Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Homecomings of another sort

And now before me is another sort of homecoming. From behind a hotel in southern Colorado a narrow path weaves through tangled thickets before disappearing into a dense cattail marsh, swallowed by a growing darkness as night erases definition and contrast. From my jacket I remove a headlamp and slip it over my head. I do not turn it on. This is about disappearing. It’s about leaving and returning. When darkness is almost complete I step from pavement onto wet sand the color of moonbeams and follow it down into another world.


How many different types of homecomings are there? Too many to count, but only if we grant ourselves an unfettered freedom of language. The desert plume near Monument Rocks in western Kansas took me back decades to a vertical drop outside Grand Junction where golden teardrops spilled down a redrock wall like liquid notes from a canyon wren. The featureless, windswept waters of Nee Noshe and Nee Gronda took me back even further.

Home is a place, a physical construct of walls, windows and the indelible imprint of memory. For me, it’s a house on a quiet street with blue mountains on the horizon, pine trees in front, a small garden plot in back, gravel instead of grass, desert tortoises instead of cats, cicadas in the trees, hummers at the flowers, parents at the window. It’s also a house in a green prairie valley with hackberries and hedgeapples, skunks and voles, foxes and woodchucks, swifts in the chimney, wasps in the shed and cracks in the foundations.

Home has an address, a mailbox, a postal designation, a paved street, a gravel lane, a narrow track worn smooth by the sharp hooves of deer, the padded footfalls of coyotes and bobcats, the intricate tracings of remembrance. Home is a place, but mostly it’s a concept.

We’re forced by the limitations of words to conceptualize home. Though I abide by the structures of language and grammar as if an adherent of holy writ, when it comes to home I mangle the term, I wrestle with its deeper meaning, stretch it like fresh taffy, pulling this corner or tugging that edge until it becomes something larger, something greater, something more substantive than a principle abode or residence, as our dictionaries would have us believe. Home is the sum of our experiences. Home is the deepest core of our being. Complicating the matter, our hearts are wild, untamed, unprincipled, unfathomable. We’re so intemperate that it’s a wonder we’re able to recognize home at all. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes I haven’t. This time I do.

I am going to Albuquerque. I am going home.


First stop is Gove, Kansas (pop. 99), a well-stocked knitting store, their only gas station a single unattended pump standing alone in a field. Monument Rocks lies a dozen miles away, a hard jounce down rutted dirt roads that plume the air behind us like signal fires set to warn of an encroaching army. They appear suddenly, a dip of land, a gentle slope falling away to the green ribbon of the Smoky Hill River, and spread before you are towering chalk deposits bunched together in a sea of wildflowers. A forgotten Stonehenge, pale menhirs and megaliths of the shortgrass prairie.

This was not a homecoming. First times are adventures, epotitions as Winnie the Pooh would say. Second times are imbued with recognition, perhaps even love. Additional times install these places safely within the chambers of the heart and constitute homecomings of another sort.

We dropped into southern Colorado, speared through a narrow causeway between four lakes where long ago a mentor taught me shorebird identification, and pulled into a hotel in Las Animas, halfway to our primary homecoming.

Supper consisted of green chile burgers, part of a vow I’d made to include chiles in every meal this trip, including breakfasts. With the sun slanting ever lower in the west, we toured several historical sites along the Arkansas River and wandered down a birding trail behind the hotel. When dusk was complete we were back in our room. Lori settled back with a magazine. I doused myself with insect repellant, added a Gore-Tex jacket for insurance, and slipped away.


The trail ends at a floating platform jutting into a small backwater of the Arkansas River. Blackbirds call a few times before quieting. The hum of insects grows into a low-level din, a white noise of life. As night deepens the water silvers until it glows like a pool of mercury. Cattails are dark silhouettes. Birds rustle in the reeds; a frog croaks once and grows still. When a big splash explodes at my feet I lurch in surprise. The platform yaws and rocks. I warn myself not to do that again.

My recorder questions the night. I first play the call of a black rail, a secretive bird of the marshes, but when there was no response I shift to that of a sora, another rail species. A stocky bird breaks cover near my feet and darts away, and another wings past my head, more felt than seen. Sounding in the distance is a faint whinny, taken up by several more, until a rising tremolo of soras sweeps over me. I play the recording again and more voices join in. I’m a conductor orchestrating wild birds in a nocturnal hallelujah chorus. The moment is transcendent. At my back cars hurl past, travelers prepare for bed or watch late movies in the hotel, and here, a mere hundred yards away, is a midnight world few could imagine.

One by one the voices fade away. I turn, snap on the headlamp and navigate over the rocking gangplank. My way is bathed in a surreal blue lambency. The world of men seems a fabrication. The real world is behind me.

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