Friday, March 30, 2012
We were a few miles east of the small town of Goff when I realized I’d missed my turn.
Or, to put it another way, I’d missed what I thought was my turn. The road in question, something Google maps had assured me was the fastest, most direct line of travel from Goff to Horton, appeared on cursory glance to be a narrow, rutted path hardly wider than our vehicle and of uncertain solidity. Already once today I’d been mired in a seemingly bottomless muck and had no desire to replicate the experience, plus I’d forgotten about Highway 9’s convoluted, stair-stepping course and was therefore running late for a meeting.
My copilot popped the glove box and hauled out a torn and much-abused map.
“That won’t tell you much on these roads,” I said. “Grab the iPad instead.”
It took a few seconds for what I’d said to register. Never before in the annals of my personal history had I uttered such a statement, at once a betrayal of my lifelong adoration of maps and, in this sparsely populated region so far from familiarity and a computer linked to a modem, odd to the point of bafflement. Lori seemed frozen in place, the map half-opened, her brow furrowed, before giving a soft, “Oh. Yeah.”
Deftly, though, she reached into the back seat, hauled the iPad from its case and turned it on. With a few taps she was tracking our vehicle from space, Goff falling behind, Wetmore in the distance and a maze of feeder roads branching out in a classic (depending on the geography) Jeffersonian grid. Another tap provided two alternate directions to our destination. Pinching two fingers on the tablet zoomed in the map to provide a narrower view, while the reverse motion zoomed out. We had our choice of a regular street map, a satellite image or, my favorite, a three-dimensional terrain map showing the contours of the land.
Paper maps, I thought, are so yesteryear.
I realize that this technology isn’t new to people with smartphones, but our mobile phone has so few features that it’s little more than a tin can on a string. While I’m fairly up-to-date on computing technology, mobile communication has always left me cold. During my decades in Denver I was chained to a cellphone, two-way radio and pager, all of which I gratefully left behind without remorse or intent to continue. After Lori started driving to work at night, however, we broke down and bought one of those pay-per-minute phones for emergency use. I remained adamantly untethered.
The iPad changes everything. Though it’s relatively new for us, we’re gradually finding ways to fit it into everyday life, including, on the road somewhere between Goff and Wetmore, as an interactive map of dizzying detail.
As the miles fled past, my eyes kept inching over to chart our progress. I wanted nothing more than to swerve to the shoulder and run the iPad through the paces; where does this road lead, what’s up ahead, what’s behind that we might have missed? Instead, I followed Lori’s directions, passed through the Kickapoo Nation and entered Horton as the sun balanced on the horizon.
Having charted our course (more or less) from home, I knew which way to turn once inside city limits. We headed south on what appeared to be a main thoroughfare, a residential area slowly giving way to churches each which seemed in competition for the most grandiloquent until a gradual decline in grandeur, utility and habitation shed all pretenses. The downtown area seemed long past its prime, a patchwork of shuttered buildings, vacant windows, deserted streets, staggered businesses of various mercantile interests, empty lots, mysterious alleys leading into crepuscular murkiness, blocky WPA structures and a smattering of modern steel buildings juxtaposed against brick and concrete masonry dating back a hundred years or more.
For a photographer, a Kansas Explorer, a lover of old towns and architecture, it was riveting. And, all too soon, over. We parked in a dirt lot outside the community center, light spilling from the front door while around us twilight gilded the buildings in a warm glow that both heightened and softened the perception of antiquity and abandonment, inviting, evasive, utterly mysterious. For a moment the iPad pinpointed our location on a featureless grid of numbered and named streets, but even its crisp utilitarian and technological brilliance was outmatched by our earthbound outlook. If not for the meeting I would gladly have delved into those streets and alleys, but duty called. One tap and the screen went black. The road would never be the same.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
By any definition, Scolopax minor, the American woodcock, is an odd bird.
Though classified as a shorebird, it lives on the edges of immature forests. Secretive and exquisitely camouflaged, it’s rarely seen except during its dizzying crepuscular mating display. Its folk names are legion, inspired as much by its haunts as its physiognomy: bogsucker, big eye, night partridge, brush snipe, timberdoodle. Its rocking gait resembles an avian attempt at moonwalking minus the dark sunglasses and solitary sequined glove. Described by some as a “meatball on a stick,” its bill is too long, its eyes too big and too high on its head. Most importantly, at least to my tale, is that the species is now found in brushy/grassy habitat at Washington State Fishing Lake, “found” being used subjectively if not optimistically.
