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A Massacre in Flagstaff

memoir nonfiction road trip true story

Occasionally  I will post stories like this that have no direct relation to my work, but make for interesting conversation, and give you a bit of background to how I came to this point in my creative pursuits. This is one of those stories.
In late Spring of 1999, I packed up some clothes, sundries, a pillow, and a sleeping bag into my ’94 Chevy Camaro, and headed East from California along Highway 40. The plans was the travel through California, Arizona, New Mexico, and then head north to Durango, Colorado. The reason for the road trip was a gathering of the Conrey clan, and the first family reunion I had ever had the chance to attend. Before Colorado though, I had to make it out of Arizona, which I almost didn’t.
I left Southern California on a Thursday, hitting the road around Noon to avoid the eminent rush of afternoon traffic. The trip would take about twelve hours, but as I was in a Camaro, I figured I could find stretches of highway to open up the throttle, and cut that time down with heavy right foot. That's not the most efficient way to handle a road trip, but time was more valuable than money, fuel, or the risk of speeding tickets, so I mocked speed limit signs whenever I could.
Driving through Northern Arizona in the afternoon, the shadows grew long as the sun started it’s descent behind the desert mesas behind me. Making my way into the hills before Flagstaff,  I wasn’t nearly as alone on the highway as I had hoped, joined by travelers and big rig trucks on all sides. I swerved in and out of lanes, dodging slower vehicles, letting momentum carry me into the higher elevations of the Kalibab Forest.
The Camaro’s motor roared as I pushed my way through the congestion, causing a loud drone to resonate inside the cab. I cut the noise the best way I knew how, by blasting one heavy metal CD after another. Twenty miles outside of Flagstaff, Powertrip by Monster Magnet was in rotation, putting forth an omnipotent attitude with their growling vocals and ominous guitars tones. The power of the music pumping from the speakers filled the space inside and fueled my need for more power. Finding a hole in the traffic, I moved from the right lane to the left, and pushed my foot a little firmer on the tall, slender pedal on the right. 
The terrain through the tree-lined highway altered between large embankments on either side, to deep valleys between the East and Westbound lanes. The waxing light of the sun shone bright in my rear view mirror, blinding me in it’s golden glow before dipping below the horizon. The long shadows became large swaths of darkened space, where lack of proper lighting makes three dimensional objects become flat, and depth perception gets more difficult to judge.
To concerned about forward progress, I didn't consider the implications of the visual tricks the light played on my mind as I sped along the highway faster than posted signs recommended. Way finding signage let me know that Flagstaff was less than ten miles away, which meant I was making great time, but a tractor/trailer was less than a half-mile ahead in my lane threatening my assent. The truck had moved into my lane to pass a pass a red econo-box that struggled to accelerate through the mountain elevation. I tried to will the truck into moving with the power of my mind, with little luck.
As I got closer to the truck, it finally move into the right lane abruptly, which gave me pause, but not enough to warrant concern. I sped up, approaching the econo-box on my right side at a good clip. It was then that I noticed left lane in the road ahead of me. This must have been what the trucker was avoiding, but I couldn’t make out what it was from that distance. Further investigation was needed.
The object looked like a large, semi-flattened, cardboard box, or a large, tan blanket. I wondered, why there would be a large box or blanket in this remote part of Highway 40. More perplexed than concerned, I approached the mass in the road without slowing. I needed to know what the object was, out of curiosity, more than I wanted to avoid it. The mystery needed solving before I made any adjustment in course. Two-hundred feet away, my eyes went wide with shock and fear.
That was no box in the road—it was an elk!
I’d never seen an elk in the flesh before this moment, but I did recall seeing elk crossing signs further back down the mountain. Someone on the road ahead of me must have missed that sign, plowing hard into this animal, killing it in one blow. In truth, I did not know if the animal was completely dead when I got to it, but it was laid out flat across the lane with it’s back to me. I remember thinking it appeared as if someone had purposely laid the elk on the road, perfectly perpendicular to the lane, in some sort of prank on passing drivers. I also remember thinking how pristine the carcass looked, considering the possibilities of how it died. It wouldn’t stay pristine for long though, because here I came, at a high rate of speed, and a low clearance level.
In a split-second observation, I realized I had no safe way out of this situation. To my immediate right was the red econo-box. To my left was a shear drop into a ravine. Behind me was a string of cars, led by another large truck, who was little closer than he should have been, for safety sake. The only way to stop in time would be to slam on the breaks, but that was not a good idea. If I braked at this distance, I would still hit the animal, and the truck would likely hit me. 
