John James Audubon was quite the artist, managing to draw all those birds in exquisite detail after maddeningly brief glimpses of flitting creatures so like my almost-thirteen-year-old son: They. Will. Not. Sit. Still. Since halfheartedly taking up birding, which the Little Monkey then shanghaied from me and ran with like a roadrunner on acid, my estimation of Audubon’s skills grew, unlike my birding skills.
But turns out that while modern birders have digital cameras that shoot off hundreds of frames in an instant, Audubon had a gun, and he shot a few hundred birds dead for each of his drawings.
While this morbid discovery was distasteful for this lapsed vegetarian who cannot eat chicken on the bone, I understood that mores have changed: Audubon was a man of his time, in which human life was superior to other life forms, especially when it came to watercolors. But why not, say, five dead birds for each drawing? Or twenty? Why hundreds? Because he wanted the perfect specimen. Now when I look at his drawings, I also see a heap of feathered corpses.
But standing on a high, dusty ridge in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by torpid windmills that could not bring themselves to move in the near 100-degree heat, neck craned back to get a bead on a circling hawk to determine if it was a Rough-Tailed or another hawk, all of which look identical to me, I myself felt the urge to just shoot the fucking thing out of the sky so we could identify the carcass and get the hell back to paved roads and air-conditioning.
Our original plans in Eastern Washington that weekend had been derailed because of predictions for record-setting heat, with August temps arriving in June. A long-planned camping party in wine country—in which the kids would run around the campground while the adults got plastered at onsite tastings, which is my kind of camping—was cancelled. The group saw the forecast of 111 degrees and bailed. Wisely.
But since reservations had already been made, I decided to forge ahead for at least the first night; the Little Monkey had 98 birds on his Life List and had his heart set on bagging his 100th bird that weekend. Bird species vary a great deal once we cross east over the Cascade Mountains, from the damp and moldy Puget Sound region into the dry inland, so pegging a few new identifications should be a no-brainer.
But with the heat, I figured the birds would all be practicing the fine art of siesta. I reckoned we could take a halfhearted crack at a roadside tree or two, see that nothing was stirring, and make our way post haste to the campground pool after stocking up on ice and screw-top wine. LM couldn’t say that Mom didn’t try. She could add Cold Duck, Thunderbird, and Grey Goose to her Life List.
On this first day of the birdventure, we were stupidly birding in the high heat of midafternoon because of a late start hitting the road that morning, owing to my drinking eight ounces of prune juice, for reasons that remain hazy even to me. I guess I wanted to get the jump on certain intestinal blocks that often plague me while traveling, and, not having much history with prune juice, I wasn’t convinced about its purported properties. A lot of clichés about old people, I figured. Let’s just say that I am now convinced.”Does this mean we’re not going?” LM asked, crestfallen, as the window of our departure time narrowed, punctuated by toilet flushes rather than clock ticks.
“We’re going,” I insisted. “I’m not sure how far we’re going before we stop, but we are going.”
LM went out to wait in the backseat of the car, as if this would aid in departure.
After finally having the courage to depart the driveway, we made it as far as Issaquah, where I crashed the loo at an elementary schoolers’ baseball camp after managing to miss the turn lanes for Burger King and Top Pot Donuts.
“You said dammit,” the Little Monkey said from the backseat when we were on the road again. If only we’d known that Mom’s mostly constipated potty mouth was going to taste its own metaphorical prune juice that weekend, and what fell from it was only going to get worse. If a crystal ball could have told me that within 24 hours I would utter the words, “Eat your fucking French toast,” I would have turned for home instead of returning to Top Pot to buy him an apple fritter, at which point he was already wondering who was inhabiting the body of his mother.
[We interrupt this broadcast with this public service announcement: Have you noticed the Man I Married politely declined to accompany us on this trip? Smart man stayed home to build a wheelbarrow. Perhaps to aid in the disposal of his wife after she was put out of her misery.]