I say that because of repeated attempts to locate it, always at dusk and, alas, always ending in failure. Several years ago I wrote about one such attempt that became a sort of template for others to follow: arrive at sundown, pace the gravel road between the entrance to the first camping site to the north until the stars pop out and mosquitoes discover your presence, swear and cuss and bat the humid air, listen intently for a nasal peent!, hear nothing but a high-pitched whine as mosquitoes kamikaze your ears, depart after donating several liters of blood. In what could only be described as a pitiful attempt to put a spin on the preceding debacle, I concluded with a philosophical bombshell: “This may sound strange, and it may be something only a birder can understand, but sometimes the best bird is the one that got away.”
Balderdash! As one of a select subgroup of Kansas birders who were unable to locate snowy owls during their most invasive year on record, I can attest that failure cannot in any way, shape or form be construed as anything other than defeat. Failure makes you feel inadequate. Failure leaves the taste of dust and ashes in your mouth. Failure is the embodiment of hopelessness.
No, the best bird is the one gregarious enough to shamelessly preen and pimp, amenable to perching on your binoculars, introducing itself, signing your field guide, buying you a beer. The best bird is the one you tally in your checklist(s), whether yard, city, county, state, continent, solar system. The very best bird, the pinnacle of birdingdom, is a lifer.
The bogsucker would have been a lifer, but wasn’t.
When reports recently surfaced that woodcocks were once again performing their aerial mating displays at the lake, my interest renewed for these harbingers of spring. I eagerly checked the calendar for the next available date, penciled it in and started boning up on the bird’s vocalizations—which, considering that the species is basically nocturnal and awakens zombie-like at dusk, would be critical for field identification.
And then I asked myself who I was trying to kid. I mean, didn’t my track record count for something? An unbroken string of failures, one after the other; and while I was on the topic, my evil inner voice jeered, did I recall that guaranteed, impossible-to-miss Ross’s Goose near Ogallala, Neb., the one that was reported daily until my own ill-fated attempt, after which it was never seen again? All too painfully. Much like playing the lottery, my chances of winning were equal whether I bought a ticket or not.
Go, stay, go, stay, for several weeks I waffled. It wasn’t the 40 miles there I worried about, it was the 40 long defeated miles back that concerned me.
I could easily have extended my indecision until long past the bird’s mating cycle, and probably would have, if not for Lori’s surprise suggestion that we give it a shot. So unprepared was I for the idea that my evil inner voice was briefly stunned into quiescence. Before it could summon its reserves of negativity and character assassination, I grabbed a pair of flashlights and bolted for the door.
Getting there was half the adventure: dodging deer on the road, stopping for gas and a soft serve (to sweeten the gamble, so to speak), braking hard for rusty trucks, decrepit barns and abandoned houses, wishing for more time to explore and photograph but intensely conscious of the sun’s unwavering descent into a morass of storm clouds rising in the west. Though the lake is a mere ten miles northwest of the county seat, a stair-stepping route on ever-narrowing gravel roads makes it seem much more distant and remote. Our arrival almost an hour later coincided with the sun’s weltering disappearance and a deepening silence that fell with the dusk.
In the distance, a puttering chorus of frogs reminiscent of a trolling motor. Waterfowl lifted from the lake trailing thin whistles from their wings. Robins chirruped and scolded before settling in with the night. Small brown sparrows restlessly flittering in the deep grasses bordering the road rose and fell and rose and fell until sinking unseen into the gathering shadows.
We left the car behind and passed silent and unspeaking toward a brushy clearing while around us the wobbly world slowed to a crawl, slowed to a tranquil lull and us with it so that we halted midstep immobile and enchanted, waiting for what would come no matter the outcome, failure or success reduced to half-remembered concepts of uncertain worth or merit in the face of nature’s sedate unwinding, and pausing there saw Jupiter and Venus erupt from a jagged rift and the western horizon ablaze from nearby prairie fires, and the first nasal peent! prelude to an explosive liftoff. As if not to be upstaged a barred owl jabberwocked and another answered, the pair caterwauling into fevered lust and almost but not quite drowning out the peents! of timberdoodles ascending into an absolute blackness punctured only by tandem planets smoldering bloodred from invisible plumes of acrid smoke, the music of their wings a gossamer tremolo like the delicate tinkling of crystals, muted yet distinct, more felt than heard above our conjoined heartbeats, our entwined fingers, our breathless rapture.