11.07.2010

Minnesota Shower, pt. 2

Wisconsin By-ways

   I felt little motivation to dig into my bags for dry clothes, especially if I was going to get re-soaked straight away. I figured that the air was warm enough to rule out pneumonia and optimistically hoped that the weather would clear. I opened my jacket a bit to help air dry my shirt and got ready to leave. I was staying at Bozer's parent's place for the night. Two hundred and sixty more miles. A breeze if it stayed dry, a slow torture if not.

   My luck held. I was still a sopping wet mess when I reached LaCrosse, Wisconsin, but at least the clouds had held, and none of it was new. I felt good again and dove from the interstate onto Wisconsin State Route 33. Heading from interstate to country road feels like sprouting wings. After a full day and a half on I-90, this was a fresh breath. On the interstates, you travel quickly, but the monotony and flatness make the time drag on at half-pace. You ride straight and fast, watching each tick of the odometer like a school kid in last period.

   I rode through Amish Country, over wooden bridges and around fishhook turns. I stopped at a gas station and stretched my sore back over a pile of sandbags. Three kids in Amish uniform drank orange sodas, eyeing up the bike. The tallest of them spoke out, asking me how far I'd been, and where I'd planned to go. These are the kinds of encounters the traveling motorcyclist lives for. Theirs was a strict existence that denied such motorized luxuries, and I entertained several rounds of questions. We weren't much different really: me, all helmet and coffee; they, all straw hat and soda.

   I never touched the interstate again, sailing into Sun Prairie on the beautiful patchwork pavement of Wisconsin 19. I was finally dry when I arrived, and just in time for dinner.


Storm comin'
Small Town, U.S.A.

11.01.2010

Minnesota Shower, pt. 1

   Rain. An all day rain. It started before I even left the motel in Jackson, Minnesota. Gray skies can be trouble on a bike. I put on my mountaineering pants and wrapped my saddlebags and backpack in thick black trash bags. I'd brought a handful of them when I left home last winter, and I'd found more than one occasion to be thankful of this. They were big enough to stand in, and tough as leather. The kind that will forever remind me of November days bagging leaves with my dad and brother in the backyard.

   A mix of stubbornness and haste kept me from pulling on my boot covers or zipping in my jacket's liner. The small voice in the back of my mind reminded me that neither of these were really waterproof  without their counterparts. I ignored it, in favor of the louder voice that shouted "All's Well!", and I took to the road.

   I was completely soaked by mile ten. The rain crept insidiously into all my dry parts. It soaked first through the vent chambers in my liner-free jacket before continuing on down my back. Here it lingered, teasingly, before crawling down my pants and into my longjohns. This accommodating reservoir filled quickly and the flood escaped down my pant-leg, thwarting the Gore-tex marvel of my rainpants. In my boots it sat, the end of a twisting and evil waterfall. It pooled under my soles and slip-slopped back and forth each time I'd shift or brake.

   I went on like this for 80 miles, each exit becoming more alluring as I went. Finally, I pulled off to warm and dry as best I could. The rain had finally quit and the sky ahead had a slight tinge of clarity in it. I warmed up with hot tea and consulted the faded map that was pinned on the gas station wall. A wizard-bearded man pulled up in a red Jeep, nearly falling out of the side as it came to a stop. He shuffled in and began arguing softly with the register girl. He was trying to find his way back to Arizona without the help of a map (or much sense of direction).

   I helped him orient as best he could ("well, it's certainly southwest of us") and gave him directions to I-35. He muttered a thanks, but nothing in his sunken black eyes conveyed much comprehension. He scratched his white-gray husky behind the ears before climbing back into his jeep and clattering back down the road.

   I waved and said out loud, "Arizona's a long way, old man." I still had half a day myself before I'd be in Madison. I pulled on my wet gloves and kicked up the engine, keeping my legs close to the fins in hope of a little warmth. Back to the rain.

10.14.2010

Man With The Hawaiian Shorts



   The streets of Bozeman were filled with music when I arrived. I met Pajaro and a gang of others at Bar 9 and the night quickly turned to day. The coolness of a mountain stream and an afternoon sunburn took care of the next twenty four hours. Suddenly I was riding back towards the Atlantic, as though the rise of the mountains had scooped me up like a marble and sent me bowling east again. It was the beginning of the return.

   I spent one night in Rapid City again, out of convenience and exhaustion more than anything else. I'd ridden 450 miles across strange plains and past the site of Little Bighorn. I stopped at an empty gas station on the side of route and took a photo of the bike next to the American flag. South Dakota is a vast state to cross in one day. When the beauty of the Badlands thinned out, I had only long farm fields and far away thunderstorms to keep me company. The wind was fierce, akin to the rough Texas spring gales that robbed me of a tank of gas in March.

   For all the work I'd done on Jaybird, I'd never solved the mystery of the faltering reserve fuel line. A sudden hill rose up before me. The bike began to sputter and kick. I coasted to the side, coaxing another hard mile before she died completely. I waited a long time and was able to restart the engine, once again spinning the odometer almost one mile before cutting out. We repeated this ritual one last time before the bike surrendered completely.

   I was hesitant to leave the bike stranded, with all my belongings weakly bun-gee'd to the back. I spotted a farmhouse about a quarter mile from the road and decided to make a quick break for it. I tramped through a tall grass field and hopped a barbed fence. There were a few old cars and one motorcycle in the yard. I did two circles around the place and saw no one.

   The front door was shut tight, and when I knocked I found only a thin white dog to answer me. I circled one more time, hoping to find a gas can. Nothing. I returned to the bike, relieved to find all my bags still tied tightly. I flagged a few passing cars but no one stopped. Most kept their heads tightly forward, pretending not to see, with only the slight shift of their eyes betraying their curiosity.

   I gave up, but was feeling neither discouraged nor worried. It was a warm day and I had little in the way of a destination. There seemed no reason that I should be anywhere else, and I decided to let the day settle around me. I opened my lunch and sat down beneath a low birch tree with a copy of The Merchant of Venice. I read a few acts and filled myself with peanut butter and jelly, feeling content and protected from the wind in the shelter of the birch branches.

   I was thinking of taking a short nap when a silver sedan pulled up behind the bike. An energetic man in hawaiian shorts and sandals hopped out, his wife staying in the car.

   "I can't believe no one stopped for you!" he shouted over the traffic, "What's up?"

