The Annals of Country Life

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We had the first rain of the season the other day. It came about a month earlier than normal and wasn’t much of a rain; other than keeping the dust down and making the air smell intoxicating, there was little appreciable effect. Darleen and I had to drive in opposite directions to take care of the dreary litany of chores that constitutes Life, and when I returned home, I was very surprised to see her car sitting in the carport with the hood up. Not a good sign.

It seemed she had gotten caught in a shower, and because her windshield was dusty, she hit the washer button. Nothing. Being resourceful and not entirely devoid of mental faculties, she came to the conclusion that the reservoir was empty, stopped at the local hardware store to buy a gallon jug of cleaning fluid and then, knowing I wouldn’t be home for several hours, stopped by our friendly local car mechanic to have the reservoir filled. The reservoir was indeed empty, but not for the usual reasons.

One of the ongoing problems of country life in the Western United States is rodents taking up residence in undesirable places. Like the car engine. Back before we bought the Mighty Dodge Dually Cummings Diesel One-Ton I now drive, we had a much older diesel truck, and Darleen and I were merrily zipping along at sixty-five on the interstate one day when a mouse suddenly appeared from the slit at the back of the hood where it meets the windshield. Brer Mouse crawled up and sat down next to one of the windshield wipers, rather like a small hood ornament in the wrong place. It was a cute little beggar, but I don’t really want mice hitching rides on the hood of my truck at sixty-five mph, wearing goggles, ears flapping the wind, and screaming, “Wahoo!” like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. I stopped by the side of the road, thinking he would jump off, but apparently he wanted to return back to the ranch for he immediately dove down into the recesses of the engine block. When I opened the hood to urge him on by word and deed, he ran back and forth from side to side as if we were playing dodge-ball. When I wasn’t actually slapping at him with my hat, I was at leisure to survey the damage he had done. You know all that insulation that helps keep heat and noise in the engine block and out of the cab? Gone. Well, not “gone,” precisely, because he had made his home out of the stuff, but it certainly wasn’t where it had been and it wasn’t where the factory intended it to be and it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I carry a sidearm and was tempted to shoot him, but it occurred to me that a 230-grain .45 caliber bullet might give me greater engine problems than mere loss of insulation. All the way home the little (insert colorful expletive here) scurried around at the joint of hood and windshield like a kid on a rollercoaster.

In Darleen’s case the problem turned out to be somewhat larger. Literally.

The Wood Rat ( Neotoma albigula, or bryanti, or goldmani, or lepida, or macrotis, or cinerea, orfuscipes, or anyone of a score of other subspecies) is actually a handsome and debonair and fun-loving fellow that looks a little like a giant deer mouse that’s been taking steroids and pumping iron. And I mean “giant.” They’re not as big as the man-eating rabbits in the simply dreadful (trust me, I saw it) Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh horror flick, Night of the Lepus, but they’re big. They are also known as packrats or trade rats, for good reason, because they like to build enormous nests and cache huge stores of… Well, pretty much whatever catches their eye: food, coins, silverware, pieces of glass or anything shiny, rat poison they disdain to eat, even, occasionally, the traps meant to catch them, if those traps are shiny and new. The caches are known as middens and if the conditions are right, those middens can last for many centuries. Scientists have discovered and studied middens in the desert southwest that date back to the Pleistocene. I think that’s how long that one had been in Darleen’s car because she is not prone to exaggeration and she assures me it was the size of Arizona. It was constructed, typically, of twigs and leaves and bark and acorns and—you guessed it—insulation. It also included a section of the hose that was supposed to have delivered the windshield cleaning fluid to her windshield.

My local mechanic is a once in a lifetime dream. He and all his employees are intelligent, knowledgeable, honest, good-humored, and helpful, but apparently none of them had taken the Mechanic School course, Ridding Car Engines of Immensely Large Rodents 101 (elective). They got rid of the nest and its cache (including the insulation-that-used-to-be) and all the miscellaneous acorns and other saved items, but getting rid of Brer Rat proved more difficult. In fact, it proved impossible. They used water and air compressors and sometimes both at once from opposite sides, but the resourceful Mr. Rat eluded them by scurrying from side to side, and not one of those full grown men was brave enough to stick his hand down in there and grab the sucker. (I believe I mentioned they’re intelligent mechanics.) Finally, after a full hour of this game—one of the mechanics told Darleen he could hear the damned party animal laughing—they gave up. They told Darleen to leave the hood of the car up when she got home, the idea being to make it less inviting for Brer Rat, and to put out traps and poison and anything else we could think of because, they informed her cheerfully, if he should happen to go to his Maker while in the wheel well, there would be no affordable way to get the corpse out, and the smell would make the car both undriveable and unsaleable. Ooh, what fun.

So when I got home, I baited two rat traps with peanut butter and put them under the car, one inside each of the front wheels where, I hoped, the dogs wouldn’t get to them. I don’t need another vet bill. Two days went by with no results, and then, just this morning, my former-vegetarian-animal-rescuing-kinship-with-all-life spouse came into my office, grinning from ear to ear. Given the size of him, I was tempted to take him to the local taxidermist and have him mounted (charging, teeth bared), but instead I disposed of the mortal remains up on the hill, well away from all wheel wells.

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