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



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.



   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


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


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..."