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.