I stand reminded once again that there is a fate worse than death. I have seen people suffer it too often. The memory is a gloom unlike any other.
John F. Burns, London bureau chief of The New York Times, has in my mind produced the most profound body of work on the tragedy of Michael Schumacher.
This week, Burns went to Grenoble, France, where Schumacher has lain in coma since his injury in a skiing accident Dec. 29.
The indication was that Burns was the only journalist, or one of a handful at most, still there.
"The hubbub of jostling reporters and television crews," he wrote, "is a memory now "
This in an Alpine city that was mobbed by media for weeks after the winningest driver in Formula One history -- 91 Grand Prix wins and seven world championships -- was brought there.
The theme I gleaned from the Times story is that Schumacher is slipping from the mind of the world, slipping toward the ranks of the forgotten comatose.
I've been there. Not to Grenoble, but there.
I went to Madison, Fla., while an obscure driver named Don Williams was setting the terrible record for living in coma after a NASCAR crash -- 10 years and three months. I went to his funeral in 1989.
I went to San Antonio while another NASCAR driver, Rick Baldwin, surpassed Williams' awful milestone, surviving in coma for two days short of 11 years, until 1997. I saw his two daughters grow up, from little girls into lovely women, during the time their father was "going for the Guinness Book of World Records for taking a nap -- for sleeping," as one of them put it, bravely but tearfully, to her friends at school.
Another NASCAR driver, Bruce Jacobi, lay in coma for nearly four years after a crash at Daytona in 1983. Butch Lindley, champion of NASCAR's National Sportsman Series, now the Nationwide Series, in 1977-78, lived comatose for five years after a crash in a non-NASCAR race in 1985.
Pattie Petty, Richard's daughter-in-law, accepts comatose kids at her and husband Kyle's Victory Junction camp in North Carolina. Seeing them, Pattie once told me, reminds her to be thankful that their son, Adam Petty, killed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000, was taken from them immediately rather than lingering in what neurosurgeons call persistent vegetative state for months or years or decades.
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesBruce Jacobi, who raced in NASCAR, USAC Sprint Cars and Indy car, lay in a coma for nearly four years after suffering extensive injuries in one of the qualifying races for the 1983 Daytona 500.
If not for Victory Junction, these kids would be forgotten by all but their mothers -- some fathers, unable to deal with the burden, just up and walk out on the families.
Another friend, Dr. Jerry Punch, the ESPN reporter, once told me of the terrible conflict of intellect and emotions all good trauma docs face often.
To paraphrase Jerry, when a patient is brought in, critical from a highway accident or other trauma, every bit of a doctor's training compels him to save this person whatever it takes -- this, even though you know that, if the person survives, he or she will be comatose, an awful burden on a family, perhaps for years.
But you save the person. Period.
"There's just too much we can do to keep you alive once you get in here," the neurosurgeon who initially treated Don Williams at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach once told me.
Doctors at University Hospital Center in Grenoble could do vastly -- perhaps exponentially -- more for Schumacher than the docs at Halifax could do for Williams in 1979. Schumacher was put into a medically induced coma, a technique I first learned of in 1994 when Karl Wendlinger, a former teammate of Schumacher's on the Mercedes Junior team when they were rising through the ranks, was placed in an artificial coma after a crash in Monaco.
When the heavy sedation was removed, Wendlinger woke up. Schumacher hasn't, as far as we know, with his family and manager remaining silent about his condition and asking to be let alone. Burns quotes one neuroscientist as saying "it's too early to say somebody is in a persistent vegetative state."
Burns' movement around Grenoble was respectful and unobtrusive, and his phrasing was delicate, sensitive -- "what is known seems increasingly dispiriting "
The irony of Schumacher's injury is not lost on anyone who knew him, or even of him -- those countless risks taken in racing cars, only to be felled while on vacation in a skiing accident, apparently at moderate speed.
So what I write here is not an indictment of motor racing. It is a lament over one of the worst words in the English language, and the worst and longest nightmare in all the human condition: coma.
