Notes on reading, writing, books & publishing

Poe Ballantine

Author’s Note

Poe Ballantine

Author of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Poe Ballantine in Chadron, NE

Your Lucky Day

Posted by Poe Ballantine on 07 Sep 2016

| Comments (20 so far)

A professional photographer who’d once worked for TIME Magazine (and who took that iconic photo of Obama WITHOUT his hand over his heart during the playing of the National Anthem in Indianola, Iowa), having a late dinner at Yoba’s, a restaurant in Rushville, Nebraska, about thirty miles east of where I live in Chadron, Nebraska, heard on the scanner that a motorcyclist out on the highway had hit a deer.  Everyone at Yoba’s assumed the motorcyclist would be dead. On his way to Chadron, where he had a room reserved at the Olde Main Street Inn, the photographer saw the magnificent blood splash, the deer torn in half, the wrecked motorcycle, papers strewn hither and thither, and a man walking dazedly down the dark highway picking up the papers. 

I don’t know how the motorcyclist got to Chadron. Maybe he walked. More likely a policeman gave him a ride, and he had no room reservation, but he ended up—perhaps it was his first stop—at the Olde Main Street Inn, where I cooked for four years and set many scenes in my memoir Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, about our local math professor who disappeared without a trace one December night and turned up three months later burned beyond recognition and bound by extension cords to a tree on a private ranch about half a mile south of the campus where he taught.

The TIME photographer had already gone upstairs, stowed his belongings, showered, and was sitting downstairs at about 10 p.m. at the bar with a drink in his hand, when the motorcyclist entered the Olde Main.  Recognizing his clothes, the photographer shouted, “You’re the guy who hit the deer!”  The motorcyclist acknowledged this and then said to the proprietor, Jeanne, who was tending bar, “Is Poe Ballantine going to be around? I’ve been reading him for years in The Sun.”  Jeanne wanted to know how he knew I lived in Chadron and he replied that he’d recently read and much admired Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.

Jeanne called me on the phone and told me the story of how this man had split a deer in half at ninety miles an hour, lost his motorcycle, not gone to the hospital, not even broken a bone, and of all the strange things after the ordeal wanted to meet ME.

I said I’d be right down.

Jeanne hung up and said to the biker, “This is your lucky day,” and he said, “I guess it is.”

I only live a few blocks east of the hotel and bicycled down. Jeanne poured me a pint of IPA and I stood between the seated photographer and the deerkiller, a strikingly handsome clear-eyed fellow in his late thirties, a private jet pilot who’d (good thing for him) been a bicycle racer as a young man. He recounted the accident: All he could think about when that deer flashed out in front of him, besides the deer, was his four-year-old son, who he was on his way to see in California. Once he hit the deer, the handlebars began shaking in his hands, and the motorcycle, though he kept it upright on the road, became increasingly difficult to manage. Finally the bike went out from under him and he continued skidding bodily down the dark, empty highway. “It felt like forever,” he said, and he kept thinking the while: are we done skidding yet? 

Fortunately he was dressed head-to-toe in a carbon-fiber suit and gloves, and there’s a helmet law in Nebraska. As he talked I noticed that he had a single cut on the palm of his right hand, the only injury I could detect.

We talked about the afterlife (no life flashed before his eyes), about Coyote, the Lakota Prankster, triumph over death, and adrenaline as the best medicine. Gathering up his belongings that had scattered from his dislocated saddlebags, he finally found his itinerary on top of the deer. He produced it for us, blood-soaked and smelling strongly of deer.

“The DEER was your itinerary,” I said.

Quite an exhilarating evening, one of those rare times when modern people celebrate the simple miracle of being alive. Jeanne didn’t close that night until 1:30 a.m., late for a weeknight.  The photographer had not heard of me, but Jeanne has all my books for sale, and by the end of the night he bought a copy of Love and Terror.  The motorcyclist got a room at the Olde Main, and though I didn’t see him again, I understand he was quite sore and heavily bruised as he boarded his plane for Denver the next morning.

Another wonderful story by a great writer. It would be wonderful to be referred to as that guy who writes for The Sun.

John Evans from Riverside, Calif on 07 Sep 2016

William Faulkner always impressed me not for his writing – which is superb – but for his wit. It is alleged that once during an interview, a naïve reporter asked him which character he identified most strongly with in his breakthrough novel “Sanctuary” – a “potboiler” he claimed to have written for the money – that controversially focused on the subject of rape and sexual abuse by an impotent man; a man whom committed the rapes with proxies, including a corn cob.

Faulkner allegedly responded, “I was the corn cob.”

I cannot remember this anecdote without smiling to myself, especially as many years working in professional kitchens has honed by wit and rapid repartee skills to nearly legendary status. Smart-ass comments and replies to silly or inane questions result in unexpected “corn cob” answers.

Poe gets this as is clearly illustrated in this short post. Many days, you are the stellar rock-jock-pilot boy who walks away from the certain disaster with a few dings and scrapes. Some days, you are the deer parted in twain by the unseen rocket-like motorcycle that appears as a parade of tour busses full of hungry tourists with no reservations five minutes before the restaurant opens.