   He said he'd seen me from the other side of the highway and felt compelled to turn around.

   "I ride Yamaha myself," he said, once I told him the trouble, "always carry a little bottle of extra gas for this type o' thing."

   I explained that I didn't want to leave the bike with all my bags on it, thinking someone could come along and pick off all my belongings in one quick grab. He put his chin in his hand and looked up at the sky. I did the same. After a long silence, he looked back to the asphalt and offered to pick me up some gas and bring it back. I told him that I couldn't ask for so much from him, but he'd have none of it.

   "Just stay put, and I'll be back" he smiled, and ran back to his car.

   I could see him re-telling the story to his wife as he pulled back down the road, his hands up and waving in what seemed to be an dissertation on a motorcycle's fuel system. I wasn't sure I'd see him again, but sat down and ate an apple, the last of my lunch. Another biker finally slowed down and tapped his horn, giving me a questioning thumbs up. I decided to put my trust in the man with hawaiian shorts and returned the thumbs up. The biker nodded and coasted back to speed along the road.

   Fifteen minutes went by. My apple was down to the core. I underhanded it as far as I could into the trees and turned back to find the silver sedan parked next to me once more. The man popped his trunk and pulled out a five gallon gas can.

   "It was the smallest they had," he said, "didn't charge me for it, or for the gas, so long as I bring it back."

   The can only had about half a gallon inside, but it was enough to crank the engine. The man insisted on following me to the station, just in case. Once I'd topped off the tank, I offered to buy him some beer, or at least a coffee. He refused, gave another grin, and disappeared into his silver sedan.

   Those old magazine ads were right: you really do meet the nicest people on a Honda.

Back in Rapid City for a day
Carved on Sacred Lakota land.

9.08.2010

Bicycles and Rodents

Road to Sky Ranch

   Sleep was sound, and good. Something in the mountain air does that to a person. I woke sore, but refreshed. The previous day's bicycle ride had somehow turned into a 55-mile round-the-park venture. Being out of bicycling practice and running the entire thing at 7,000 ft had whipped me. Thank god for steak dinners.

   I'd met Jamie Cornelius at the Murie Center the day before. We'd both been tipped off to one another's presence and talked shop awhile. She was knee-deep in some Red Crossbill tracking, but took the time to show me some data sets and even one of the tiny transmitters she used to locate the birds. She offered to take me out tracking, but I declined. After the last five months, I was feeling pretty well-steeped in the art of bird-inspired bushwacking.

   Thick clouds were building by the time I'd finished breakfast, but I set out north from the cabin toward Static Peak. The notion of setting out on foot from one's own yard was heartening, reminding me of my childhood wanderings in my own neighborhood back east. The trail went sharply up, following the stream that feeds Phelps Lake. Pikas ran across the rocks, shouting out in oversized voices. An occasional marmot appeared, looking like sturdy mountain beavers. The tower of clouds finally broke as I reached the top. I put on my blue poncho and meandered slowly down.

   A hot shower and strong black tea revived me. I sat drinking tequila and listening to Kestrels and Western Tanagers on the porch. Nate flipped through an atlas of geographical trivia, occasionally calling out impossible questions. "How many countries of Africa's 47 are landlocked?" (15).

   The cabin had the a perfect scent, that mix of pine and fireplace-smoked wood. From the porch one could almost always spot elk and moose crossing the meadow. The place was near perfect, and had kept me longer than I'd planned. In the morning, the light would creep over the valley and into my room, spreading across the bare wood floor. It would be time to go.

   Back to the lonely glamor of the road. On to Yellowstone, and Bozeman, MT.

Pika
Sky Ranch

9.05.2010

Sky Ranch

Approaching the Tetons
 
   A place of tremendous appeal. The mountains rise like high cavalry against the flatness of the plains below. Six triangular titans of the west, slate-jacketed and crowned in white. They almost pierce heaven with the boldness of their verticality. Below their boundaries, down three small back roads is the Sky Ranch, my temporary residence. Frankie lives here among the Park Staff ("Parkies"), working a seasonal post with the service.

   I'd had a moment today where I felt the weary familiarity of the road and its beauty. I had felt through-and-through, jaded almost, with the splendor of the natural world. How perfect is this place for alleviating such a feeling. Under the mountains I can see it was only the feeling of veiled loneliness. Amazing, the forms it can take, how powerful it can be. Now, here, I am among the company of real friends after so long, and it has thrown many of those shadows away.

   The bike had nearly toppled over on the way in, catching its wheels in the gravel pits along the road. Riding off road on a street bike is rarely fun. I stopped on the way in to watch a Sandhill Crane (my first) and it's awkwardly-new fledgling.

   Frankie and I sat on the front porch with a couple of IPAs, trading histories and admiring the land. A deep howling chorus suddenly poured from the hills, growing thicker as more voices joined. These were wolves, I knew suddenly, true wolves, and they were singing. I could hardly believe it, having always wanted to hear the music of wolves in the night.

   On and on they went. We ran to town for a late dinner and one more beer. The wolves were there when we returned, still pouring their song into the dark. I sat captivated, letting it die into nothing before finally getting off to bed.

Frankie makes some life-saving steaks

Front Porch Pine
The meadow

8.17.2010

French Wyoming

Storms near Casper, WY

   A stretched out diner car tucked itself behind the last gas pump on the west side of town. It was likely the last real meal I'd get before reaching DuBois ("DEW-BOYCE!!" the waitress scolds when I pronounce it with a French inflection.) Here I order two eggs with onion, an english muffin, and a cup of hot Darjeeling. Here I realize how lucky I am not to have slept out  last night.

   I'd scouted a few construction yards and empty lots at the edge of town, but nothing has seemed stealth enough. I realized I'd never get to sleep there, more likely laying with ears pricked upwards and eyes wide all night. I relented and drove to the motels near the highway.

   The VC Motel was shoddy and dark, which seemed to be a good indicator of cheap rates. I walked up to what I thought was the office, being the only open door in the whole place. It was not an office. A scrawny old woman lay on a sheetless mattress. She looked half-drowned and drug-torn, barely raising her head when I approached. It was obvious she'd been living in the room a very long time.

   I went quickly to the Motel 6. Luck was with me, and the clerk gave me an unused handicapped room for half-price. Apparently, the bars in the shower had been scaring off business. The sun had really done it to me and I was exhausted. I flipped through an old paperback and fell into a deep 10-hour sleep.