Petty Defends Danica Criticism
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- We're still concerned about Tony Stewart's mending leg, but clearly his mouth is back to 100 percent -- running wide open, set up real loose, so that the rear end is hanging out.
So Smoke wants to set up a match race between Richard Petty and Danica Patrick, does he? And let me get this straight: Should Danica win, "If I were her, I'd take [the checkered flag] over there and cram it up his [you know].
"But that's just me."
Petty is 76 years old, Stewart is 42 and Danica is 31. I have no idea how such a match race, preposterous at face value, would turn out. But as for the aforementioned celebratory gesture, I somehow doubt Stewart would succeed at such an endeavor. (I'm certain Danica has far too much class even to say such a thing, let alone try it.)
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesTony Stewart dissed one of NASCAR's hallowed figures: seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty.
But that's beside the point, which is ...
A school of piranhas doing business as the current NASCAR media corps has already picked Richard Petty's carcass clean. They've been all atwitter -- pun absolutely intended -- since, at some trade show in Canada, he was quoted as saying Danica could win a race only if "everybody else stayed home."
Petty went too far. Think of it this way: Even when Danica finishes, say, 30th in a race, she still has outrun 13 drivers. So she would have won if only 29 drivers stayed home.
When she finished eighth in the Daytona 500 last year, she outran 35 drivers, and might have won had only seven drivers stayed home. Hell, she might have won had none of them stayed home, if, while running third going into the last lap, she'd caught the breaks of the aerodynamic pushes and pulls of the draft.
Petty exaggerated. I can't count the number of times I've heard NASCAR drivers, including Stewart -- especially Stewart -- exaggerate things. E.g., his "We're going to kill each other" several years back after he won a preliminary race during Speedweeks and didn't like the way the bump drafting was going.
Stewart paid a price in the media frenzy then, and Petty has paid it lately.
Not even piranhas feed on bones once the carcass is picked. But here comes Stewart to chum the water, and the mania continues, on into the outer reaches of the absurd.
Stewart's mouth has a history of twisting the knife once it's in. He had to get personally professional, or professionally personal, disparaging Petty's career when, yes, at times, it was claimed the King had superior cars.
Speaking of feeding, Stewart has fed -- and well -- off a sport Richard Petty made. There are legions of fans because, at the roots of NASCAR popularity, Richard Petty would sit for hours after races, signing autographs and talking with the people.
I was there while Petty was building the foundations of this stuff. He never brushed off the media, young or old, from ABC Sports to small newspapers. He took a lot of time with us. He gave elaborate, respectful answers to our often asinine questions.
Stewart is a very popular driver. But he didn't build this sport. He truly is standing on the shoulders of titans.
One of them, the tallest of them all, is Richard Petty.
I understand fully that Stewart meant to defend his employee, his driver, and by extension, her sponsor.
But one stab would have been enough. To twist the knife, and twist, and twist, was beyond disrespectful to a man highly responsible for where Stewart and his team are today.
Petty went too far. Stewart went far beyond too far.
The richest person in or around NASCAR? It isn't even close, in the Forbes 400 Richest Americans released Monday.
John Menard, 73, father and primary sponsor of driver Paul Menard, is 57th on the list with a net worth estimated at $7.5 billion.
Next came Tony Stewart's fishing buddy and primary sponsor, John Morris, 65, of Bass Pro Shops, 110th wealthiest at $4 billion.
Then, if you count the NASCAR association loosely, Frederick Smith, 69, chairman of FedEx, Denny Hamlin's primary sponsor, comes in 243rd at $2.3 billion.
Not until James C. "Jim" France, 68, chairman of International Speedway Corp. and vice chairman of NASCAR, does the Forbes list get to an everyday player in the NASCAR realm. The silent, background power of NASCAR, uncle of chairman Brian France, is worth an estimated $2 billion, ranking him 273rd.
John Henry, 64, owner of the Boston Red Sox and co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, is 327th at $1.7 billion.
Only one NASCAR team owner, Roger Penske, made the list, and barely squeaked in at that, in a multiple tie for 386th and last. Penske, 76, is worth an estimated $1.3 billion.
Former 400 club member Bruton Smith, chairman of track conglomerate Speedway Motorsports, didn't make the cut this time.
