“C’mon, Brewer’s sparrow.”
For several days Jim had clamored for the bird, a drab species of the high sagebrush desert and a lifer if we could find one. As we entered Colorado he hunched forward in his seat, proclaiming every little brown job that flew before us a Brewer’s and then cursing and saying he couldn’t be sure, followed by a moment of silence where he weighed our doubts and a gruff reminder that it was his list and he could do whatever he wanted with it, and if he called that fleeting brown streak a Brewer’s then dammit it was a Brewer’s. To which we could only shrug.
We did, however, get into the spirit of his quest by trying to beat him to the punch.
“A Brewer’s sparrow!” we’d sing upon seeing a unidentifiable bird.
After a quick glance Jim would study us through slitted eyes and spit an obscenity. Typical codgernaut behavior.
The extreme western slope of Colorado is a Colorado of ageless memory, a Colorado predating people or pollution or cities, a great swath of sagebrush emptiness fringed with snowy ranges and a single lonesome road climbing ever higher. For hours the scenery changed little though its very remoteness appealed to me deeply so that I daydreamed of how it would be to live there, to exist so apart from humanity that elk, bear and coyotes form surrogate neighbors. But the winters must be bitter.
Steamboat Springs stood in stark contrast with its rich homes, requisite Starbucks and interminable panoply of Hummers and Beamers, sort of a lesser Jackson sans celebrities. Against my will I found myself liking it. Mountain bikers were plentiful as was housing for the middle classes, something rare in those glitzy enclaves. The raging Yampa River carved a broad channel through the valley, undercutting the highway in places and engulfing the lowlands. CDOT worked feverishly to stabilize the banks on one sharp bend but the river implacably devoured the hillside and the road itself. Beyond that decremental constriction we ascended a long series of switchbacks to the pass and crossed over and descended into North Park, a vast glacial basin where the North Platte River is born.
In the center of this bowl a series of shallow ponds and marshes encompass Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. On all sides mountain ranges ripsawed the horizons—the Medicine Bows, the Park Range, the Rabbit Ears Mountains and the Never Summer Range, the latter wreathed in storm clouds.
“What do we do if the pass is closed?” Jim asked.
It was a question suddenly on our minds. Only two other routes existed to Estes Park, both requiring at least a hundred extra miles of driving. That fact that it was early June meant nothing at 12,000 feet. Not for nothing are they named the Never Summer Range.
I turned onto a narrow dirt road and stopped long enough for us to unsheathe our binoculars and ready our cameras. Jim rolled the window down and leaned forward, gripping his binoculars tightly. The breeze was raw and unforgiving.
A small sparrow darted across the road. I braked and three pairs of binoculars raced it to the crest of a tall sage.
Another few yards, another sparrow, another stop. Heavily-streaked breast with faint yellow lores, a Savannah sparrow. Next a song sparrow. And vesper sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, horned larks, meadowlarks, killdeer and sparrows that took to ground and could not be found, sparrows that kept flying and disappeared against the backdrop of the snowy mountains, sparrows that played hide-and-seek in willows and thickets only half-leafed out in this place where summer is the shortest season of all.
After a few near-misses, Jim turned to me and said, “I’ve known several birders who didn’t know how to apply the brakes. Next time I say stop, stop!”
The road meandered through dense sagebrush, wet sloughs and grassy meadows. Past a small rise a pond opened before us, its cobalt surface rippled with waves and the bobbing forms of waterfowl. My hearty application of the brake pedal was sufficient to nearly unseat my navigator, who cursed loudly and soundly.
“Like that?” I asked.
Colors at this altitude—8,200 feet—seemed exaggerated as if to make up for winter’s latent white shroud. The golden feathers of yellow-headed blackbirds fairly pulsed in the thin air, matched only by the rich chestnuts of cinnamon teal and the baby-blue bills of ruddy ducks. Indigo skies bled like ink into the pools and sloughs, deepening and intensifying their hues. Clouds launched blindingly white off the high peaks, their ponderous shadows eclipsing whole sections into temporal gloom, while beyond luminous shafts of sunlight skipped over the valley like some lambent finger tracing enigmatic hieroglyphs.
The road circumnavigated a wet meadow to a massive foursquare structure that if not for the cupolaed roof might have been the remnant of a frontier Army palisade. Its weathered boards were deeply furrowed and desiccated to a pale colorless gray. We parked beside it and stepped into the cold wind and framing the barn in our cameras captured it in a shuttersnap of time.
On we went down an ever-narrowing two-track, mountains ringing us singing to us, the wind whispering and the immense cloud-freckled sky the greatest of the elements. A curtain of rain dragged a charcoal veil across the distant Park Range. White-tailed prairie dogs barked and scampered toward their burrows. A pale drab bird flushed and landed in the middle of the road as if to block our passage. Hard brake, lurch forward, settle back. Binos locked on. Breaths held, and held, and held. A slow steady exhale.
(To be continued)