   Now, here at the Kopper Kettle, I drink my fancy tea listening to the conversations flying around the breakfast counter. A group of construction men talk about meth addicts and murder. About bums turning up dead in alleys and construction yards. About mean dogs and meaner cops.

   "I mean, Casper ain't a town to f*ck around in," one says, shrugging nonchalantly, as if stating the obvious, "you think that fella woulda realized."

   The meal is greasy, but filling, the waitress helpful enough. Still, there is a strange mean streak pervading the place. Some glint of distrust and fear around all the edges. I call for the bill, glad I didn't chance a night out. Stealth camping is great in the small villages and podunk towns, but a place like Casper can fearsome at 2 a.m.

   Plus, a man who orders meatless breakfast, Darjeeling tea, and says things in French is probably already on thin ice. One more cup and I'm gone. Du-bwah or bust.

Devil's Tower, WY


 

8.15.2010

Finding the Ouzel

   American Dipper   photo: E. Ripma
 
   Cinclus mexicanus, AKA the water ouzel, AKA the American Dipper. I'd hunted him for so long. In the excitement of the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, I'd forgotten to search for the Ouzel. I planned to stop at Iron Creek one more time on the way out of Rapid City, taking the longer route out of the Black Hills. I thought it'd be a fitting goodbye if nothing else.

   I returned to the creek bed, having been there only one week before for the Thrush. It had been in the papers Saturday, taking up a whole page and a half. The article had brought in over 100 people that same morning. Now I saw only two cars in the lot. Surely there had been more in the early morning, but it was growing close to noon, and too hot for much bird activity. A couple of middle-aged birders were standing at the trailhead, socks hiked, binoculars up.

   I talked with them a bit, but made clear that I was in pursuit of the American Dipper. The older gentleman appointed himself as tour guide and took me up the trail. He'd seen several that morning and claimed to know the good spots. We arrived to the first spot. Beautiful running water on the rocks, sure, but no Dippers. I'd told myself that seeing an Ouzel would be a good omen for the trip. Still, I was running short on time if I wanted to make it past Casper, Wyoming. Shoot. I resigned myself to an inauspicious trip and dragged my feet back towards the bike.

   "HEYYYYY!!!!", the voice bellowed from the canyon, "HEEEEEEEYYYY!!!!!!"

   A Dipper. For Sure. Had to be. I ran back and leapt over the rocks. My tour guide was waving both his arms in the air frantically.

   "He's right up there on the log," he said, quietly now that I had arrived, "Got him?"

   Sure as hell, I got him. The slate gray bird hopped about in the water, up and back from rock to stream. His stubby tail raised comically to heaven as he thrashed the water for insects. What a beautiful sight. I'd been looking for Dippers since I first learned that there was even such a thing.

   "Keep an eye out for Dippers," Chelle had said, while working a survey in Oregon 2 years back.

   "A what?" I asked, blowing my cover as a "good birder". She was my boss and we were only one week into the job. I didn't even realize she was talking about a bird of any sort, let alone one that we'd find in the water. "A bird that swims?" I was mesmerized.

   I spent the rest of that season searching for the elusive Poseidon birds. I continued my hunt long after the job was over, when I was living in Portland. Still, Multnomah Falls offered no luck either. I caught sight of White-capped Dippers on several occasions while in Colombia. Thrilling, but somehow not quite the same. It swam, yes, but I was stricken with a more patriotic yearning. I wanted the Dipper of the West, the peculiar Ouzel that John Muir so lovingly portrayed in his writings.

   Two years was a long time to wait, but here he was. The bird stayed put, foraging and splashing about for a good fifteen minutes. In fact, I left before it did. Wyoming was a long way off, after all, and I'd planned on seeing Devil's Tower first. I gave my heartfelt thanks to my friendly guide and took off, good luck trailing me the whole ride.

8.14.2010

Trespass

   Abandoned homestead

    "You should be advised that you are private property. And trespassing. As for your survey - I don't much care for it. If I see this again I will call all the authority. - Mark"

   The child-like handwriting was scrawled across a damp piece of cardboard and wedged neatly under my truck's right wiper. I'd been out since five a.m. I was exhausted from the morning's 8-mile mountain trek and could only laugh. I'd arrived after dark the night before and must have turned off the forest service road at some point. I might have felt bad, if the guy didn't sound like such an asshole. Images of flannel-clad farmers shooting hawks came to mind. I thought about taking a detour through his field on the way out, but decided that he probably already suffered enough as the owner of such a lousy attitude. People like that always seem to.

   I was way north, somewhere in the mountains past Reva, SD. You could just see the North Dakota border on the horizon. I didn't have too many sites this far out, and wanted to finish them up as soon as possible. I'd left Rapid City the afternoon before and gotten in late. I spent an hour four-wheeling back and forth on farmer Mark's mud-slick roads, trying to find an access point. The directions given to me were mostly useless. Some worn-out biologist from last year, done with the site and not giving a damn enough to anymore to write roper directions. I sympathized.

   The sun was getting behind the mountains and the best I could do was a spot 2.5 miles from the site. I called it good and laid out for bed. Redstarts, chats, field sparrows and a whole mess of indistinct birds cried out from the streambed. It was too dark to read now (The Way of the Lakota, a fitting gift from Wheeler before leaving AZ) so I lay listening as their evening song mixed with the stars.
My site was at the other end

8.07.2010

A Thing For Every Place

  
   State route 151 took me east into Nebraska. A small blue sign greeted me ("Nebraska! The Good Life!") but the country was the same otherwise. State lines grow more and more arbitrary as you travel. There are a few exceptions, usually when the border is marked by a river's run (California-Arizona, for instance, or Texas-Mexico) but mostly the great changes in land are far removed from the dotted map lines.

   This notion has been felt especially by biologists and bird surveyors. Population counts by state become misleading and useless when the boundaries cover contrasting habitats. Giving a density estimate for Mountain Plovers in Colorado, as an example, proves troubling. The bird nests and ranges in the shortgrass prairie in the eastern edges of the state, but wouldn't be caught dead in the high mountains that characterize the rest of the state (really a misleading name, I guess Shortgrass Plover just didn't make the cut).