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Even with his back to the wall, Brad Keselowski loves where he is.
Even here on the precipice of failing to make the Chase to get even a shot at defending his 2012 Cup championship, "I'm confident because I started from nothing and was able to win a championship," he said going into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN & WatchESPN). "We were able to climb that mountain, and I'm confident we'll be able to do it again."
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski is excited about his chances Sunday night in Atlanta.
Note the "started from nothing." That is always on his mind, keeping him loving where he is, just with a chance in a sport that "is a bit of a roller coaster and we're at the bottom of it right now. There's no doubt about it."
Winless this season, buffeted by luck as bad as a defending champion could dread, Keselowski draws on the pure racers' bloodlines in him, the genes of a hard-knocks ARCA racing family from Michigan that was never handed anything.
He's down but not devastated in his post-championship plummet, having learned early on that "In this world, it's easy to get kicked in the gut pretty quick."
So now, 11th in points, with two races left to make the Chase, Keselowski looks at his ilk, to one of the handful of pure racers left in the sport, for inspiration.
"I spent some time over the last few weeks looking back at Tony Stewart's season in 2011 because I think there are a lot of parallels between his season that year and where I'm at right now," Keselowski said.
That was when Stewart was winless in the regular season and said publicly near the end of it that his team didn't deserve to make the Chase, wasn't worthy of taking up a spot. That turned out to be the greatest jump start in the history of NASCAR.
Stewart won five of 10 Chase races and the championship, and those five wins were a season high for any Cup driver, all season.
So Keselowski sees that a Chase can amount to a whole season -- if you can make it.
"I think if we can get through these next two weeks, we're in as strong a position as ever," he said.
"We don't have quite the confidence that we had at this time last year, and that's something I will admit," he continued. "But if we come out guns ablaze these next two races, we'll get that confidence real quick, and I think we're positioned to do that.
"Having tested here and at Richmond [next week's venue], I feel like we have great cars for that."
AMS, with its wide, worn, abrasive surface that demands slipping, sliding and even scraping the wall at high speeds, would seem to be the epitome of Keselowski's kind of track. Yet he hasn't won here in four starts.
"I love Atlanta, actually," he said. "This is one of my favorite tracks, and we've had some good runs here. I think we finished third and sixth the last two times here [he's correct]. We haven't been quite good enough to win, but we certainly had very respectable runs."
And then he turned to the old pure racers' adage: "You knock around the top five, and you'll get wins."
Top it off with more grassroots wisdom: "The key to life isn't about falling down. It's about getting back up."
The reigning champion, with all this difficulty defending, is by no means flattened or facedown on the mat.
But those are the two hottest questions going into Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.
Call them too pop-culture in nature, with two mainstream names, not inside enough for hard-core NASCAR fans, if you will. But, hey: This is a pop-culture race, always has been, run in a hurry before an audience comprised more of beachgoers than serious fans.
This is the direct descendent of the Firecracker 400, which many still deem the best name ever for a NASCAR race, before the advent of commercial names.
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick was impressive at Daytona in February. Will she be even better on Saturday?
What Johnson could do is become the first driver to sweep both races at Daytona International Speedway in a single season since Bobby Allison did it in 1982.
Patrick, as with every week she fires her engine, can become the first woman to win a major NASCAR race -- but it's much more interesting this weekend than it has been at, say, Michigan or Charlotte this year.
She started on the pole for the Daytona 500 in February, ran in the lead pack throughout the race, was third going into the final lap and wound up eighth because she didn't yet know how to swim with the sharks in a restrictor-plate-racing shuffle at the end.
So this could be her best shot to win since the season opener.
Johnson was quick but subtle to point out the differences in his own task from what Allison accomplished.
"Have plates been on for 31 years too?" JJ deadpanned. Allison's feat came five years before restrictor plates were instituted. In '82 a driver could race and win on his and his car's own merits. Now, of course, a driver is largely along for the wild ride in the shuffling and scrambling of plate racing, depending on others for aerodynamic pushes and pulls.