While I had blundered into some of our best birding sites on a recent road trip south, taking pull-offs that I thought were about Lewis & Clark but which turned out to be about spotting rare white pelicans, on this trip I stupidly downloaded a map from the local Audubon society, which included specific directions for locating hot birding sites, like these:
Exit 109, north take the first right into Bar 14 Restaurant parking lot.
If the directions had stopped right there, no problemo, birding’s definitely for me. But they continued:
Travel to the back of the Bar 14 Restaurant lot to the farmer’s access. Bar 14 Pond (private) is to the east. Use a scope from outside the gate. Return to Canyon Rd and turn south. If open, check the Sewer Treatment Plant on the right across from Berry Rd.
So I risked pissing off the Hell’s Angels or the Albino Banjo Player or whoever might be cooling their heels at the Bar 14, faced arrest for Peeping Tomming a redneck on his own property, and then there’s the matter of being anywhere near sewage in plus-100 temps. And I thought birding was going to be about being one with nature.
I gamely followed the directions to one of two locations that promised bluebirds.
“But, Mom, they’re gone in summer,” LM told me.
“I read something about them having a second nesting,” I said. “Besides, it’s only been summer for a week, and it’s not like the birds have a calendar and a plane reservation.”
He looked at me like I was insane, which is pretty much how he looks at me all the time, whether I’ve said Brush your teeth or the revelation I had just imparted when he asked for ice cream and I told him he’d already had a milkshake. He asked what a milkshake had to do with ice cream, so I sighed exaggeratedly and pointed out that a milkshake was ice cream. “No, it’s milk,” he argued.
The car kicked up great clouds of billowing dust as we crept down a gravel road. I stopped and started, stopped and started, stopped and started whenever one of us thought we’d seen something. At first I got out of the car with him to get a better look. He id’d a single Western Meadowlark: number 99, though it was so far away that the id was murky (I assured him that I was positive that it was a Western Meadowlark, for sure, no question, Girl Scout’s Honor). But the pickings remained slim. We’d be at the pool in no time.
But the Little Monkey continued to intermittently shout, “Wait!” from the backseat as I crept along the road. I would skid to a stop, and he would jump out with his binoculars and books as soon as I gave him the all-clear.
Yes, though he is now taller than I, LM still rides in back. I informed him that it’s illegal to ride in front until he’s 21. Him touching my radio dials will result in a car wreck for sure.
Finally I parked in the shade while he tromped up and down, side to side, back and forth in the heat and dust. I hissed at him to keep his binocs away from the barns; goodness knows what was transpiring in haylofts in the heat of the day. I opened the car doors wide and plopped into the passenger seat and waited for him to wear himself out. Something fluttered behind the barbed wire in front of me. I raised my binocs. Even I could handle this identification. I called to him. “There!” I pointed. “It’s blue! A bluebird! Number 100!”
“But is it a Western Bluebird or a Mountain Bluebird?” he asked, following the direction of my 8x42s.
For Pete’s sake. “It’s a bluebird,” I repeated. “It’s blue.”
He spotted it. Despite my lack of birding precision, he gave me a High Five, Mom!
I figured my job was done, and I quit getting out of the car at all. He would walk ahead up the road while I waited in the shade, and then I’d slowly catch up to him to save him the hot walk back to the car. At one point as I crept toward him, he turned to face me when the car was about 20 feet away, his foot pivoted and skated on the dry topsoil, and he slid straight down into the roadside ditch.
He scrambled back up the embankment to confront me after inspecting his life-threatening wounds. “What’d you hit me for? You were going too fast!” he yelled. Later he told MIM, “She was flying at 50 miles an hour!”
I decided it was time to find the ice and liquid dinner and then face what I thought would be my biggest worry on this trip: having to pee, after drinking so much wine, while in the pool.
So I blasted (at 20 mph) back to the main-ish road. At a T in the road before hitting 970, I looked up at the street-sign: “Wait, that’s the road we’re supposed to be on according to the brochure!” I figured it looped back down to the main road. I looked in the rearview mirror. “Do you want me to try it?”