   In 1999 the Commission for Environmental Cooperation addressed this nagging issue, establishing 67 Bird Conservation Regions in North America. Each was drawn to encompass particular habitat types, and thus particular bird species. The delineation allows biologists to study with and speak on more logical boundaries when conducting research. My new employer, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, would be utilizing these zones when assigning surveyors (read: me) and writing up bird density/expectancy reports.

   So, political boundaries be damned. Here I was, on the threshold of my new turf. I'd taken my escape from the heat of the desert and made it to my highland hermitage. BCR 17 "Badlands and Prairies" here we go...
 
 The BCR Zones

 South Dakota At Last

8.03.2010

Eggs Benediction



   It's hard to beat a hot plate of Eggs Benedict after 200 miles of cool morning riding. I woke early in Fort Collins, CO and loaded the bike. My cousin and his wife were out of town so I was staying at my new boss's place. He was asleep with his girl when I got out of bed, so I quietly made black tea and a plate of toast.

   The neighbor's wife was pulling in as I cranked the engine. I'd witnessed a terrific domestic tirade the evening before while working on the air filter (after discovering a mouse's cache of seeds and shells inside). Ten minutes of shrill shouting followed by a flustered housewife screeching away down the driveway. Troubled marriages, fresh-cut lawns, and two car garages. My reintroduction to the city and the suburb. Even the humidity in the air seemed foreign after a season southwest.

   My blood had definitely thinned some in Arizona and the early morning air chilled me. I was in Wyoming by eight, and not far from Nebraska by half past. The land was rolling and yellow-green; the plots directly along the highway groomed for cattle and crop. The grass was neon where the irrigation lines met the fields.

   I was so mesmerized with the new landscape and the calm of the morning that I ran four miles past my exit. It was the first time I'd missed a road since leaving Delaware. It turned out to be good fortune, as I made my recourse past the only gas station before Scottsbluff. I'd have surely run empty had I pressed on with the fuel that was left.

   A lone antelope darted suddenly across the road a dozen feet in front of me. Its white rump and cinnamon flanks stood out sharply against the brilliant green farm fields. It reminded me instantly of my encounter with the white deer in Delaware. I'd been on the Hawk Watch Hill at Ashland Nature Center, watching the last movements of migration. A few birds pushed through the sprinkle of rain. Without warning, a bright albino doe leapt from the cherry tree grove, crossing my path as it went. She was no more than six or seven feet away, pure white and breath-taking. It was a startling and magnificent thing on a drab November day.

   It had been just one day after making my mind up about Arizona. I'd been offered a position working in Maui as well, and the choice had gnawed terribly on me. I was relieved to have seen the white deer. In many cultures the sight of such an animal is taken as affirmation of a good decision. The white stag, in medieval cultures, was the symbol of the chase and endless adventure. Mysticism or no, it seemed fitting to see this thing before setting out on my own travel.

   I took in this antelope with less intensity, simply pausing a moment to watch it run across the prairie and out of sight. I fired up the engines, turned north-northeast, and went along, humming the whole time,

   "Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam..."

7.26.2010

Here's to you, Eisenhower

Colorado, before crossing to the Continental Divide

   The air was getting thin fast. I could feel the bike sputtering under the irregular mix of air and fuel. The altitude had her running too rich, and I had to downshift to move past 60mph. Twelve miles from the Eisenhower Tunnel, that mile-and-a-half-long tube pushing I-70 through the Rocky Mountains. One ancient Honda motorbike versus the tallest highway in America. I was a bit nervous, having had altitude trouble in Flagstaff a few days back.

   I cranked up the idle adjustment and pressed on in third gear. Higher and higher we climbed, past lumbering semis and a smoking station wagon. Several cars had pulled to the side of the road, engines down and hoods up. Their drivers stood in huddled confusion nearby, clasping their arms against the cold wind.

   Four riders came out of the right lane and joined me in the climb. The first few were three beefy Harley dudes, the thunder of their engines preceding them by a quarter of a mile. They were dressed in standard Davidson duds: leather caps, sleeveless shirts, full-face skull bandannas and black chaps. The lead rider even dangled a thick silver wallet chain from his hip. The fourth rider zipped past the group. This one was an older man and woman riding two-up on a slick BMW sport tourer, a mini-trailer dragging behind. Their jackets and pants blended seamlessly with the bike's blue and gray paintjob.

   I kicked down another gear and blasted up the last portion of road, feeling somehow heartened by the company of this motley spectrum of riders. Jaybird complained one last time before roaring up the final climb. We hit the tunnel at high-speed and disappeared under the mountain. I stood up and pressed the horn, laughing at the echo it made against the cinder-block walls. This improbable machine and I were eating up America one tiny mile at a time.



Swapping road stories with bikers in Naturita, CO


7.23.2010

Breaking Arizona


   I got up early and unchained the bike from the motel stairwell. I'd be crossing the state line today, leaving Arizona after all. The promise of new states felt fresh after sleeping off the troubled feelings from the day before. There are nights like that on the road, downbeat and foul, but in the end they are necessary, better reminding you of the beautiful bits.

   I went quickly into the wasteland of northeastern Arizona. Past the dip of the Great Canyon is a bizarre, barren landscape of reds and yellows. Towers of brittle rock stack upon one another like faltering bookshelves. The towns on the map are exaggerations, consisting only of battered wooden huts, tended by broken Navajos, selling beaten-up jewelry. Even these are empty half the time. One town was nothing more than an abandoned house full of old washing machines.

   By afternoon I'd reached the confluence, passing the Four Corners monument as I rode into Colorado. The monument was closed. Disappointed tourist families pressed up against the chain-link fence, wondering how a state line could be out of order. Angry fathers checked and rechecked guide books while their wives and children waited, bored, on the sidelines. The desert wind had been reluctant to let me leave and I was worn out when I reached Dove Creek, CO. I'd been invited to stay with Michigan at her new field station on the Dolores River. The thought of familiar company pushed me on.

   The last roads out of Dove Creek twisted wildly down into the river valley. I'd grown complacent riding the long desert highways, and these mountain curves took me by surprise. I shot awake, leaning deeply into the downhill spirals. It was satisfying test, reminding me of the narrow Pennsylvania roads where I'd learned to ride. I'd taught myself on those (often nerve-splitting) Appalachian byways. I had been a complete beginner: terrified and exhilarated each time I turned on the bike. It had always felt like facing death. I hoped the 7,000 plus miles between then and now had taught me something.