And this may be the same track Johnson won the Daytona 500 on this year, but conditions are different -- somehow even more intense for the summer race than for NASCAR's showcase event in February.
"When you come back for this event the track has so much less grip, much hotter conditions, and there is just more urgency to lead just more energy and more opportunities to make mistakes in the July race than in the February race .
"Also, everybody is just charged up for a night race, Fourth of July weekend and all those things."
Different, yes, but, "I feel like it's not going to be worlds of difference," Patrick said in response to questions as to whether she can deliver a drive as electrifying as hers in February.
"Yeah, I can do the same thing," she said. "I don't get worse as the year goes on."
Her friend and TV commercial colleague, Dale Earnhardt Jr., got a point blank question: Can Danica actually win this race?
"Yes. Of course. Absolutely," he said.
Patrick figures the biggest reason she dropped back from third to eighth in the last-lap shuffle in February was that she failed to take advantage of an opportunity to work with Earnhardt in the waning moments.
Should the two find themselves in position to draft together again Saturday night, does Patrick now have enough experience that Earnhardt could help her win? Or, conversely, enough experience that she could help Earnhardt win?
"The answer is yes for both," Earnhardt said. "With plate racing you just don't know. Mark Martin was pushing me in the [February] race and he has as much experience as anybody, and we didn't get the job done, as good as I think we are at it
"You just sort of go by your gut in those last moments," Earnhardt continued. "It just comes down to anyone, her or I or anybody, making that gut decision at that moment
"You don't fall back on years of experience," Earnhardt said. "It comes down to, really, like dodging a bullet as you move left or right and hope you make the right decision."
Where the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's showcase race, the 400 is a sprint with enormous sense of urgency, flying by the gut, dodging bullets.
"Firecracker 400" still says it best about this race.
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Sunday's -- or Monday's, or Tuesday's, depending on the weather -- Aaron's 499 may not be a replay of the single-file promenade that kept you dozing and grumbling through the Gen-6 car's debut at Daytona in February.
"It looks like it's going to be a pretty crazy race," pole sitter Carl Edwards said Saturday.
Hold on, you say. Edwards, maybe the hardest-luck restrictor-plate racer of his time -- destroying five cars at Daytona alone this year -- is on the pole at Talladega?
Qualifying was rained out Saturday, and the forecasts call for a 60 percent chance of rain Sunday and 50 percent Monday.
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty ImagesMartin Truex Jr. says he thinks two racing lines may form at Talladega, unlike earlier this year at Daytona.
Whenever the Gen-6's second plate-race outing happens, the starting order will be determined by speeds in Friday's practice. Because the whole garage area knew the lousy weather was coming, they treated that first practice as "a heat race," Edwards said.
He, Truex and Ambrose managed the quickest runs -- and "runs" is the key word. Runs on one another. That's what may make the difference from Daytona, where drivers just couldn't put together the classic plate-racing scrambles.
"We expected it to be similar to Daytona, but it actually feels quite a bit different, which is interesting," Truex said. "We really don't know what to expect for tomorrow yet. The practicing is never like it is in the race."
There's always a chance drivers will choose to do a ride-around similar to what happened at Daytona -- and which they've chosen to do here in the past, when the rules packages had them baffled.
But in practice this time, "The cars seemed to suck up [to each other in the draft] and get runs a whole lot better," Truex said, "even when we were toward the front of the pack.
"We saw a lot of single-file racing at Daytona," he continued, "but I don't expect the race here tomorrow to be quite that way. It seemed like guys were able to get a lot of runs and make a lot of stuff happen in practice."
"There were definitely more runs than what there was at Daytona, as far as getting more speed to make things happen out there," Ambrose said. "I felt racier than I expected."
How did those three end up quickest?
"It was all about getting in position to get a big run and run a whole lap without having to check up or drag the brake or slow the car down," Truex said. "A lot of guys didn't try to get the big lap. They were just trying to work on their cars for tomorrow."
All in all, "It was like a heat race out there," Edwards said. "We were four wide in practice once -- at least that's what my spotter told me.
"The cars seemed to do a really good job of pulling up and actually passing other cars."
