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


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.


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


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.


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


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.