   I made it into Michigan's place at dusk. She was doing some bird netting on the river, working out of a small trailer under some cottonwoods nearby. For now, she was fortunate enough to be house-sitting the owner's place, a staggering tower of a home that reached up four stories into the Colorado sky. Her roommate, Pucker, had made a wonderful apple pie. I maneuvered myself a generous portion as we sat telling stories and catching up. We climbed to the top of the tower and lay on the roof, watching falling stars and satellites. It was cold and clear. Poorwills, Great-horned Owls, and other night birds called out occasionally, reinforcing the silence. I slept soundly all night.

Quite a perch for rooftop stargazing photo: L. Solomon

After descending into the river valley

7.17.2010

Rara Novice, or Learning to Chase Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes

Hiding in South Dakota  photo: D. Backlund

   *** Many of you have no doubt been directed here from other birding blogs.  Thanks for checking out my take on the OBNT. When you're done be sure to click the black&white image at the top of the page to direct you to my most recent posts about working as a birder in Micronesia! Thanks again, enjoy, ***
 
   I spent most of the morning thinking about why I wasn't going to do it. Then about half an hour laughing at all the types of people who do it. Then, around 11 a.m., I  did it. I went rare bird chasing. Usually I'm able to keep this kind of behavior under wraps, dismissing it to the realm of Tilley hats, multi-pocketed vests, extensive list-keeping, and other such birding tackiness. It's the same reason I don't keep a life list (or, "not yet", as they tell me).

   Flocking like lunatics to rare birds always struck me as unnecessary, slightly cruel, and, moreover, missing the point. These birds, generally blown off course by storms or other freak instances, are usually confused and often doomed to undesirable ends. Being the only one of your kind in a new town is a hard lot (even worse, there aren't any girls of your species around). In this light, flocking en masse to watch these disoriented individuals always seemed a bit...morbid.
  
   Besides, my greatest pleasure in knowing the birds has always been the understanding they bring to the environment around us. Seeing birds in their habitat, surviving, working, and breeding, opens up an awareness to life that is hard to match. It is the same sublime beauty we feel when watching one thousand Broad-winged hawks flying south in the Fall. A vagrant bird, far off course, is hardly any great expression of this notion.
  
   These were the things I told myself at breakfast, and these were the things I conveniently forgot about as I climbed onto my bike and raced off towards Spearfish, SD.  The day before, Eric Ripma, a coworker on the Black Hills project had passed along word that he'd spotted what seemed to be an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. His email included some pretty intriguing, if not slightly fuzzy, photos of the thing.

   The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush is a bird of southern latitudes, found in the mountains of Mexico and further south in countries like Colombia and Costa Rica. Outside this finding, the bird had only been recorded in the U.S. twice. Both times were just over the border in Texas. It seemed almost absurd for it to be so far north, a notion Eric was well-aware of (and the reason he waited until securing photographs before reporting it to anyone).

   It was a good excuse for a bike ride, anyway. I blasted off into the Hills, relishing the great twists and turns of the mountain roads. I'd driven these roads many times, but had always been confined to the cage of my company truck. The Hills were beautiful and bright green. I reached the turnoff for scenic-byway 14A and cut right, following Spearfish Creek north. The bird had been hanging out near the gravel parking lot (how nice of him) where Iron Creek met Spearfish. The posting had gone up the day before, so I wasn't sure on what kind of crowd to expect. It was a near certainty that a good number of listers, twitchers, and skeptics would be showing up in the next couple days, but I hoped that I could beat the crowd.

   I pulled into the parking area stopping next to an older couple baring binoculars. A few feet down the trail I could see a high-powered telephoto lens resting on a tripod. A middle-aged guy in shorts and a wide-brimmed hat waited expectantly nearby. Still, that was it, and with only three folks around it seemed I'd made good on missing the throng. I said hello to the photographer and asked about the bird.

   "Yep, he's been pretty cooperative today!" he said, "The guy who found him is up there on the rocks."

   I said thanks and went up to find Eric. We'd never met, having exchanged emails only, but I recognized him instantly, being the only other birder under forty. I introduced myself and sat down on the rocks. We traded notes about the work and talked birds while waiting for the thrush to reappear. It didn't take long. As soon as it sang I could see why Eric had spent so much time looking for it. It stood out like a siren against the usual songs and calls of the Hills. It was flute-like in the typical thrush fashion, but no one with an ear for song would have confused it for the common (but still beautifully-voiced) Veery or Swainson's thrushes.

   It took about an hour (and, admittedly, a minute or two of audio playback) for the bird to come out. He looked pretty sharp for a bird that must have made a tremendous journey to get here. The bright orange of the bill was stunning, reminded me almost of the Great Thrushes I'd seen in Colombia. A few more birders had arrived by this point, but they were too far down the trail to catch sight. The bird sang a few bars, then retreated into the canopy.

   My pace had definitely quickened a bit when my binoculars fell upon the bird. I tried to ignore this, reminding myself that I wasn't this type of birder. I made a few rudimentary audio recordings with my camera's microphone, and reminded myself again that I wasn't this type of birder. I had a fast-approaching dinner date back in Rapid City, but I hung around a while, enjoying the sunshine and talking birds with the other spectators. Something in my brain told me I'd better go. Otherwise, it wouldn't be long before I realized: maybe I was this type of birder.

   I thanked Eric for the find and hopped back on the bike. It was unusually warm and the ride out was beautiful. I'd ridden an hour and a half into the hills for a thirty-second-long glimpse of a completely, ridiculously, misplaced bird. I'd even tried to make a recording of it (not to mention then going home and writing about it). Like motorcycles, birds can be a dangerously sweet addiction.

   Well, I rationalized to myself, it was a good excuse for a bike ride, anyway.



Unless you're really into still shots of t-shirts, you can ignore the video part.
This is the audio capture I got with my dinky point and shoot camera.

7.14.2010

Blog of Note

   Thanks for keepin' on reading. The next few posts will be about the ride up to South Dakota. Also wanted to give a plug for a new blog a friend of mine is writing. She works both in and out of the United States as a children's nurse. 