"Actually" passing was what the cars had a hard time doing at Daytona. One could pull alongside another but would seem to stall out in a baffling side-wash of air.
Not enough has changed about the Gen-6 car since Daytona to make a difference -- at least nobody has been caught with any gray-area tweaking of aerodynamics this weekend.
So it has to be the track. Talladega is 2.66 miles to Daytona's 2.5, higher-banked and wider.
"There will be the opportunity to have some bigger packs just because of the style of racetrack and there is more room to maneuver," said Kevin Harvick, who had the dominant car of Daytona Speedweeks, winning both the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying race before getting wrecked out early in the 500. "What effect, and how big that effect is on this style of racing, is obviously yet to be determined."
"The only thing that is different is this is a wider racetrack," Jeff Gordon said. "You don't have to worry about handling here, where handling was a little bit of an issue at Daytona."
At Daytona, driver skittishness about forming an inside line, at the risk of being shuffled back by the clearly faster outside lane, was the root issue of what amounted to -- hrrmph -- less than a fan-pleaser.
"It certainly could happen," Gordon said of forming an inside line, "and it could have happened at Daytona. It just didn't seem like enough guys really wanted to get organized to do it. They were pretty committed to stay in that outside lane."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who arguably likes Talladega more than any other driver, noted another possible nuance that could help.
"The asphalt has aged a little bit [since the repaving in 2006], and hopefully, it is getting slicker and slicker," Earnhardt said. "Makes actually racing around each other a lot more challenging than it has been lately at the plate tracks."
As the trucks began their race at Rockingham on Sunday, one remark by Speed TV analyst Michael Waltrip -- that fans were right up by the fence -- triggered a whole, delightful set of memories about one man.
And it added to my list of somewhat forgotten characters who might deserve consideration for NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination.
That would be the late Ray Melton, the longtime track announcer at both Rockingham and Darlington, who had such a deep, gravelly voice and prolonged Southern drawl that he always sounded sort of like he was choking on the smoke rising from a charcoal fire.
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesThe late Ray Melton was the longtime voice of racing at both Rockingham and Darlington.
Anyway, speaking of fans close to the fence at the Rock: One pole day there in the 1970s, Ray noticed from his booth that some kids were not only close to, but clinging to, the catch fence down in the first turn, during practice.
Politely, deeply, Ray intoned: "You folks standin' down theyah bah thah fence in Toin One: we would remahnd y'all that it's very dayne-ger-ous to be theyah. We ask that you move back."
Indeed, drivers often would dust the wall with the right sides of their cars going into Turn 1. It was part of the quickest line around the track.
The kids didn't move.
"Again," Ray boomed over the public address system, "we ask you young people down by the fence to take a seat, fo' yo' own safety."
Still they stood, oblivious.
Ray asked once more, and then again, and that was enough.
"Will SOMEBODY please get those idiot children away from that fence!" Ray bellowed, in a sheer thunder rising over the Sand Hills region of North Carolina. "We are NOT gonna conduct any moh practice laps until somebody removes those idiot children!"
Still the kids paid no heed, but security guards did, and removed the thrill seekers.
In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was on hand to give the command to start engines at Darlington for the Southern 500, which was still run literally on Labor Day.
The future president gave the command, and the cars roared and began to roll off the grid.
Ray then boomed that "EVERYBODY knows that it's MY job to give that command here at the famed Dahlin'ton Raceway, so I'm gonna give it anyway, for you fans:
"Gen-tel-mehhhn, STAHT yo' EN-juns!"
The engines were well into full song by then, but Ray made himself heard above the noise.
So when you talk about the deep traditions at Darlington and Rockingham, just know they'll never be close to the same without the charcoal-smoked voice of the late Ray Melton.
If I could have back all the time I've spent at racetracks in the rain and waiting for the drying process, I would be a young man today.
And I've had it easy, compared to you, the ticket-buying fan, who had to brave the elements and get home in the wee hours of Monday to go to work or maybe even throw away hard-bought tickets because you couldn't return for the rain date.
