When I left work Monday afternoon light was fading into a gray featureless murk that might indicate freezing drizzle, an early dusk or both. The thermometer on the bank read 28 degrees which didn’t take into account the breeze, but then I heard a few weeks ago that the whole concept of wind-chill factoring might be tossed as hopelessly outdated or nonessential. Another instance of criminal stupidity by desk-bound academics. I’ve stood in 20-degree-below-zero weather when the wind was blowing and when it wasn’t and I’m here to tell you that the two are different beasts altogether. I much preferred the current temperature cold though it was but at least it wasn’t snowing, for which I gave silent thanks.
Giving thanks on various and sundry items has been something Facebook friends have done for about the last two weeks. As I understand it, the exercise is something of a build-up to the big finale on T-Day when, if past deeds are any measure, thanksgiving relinquishes itself to Black Friday’s glutinous greed. My own inclinations run more toward the acquisition of goods at the lowest price which means late November is prime time for shopping, preferably online in the comfort of my own home. Lest anyone fault me for failing to honor the spirit of the season, let me simply state that for every item added to my cart I am supremely grateful.
The impending twilight caught me unawares as it always does this time of year. It would be completely dark by the time I arrived home unless I goosed it which I had no intention of doing. Instead I drove two miles east on the main highway before turning south on a narrow gravel road leading apparently to nowhere, a destination I was altogether willing to seek. Taking a backroads commute is as much a journey of exploration as a leap of faith in that one never fully knows where one is at. Intersections aren’t marked, roads vanish into fields or dead-end on equally suspect paths barely the width of a pickup truck. I had a rough idea of how many miles separated the two highways and absolutely no idea how to get from start to finish. Nor did I really care.
If I had a goal other than the simple pleasure of seeing new lands it was to photograph decaying barns, abandoned houses and rusty vehicles. Several were found almost immediately including a rare specimen of windowless mobile home decked out in a gaudy shade of red. It looked like a long, narrow bloodstain against the tawny grasses of late autumn.
Thereafter the road meandered, zigging and zagging to the whims of engineers and the contours of the land, leaving me only the vaguest idea of the cardinal directions. After a while a complex of grain elevators rose above the horizon giving me at last a sense of direction and location both. Several miles of featureless closely-cropped agricultural fields gave way to the outskirts of Greenleaf where I found an ancient Studebaker flatbed moldering in a field. It was to be the best photograph of the afternoon and possibly the entire month.
Finding myself back on pavement was unsettling. The car might have been happier but I wasn’t ready to call it a day notwithstanding the deepening dusk. I opted for another side road that took me east and dropped down a series of zigzags toward distant Highway 9, prolonging the experience as long as feasibly possible. Unfortunately I’d arrived at a veritable desert of abandonment scraped clean of any signs of a former civilization and passed onward till once again reaching pavement.
For a long moment I made no move to progress but sat there at the stop sign contemplating past commutes in Denver where it wasn’t unusual to witness hundreds of thousands of other luckless commuters trapped like rats in a maze. In the past 25 miles I’d seen two vehicles, both in the distance. The two extremes were polar opposites for which I considered myself blessed at having made my escape in the nick of time.
Without further ado I gunned the car across the road with a promise of three more miles before calling it quits. I hadn’t driven a hundred yards when a small round-headed owl blew up from a field green with winter wheat, arced over the road and skylarked down like a butterfly until it disappeared behind a clump of wild plums. Short-eared owl, I thought, my pulse hammering. I’d never seen the species in Kansas but was positive of the identification but not so positive that I didn’t want to try for a photograph. I considered abandoning the vehicle in the road but old habits die hard if they die at all. Instead I continued to a narrow egress where I pulled in and cut the engine.
When I stepped out the cold hit me like a two-by-four. Instead of discomforting I found it surprisingly mood-setting, having been too long cooped up at my desk and reminded once again of the pleasures of the open road. Darkness was now falling in earnest having delayed seemingly for my own personal benefit, falling so fast in fact that I questioned looking down the road if it would wait for me to limp to the treeline where the owl vanished. It crossed my mind to drive back and save myself some time but then time seemed squandered indoors plus I suddenly realized how much I’d missed these wintry afternoon backroad jaunts.
I quickly switched lenses to a telephoto and started down the road. It was farther than I’d initially thought but I wasn’t about to change course, and anyway the walk was exhilarating. Sparrows fled before me through roadside thickets, mostly Harris’s with a few juncos and cardinals, their cries thin and brittle in the gathering gloom. On either side horizons dissolved as the gray sky blackened to a charcoal smudge held aloft by the bristling woods. My right knee felt tight and my gait anything but straight but the birds didn’t care and neither did I, the main thing being mobile and moving which a year ago I wasn’t positive would be the case. That I was still upright was something to be grateful for, a minor miracle of stubbornness prevailing over physical diminishments similar at times to an early autumnal eventide, unrealistically unexpected but startling nonetheless. Needless to say it felt good to be moving especially down a deserted road toward what might be a short-eared owl, darkness flooding the fields like an encroaching tide, the camera swinging at my side, hands shoved deep into jacket pockets and collar turned up, each step a small victory and a joy. “Thanks be,” I said aloud, directing the unfinished thought to the sense of the divine, to my wife waiting at home, to the owl and the road and the fading woods and the cold, to so many things that words seemed superfluous, almost obtrusive, but necessary in the way that language triggers genuine emotional response. Which it did, savagely and without warning, bludgeoning me with a sense of indebtedness and gratitude so intense that I all but reeled, tear-eyed and hollowed-out, remade, reborn, thankful for all the things I in no way deserved, thanks be, thanks be, now and forever, thanks be.