Sometimes the only way out is through, and like a Kamikaze pilot, I pointed my nose at my impending doom, and braced myself for impact. That truck driver, and all the cars around me, were in for a surprise. I was going to hit this elk, hard. It would destroy my car, but I had faith I would survive. Faith in what, I do not know, but I prayed, quickly, to any deities that would listen, as long as it saved me from death.
Holding my speed, I held my right foot over the accelerator, and my left foot above the brake in case I needed evasive maneuvers after the collision. I looked out my windshield in both awe and horror over the immensity of this animal. In a small twist of luck, this was not a giant male with a huge set of antlers. Elk horns are broad, gnarly, strong, and could easily do some serious damage to tires, brake lines, and other vital automotive tissue. Thankfully, this was a female, and all I had to contend with at this moment was body mass, albeit, a lot of it.
This beast filled the lane from end to end, and on it’s side, rose above the pavement at least two feet. That’s two feet to get over, in a Camaro that had a ground clearance of less than five inches. Just feet away from impact, I winced, my insides tightened in knots, and I thought to myself, "This trip just got a lot more expensive,”
The loud explosion of sound that came next was harsh, immediate, and hit so hard it scared Monster Magnet into quitting their assault on my ear drums. There was brief moment of silence as the Camaro went airborne. If I hadn’t been out of my mind with fear, I might have yelled my best Dukes of Hazard,”Yeehaw!”
I fell back down to Earth, smashing the suspension, and screeching rubber as the tires reconnected with the pavement. Surprisingly, there was no swerving, no unnecessary braking, and somehow the car moved forward down the highway as if this kind of thing happened to muscle cars all the time.
Why the car wasn’t rolling over, end over end down the highway, I did not know. I was so awestruck by the lack of action, I didn’t know what to do with myself for at least a good minute. For lack of any bright ideas, I drove on down the highway, oblivious to the rest of the drivers, who  were probably more awestruck than me. Instead of evasive action, I listened for any problems. I expected an extreme damage report, but there was no sign of distress aside from the skipping CD player. How was it possible that running over an elk, an animal as big as the car itself, didn’t bring about a calamity of mechanical and structural issues?
Coming back to reality, I powered up the road, and took the first exit I could so I could stop and do a more thorough damage assessment. Once off the highway, I pulled onto the side of a busy avenue, kicking up dust and gravel as I skidded to a quick stop. At first I just sat in the car, wondering if I was actually dead, and this was a dream. Then I listened again for any noises I couldn’t identify while on the highway, but the engine purred as normal. Exiting the car, I popped the rear deck lid, dug into the emergency road kit, and pulled out my flashlight. I circled the car, I looking for flat tires and body damage, but aside from some chipped paint on the front bumper, everything looked normal. 
I opened the hood to the engine bay and looked for damage, but all was status quo. The V8 motor rocked impatiently in it’s confines, as normal. The belts were it good shape, and spun around their pulleys in perfect sync. I looked for oil, brake fluid, or any other spattered liquids, but none were visible; at least none that came from the vehicle.
I walked around to each front wheel, checking the brakes and suspension, and the result was the same as the rest of the vehicle. In my ignorance to the structural integrity of Chevrolet automobiles, I thought for a moment that this Camaro might be invincible; that was the only feasible explanation. I couldn’t imaging many cars would be able to steamroll over a 500-pound beast and drive away this clean. I resolved right then, when I got back to California, I would write a letter to Chevy, telling them my story, and thank them for saving my life.
The only thing left to check was the undercarriage. I walked to the front of the car, got flat on the ground, and shined the flashlight up and down the length of the car’s underbelly. What I saw was the kind of carnage normally reserved for only the most grotesque of horror movies. You know those B-rated gore flicks where a beautiful, young woman runs from a homicidal maniac, and she stumbles into the heart of his lair, where the skins and entrails of his previous victims line the walls, and swing from metal hooks? That’s what this looked like, except underneath my car.
There were bits of skin, clumps of hair, and at least a gallon of elk blood coagulating down the entire length of the car. As pristine as that animal was before I hit it, I can only imagine it was equally mangled by now. I thought back to the other drivers on the road, especially the truck driver behind me, and the red car in the next lane, and wondered what their thoughts were during the event. I worried that maybe something might have happened to someone else after the fact, but what’s done is done, and I needed to get back on the road. In my disgust and horror, I resigned myself to the inevitability of the situation, and again thanked my lucky stars again that the Camaro didn’t end up in a smoldering heap on the side of Highway 40, and me along with it. 