Now there's hope of considerable relief for everybody, as reported Wednesday by our David Newton from the NASCAR media tour. At Daytona in February, we can hope to see the beginnings of a revolutionary reduction of the drying process -- down to 20 percent of the current time.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCARMore efficient track-drying machinery is expected to replace the familiar jet dryers, above, beginning next month at Daytona.
If this works -- well -- I cannot remember a single thing NASCAR has done, in the almost 39 years I've covered it, that would be more popular with fans, both in the stands and via television. Not to mention competitors, media and TV programming executives.
This will be no panacea. There'll always be those days of relentless downpours that force postponement.
But you and I both know the most miserable pattern there is: There's enough of a shower for NASCAR to "lose the track," as they say. Two hours or more are spent drying the track, and just as it "grays up," here comes another shower. Out come the jet dryers again to repeat the agonizingly slow process. Then another shower. And so on.
That's the sort of thing that should be eliminated with the equipment announced Monday by NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O'Donnell.
Newton reports the equipment will use compressed air in a sort of "squeegee effect," simultaneously vacuuming up water, as opposed to the current jet dryers that merely -- and oh so slowly -- blow hot air onto the track while fleets of trucks run the track, trying to blow off water with their tires.
Imagine a shower early in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24 and the track is dry enough for racing within 30 minutes. That's what NASCAR is shooting for. They'll keep the jet dryers on site until the new equipment is perfected.
But it's an enormous start for all of us who have spent the dreary hours and days -- to me, it seems like months or years, all told -- waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
Malign NASCAR chairman Brian France as you will -- and have -- but O'Donnell indicated France is the one who pushed for this terrific reduction in drying time. And France is asking for even more efficiency than what NASCAR Research and Development has come up with so far.
Surely you will give the third czar his due credit when his commanded achievement hits you right between the eyes -- when the green flag drops on what, half an hour earlier, was a wet track.
My first NASCAR rainout was at Talladega in the summer of 1975. The schedule being much less crowded in those days, the race was postponed for an entire week. On the rain date, Tiny Lund was killed.
I was working at an Atlanta newspaper in 1980 when there was a similar postponement for a week. It rained even more in the interim. What was then Atlanta International Raceway had grassy fields for parking lots. I called the track's then-new public relations chief for an update on conditions for the rain date.
"We'll try to have as many tractors and chains as we can to pull people out if they get bogged down," said the young PR guy.
I thought this guy would never make it in NASCAR. He was way too honest with the public.
His name? Mike Helton.
For the next 32 years, his recent decades spent as NASCAR's president, Helton more than anyone would have to endure the agony of rain and the ire of the fans.
Helton joined O'Donnell in announcing the new equipment. I wasn't there, but I've known Helton well enough, long enough, to know no one is happier or more relieved at its prospects.
Don't even think of all the time he has spent in the rain at tracks, trying to figure out what to do, knowing nothing he can decide will please the public.
Just take the time Helton has spent standing in the door of the NASCAR hauler looking helplessly out at the rain. If he could just have that back, there would be no gray in that mustache.
JASPER, Ga. -- Except for Friday's "big one" at Daytona, NASCAR has largely been in hibernation lately. The black bears of the north Georgia mountains have not.
Last time I wrote about the majestic animals that seem to love my little piece of the Blue Ridge, readers complained that surely there must be something going on in NASCAR that would trump news of bears.
But, our David Newton having reported and analyzed the 12-car pileup in winter testing, you'll pardon me for getting worked up over another kind of big one entirely -- a 250-pound pregnant female taking up residence under my deck.
Besides, we're always writing about what drivers did on their winter breaks -- sunning in the Caribbean, or going on charity missions -- so why can't I tell what I did?
This bear's intentions were clear: to make this her maternity ward and then a nursery and pediatric center through, oh, about March. That could put me at Daytona for Speedweeks at the time of the blessed event.
With all due respect to the celebrated pregnancies of various NASCAR wives in recent years, this one promised more impact on me personally. You see, each member of the species Ursus americanus considers its place of birth its home for life -- and our game wardens up here have seen bears up to 27 years old. I've spent the past two years dealing with one such family that considers mi casa their casa. Another generation would be just too much (to) bear.