He was hot and cranky and needed a V-8. Or Kombucha. Or Coconut Water. Or whatever it is people need these days.
“Good thing I packed your water with ice, huh?”
We positively identified a few more Western Meadowlarks, who sang in their bright yellow brocade vests, close-up on fence posts. This was the only time on the whole trip that I found the energy to lift the camera, and I snapped a blurry shot through the car window.
LM also pegged a Horned Lark—a bird whose name actually makes sense. This horned guy was the avian devil and it was hot as hell. But, though we were on the correct birding road this time, a road lined with bluebird houses on the fences, the single bluebird I bagged on the wrong road remained our only sighting.
“Good thing I took that first wrong road, huh?”
The narrow gravel road got dicey before indeed spitting us out back at the main road. I studied my maps and figured out a loop that would take us to the freeway, rather than returning on the main road we’d first taken. So I turned left instead of right. We cruised along, and I looked at another street sign at another T. “Hey, I think that’s the road we’d end up at if we took a different birding route from the end closer to the freeway. Want me to try it?”
Which is how we ended up at the top of the ridge with the hawks and the windmills, and a few more bluebirds. This road, like the previous road, had Unimproved Road signs.
Since we were travelling this birding route backward from the brochure’s directions, this meant that I soon faced the scariest road of my life heading downhill instead of uphill. With the dry topsoil–like LM and the ditch–if I braked too quickly, the car would keep skidding: straight off sheer drop-offs from the one-lane road with blind curves.
We knew other cars travelled the road, because three sheriff’s cars had passed us when I’d pulled over after a one-lane bridge to enjoy the busy swallows. The sheriffs were probably scouting for long skid marks and broken branches that would lead them to conclude, “Yep, there’s where Bob went over.”
I had no inkling of what I would do if we faced an oncoming car that didn’t smash us over the cliff edge first.
LM sat on the passenger side in the back: the sheer drop-off side. My driver’s side hugged the steep cliff.
“I want to get out of the car!” he shouted. “Let me out of the car! Get me out of the car!”
My nose was an inch from the windshield, I was sitting so straight and forward in my seat, though the only thing I’d said was, “I do not like this road.” I asked him to please be quiet so I could concentrate, but he kept it up. So I gave him the verbal version of slapping a hysterical woman in a Bob Hope movie and told him to “Shut. Up.”
“Shut up” is worse than “Eat your fucking French toast.”
“Shut up” to me is the worst thing you can say to another person. I don’t believe I’ve ever said it to my husband, and my parents never said it to me, though my father did yell it to the yappy dogs next door, generally while tossing bricks at them.
It’s all kinds of rude and wrong and disrespectful and shutting down another’s voice and it’s something you do to houses and windows, not Oscar-winning children. But if you know my child, who has a delay switch in his brain, like a dimmer switch on bright lights, you know that telling him to “stop” will lead him to do it three more times before he stops—not out of a wish to provoke (sometimes), but because, like a speeding car, he needs some distance before he can engage the parking brake. Also, as you might have noticed, he can be dramatic and prone to exaggeration. He says shut up to himself all the time. “Just shut up,” he says. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.” He’s not getting it from home, so they must be handing it around at school, like germs and lice. When he says it, I encourage him to be more respectful to himself.
But I was in a pickle on this road and needed to concentrate, and I needed him to be silent. Instantly. Which he was, he was so shocked at my words.
We made it to the bottom of the road without encountering another vehicle. The road widened and turned to pavement, and I pulled over and apologized to him for my word choice and explained that I really, really needed to concentrate on that road; he had of course seen how dangerous it was.
“Granddad could have done that road. Granddad once backed up for three miles on a road that dropped off on both sides,” he repeated one of my mother’s favorite stories. “Granddad would have been fine on that road. He could have done it backward.”
I turned and gave him a look. I didn’t say anything, but he shut up.
“Thanks for taking me birding, Mom,” he said.
Horned Lark, Meadowlark: Seattle Audubon Society Bird Web, http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/
All Others: Straight-No-Chaser Mom