It happens so quickly. You have about a second to figure out what you're seeing before it's gone, with no going back to look again. What you saw is so unlikely that you start filling in the details to confirm what it was, then gradually to challenge what it was. All the while, you're planning what to do about it, trying to get all the details straight in a way that might mean something to somebody else while remaining true to... whatever it was. What the heck was it, really?
I believe Wisconsin is trying to save its taxpayers money by not cleaning up the carcasses of roadkill deer until several days after the last rolling clean-up. It's either that, or last night was one hell of a hard night on its deer population. Considering the low levels of bloat, and of decomp odor which may have been caused by kindly wind direction, I'll concede the latter is possible. Dead, certainly. Just maybe not long dead. Perhaps the high number of carcasses along I-94 can be explained by yesterday's really hard rain.
I was barely thinking about the deer I was passing, even though I noted them on my way out to Chippewa Falls with a delivery. No antlers, some broken necks, some seeming intact, few straggling entrails or separated parts. Face it: half deer are upsetting and always beg the question of where the other half got hauled to and just who it surprised, and red smears and highway hamburger require more careful driving lest the pavement be slippery. Altogether, the dead deer were not too messy, just plentiful.
I approached yet another one when I was surprised by the lightness of its color, buff instead of brown, except for a couple small black spots down between the legs, then by the quality of its fur, the wrong shape of the hind legs, and finally by the long tail with what would have been an upward curl at the end had it been standing. At 65 miles per hour, I was already past it when it registered. That was no deer. The whole back end screamed feline. It screamed at me, "Cat. That was a cat! A really big BIG CAT!"
Omigod, I just passed a roadkill... puma, no we don't call them that here, not a mountain lion either, it's a cougar! That was a COUGAR!
And somebody's going to want to know about it. They are so rare, a dead one would make the news. Call 911? No they wouldn't be interested, there's no crime here, not even a road hazard, as it's well off on the shoulder. Their DNR, that's who. But I'm driving, can't look up the number, wouldn't even know what city to tell the information... uh, directory assistance operator to look it up in. But Lynn would know. She lives in Wisconsin, and if she's not busy, there's a computer right in front of her. If she is too busy, I'll go for plan B. Whatever that is.
At the same time, I'm asking myself where I am. I can't tell anybody else where to find it if I don't know. There has to be a mileage marker coming up. There's an exit sign, for exit 24. Have we passed that marker already? Nope, it's just ahead, so the cougar must have been just after mile marker 23, since I didn't see one yet after seeing the cougar. Already I have Lynn on the phone and have pulled off on the exit ramp to write down the DNR phone number. She finds their main 800 number after a few pleasantries, and we're both off to other things.
The woman from the DNR assured me that they were interested in a report of a "possible" dead cougar along the road. It did, however, take quite a while to make her understand where it was located. "What county?" I explained I was a Minnesotan and had no clue. "What part of the state?" I had to repeat what I'd already said about heading east into the state from St. Paul, through Hudson, and onward past mile marker 23. Menomonie was still ahead. "So you were northbound?"
Jeez Louise, lady. I'm driving so I can't dig out a map, and memory is overloaded with essence of dead cougar so much that I can't remember the sequence of towns along the way to guess at what might be a close one. Does the rest of the world not know maps and mile markers?
We finally get the where sorted out, and she asked me to fill her in on the what of my sighting, I presume to make her believe it would be worth her while to track down the local DNR employee to locate the body and document its location and former existence. I continue on my way, now partly occupying my brain with finding my destination. But only partly.
The second guessing is about to start. What did I really see? That tail stands out, that plus the wrong legs and color for deer. I recall padded feet and just as quickly question whether I really do or I'm just filling in blanks to make my memory match what I know I saw. It was such a quick flash. I never saw the front of the body. No head. I can't remember seeing hooves on those wrong legs, so they must have been padded feet. Roundness is the overall impression: rounded tail, rounded legs rather than bony ones, rounded feet. Part of that is the fur, sticking out rather than lying sleekly down, filling out the form, fluffing up the tail. Anyway, the tail was long with that hook on the end: that was the tip-off: it was no deer. They're named "white tailed" for a reason.
Coming back, it started in again. So why didn't my brain decide it was canine? Again, I came back to that tail and the tip up at the end. I can see in my mind cats over the years switching tails like that back and forth, so vividly that I knew that's how the dead animal moved its tail, even though it hadn't, couldn't have moved, even in the wash of wind from a passing semi.
I determined to watch for it on my return trip, counting the mile markers to make sure I didn't miss it. If it was still there, I could exit a few miles up, turn around and come back, maybe even pull over and take a picture, stupidly dangerous as that would be. Perhaps it was lucky for me that there was no body visible from my westbound lanes. I could still see an occasional deer along the road, on both sides even. But nothing the right form or color or location. Apparently somebody had removed the carcass. I'm hoping it was the local DNR person. It might have been somebody after their own version of a trophy. Any critter wanting to eat it would have had many more and tastier meals to pick from, and most likely have been nocturnal anyway.
All I'm left with is a story.
And a brain that talked itself into wondering just what, exactly, I saw.