We think this particular bear might be the one my late wife named Ella -- not for Jeff Gordon's daughter but for the next town north of here, Ellijay. Or it might be Ella's daughter, all grown up now and yearning for a family of her own.
At any rate, Ella or Young Ella came to precisely the same spot under the deck where the first family was born, and she settled in -- sort of. If only she'd lapsed into a long, silent winter's nap, that would be one thing. But the black bears of the Blue Ridge don't really hibernate -- they take naps of weeks or days, then stir, then nap again. Or, they settle in to bear a litter, but don't sleep throughout.
As Ella grew uncomfortable and restless, we could hear wood breaking and crunching as she chewed and clawed out more comfortable digs for herself. Put it this way: my deck was once supported by two-by-10 joists. They are now two-by-fours, thanks to Ella's remodeling.
Late in the afternoons and at night, we could hear her working. At one point it sounded as if she were going to tear through the walls and come out on the stair landing.
On New Year's Eve, my son, home from law school, went to Atlanta to party with friends in Buckhead. So here we were, just the two of us, Ella and me, with only a wall separating us, and Ella seeming intent on tearing more of that out.
I wasn't afraid of her. Bears cross my property routinely -- a big male lumbered along the ridgeline, out my kitchen window, on almost a daily basis back during mating season, and a sow and three cubs were headed straight into my garage before I closed the door, just in time, a few months ago. (They didn't look angry about it, but their feelings seemed hurt that they were not invited in.)
But Ella was doing damage beyond remodeling the underside of my deck. She'd torn two huge holes in the wire mesh and lattice work of the sub-decking. A propane gas line is so close to one of her entrances that I was warned she might crimp the line, cutting off my heat at best -- or causing a dangerous leak at worst. And as she stirred in her sleep, she was scratching her back against the area where the house meets the foundation, gouging out little gaps for smaller critters -- squirrels and chipmunks -- to get inside and nest.
Finally, in midafternoon on New Year's Eve, I phoned the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. I didn't even expect to get an answer during the holidays.
Which brings us to the story of one state agency that works, that does its job above and beyond the call, with great courtesy, patience and humaneness. If all agencies in all states worked as well as my region of Georgia DNR does, there would be no complaints about government bureaucracy.
I was hoping to get game wardens up here within maybe a week at best. Ronny Holcomb, the duty game management officer for this area, said he could come up here the very next morning, on New Year's Day.
A cold rain was pouring as Holcomb, with 20-plus years' experience at dealing with bears, shone a powerful flashlight down through the cracks between the boards. "One bear, looking at me," he said. But his view was obstructed so that he couldn't tell whether she already had a cub or not.
He would consult with Mitch Yeargin, North Georgia's most experienced bear management officer, and with state bear biologist Adam Hammond. They would all come out together to evaluate. We agreed that if she hadn't had her litter yet, they might encourage her to move on. If she already had cubs, she could stay till spring.
And so, on the morning of Jan. 7, I had a lot more on my mind than just the Alabama-Notre Dame BCS championship. If Ella already had a family, she would be my gnawing, clawing, 250-pound guest till March at the earliest, and her offspring would consider this their home for perhaps decades to come.
It was Yeargin, who'd been up here before, during construction of the house, who suspected that this was either the mama or a daughter of the original family. Hammond, the biologist, had the call on whether Ella would stay or be encouraged to move.
Upon close assessment, they saw no cubs. Hammond popped a tranquilizer dart into Ella's flank, and all three officers stood ready, the game wardens with their hands on their sidearms, just in case. The wire mesh under the deck began to shake, and here came Ella -- not charging, just loping out, as if to complain about being bothered.
She is too big for a tranquilizer dart to bring her down. Merely woozy, she continued to lope along the ridge line and then over it. The game officers followed her for, I suspect, nearly a mile along the mountain, hoping Hammond could place a radio collar on her.
But Ella just kept going. Yeargin's experience told him the morning had been so stressful on her that she probably won't return. Hammond placed a digital wildlife camera near Ella's favorite entrance, just in case.