   The work has taken her through some gritty and intense adventures, the most recent of which being some work in the Dominican Republic. Her blog is devoted to writings about that trip. I highly recommend it. Find it here: http://bendingbirchtrees.blogspot.com/

7.13.2010

Out of the Frying Pan

  Gearing up photo: J. Wilcox
 
   The cleaning service threw us out at ten to eight. Earlier than we'd figured, and I had to throw my bags onto the bike with double speed. I always seemed to be the last one to leave. Juniper and I dragged the morning out as best we could, getting coffee and things around town. Still, the departure was there, real and tangible. We'd be setting off in opposite lines: her to Reno, where she'd meet the long-haul greyhound to Canada, and me, first east to Colorado, and then up to South Dakota.

   I had signed a new contract to work in the Black Hills, out and away from everything and everyone. She drove behind me on that good highway 95 till we reached the searing split of the interstate. I fueled up and said goodbye in the parking lot of the Love's gas station. She asked if I'd leave first, so I set into the bike and kicked on the engine. She watched me as I rolled out towards the interstate ramp. I could see her as I went, red-faced and holding her elbows tightly together as she leaned against the work truck. She grew small in my side mirrors, and then she was gone.

   The interstate opened in front of me. It was tremendously long. You could almost see it stretching all the way to Tennessee. Somehow it seemed foreign this time, unpredictable. It seemed to be taking me somewhere I didn't want to go. I rode along, trying not to overheat the bike in the intensity of the midmorning sun. I was feeling heavy, and I knew that I was still dragging all the memories of the season with me. They hung about my handlebars and tires, clamoring like chains along the ground. It was slow progress, and I was exhausted before I even reached Flagstaff.

   I'd planned on going much further, usually the first day out is the easiest. Your body is fresh and you are invigorated with the road. It was different this time. I'd half-expected it. Leaving so much warmth and the feeling of family I'd come to know in the desert made the road seem cold and frightening. The bike cut out on me twice as I neared the San Francisco mountains. It happened both times when I was pulling off the highway and losing power, just like the vapor locks I had on those wind-whipped rides in Texas, months ago.

   I stopped around five at a no-name roadside motel, needing pause. For the first time since setting out on this trip I felt truly lost in America. I bought two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the gas station and drank them as I hung over the second floor railing. I watched the red and white lights of the traffic rush by until I felt sleepy enough for bed.

   Some days the road is magnificent. It is bright and fresh, full of everything you expected. Then, there are nights like these, and it is a demon. Tonight, I could hear it howling. I went to my room and shut the door, pushing the deadbolt tight.

San Fran Mountains outside Flagstaff. They erupted in forest fire the day after I left

6.28.2010

In Death Valley

Death Valley Camp at 6000ft photo: F. Rowland

   We climbed the canyon, up and out of the suffocating heat of the valley. The sun was low and colored like amber. The canyon's wash rose steadily and we were forced to scrabble along the slick white boulders lining the trail. The stream winnowed and disappeared underground as the four of us reached 4000 feet. The rocks behind us grew into wide walls, glowing orange and pink in the dusk. We stopped short at the transect boundary. Spotted Towhees sang their shimmering notes from the overgrown streambed, signaling out arrival into the high oak forests.

   A campsite, unbelievable in its serendipity, lay vacant to our side. One fire ring and a few clear areas for sleeping. We threw off our packs in celebration and went searching for firewood. We found an old shack, with names of other hikers carved and marked in the door. One signature startled me, my old friend Feeney from Pasadena had been here (birding no doubt). It was four years since I'd seen him, smoking Cuban cigars on the back porch of our Yuma home. We left our mark next to his, "IBO Bird Maniacs, Death Valley, 2010."

   We returned with arms full of dry juniper logs. A few bats whirled in the darkening blue above. Crickets set about their jovial chorus. Pajaro lit the fire, laying long logs across the stone ring.  The unburned edges lay in wait just outside the perimeter. It reminded me of Daudi's fires in Tanzania, when we'd slep out on the Serengeti plains.

   Many nights we'd slept this way, under the stars. There were also nights Daudi would come and tell us that we'd be needing to sleep in our tents. We never questioned him, instead sneaking away to our canvas A-frames, wondering at the terrifying creatures that must have lurked just beyond the firelight.

Mickey walks the Panamint Valley


Signing the door photo: L. Smith

6.27.2010

How Not to Stop a Motorcycle



   Two-thirty a.m. came too quickly. I unwrapped myself from bed and lifted into partial consciousness. The wind had calmed and I felt a little better after three hours' sleep. One banana and an oatmeal Clif bar put just enough weight in my stomach to stave off the morning's chill. I rode eighty-five miles an hour back to town, the Dipper and the North Star low in front. I was glad for the music I'd brought and I cleared the first 50 miles in record time.

   I was nearing the highway and slowed a touch to 70. The streetlights disappeared and the road grew dark. I knew the highway was coming but couldn't yet see the intersection. I should have slowed down, but haste and sleep deprivation hung heavy. Suddenly a red flash appeared on the road. A twisted stop sign, torn or pried from it's usual post at the highway junction, lay on the ground.

   I was still cruising near 65 mph. I'd been relying on the sign to alert me to the coming of the road. It was too late and I was moving too fast. I slammed on both brakes but the highway was already below me. The bike went sideways in a slide, the rear tire flipping out to the right.

   I knew I could clamp the brakes harder, stopping but probably toppling the bike, or I could ride out the slide, staying up but skidding sidelong across the highway's four lanes. I had only a moment to decide. I could see no oncoming headlights to my sides. I took a deep breath and slid the rear tire hard. The bike flailed, but stayed up, and I smeared the tires across the length road.

   I slid the entire distance and then some. The smoking tires came to a sudden halt, stopping just short of the train tracks on the opposite side. Finally, all was still again. I cut the engine and breathed deeply, listening to the quiet of the night. 'Jeeeesus!' I shouted into my helmet.

   It was the closest I'd ever come to a wreck. I'd skid across the road, half-expecting the crush of a sidelong blow. A fast-flying drunk, or a roaring 18-wheeler, perhaps. Luck, and a lot of (now worthwhile) skid practice, had done me well. I made it to the next town without much time to dwell on the close call. I fired up Jaybird again and put the Dipper in front of me.

   The remaining 50 miles felt like a gift.

