bear? The reportedly 700 lb. one (!!! apparently no shortage of alcohol in Gothic . . .) that appeared some days ago, ravenous after waking to spring and craving the bacon grease in the RMBL* kitchen? Then I remembered last night’s leftover anchovy, roast-garlic pizza. That would attract any bear within a league, especially after a long winter. After all, it was powerful enough to keep Ken awake most of the night with tummy trouble. But faint scratching just wasn’t a bear’s style. That would tend more to mayhem -- growling, camper shaking, window smashing, door ripping.
What else could it be . . . ?
“Porcupine!” I yelled, blasting out of the sleeping bag and jumping from the upstairs bunk.
Now, off and on for the 35 years I have been camping in the Rockies and Sierras. Until that night few middle-of-the-night-animal-under-the-van realizations would have justified alarm. A skunk? Clearly. A rattlesnake? Maybe. A porcupine? No way. A porcupine alarm would mean only to decide whether to let it be or shoo it away, to get the camera or just let someone else worry about it while I went back to sleep. But this night was different.
* Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, located above Crested Butte, Colorado, in the old mining town of Gothic. Altitude 9469 ft.
The difference was the Internet; it had changed everything in this case, even in the Rockies at 9500 feet. How? But for the Internet none of what occurred here would have. Let me explain . . .
I like to plan trips. And I can get a little compulsive about it. I sometimes enjoy the planning more than the trip. I get to pour over maps, read guides, consider alternatives, look at photographs, talk to friends, check online for posts about routes, imagine great views and adventures. Let’s just say that I spent some time planning this three-day trip.
The goal was to drive from Fort Collins to Gothic with my cousin-in-law Ken in my 1990 VW camper to visit my daughter, Caitlin, at her post at RMBL, where she was a golden-mantled-ground-squirrel voyeur. One of the many camping areas I considered for the return trip was the Maroon Bells, among the most picturesque mountains in the world. The Bells are just a few miles from Gothic as the crow flies (and as the porcupine shuffles), but they are a long way as the camper drives. So time and distance were against us, and I soon overruled the idea, but not before stumbling across some startling online information.
According to one traveler 's post, the Maroon Bells campgrounds issue all overnight vehicles a roll of chicken wire. Campers are instructed to surround their vehicles with the wire to keep porcupines from crawling under. Local porcupine diet, it seems, includes the soft underbellies of cars and campers -- hoses, wires, gaskets, etc. The moment I read that I knew that despite having difficulty remembering my friends’ names or my home address, and despite what appeared to be its utter irrelevancy to my travel plans, I would go to my grave with that fact on quick recall.
Anyway, back to midnight in Gothic. At the mere mention of something under the camper, with only that brief mental pause at the bear possibilities, my mind went quickly to the image of a porcupine dining on my VW’s viscera.
Because of that internet factoid I snapped awake. I knew instantly that every second counted. I wasn’t entirely sure what soft parts might be down there under the camper, but I was certain that those parts would be essential and irreplaceable.
I know a little about mountain mammals, and I certainly don’t begrudge them their peculiar diets. Mountain life is tough. To avoid starvation they can eat strange things. Elk eat tree bark and foxes eat insects. Alfred Packer ate his travelling companions. ** But those dining choices all had the advantage of nutritional benefit. How can a porcupine prosper, or even survive, on rubber and plastic? No, this was sheer vandalism. This animal deserved no quarter.
Ken was one step ahead of me, already out the sliding side door and around back shining his headlamp under the camper’s engine:
“Yeah, there’s something under there all right. It’s pretty big but it’s just a shadow. I can’t see what it is.”
I found my flashlight and lay down on the floor of the van, dropping my head over the side, hair touching the ground, followed by my arm and flashlight. There it was, just under the engine, a huge – or so it appeared at midnight, when all things potentially troublesome are huge – prickly mass of quills and one beady eye on me. The other was no doubt aimed at Ken. The animal was so big that it appeared to be lodged between the ground and the engine. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it’s stuck under the camper, I thought, its quills preventing it from backing up or going forward.
“It’s a porcupine, all right!” I yelled. For just a moment I pondered the potential danger I was facing -- actual personal danger, not just automotive danger. I am embarrassed to admit that despite the fact that the porcupine had its head down, despite the fact that it was so big that it could hardly move under the engine and despite the fact that, like every other school kid, I had learned it was only a myth that porcupines could throw their quills, I still jerked my head up and back into the camper to avoid the quills the porcupine might launch my way. That, by the way, is all too typical of the human analytical process after midnight -- “moonlight rationality.” My friend, Mary Donovan, says that nothing good happens after midnight. She might be right, but the mind is certainly seldom in good working order then, suffering typically from fatigue or drunkenness or excessive libido, or at least two of the three. Add a large injection of adrenaline and poor visibility, and normally diurnal humans can decide not only to do very stupid things but also to do them very fast.
** Alfred G. "Alferd" Packer was a prospector trapped in the Rockies in a blizzard who outlasted his companions but got very hungry. He was eventually tried and convicted of manslaughter for cannibalism. Popular legend, albeit untrue (at least according to the official trial record), claims that District Court Judge Melville Gerry sentenced Packer by saying, "Stand up, Alferd Packer, you voracious, man-eating, son-of-a-bitch. There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them."
