Words and photos by James Joiner.
1100 pounds of fur and muscle latched onto another elk from behind, hooves digging in. Powerful, primal thrusts drove the pair closer and closer. Locking me in fierce eye contact, the top one licked its mate’s shoulder blades, wide pink tongue rhythmically drawing scratchy wet sweeping sounds against coarse brown fur.
I immediately had zero illusions as to where I stood in this situation.
Ending a trail ride, I’d obliviously pedaled out of the redwoods into a field near my parked truck. Right into the midst of a grazing elk herd. Monstrous beasts, as tall as I was. Some even taller, since I was on my bike. I held my breath. Some ignored me, some gave cautiously curious glances. Then the largest, clearly the ringleader, only yards away and sporting a spread of antlers like the wingspan of a jagged eagle, locked eyes, held my gaze, snorted, and defiantly mounted his neighbor.
“This is gonna hurt,” was all I could think, trying to come up with a plan that involved outrunning this behemoth of a randy forest creature.
It was supposed to be a simple, fun ride. A quick jaunt through Humboldt County’s towering redwoods before I tagged the Pacific Ocean and turned back east, the halfway point of a there-and-back cross-country road trip for work. A photographer, I’d been tasked with shooting a truck on the all-American road trip. Now, at the apex with 42 ass-numbing hours of highway back home looming ahead of me, I’d wanted to stretch my legs a little. Now here I was, face to face with nature’s unbridled, passionate aggression.
Roosevelt elk are something of a conservation success story. Once hunted nearly to extinction, with protection they’ve bounced back. Now thousands of them meander around Northern California. I’d been told they were plentiful, even seen signs, but had never seen one in person. I figured it was like those signs in Maine or Idaho warning of moose or bear. 30 years of mountain biking, and I’d never run into either.
I’d heard stories, laughed at the Internet videos of stupid tourists gored by buffalo and bikers attacked by mountain lions. You never expect it to happen to you.
Well, my ignorance was about to be ground into a pile of narcissistic mush under the grinding hulk of a mutant hell deer. Not exactly the blaze of glory I’d envisioned, but it was better than dying fat and alone under a greasy blanket of fast food wrappers, decomposing in the TV’s cold blue glow.
Jaw resolutely clenched, I quickly snapped a few photos, glad whoever found my desecrated remains would be able to piece together what had happened while simultaneously hoping my poor daughter would never know.
Luckily, just as the lascivious ruminant worked itself into a real froth, pummeling its partner across the final few feet to where I was frozen, a minivan came tooling through the parking lot. Windows down, children pointed and screamed at the carnal display and, no doubt, my stupid situation. It broke the spell. I sprinted toward my truck, pedaling harder than I ever have while shaking so hard I could barely push the button to unlock the door.
Slamming it closed behind me, I clawed my helmet off and turned, wide eyed, heart racing, to see if I’d really escaped. I fully expected those regal antlers to blast through tempered glass and take me out at any moment.
Outside, the elk peacefully nibbled at grass, a bucolic moment nothing like the horror I’d barely escaped. Ears twitched, stumpy tails shook flies away. It could’ve been Bambi’s opening scene.
Spectacle over, the minivan drove off.
Had I been dreaming? Was this the delusion of a week spent car camping in desolate middle America truck stops, bolstered by malnutrition hallucinations?
I pressed play on my camera, and there it was: Long tongue, thrusting member. Too real to be real, yet definitely not fake. An image that belonged on a velvet blacklight poster, not captured 20 yards from a parking lot. It was a while before I mustered up the courage to toss my bike into the back of the truck, never taking an eye off the herd, especially that one conspicuously large guy. Backing out of the lot, course set to head back east, pulse still racing, I caught one last glimpse of him in the side view mirror, head lifted, watching me depart from under the long shadow of that bony rack.
I swear he winked.
Okay, maybe he just blinked. It’s possible I’m anthropomorphizing. But I know what I saw, and I know how it felt. Either way, I tell you what, four more days of truck stops and freeways flew by, and it sure was good to be home.