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


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


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.


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/


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