I closed the hood, deposited the flashlight in the emergency kit in the trunk, and got back into the car to continue my drive through the mountains and flatlands of the American Southwest. There’s a funny thing that happens though, when you’re driving a car with the meaty remains of an animal on the underside of your car’s chassis—it starts to cook. Within a matter of minutes of being back on the road, a pungent aroma made its way into the cab beside me. At first it smelled like overcooked venison, which wasn’t horrible, but not exactly pleasant. Ten miles down the road however, that cooking turned to burning. Before long, the parts of the elk that decided to finish this trip with me, were now suffering a slow immolation, creating a noxious odor unlike anything I have ever smelled in my life. To this day, the thought of that stench still turns my stomach.
I had only just driven out of Flagstaff, and still had five hours of driving ahead of me. That’s five hours of burnt elk making itself at home in my olfactory system. I rolled down the windows, trying my best to air out the car, with little luck. The temperature outside had dropped into the low 40s, and the wind chill was almost unbearable at high speed, but not as unbearable as that smell. I chose hypothermia over the odor, but even the cold wind had a hard time competing against the charred remains on my exhaust tubes. 
I eventually got the CD player working again, so I focused my attention on the music and what scenery I could make out one the twilight horizon. Hours later, when I reached Gallup, New Mexico, I turned north on Highway 491. Even though my stomach churned at the thought of cooked meat, I was getting pretty hungry. I pulled off at a Sonic Burger and found a stall as far away from the rest of the crowd as possible—I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s meal. Ordering from the speaker box adjacent to my parking space, and advised the young girl on the other side of the speaker know to plug her nose when she delivered my order. The girl gave me a confused laugh, and disconnected to process my request. When she came to bring me my food, the understanding of my earlier disclaimer came to a harsh reality for her.
She curled up her face to hide from the stench, and asked what was causing the smell. I just smirked, apologized and tossed her more money than necessary, telling her to keep the change. I pulled out of the lot quick, and drove around fast to hop back on the highway. As I left, I could see the girl talking with some others, pointing in my general direction. I wondered if she was telling them she smelled something like cooked flesh, and maybe she thought I had dead bodies in my trunk. That’s what I would have thought if I had walked up on my car in it’s current state. I never saw any patrol cars following me on my way out of Gallup, so I assume she thought I was just incredibly unhygienic. 
Sometime after Midnight, I pulled into Durango, but it was so late, and so dark, I couldn’t make out much as far as landmarks. I stumbled my way to the campsite where my family was staying, but couldn’t make out where they were exactly. Not wanting to wake the entire community with my loud engine and dead elk smell, I headed back onto the main road, and parked on the side near a spray-n-go carwash. Pulling a blanket and a pillow out of the trunk, I tried my best to sleep in a Camaro, with the windows open, in the Rocky Mountains. It was cold, but I somehow managed to get some rest. 
Waking again around 6:00 AM, I knew my dad and step-mom were early risers, and would be up to flag me down if I cruised the campsite. I tossed the blanket and pillows into the back seat and started the car, letting the motor warm before heading off. The upside to the cold air is that it cooled down the roasted animal bits enough to diminish the smell a little. Thank goodness for small favors.
I decided to hit up the car wash, before heading to the campsite, to see if I could power spray away any of the meatiness under the car. I pumped in three dollars worth of quarters in the the machine, picked the spray setting with the most intense pressure, and went to work underneath the car. A lot of the animal remains came off clean, which was good, but much of the carnage was going to be stuck on there until it cooked away. There was one good-sized piece of meat that hung from the transmission crossmember. I sprayed the mass, but it and was persistent in it’s desire to stay put. After a minute of trying, I laid down on the cold asphalt, reached my arm as far as I could underneath the car, and jammed the sprayer up underneath the crossmember to try and knock the carcass bits loose. This worked, but with consequences. 
What came falling out was a chunk of elk meat that looked about the size of a 12 oz. steak, except instead of being a nice Porterhouse, this was a crumpled, hairy, cauterized piece of pink, green and black savagery. I nearly lost the remnants of my Sonic burger right there, but held my constitution together long enough to get up, deposit the sprayer into it’s holster, and get the hell out of there. Yes, I left the meat steak for someone else to enjoy. Maybe a wild animal was hungry, I rationalized. 
As I drove out of the wash bay, I saw an older man in a logo-emblazoned shirt, walking the length of the car wash. He was nearly upon the stall I just exited when I sped away, kicking rocks, leaving the rest of the elk steak for him to enjoy. I imagined the amount of expletives that man shouted once he saw what I left behind. "Fuck it, this wasn’t my town,” I thought, in the most irresponsible ambivalence I could conjure in order to cope with the entire tragedy.
I made a quick stop at a coffee shop, and poured some dark roast on the dirt at the base of a deer crossing sign; a little something for my cloven-hoof homies. I got back in the car and drove down the road to the campsite to see if I could find my family. When I reached them, I waved, and then parked in the furthers available parking spot. No need to alert the world to the massacre I committed in the mountains outside Flagstaff.

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