I shouldn’t risk poking the spiny bastard, I thought, so how could I get rid of him? I know – I’ll scare the bejeesus out of him by starting the engine! I hopped to my feet and leaned between the front seats. I turned the key. The starter engaged, but the engine didn’t fire. I tried it again. No dice. Oh crap! The engine won’t start. Another adrenaline rush. I was near panic, perhaps already there. The damned porcupine was eating my camper and poised to fire its quills at us, and I despite clear technological and mental superiority, I was powerless against him!
Wait. Maybe I just need to pump the gas pedal. I jumped in the front seat, where I had piled clothing and a daypack and a few other items to get them out of the way for the night. There was no time to worry about that. I had to start the engine and right away! I plopped down on top of the pile, squeezed my legs under the steering wheel and cranked it again. Yes! It fired up! I have achieved weapon superiority! The engine noise will scare the porcupine, and he will leave. Humans will win.
I rolled down my window.
“Ken, did it move?”
No response. Probably can’t hear me over the engine noise. I opened my door and looked back into the dark. I could see nothing except the white side of the camper and blackness.
“Ken,” I shouted as loud as I could, “is it gone? Can you see it?”
Where’s Ken? Oh crap. (More moonlight rationality here) Could the porcupine have killed him? No, wait, that doesn’t seem likely. If the porcupine had attacked him, Ken would probably be screaming in pain. I would hear him. I don’t hear him. He must not hear me either. No time to waste, though. Every second delay means another hose or wire or tire with a hole in it.
Plan A was to scare the porcupine away with just engine noise. With Ken dead, missing or deaf, judging success of Plan A would require that I get out and check under the camper myself. That sounds unwise. If the porcupine has put Ken out of the way, it might do the same to me. I have a wife and children to think of. Actually, with the insurance, they’d probably be better off without me. The porcupine would be doing them a favor. OK, settle down now. What to do?
I’ll try Plan B! I’ll put the camper in gear and move it forward. Surely the porcupine won’t follow. But what if (more midnight rationality), it had caught an incisor or a quill on an engine part and is dragged along, perhaps getting injured in the process. Won’t that make things worse? Won’t the porcupine be enraged, wild, out for revenge? After all, injured animals are the most dangerous. That’s why cops shoot to kill? Say, do we have a gun?
I yell out the window: “Ken, do you have your .45?”
No answer. Damn it. What has happened to Ken? We should have brought his Colt .45. Ken has one; why don’t I have a Colt .45, too? I’ll have to talk to Miranda about that . . .
OK, now focus: You have no gun; you’ll just have to take your chances.
I put it in drive and moved forward about ten feet. Put the lights on. OK. Slowly creep ahead. Give the porcupine a chance to dislodge its incisors from the fuel line or whatever its munching on at the moment.
Oh crap. I left the camper top up. Are there any trees or telephone lines above us? No? Boy, that was lucky. I could have ripped open the tent top or even taken the whole thing off. Maybe I should have thought of that before. But no harm, no foul.
“Hey Ken, can you see it?” I yell as loud as I can.
Again no answer. It looks like I’ll have to check myself. It should be fine.
Say, I smell pizza. It’s our anchovy, roast-garlic pizza. Uh-oh. I reached down under the pile of camping flotsam and jetsam I was at the moment crushing in the front seat. Yep. There’s the pizza box. It’s not a very sturdy one. Will this be a problem? No, I reason: the pizza is already flat; now this will just be extra flat. That just makes it more authentic – Italian style.
Things are looking up! I didn’t destroy the camper top, and I can still have pizza is for breakfast. Nothing like cold pizza and hot tea for breakfast, rivaled only by corned beef hash and eggs or Miranda’s or Sue’s pancakes. Say, I think I’m getting hungry . . .
Come on, focus: The porcupine.
“Ken! Where are you?”
No answer. I guess I’ll just hop out here with my flashlight and assess the situation. I’m sure Ken is fine. Maybe he’s chasing the porcupine down the road. I’m sure he’s OK. Maybe he just went for a walk. Wait, why would he go for a walk at midnight? A few minutes ago, I had both Ken and a porcupine. Now I don’t know where either one is. OK, just go for it . . .
I jump out and flash my light under the camper. Nothing there. Good. The spiny bastard isn’t eating my camper anymore.
I walk back behind the camper, to where it used to sit, and shine my light all over the ground. Nothing. Good. It looks like the he has gone for good.
I looked under the engine. No sign of dangling wires or hoses. No leaking fuel or air. Tires seem intact. I’ll do a better survey in the light of morning.
A wooden door slammed behind me. I swiveled with my flashlight.
Ken is walking down the path from the outhouse, putting on his jacket.
“Ken! Where have you been?”
“In the can. That’s why I woke up in the first place. That pizza didn’t sit well with me. Was that thing really a porcupine?”
“You mean you didn’t see him?”
“No, too dark under the camper. All I saw was big shadow, with a head on one end. As soon as you took charge, I headed for the outhouse. Did you have any trouble? “
“No. No problem at all. Piece of cake. I just started it up and rolled forward a few feet. He’s gone, no match for human ingenuity . . .
“Good. I feel better, too. Let’s get some sleep.”
“Right. Can I assume that you won’t want the pizza for breakfast?”