There is a cave just across a stream bed from my house that has always seemed to me a perfect dwelling for bears. Holcomb went in to explore it, and came back certain it had indeed been a haven for Ursus americanus, for thousands of years.
But that was before development.
Now, human structures have become more convenient than the caves. Worse -- much, much worse, some humans are na´ve enough to feed the bears.
I pointed up the mountain toward another residence, where a neighbor once had told me he used to feed the bears.
Holcomb pointed underneath my deck. "That's not your problem," he said. Then he pointed up the mountain: "That is your problem."
I never put out bird feeders (aka bear popcorn) or use an outdoor grill. But because some do, human dwellings have become associated with human comforts, human food. If one house feeds, the bears are attracted to nearby houses as well.
"We try to tell people, 'A fed bear is a dead bear,' " said Yeargin, who recently, heartsick, had to put down two bears from another development because they'd become dependent on feedings, and turned dangerous.
Ella and her offspring, for generations to come, would be welcome to live in my cave, and forage for themselves. I miss her already, but don't miss her thumping and scratching at night.
So I didn't go to the Caribbean, or on a cruise to Alaska. But I did have a different kind of NASCAR offseason.
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Here at Casino de Alabama, for the least predictable and most broadly decisive race of the season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is taking a deep breath, placing both hands around all his chips and pushing them forward.
For him, in the Chase, this is it.
That's how he's treating it.
"We can't be conservative at all," Earnhardt said of Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). "We've really got to take a lot of risks."
Going into the fourth of 10 playoff races, Earnhardt is seventh in the standings, 39 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, 34 behind second-place Jimmie Johnson and 23 behind third-place Denny Hamlin.
That's not where Junior Nation, or its leader, hoped he would be at this point. This, they figured, was his best shot at a championship since the inaugural Chase of 2004.
That's the year he last won at Talladega Superspeedway. Now he'll go with the all-out style that dominated here earlier this decade, when he won five of seven races, including four in a row.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCARDale Earnhardt Jr. has only one top-10 finish through the first three Chase races -- an eighth at Chicagoland.
"As good as everybody is running, like Brad and Jimmie and the No. 11 [Hamlin], we really have to get pretty aggressive, and that should play right into this racetrack's hand," Earnhardt said. "It's a place that really kind of asks for that, and you've got to really take some risks and be pretty daring out there to make some things happen."
And if the daring backfires?
"We're in a position where it really doesn't matter," he said.
Either "the big one" happens to him or it doesn't.
"Sometimes it happens with the usual suspects, and sometimes it's a surprise of even who would be involved in it," Earnhardt said.
"I've been on the receiving end of some wrecks here, and I've started a few myself."
Much as the chaos of this place is ballyhooed going into every race here -- especially the fall race, when the Chase can be scrambled seriously -- it's sometimes hard to keep the following truth in mind.
"Somebody's going to win this race," Earnhardt said, "and I want to be that guy."
Keselowski, Earnhardt's friend and former employee at JR Motorsports, and his Penske Racing team have the most to lose in a scramble of the standings.
But, typically breezy, "I'm going to look at it positively and think that if I do everything right that there's a chance I could leave here and have a really big points lead," said Keselowski, who won the race here in May.
Sunday night, after the finish of the only restrictor-plate race in the playoffs, the Chase promises to offer a clearer picture.
"You really kind of find out what your chances are going to be for the championship once you leave here," Hamlin said. But he can't see his chances being completely wiped out here, either.
"No matter what the result for us, I think we're still going to be in it," Hamlin said, because "we're not back more than a race [in points] already."
Jeff Gordon, who barely made the Chase at Richmond and fell back badly in the playoff opener, sits in 10th place and, like teammate Earnhardt, has nothing to lose.
"I'm excited," Gordon said. "That's the first time I can say that in a long time coming into a Talladega race because, for us, it's not about racing for points, it's about racing for a win and being aggressive."
Most drivers say they don't make a decision until the race starts whether to lag behind and try to avoid the wrecks that way or run up front and try to keep the wrecking behind them.
"There's not really a right or wrong in this situation," Earnhardt said. "But for me, I feel more comfortable just being aggressive all day."