Some days, “The DEER was your itinerary.”

So, what will we choose from the menu today? Will be the deer? The motorcycle? Rock-star pilot? Personally, I would rather be the spectator who stops and helps the dazed man collect papers scattered higgledy piggledy by the strike and then tosses the deer carcass in the truck to salvage what can be salvaged.
What? Venison sausage is tasty!

Chuck Green from WV on 07 Sep 2016

Enjoyed this offering.  Holidays are done and Summer is winding down. As a nation, we will soon be turning our collective consciousness to the fifteenth anniversary of events in a day that seem to have flashed out of nowhere - much like your highway deer. We mark this day as both a beginning and an ending of eras, as well as a calibration of courage, fear, faith, and innocence. Are we alert with the odds now on our side, or is the night full of unseen deer? Having no boundaries to restrict endless application of anything, or anybody, as a metaphor, who in, ‘Your Lucky Day’, best depicts us post 9/11? Are we the curious observer witnessing the aftermath, or the bullet-dodging biker? Perhaps we are the deer?

Frank Swanson from Den Haag, NL. on 07 Sep 2016

I got stung in the eye by a wasp the first (and last) time I rode an ATV, but I didn’t get to meet a famous writer. Thank you for sharing this story, which makes me think about the power of the crossroads. The crossroads might not have been literal in this case, but nonetheless, at the intersection of life and death there was a chance meeting and a different path was taken.

Eliza A Greenstadt from Portland, Oregon on 07 Sep 2016

As always Mr. Ballentine delivers a spectacular piece of writing.

Matt Dwyer from Los Angeles California. on 07 Sep 2016

Truth is stranger than fiction. Glad the motorcyclist is OK and was able to meet Poe. Will there be a short film of this story?

Keneke from Kauai on 07 Sep 2016

Good job Poe!  You are a master story teller.

Having grown up in South Dakota, my experience is that wildlife on country highways is real, taverns worthy of a 30-mile trip for dinner are not an exception and literary excellence can be found in the most unlikely places. 

I’m glad that this moment of convergence in Nebraska, deserving and receiving wonderful clarity, has been shared with the world. 

Best regards,

Rob Lothrop from Portland on 07 Sep 2016

I’ve always enjoyed Poe Ballantine’s stories. They’re clever, bizarre, funny, and they also make me think.

This particular story has struck me because it reminds me of a story about my stepdad who had Alzheimer’s and went into a memory care facility several years ago, when he was eighty-two. He spent the last year and a half of is life there, and shared a room with a man who was only in his fifties. This man didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle accident. He and a buddy had gone on a motorcycle trip from Montana to Alaska. They were on their way back, and were about 10 miles from home, when he hit a deer on the freeway. The traumatic brain injury means he’s in a wheelchair, unable to move, and can barely speak. It was definitely his unlucky day.

I’ve always been haunted by that story, because what are the odds of traveling all the way to Alaska, and then only ten miles from home crossing paths with a deer? And what are the chances of hitting a deer at 90 mph and walking away from it?

So, thank you Poe, for writing another story that made me think about how weird, unpredictable, and precious life is.

Brita from Seattle on 07 Sep 2016

Ah, that’s a fine story. I know that a seat at the bar of the Olde Main would be my first request following any misadventure.

Adam McIsaac from Portland, OR on 08 Sep 2016

A hearty thanks for all the intelligent and interesting comments.  I’ll be happy to answer any questions (Yes, I think this anecdote would make a good short film, and post 911 I most certainly think we are the deer, though we would never admit it). I just read a piece in Donald Davis’s The Aging Rebel (Dispatches From the Motorcycle Outlaw Frontier) in which he proposes that deer in rut and giddy and lonely on fermented berries deliberately step out in front of vehicles, especially motorcycles, the numbers (and the deer) are staggering.  Deer hunting motorcyclists he calls it.  Bring a sharp knife and bags for cryovacking if you do choose ride.  I’ll add that at least sixty people have come through Chadron in the last couple of years after reading Love and Terror, none quite as dramatically as the motorcyclist, and most of them when Jeanne calls and I come down to have a beer with them are surprised to hear that I’ve written other books. 

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, NE on 08 Sep 2016

That motorcyclist will tell that story his whole life.. it’s the freshness that rings through in this telling.  Poe seems open to the strange truth of life and notices the details that surround it.

Why 90 miles an hour…? fate will find this man no matter how lucky or handsome.

Cliff Leonardi from Portland, OR on 08 Sep 2016

Enjoyed reading the story and, like all good stories, it stimulated other good stories and anecdotes; reading the comments section has been equally rewarding for me, particularly the one from Mr. Ballantine himself.

