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The Big Season opens with parade of trophies

On the highway, watch out for deer - and other stuff.

A few weeks ago, I was driving home with my family from a Thanksgiving vacation, crossing one of the longer Northeastern states. Let's just call it, for the sake of this story, "Pennsylvania."

Interstate 80 between Cleveland and New York City stimulates a level of nonlinear thinking achievable on few other highways. While meditating on a string of important questions in the passenger seat (Does my 5-year-old son have a future as a major-league pitcher? Was a guy named Barack Obama really elected president? How many miles are left in this car?), I remembered the travel tip offered by my grandfather as we left that morning.

"Watch out for deer crossing the highway. They'll be moving a lot. [Significant pause.] It's the First Day of the Season."

And as that thought went away to wherever thoughts go, I watched a truck try, with some effort, to pass us in the left lane. As the bright-red Dodge Dakota worked its way past us, a sticker on the back window came into view, offering a set of deer antlers and warning us to "Buck Off."

That was kind of funny, but we both recoiled at the sight of something else on the back of the truck: a very real, very dead deer strapped loosely across the tailgate.

The buck's head, with its large rack of antlers, was propped to the side, as if having a little rest. The animal's side was taped up, but still bloody at what was clearly the site of the fatal wound.

My wife looked at me, shook her head, and laughed uncomfortably. We watched the truck and its gruesome freight pull ahead.

Two minutes later, having recovered from that and slipped back into another session of quiet, highway rumination, I realized that another truck was passing us - this time a fire-safety-orange, late-'80s Chevrolet. It also had a sticker in the back window: a silhouette of the cartoon character Calvin gleefully relieving himself on the word Vegetarians. (I wish I were making that up.)

And, once again, my wife and I shared a moment of shock at the sight of a deer tied down across the back of the truck - this time a doe, its little ears flapping in the wind. The Chevy's hazard lights were blinking, and the animal's otherwise dead eyes were intermittently lit up by the glow.

My wife and I both grew up in rural areas, and, while neither of us ever hunted, the practice wasn't foreign to us. We're both aware of the excitement, preparation and outright truancy that hunting season stimulates. We've seen the bright-orange hats and camouflage pants worn by men, women and children.

So the sight of truck, deer, truck, deer on this, the First Day of the Season, wasn't all that surprising. But it was slightly disturbing, in the way such things can be when you spend most of your time in a semi-urban area.

Fortunately, visions of the end result of the first day of hunting season were once again replaced by that comfortable, 67-m.p.h. jumble of unanswerable questions. The Allegheny Mountains went back out of focus.

But by the time a third vehicle labored around to our left, we were getting jumpy - past the point of uneasy laughter or head-shaking.

Drawing even with us was a silvery and kind of compound vehicle - part minivan, part SUV - with a dad in the driver's seat, a mom in the passenger's seat, and at least two children in the back. Two built-in DVD players flashed Disney/Pixar films. A ragged, sun-bleached "Kerry-Edwards '04" sticker forlornly adorned the back window.

And before we could even see it, we knew there was yet another carcass strapped across the vehicle's tailgate, held in place by a few colorful bungee cords. Lying on its side, limbs askew, with a fresh, wrapped wound, another of the day's hauls was splayed there for all to see.

This third casualty was almost too much for us. A short time before, the members of the family in this silvery vehicle had gotten up early, driven out to a designated area, set up their gear, dressed in the proper warm and safe attire, and sought out their prize. I guess this sport - this near-religion - provided them with some kind of thrill and, if done right, a trophy for display. And now they were hauling their prize home for cleaning and measurement.

There it was, and there was no laughing it off this time. For their own pleasure, they had killed what was once a large, vibrant, healthy . . . pine tree.

Luckily, our son slept through this parade of carnage. I drove us the rest of the way home that evening, and we warmed our hands and hearts over a few too many cups of eggnog. After all, it was the First Day of the Season.