There is only one living species of alligator in the United States, alligator mississippiensis.
This reptile chooses to reside only in the southeastern quadrant of the country, probably, like the humans who live there, because of the agreeably temperate climate.
But from coast to coast and border to border, on every highway, street and road throughout the U.S., an inanimate namesake of the alligator can be found in abundance.
It is the “road gator,” the carcass of a cheap retread exploded into existence by its violent separation from the wounded and often infirm tire it was glued to.
These remnants acquired the moniker of “road gators” because the part of the retread that meets the pavement resembles the hide of an alligator.
These denizens of the open road are most often birthed by 18-wheel trucks, the owners of which are apparently too cheap to purchase new tires when they have squeezed every millimeter of service out of the old ones.
They don’t seem to be concerned about protecting either the safety of their vehicles or their drivers. After all, they probably figure, if a retread blows, the truck still has 17 others to prevent it from jack-knifing into other vehicles or skidding into a ditch.
That may well be true, most of the time. However, I have either witnessed myself, or heard it relayed through a miles-long back-up of traffic, that just such an incident has occurred.
Like their mortal counterparts, road gators don’t always stay where they’re supposed to stay.
While they are usually content to recline lazily and harmlessly on the shoulders of our national thoroughfares, occasionally one or more makes its way onto the roadbed itself.
Usually these are the newly born ones, recently spawned and abandoned by their deadbeat sires, left for other motorists to cope with. These predators lie in wait, sometimes across lane stripes, ready to pounce into the wheel wells of unsuspecting travelers.
As with their living relatives, road gators are most dangerous at night. Their black bodies cloaked in darkness, they show themselves only when it’s too late for their victims to avoid attack.
My own experiences with these predators have run the gamut. On the more benign side, a recent trip from North Carolina to Florida put me on Interstate I-95 for 330 miles. In the course of that trip, I saw, and occasionally had to avoid, so many vulcanized shells that, were they to be fused into usable wholes, would have outfitted all 18 wheels on your run-of-the-mill semi.
Overall, I’ve been fortunate that most of my encounters with road gators have involved only minor swerves, and occasions for me merely to lament the mess these unsightly creations visit on our roadways. But there have been times when this norm was disturbed.
The worst occurred several years ago. It was summertime, and my girlfriend and I were returning to North Carolina from a visit with her parents in the Florida panhandle. We were tensely negotiating our way through the mayhem that is normal traffic on I-85 in Atlanta.
We reached the northern outskirts of the city, and the bumper-to-bumper 75 mile-an-hour traffic was beginning to ease. Not the 75-mile-an-hour part, but the bumper-to-bumper part.
We found ourselves on the inside lane. I would say the fast lane, but there is no such thing on Atlanta’s portion of I-85. They’re all fast lanes.
The spacing between vehicles continued to ease as we left the city until there was a car length between our car and the vehicle ahead of us. One car length became two and then three and we started to relax, but only a little. We were still driving faster than either of us was comfortable with in that kind of traffic. However, we figured it was safer to maintain our position than to slow down and risk having someone ram us in the rear.
Suddenly, we heard a loud noise. We trained our eyes ahead and saw a puff of smoke at the rear of the semi that had nosed in front of us moments earlier. Before we could look at each other to share the experience, I saw a large, dark object flying toward the windshield. Without thinking, I braked and jerked the car to the left. THUD! The object slammed into the car below the hood.
By slowing the car, I had avoided a higher and more intense impact that could have taken out the windshield, but we had been hit nonetheless. The right headlight was smashed and the grill and cowling had been destroyed.
Luckily, neither of us had been hurt. But that probably wouldn’t have been the case had there not been a grassy median strip to retreat to. I walked back up the roadway and retrieved the object. It was heavy and long. The puff of smoke we had seen had signaled the birth of a new road gator, and the truck had thrown it at us.
Unfortunately, at this writing it doesn’t appear that these creatures will go extinct, or even find themselves on an endangered species list any time soon.
So it is with this grim prediction in mind that I bid my fellow motorists safe passage on the highways of America, and extend a warning to beware the road gator on land and in the air, those that currently exist and those that might be given sudden life.
Scott Sheffield is a Pinehurst resident.