My commute to work is a 65 mile-per-hour hurtle through 20 miles of highway. One stretch slices through a few hundred acres of preserved woods, which takes longer in the summer months because I drive in the slow lane. I keep my eyes peeled in case I have to stop for slow-moving pedestrians. Very slow moving.
Once they break their winter hibernation, land turtles — mostly eastern box turtles around here — roam far from their cold-weather lairs. They cover a surprising amount of ground, considering the length of their stride. Nothing daunts them, not even Mack trucks. All summer long, I’m on the lookout for their graffiti-colored domes poised on the shoulder (right side up, if they’re lucky). I’ve been late for work more than once after pulling over to stop traffic and carry a turtle across the asphalt to her destination.
Sometimes they don’t make it without getting tumbled, so I pull over for the squashed turtles too. Often enough, they survive. They are incredibly tough, and their legendary shells stand up well against automobile abuse. This I learned watching a wildlife rehabilitator pry apart and re-set the shattered edges of the shell of a snapping turtle I’d shoveled off the pavement (watch out for those snappers — they are sons-of-guns). Those carapaces may crack open, but if they do their job protecting the turtle’s innards, wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians can repair the cracks and holes with fiberglass and epoxy. There’s something pretty badass about a critter that gets the same treatment as a Corvette after a bang-up.
Not long after I moved out of the city and settled out here in this patchwork suburban countryside, I met my first wild turtle. He looked like a squashed traffic cone discarded along the bend of the clover-leaf highway ramp. It took seconds for my brain to process the intuitive leaps — It’s a turtle! It’s in danger! Late for work! Must save it! — but they passed quickly enough for me to pull over and crank my parking brake. In my skirt and bare feet (I kicked off my ballet flats so I could move faster), I trotted down the sun-warmed concrete shoulder, willing the turtle to stay put lest he be creamed by a car accelerating to make the merge.
He hissed as I lifted him (really the rush of his breath as he exhaled to collapse his lungs, making room for his head inside his shell), and glared balefully at me with his red eye. He popped out, though, as soon as he saw the grass on the other side, clawing the air in his eagerness to disappear again into the brush.
Clearly he thought I had done him no favor, but I felt differently. His predicament had gotten me out of my own shell of steel and plastic, and given me the opportunity to act a little wildly on the side of the highway — real estate that people think they’ve tamed, even though the wildlife and I behave otherwise.