David from Portland on 08 Sep 2016

Couldn’t answer why he might’ve been going 90, Cliff, but maybe the aforementioned Donald Charles Davis who wrote The Aging Rebel (Dispatches From the Motorcycle Outlaw Frontier) can: “But this is the west bikers know: The used-up west, the poisoned west, the radioactive west, the corrections industry west, the open pit west, the west of bankrupt housing developments.  This is the west where the cops leave you alone because when they stop you, it is just the two of you.  Or maybe it is the five of you and just one of him.

Not that any cop is going to sneak up on you.  This country is so full of lines and angles and empty spaces the wonder is that the Paiute and the Mojave never invented geometry.  There is a fortune in gold lost out there.  There has to be.  There could be a tribe of Indians hiding out there, a tribe nobody has ever seen.  There could be.  You could never sneak up on them.  They would see you coming.

You can see anything that moves 20 miles away.

I am a good citizen so I start off going 70.  Ten minutes later when nothing that I see seems to be getting any closer I look down and discover I am going 80.  Then I am clocking 90.

I flash by a car that seems to be crawling.  I wait until I see him in my mirrors, signal my lane change, get back over to the right.  By then the car is no bigger than my thumbnail and when I look down I am going 105.”

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, NE on 08 Sep 2016

Poe, this is a lovely story and photo. I have hit a deer (in my car) on Interstate 80 on my way to New Mexico. I ended up staying at a motel just west of the quad cities while a garage fixed my Mazda. A week later my new landlord in New Mexico noticed the blood on the hood of my car. I said, “Deer” and she said, “No, no. The heart. The heart.” I could never explain what she meant (pretty sure she couldn’t either), but what she said makes sense to me just like one makes food for strangers passing through from one place to the next. Thanks for your prose. It’s sending me right back to my shelves to find Love & Terror…

Jay Ponteri from Oregon on 09 Sep 2016

I have friends in this part of the world, Jay, especially those who work at the Lakota Reservation north, who’ve hit three, four, seven, eight, deer, one friend has a story of a deer who flew through his windshield into his LAP.  I’ve been lucky so far, many close calls, ran over a DEAD one once, that doesn’t count.  Chadron is rife with crumpled hoods and cracked windshields.  It’s like a war with the deer, yet they come into town and graze upon the human verdure, and they are magic to behold, so graceful, powerful, delicate, alert, creation far beyond the tenets of natural selection.  I wonder why earth is such a beautiful yet sorrowful place (see Darkmouth Strikes Again).

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, NE on 10 Sep 2016

Great story…it left me wanting more. I felt right in the moment with Poe.

Scott from Portland, OR on 11 Sep 2016

I’d bet the guy was in shock when you met. Can’t imagine he wasn’t. I’ve hit deer twice living on the McKenzie River highway. Both traumatic, especially when one time the deer leaped in front of my grill and after being hit, took off. I knew she’d die a painful, slow death and I was devastated.
But the worst are the accidents in front of our house. We live on an old deer trail and they come across the highway to feed on the windfalls.
One time about five in the morning, two crummies (loggers’ work vehicles) went head on in front of the house. I sleep naked, so had to jump up and grab a bathrobe. Ran outside with a flashlight and the cordless phone, called 911, and walked among the vehicles, reporting on what I saw. Two men trapped in one crummy, requiring the rescue unit to bring a Jaws of Life to cut them out. The female deer, dying in the middle of the road. One logger walking up and down the highway in shock. Once 911 had the details, I ran back to the house, grabbed a blanket, ran back out and covered the guy as he sat by the side of the road. After emergency got there, I started shaking and headed back to the house. My husband was just getting out of bed and wanted to know what happened. I told him I’d never be able to rely on him if I was ever in trouble.
Over a year later, we found the skeleton of a fawn deep in our laurel hedge, probably another victim of the crash.

Valerie Brooks from Leaburg, Oregon on 12 Sep 2016

This fellow might well have been in shock, Valerie, though he was a cool customer, jet pilot, racer, built for adventure.  He swore he was never going to ride another motorcycle again, but I have my doubts.  I guess there’s no such thing as a happy deer story, even Bambi for God’s sake, and it’s funny to see them risk their lives to come into town, the grass I reckon is so much greener here, and they can graze in the gardens and other cultivated areas, too.  I suspect also that they’re curious about, perhaps even attracted to humans in the same way we are to them, though it’s a doomed relationship from the beginning.

Poe Ballantine from Chadron, NE on 13 Sep 2016

I think you nailed it with Bambi, Poe. I’ve seen the city deer. They seem much more used to roaming gardens and munching away in front of humans. Not as scared as the ones out here, not that it does them much good.
You’re probably right about the adrenaline junkie fellow. He’s probably over being in shock. He’ll go straight from adrenaline rush to dead someday. Amazing he didn’t in that situation. Fascinating to get to talk to him though.

Valerie Brooks from Leaburg, Oregon on 13 Sep 2016

Beautiful story, Poe. Makes me nostalgic for my line-cook days, and the feeling of cozy camaraderie and strange stories told at the bar after shift. I love the way it captures the bizarre logic of those who’ve just scraped free of death’s cold clutch.

Cooper Lee Bombardier from Portland, Ore on 25 Sep 2016


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