6.26.2010

White-faced Ibis

In the field. photo: A. Leist  
 And out of the field photo: A. Leist

    Ibis, like thin black kites, circled in the collecting sunlight. Twenty of them sailed through the pink and ruby dawn sky, occasionally skimming low above the blue-green river in search of breakfast. They went as though on invisible wires, each one in perfect symmetry with the other.
 
   It was our last day on the river, our last day as a crew together. The season was closing in quickly. At home the house would be full with the rumor of a party. Boss got us together and gave out a round of cheers, thanking us for the data and the memorable season. It had been a riotous and fast-paced season, made infinitely more lively by the good birds and strange sparks among our crew. We put up our glasses in salute.

    The bits and pieces of the show began to assemble shortly after. We were all dressed in ridiculous costumes to match the theme of the party, "Thrift Store Cocktail." Mickey and her owlet crew came in purple dresses, yellow boutonni√®res, and pom-pom cowboy boots. The Cuckoo gang filtered in with flowing gowns and straw hats, followed by the government biologists, unpatriotically dressed in their regular clothing. Cull and Devs from the Refuge came late for dinner, but in time for drinking games.
 
   We were in full swing on the back porch, blasting 50's rock and roll and jumping around like fools. When the music stopped, we played guitar and wailed on the blues harp. Pajaro and I leapt into a heartfelt duet of some Avett Brothers tracks. The night roared along. It was so reminiscent of the last year's party, but I did my best to push the nostalgia from my mind. By 3 a.m. the crowd had dwindled, leaving a fractured mess of singing bird biologists on the back porch.

   Michigan was fending off some lovesick cuckoo worker. Spargus had passed out hours ago. Pajaro stumbled from one room to the next, half-naked in a bright blue vest. Culls had first gone shirtless, then gone missing. Wheeler was up in arms over some trouble Mickey had found herself in, and Kittentoes was out looking at his new motorcycle. I, of course, was on the roof.

   A few Lesser Nighthawks hummed in the air above against low-hung Polaris. The desert behind our house stretched out to meet the tiny rim of dawn that was bordered the hills. If three months on this river had seemed like a lifetime, then this was our tiny death. One big, dumb, glorious night before the splitting of ways. Every field season was like this. So many people, thrown into so much work, for so short a time. The fleetingness of those few months made the time electric and impossible to explain. We all had places to be, and by next week we'd be scattered into the jetstream of bird vagabonds.
 
   And on and on runs the river that cuts these canyons.



Photos: A. Leist

6.23.2010

Oil and Plugs

 photo: J. Wilcox 

   The usual crew began to assemble for the Wednesday night party. Quickly they came from the southern field station. I left Juniper in the care of Kittentoes. I'd gotten into the habit of picking her up myself, racing down at the end of each shift to meet her and ride back together. This time it was too hot to ride, and I needed some moments to myself. I had a couple hours before the riot arrived, so I set out my tools and turned on the only tolerable radio station I could find.

   Jaybird was overdue for fresh oil, having now run 5000 miles since leaving Delaware. I ran the engine to heat the stuff, checking bolts and listening to the humming of the cylinders while I waited. She sounded good, maybe even better than when I'd left. The exercise had done her good.

   The bike had certainly become a great and intimate part of me. I felt comfortable on the saddle, handlebars and gauges and highway ahead. I'd taken to running my hand down the black steel gas tank, lovingly, as one might a girl, or favorite dog. I listened to the tiny idiosyncrasies of the engine, the thing's heart, and thought about how it would one day stop.

   I shut the kill switch and bent low to place a jug below the crankcase. The oil plug stuck for a moment, then popped free. I was met immediately with an onrush of thick, hot oil. The stream shot several inches over my poorly placed jug and onto the garage floor. I thought about the Gulf oil spill for a moment (I wonder if they need bird biologists down there?), then sprang to reposition the jug. Six or seven newspapers sopped up the mess enough to save us our security deposit.

   I punched a hole in the old filter and let it drain too, cranking the starter a few times to push out the stubborn bits. It was a relief to have three quarts of fresh oil in her. I pulled out the bike's four spark plugs. Two of the plugs were seated illogically deep in the cylinder head. It was tense, cramped work, and I decided I never wanted to do it again. A few ratchet extensions, four new plugs, a gap tool, and some dielectric grease had things back in shape. I polished up the pipes and ran wax over the gas tank.

   Juniper, Kittentoes, and Shrike arrived just as I was buffing out the stray smears of wax. The bike hadn't looked so sharp since leaving Delaware. I was sure she'd make it to Flagstaff. I cleaned up and went in to catch the new arrivals. Juniper hit me with a smile, one that seemed to confess how much she'd missed me in the last ten days. The corners of her mouth turned up into tiny crescents whenever I met her gaze.

   It was Mickey's birthday. This provided us with enough justification to throw a party. Our Wednesday night blowouts had become almost tradition, and I was looking forward to the noisy swell that always followed. We made reservations at the Italian joint and dove headfirst into the night.

6.21.2010

Road to Blythe

   Hello again! Thanks so much for reading. It's been a wild trip, with plenty more open road in sight. I've left Arizona and am on the way to South Dakota for a new contract of bird work. I have a few posts left from the time in AZ, so I'll put these up before posting the ride to South Dakota. If anything, a few may be out of order slightly. Thanks, enjoy



   We sped to Blythe, to the southern field station, assembling again our company of 11 for the first time since training. A mid-season dinner and party, a chance to feel the electricity of the full crew. I had been feeling out of sorts the night before and most of the morning. I decided to ride down separate, leaving an hour before the rest of the northern gang.

   I'd ridden the Mohave Road a dozen times now, so I mapped out a new route. I crossed the Colorado river just south of Parker, taking the old Agnes-Wilson road past agricultural fields and into California. Scruffy hills rose as I crossed the state line. The road was worn and tumbling, undulating like a slate-colored sea. It was beautiful and a relief from the long flat line of the Mohave road.
 
   I stopped twenty miles out of Blythe and sat at the edge of the road. I could feel the rumbling of the train as it approached. It felt like a beating heart beneath my toes, pulsing through the soles of my newly-shined cowboy boots. White-winged doves called out. The sky was a deep clear blue above the brown-green creosote bush.

   The loud roar of the season had been incredible and intoxicating. Our gang was rowdy and full of life. The days were rich indeed: there almost seemed too many memories to fit into our short time here. Still, the noise and exuberance had not relented a moment since arriving. I'd been lacking this solitary expanse, the anonymity of sitting alone in the late morning sun. This was the reason I'd come to the desert, and it had been evading me.

