The Lost Art of Bird Watching

Gardiner, Montana 

We are staying for two nights with Michael, my father’s former colleague and hiking buddy from Yellowstone, and his funny black and white cat Sinbad that he obviously adores. The weather was terrible for the drive down, cold and windy with intermittent rain, hail and sleet. Our first night I feel like I’ll never warm up. We stay in and listen to Michael tell us about his trip to Botswana, a country I dearly want to visit, with accompanying slideshow. Then we watch the old Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein while Sinbad entertains us with his antics. The next day we go out for lunch to the nearby Wonderland Cafe. Their menu is impressive with its abundance of local ingredients, including beef, elk and bison, and fair prices. After, Michael heads off to work while Mark and I take a walk, forewarned that it’s elk calving season so look out for hidden babies in the tall grasses and run for your life should you get too close to a protective mother. We do see quite a few elk, all females, but none with calves or obviously pregnant, as well as a few pronghorn and a multitude of beautiful yellow breasted birds with bright red faces I learn are tanagers. That night we play Trivial Pursuit, a game I haven’t played since at least a couple of years before Jackson died. I find myself laughing for a sustained period of time for the first time in ages. I’m sure I manage to give Michael the distinct if false impression that I’m just fine these days, even normal.

Salmon-Challis National Forest, Idaho

We spend two nights in Salmon, at a private campground on the edge of town (Century 2, very nice). The weather has turned hot and it’s a lovely sleeping temperature inside the tent. The following day we continue southwest on Highway 93 and 75 toward Stanley, where we spend a night at a USFS campground at 6,000 feet elevation about 12 miles east of town. I freeze my ass off. Beautiful scenery though. In Stanley, while Mark puts gas in the bike after food shopping, I see a young couple hitchhiking on the main road. I recognize them, by the sign they have taped to their backpack and the leggings she is wearing, from the parking lot of the Big Sur Lodge where we’d seen them about 5 weeks ago. I walk over and speak with them briefly. They are German, hitching their way from Patagonia to Alaska, with very little money at their disposal. So says the sign anyway. I ask them when they expect to arrive in Alaska, and they say three weeks. I would enjoy talking with them further, hearing about their experience thus far, but Mark has filled up, and they have their thumbs out.

Boise, Idaho

We’re staying with Dennis and Julie, a couple I guess to be in their late sixties. They are well educated and friendly with interesting stories to share. A former school teacher, she is more talkative than he, a retired structural engineer. Their dog, Sarge, is a 4 year old mix they know to be a Hurricane Harvey survivor and believe to be a Havanese mix. With his fluffy, soft white fur, intelligent eyes and somewhat clownish/somewhat standoffish personality, I can believe this, and think longingly of Mugsy.

They are extremely generous, treating us to a home cooked meal each night and not allowing us to contribute even a bottle of wine. They have put us up in a lovely guest room with our own bathroom, stocked with soft towels and Burt’s Bees shampoo and conditioner, which I use to wash my hair for the first time since late April. My homemade dry shampoo has been working fine complemented by plain water once a week or so, but I couldn’t resist the BB. I’m loving the soft bed and down comforter, the hot shower, and the break from riding for a few days which comes at a critical time, the approach of Jackson’s death day. Weepy and irritable, I feel both sorry for Mark and grateful to him for his enduring patience and understanding. He really is a good friend, and I am lucky to have found him. Thus two nights has slipped into three, and I am conscious too of my good fortune at landing here: the kindness of these people, complete strangers, who have treated us from moment one like cherished guests, welcome and trusted; the comfort of my surroundings. It’s lovely to sit in the garden with the fountain cum bird bath burbling and goldfinches tweeting from the cherry tree, Sarge taking turns cavorting around the yard after the occasional butterfly and sleeping next to us on the cool stone. There are pots and baskets of pink begonia, Christmas cactus in bloom, multicolored pansies, aloe, ivy and something delicate and white I don’t recognize. The air is fragrant and warm. Dennis comes outside and joins me for a while; we talk about climate change, backpacking trips, cancer, extreme fitness versus extreme sloth and the associated problems of each, and finally, as a quail alights on the fence nearby and chastises Sarge for his mere existence, the lost art of bird watching. 

It’s Father’s Day, so I phone my dad. I’ve been trying to convince him to come to California for a visit soon. “Maybe next fall,” he says. “I don’t feel up to it now.” The man just drove to visit his sister in Kentucky, 550 miles away, in one day (since that’s how he’s always done it), then turned around three days later and drove back. I restrain myself from reminding him of this, saying simply, “Okay. Maybe next fall,” knowing as well as he does that after a certain age we don’t get more healthy with the passage of time, but less. He’s 89. What are the odds that he’ll feel stronger in five months than he does now? “I love you,” I say, but he has already moved on to telling me about the hard life a long-time friend has had, giving me details I’ve heard time and time again. “She doesn’t deserve the shit she’s been through, poor thing,” he says. “No,” I agree. “Of course not.” The line goes quiet, the words bouncing silently back and forth between us. Poor thing. Then he clears his throat, I wish him well, and we say goodbye, pretending, as usual, that we each said what we meant.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: