I’ve been living in D.C. long enough that I thought I’d seen Beltway jams from all possible causes. Accidents, of course. Construction and lane closures. Cars pulled over on the shoulder, fully engulfed in flames. And once, a rubbernecking delay caused by the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile broken down near the River Road exit. But Friday night I witnessed a new slowdown cause: chickens.
Coming around the inner loop from the 270 spur Friday at 7 p.m., traffic abruptly slowed. I couldn’t see the cause. All I could see was that somewhere ahead, cars were parting around something in the road. I assumed it was debris, but then I saw a small, middle-aged man, wearing sling-back Crocs and bearing a vague resemblance to Dennis Kucinich, standing in front of his stopped car. When I finally pulled alongside, I saw that he was trying to shoo a rooster off the highway, a tall white one with black streaks and bright red comb and feet—-and yes, this chicken, seemingly unconcerned by scores of honking cars, was trying to cross the road. I pulled off onto the shoulder to see if I could help catch the bird—-though I had my dog in the car and was beginning to consider the chaos that would result from loading the chicken into the back seat with her—-but then I saw in the rearview that Kucinich Lookalike had succeeded in herding the chicken back onto the D.C. side of the Beltway. He pursued it down a shaved strip of grass, and the chicken plunged into a clump of brush and disappeared.
I pulled back into traffic slowly moving along towards the Connecticut Avenue exit, wondering how the chicken had come to be there. An escapee from a poultry transport? Part of a feral chicken colony summering in D.C. to escape the stress of life in Key West? Before long, I saw the answer: About a mile past the chicken’s crossing zone, a maroon pickup truck had pulled over, and as I watched from the slow-moving traffic, two men—-a young thin guy and an older, chubby dude—-emerged from the truck and stepped back to the bed of the truck, peering in with confused expressions. As I watched, the head of another chicken rose from the bed of the truck. It turned and regarded the highway balefully as the younger man began to count the remaining flock.
I was in the middle lane by then—-too much traffic to get over in time to tell them where to look for their missing clucker. Besides, it seemed foolish to be transporting live, feisty chickens in the open bed of a pickup, and I doubt the chickens were headed for anywhere more exciting than an arroz con pollo. Likely the escapee will end up as Beltway grease regardless, but maybe not. Maybe it’ll take to the District and end up being sighted from time to time, wandering the alleys of Adams Morgan, jogging in Rock Creek Park, rallying for voting rights, frightening local salmonella-phobes. D.C. needs its own version of the Loch Ness Monster or the chupacabra, and really, The Mystical White Chicken of the Beltway is about all the monster the city can afford.