   I stared at the bike for a while, recalling memories from the ride out. I found it hard to believe that there was a past, that I had come all this way on such a small and strange machine. My lounge chair on wheels. My time machine, as A. had called it.

   I felt refreshed, re-centered. I lifted myself onto the bike again and cruised along the last few corners before town, passing two semis around a sharp turn, soaking in the feeling of the bike as it leaned deeply against the curve.

   In Blythe, we told stories and drank mexican beers on the front porch. Amy showed off photos from a mock fashion shoot she'd done with some of the field crew girls. Kittentoes and I stood around the bike, discussing the joys of motorcycle travel. There was friction between him and his girl, and he'd be going his own way at the season's end. With the breaking away comes the mixed feelings of disconnect and liberation. I knew it intimately, and silently understood. He wanted to buy a bike of his own and learn to ride. I was eager to convert another to the strange religion of motorbiking and agreed to help him find a good used bike.

   I stayed the night, leaving well before dawn the next morning. A chilly, beautiful ride across the desert, accompanied by a full yellow moon. It darted and dodged behind the mountains as I rode, motor humming behind the shine of my headlamp. I fueled in Parker, sharing the station with a group of 40 riders headed north. I filled the tank quickly, not even taking off my helmet, knowing I wouldn't want to be stuck behind them.

   They got on the road moments before me but I sped past in the left lane. One lone rider, roaring past the sprawling gang. I ticked them off, one at a time, until I was far ahead. It was all ego, but it still felt good.

The IBO Bird Maniacs in the Huachuca Mtns

Kittentoes About To Get A Bike Lesson

6.08.2010

Shelf Space




   Perhaps the hardest thing about motorbike travel is the shortage of shelf space. While headwind is a terrible force, it is made far worse without the day's end comfort of a hot shower, clean clothing, and a good book.

   A lifetime of backcountry camping and travel has endowed me with a moderate sense of "light-and-quick" packing. Still, there are always the hold outs, the sticking points. During my cross-country ventures with A. I'd always brought along an inordinate number of books, journals, and sketchpads. While my obsessively organized pack resembled a that of a mountaineer's (folding, 4-ounce titanium cookware, toothbrushes snapped in half for size, and densely packed sleeping bags, sans-Thermarest, of course), there always came next a box of books heavy enough to sink the wheel wheels of the poor red Honda.

   The backseat would be strained for space, competing with four or five field guides (fellow birders will of course sympathize with the need to own Sibley, Kaufman, Peterson, and the National Geographic volumes simultaneously). The Complete Short Stories of Hemingway claimed the space where one might have packed a pillow. Hesse and his Steppenwolf pushed against the rear speakers, backed by an army of Taoist tomes, Chinese poetry, and Japanese ink painting manuals. Steinbeck, Byron, Wilder, and Wordsworth stood guard in the rougher cities, proudly and in plain sight, even when the other belongings had been more safely secured in the trunk. No one in their right mind steals books.

   Occasionally, A., feeling brave, would protest against my overflowing box of dead space. She would smile and stare at me, unconvinced, as I then reminded her about the small packet of pastels and colored pencils in the trunk that she probably could have lived without.

   No longer. Size medium saddlebags make poor bookshelves. The largest book I carry now is the Clymer Honda Shadow VT500 Service Manual, [Years 1984-86] (a riveting read). In between the tightly-folded socks and thermals, I manage to sneak in copy of Lao Tzu, my favorite poetry anthology, and a Moleskine journal.

   More socket wrench, less short story. Thank god for the public library.

5.28.2010

Bright Light City



   One month of preseason work had warmed us all to the desert. Now, a long weekend in Vegas, celebrating birthdays and other nonsenses. It came at the end of such a marathon run of bike travel, late nights, and bird-maniac rowdiness that it seemed near impossible to survive a weekend in that town. Pajaro and I rode at top speed into town, shouting to music and buzzing with the energy of the neon paradise.

   We were settled in our room and out on the town by six. Pajaro's friend, Shrimp, was sharing the room with us. He met us in the casino, already half-drunk. Shrimp ran the Mexican Gray Wolf project in the Apache Wilderness northeast Flagstaff. He hadn't been out of the wilderness in months and the energy of his anxiousness poured from him. Pine woods to palm trees in twelve hours. It proved a bit much for him, and we chased him down the street as he ran full speed along the strip. He was red-faced and cradling a three-foot-long jack & coke when we caught up to him in front of the Bellagio. We watched the casino's world famous water show and helped him finish off the cocktail. Jesus freaks shouted into megaphones on the corner and Japanese tourists clicked cameras. Water cannons shot towers of white foaming spray, making arcs and whirls as the casino speakers pumped Sinatra.

   Pajaro's crew from his days guiding in the rainforest was due in. We met with Jaytown and his crew, a cluster of twenty characters that took turns appearing and disappearing in the haze of the night. Later in the night we found ourselves tipsy and blessed with the serendipity of a stretch limo. The driver pulled us around to the Rhine Club, where we roared and reeled till 3 am.

   The next day followed suit. Memories of hotel pools, pulsing nightclubs, and bewilderment. Four of us awoke Sunday morning in a seven-hundred-dollar suite at the Venetian, depleted of life and thirty minutes shy of checkout time. I felt deeply unbalanced as I waited in the valet line for the vehicle, clutching my ticket and sweating in the hot sun. The ride home was rough, but we drove fast and made Searchlight by one. I'd left the bike at home, knowing I wouldn't be in well-enough shape to ride back. It was a good decision. I met Pajaro in Searchlight at Terrible's gas station & casino. We drank vitamin waters and threw down six or seven Tums apiece in the gas station parking lot, shaking out heads at the weekend.

   The rest of the crew was waiting for us at the house. A note had been scrawled on the door, "Welcome Back You Drunken Hobos!" The crew was inside, half-buzzed on Bud Light Cheladas. Shrike was sloppy and stumbling around the house, the rest were smiling and slightly red with sun. Snowflake came out shyly, bearing sweet bread she'd made for my birthday. I was exhausted and laid out on my king size bed. I put on some hazy, summertime music and stretched out. The guitars filled the space in the air and I lay watching the ceiling fan spin. It seemed the climax of the long road out here, and I was glad to have made it through.