Right off, I have to tell you I like squirrels.
I know folks who call squirrels "rats with tails" or "weed wildlife," but not me. I admire squirrels. Squirrels are as good or better at being squirrels than most people are good at being people. They persevere.
Know what I mean? Everything wants to eat squirrels. Yellow rat snakes slither into oak trees and gobble babies in nests. Red-tailed hawks love nothing more than finding a careless squirrel cavorting in the open. I don't have to tell you that squirrels have never mastered the knack of crossing a busy street.
But you know what? You can't wipe out the squirrel population. Like cockroaches and maybe Charo, they will more than likely survive even Armageddon.
So I'm a little embarrassed to tell you that from today forward I'm at war with squirrels.
It wasn't my idea. They started it.
Help me! Squirrels, those pit bulldogs of the oaks, are stalking me.
One of the pleasures of riding a bike in Florida is seeing wildlife. In the Everglades, I've raced past huge alligators sunning themselves on a trail. I have ridden past cottonmouth moccasins and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and snapping turtles.
In the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, I saw the tracks of bears on the road. On the Loop Trail, which cuts through the Big Cypress, I've seen deer and wild hogs. I've never seen a panther while riding, but down there, it could happen, and if it ever does, I won't be afraid.
Truth be told, a wise cyclist is more afraid of people. I know I am.
I live in Pinellas, a county known for its hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians if they dare venture on a public road. But my county is also lucky. We are blessed with the Pinellas Trail, a 35-mile path that extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. I ride the trail five mornings a week.
Most days, everything goes smoothly, though I start to get nervous in the fall, after the first cold front. That's when other cyclists, inline skaters and joggers show up on the trail in droves. Sad to say, most of these fair weather athletes know not even the basics.
It's against Florida law to wear headphones while cycling. Just check out the number of cyclists, bebopping their noggins to music, on the trail. Of course they're oblivious to someone coming up fast behind them, namely me.
Experienced cyclists, just like experienced motorists, stay on the right except to pass. When passing on my bike, I yell, "I'm on your left." Somebody wearing headphones will miss the warning. Since such a cyclist is dumb to begin with, he or she is likely to veer willy-nilly into my path.
At least I wear a helmet. Trail dumbos don't.
Speaking of dumb, what about the inline skaters who refuse to skate in line? I'm talking about the ones who use the trail as if it's their own private Idaho frozen pond. Swinging their arms like Olympic speed skaters, they manage to take up almost every inch of the 12-foot-wide trail. They wear headphones, too.
These days, lots of little kids are on the trail with their parents on weekends. Learning to ride, some of the kids need training wheels. As their oblivious parents chat on their respective cell phones, their innocent children pedal into the paths of skaters and cyclists.
If I were smart, I'd abandon the Pinellas Trail and take my chances on the road. But the road is scary. Too many blockheaded drivers, talking on their cell phones and licking Cheez Doodle residue from their fingers, are behind the wheels of 2-ton vehicles and not paying attention. So I stay on the trail.
Now there's another danger. I call them kamikaze squirrels.
Bushy tail ambush
Most days, I pedal from Largo to Tyrone and back, about 20 miles. The heart of my ride is through Seminole. I like Seminole. It's shady, with big oak trees. Oak trees produce acorns coveted by squirrels.
Are squirrels aggressive because they are protecting their acorn stash from evil cyclists? Or have weak-minded Homo sapiens trained the squirrels to come to the trail for daily feedings of stale bread? Like I say, squirrels are good at being squirrels. They quickly learn to treat every cyclist as a potential food source.
I'm not sure it matters. All I know is that lately squirrels have been looking for trouble.
Tails twitching, teeth bared, they charge onto the trail and take aim at my front tire. Are they trying to slow me down? Do they want me to fall and break my clavicle? When a man feels menaced by a squirrel, can he be taken seriously? Remember what happened to Jimmy Carter when he fended off a furious rabbit with a canoe paddle? The pundits had a field day and Ronald Reagan became president.
I may have killed a squirrel the other day. Trying to avoid it, I swerved off the path into the grass while riding 20 mph. For one terrible moment, I felt myself going down. Somehow my tires found pavement again and I was okay.
I didn't look back. What if I hadn't hit that squirrel? What if I looked back and saw the squirrel _ what if I saw a pack of squirrels _ snarling and snapping at my back tire, hoping to bring me down and have at me?
Later, at the wake, my friends would say, "How did this happen? He was such a careful cyclist."
Outside the funeral home, high in the branches of a proud old oak tree, a pack of squirrels would exchange knowing glances.