Of Bats and Belief

My storytelldear friend Baba and I were traveling the desert… 3 weeks, no phones, no major destination… just desert. We motored thru the west Texas landscape watching dust devils and calling in storms and up onto the plateau of New Mexico, and into the four corners among mesas, buttes, canyon and sage. The sound of tires on asphalt, the deep thrumming of the engine, the wind humming in our ears all competing with the music of Miss Pickle on a road trip.

One night we set up camp on the north side of Lake Powell. The day had been adventure- enough for most people to live thru. We crossed the Escalante, down into a canyon and up again on washboard  roads and down a harrowing, hair-pin turn, boulder-strewn, a drop of 1000 feet to open desert below. We ran across the flat land, discovering we no longer had brakes after precariously easing down the side of the cliff and bulldozed our way thru sandpits to the edge of the Lake Powell. A second symptom progressively worsened just before the last leap of faith down the cliff. Once the engine was turned off, there was no starting it again, the solenoid on the starter was fried.  There were no inclines to drift down allowing me to jam her into gear and force the engine, no crawling underneath to tap the started into submission. It would take assistance of a driver passing by to jump-start. And out here on a lonely cove of Lake Powell there was no one in sight.

We had no fear left that day and set camp along water in the desert with a grand dinner and a bottle of wine. Just before sunset I looked out at the lake and the angled shafts of sunlight and mentioned my disappointment in the lack of bats at our recent abode on the edge of  the Grand Canyon. My game has always been to sit at dusk and play with the bats. Tossing pebbles up in the air and tempting the bats to swoop down in front of me. Oh well. I poured a glass of wine and started to get a fire going for dinner while Baba floated along the shore. Suddenly, Baba exclaims “Look at these interesting little birds”.  Hundreds, flitting up and down, swooping before our faces, flashing past our heads as dusk descended. Not birds…bats! Bats by the thousands taking advantage of water in the desert which begets algae… which beget insects, (mosquitoes)…which begets…bats… which begets Life.

Baba and I laughed and marveled.

We sat down to dinner, the final rays of light dissipating. The contrast of buttes and water. The lake beginning to shimmer in starlight. The crescent moon, early setting, would find it’s rest behind the butte. It’s shape so delicate and curved to one side that as it set, it looked ready to recline into the landscape for a sweet night nap.

I looked at the moon and quietly spoke, ” the only thing better would be a shooting star”. As I finished my spoken thought, a blazing star with a trailing tail dropped over the moon and into obscurity behind the butte.

Baba looked at me, both of us now standing, breathless at what had just befallen. “Joannie, if you ever… from this day forward doubt your power… DON’t!”

I am a story teller and I found my power, again. Baba is often my interpreter in moments like these. Having a witness, a cohort, a believer  is the best part of the travels.

Namaste

Joan

 

Farewell Eagles

SATURDAY, AUGUST 14, 2010                                                     kristinteachingeagles

Early morning passes into mid-morning and there is no sense of time passing. No definition, no delineation of light beyond the dense, white of the cloud I am in. I cannot see 100 yards beyond me, if that much. I am on the lake one final time, kayaking and looking for my eagles. Though they are not mine, the time I have spent among them feels like they are my people. The ones you know deep in your heart.

Down lake is in a fog. The shoreline and trees are mist laden and fade in and out of view as the cloud gently moves across the rim. I am heading up lake to the whale’s tail. The calls of an eagle guide me. The lake is flat, flat calm as my paddles dip in, creating whorls that drift away behind me and slip into oblivion in the descending sky.

I am looking for that one, last, moment –  a picture to capture what I feel of this place and time in my life. This image will remain with me long after I am gone from here. What this moment will bring is yet unknown. But as I slowly make my way up channel, I think back on all the times in my life when, for a brief moment, I foresaw a future looking back at the place I was in. It’s as if now, I am looking down at a woman in a kayak, paddling solo in the silence. Yet, I am not alone. Something ethereal is floating around and along side of me.  Maybe these are not premonitions, but then what are they?

Three years ago I was leaving eagles and a flash of this awareness struck me as I walked three miles out on a hot summer morning. In my minds eye, I can still walk each step of that trek. I see the incline of the rocky, rutted road, the drop-down past the power lines to the rubble bridge, the base of the canyon and the steep, winding, shade-deficit hillside leading up the juniper slope and out to the edge of the Verde River canyon.

I spent that morning alone, searching and listening. I listened to the wind and the chuckle of water in the river 200 feet below. And I listened for the call of eagles.

I sat with patience and reverence, sweat running down my face and the hot wind sucking all moisture from my body. Even the ants that reside at this observation point went underground before 7 a.m. The eagles were no longer in the nest and this, my last stop for the season, was to search the sky and the canyon below for signs of eagle activity and to confirm the fledglings were still alive. They graced me with soaring flights along the river  as I watched from above. A rare moment to be above a pair of soaring eagles. It was so tempting to think of dropping from the cliff and joining them in the reverie of flight.

The scorching 110 degree sun made the journey out a challenge. Each shadowy patch under a juniper or against a bluff edge was a respite and greatly cherished. And what a gift it became.The heat slowed my pace and forced me to stop along the way to drink the last dregs of tepid water.  I paused and found a flat rock under a scrub juniper, checked for scorpions and snakes and then sat looking at a vista that took my breath away. Mt. Humphrey was visible beyond the Mogollon Rim. The Verde River and Sycamore Canyon stretched out below my shaded perch.

I wondered what was next for me and I wondered if I would ever see this place again. A premonition or awareness struck me then, as it does now. A strong thought that there could be a future time when I might not be able to walk or make this journey and in my mind I quietly reminded myself to savor it.

With that thought I hiked out, grateful for my legs. Without them, this place would not have existed for me. Four months later, the premonition became a reality, and as I lay in a hospital bed, unable to walk, the eagles of the Verde came back to me. I floated in the world of pain and surgeries and hiked the path to the cliff’s edge. And then, when I was wheeled out of my room I looked up to see a painting of a bald eagle in flight next to my door.

Now my kayak slips around the bend along the shallow north shoreline. I turn to see two juvenile eagles perched on a stump at the waterline. In the stillness and near perfect silence of the fog, the beat of huge wings elevates one eaglet. The sound only a raptor in flight can make. He flies over me. I can still feel and hear the air foil beneath his wings. The second eaglet hopped, briefly perched on a nearby rock and took to the air looking down at me, calling to his sibling as he passed over.

Leaving, leaving again. All part of the circle I travel. New things are ahead of me, not clear in my limited earth-bound vision, no definition or delineation of light on the subject, just like the cloud I am drifting through. But then, what is this moment? And have I learned not to fear what I cannot see? Maybe these experiences, these portents in life have shown me that what we cannot see is relevant to what we chose to see.  Life is going to happen, calamity is imminent, but so too, the magic, the lessons, the stories.

To say farewell to the eagles is as normal to me as saying farewell and be well to friends. I know that no matter what comes, I will see them again.

Beauty and the Beast

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It’s 9:32 a.m. and I am sitting at a small mechanics shop. Miss Pickle is acting up. Not that I blame her. It is after all, the end of a season in the desert. The temperature swings this year included freezing, ice-crystal mornings, dustings of snow, followed by rain and my first sight of Tonto creek changing from an anemic trickle to impassable flood waters and then back to dry creekbed come June. Temperatures escalating over 100 degrees.  And Miss pickle has been running hard. She drove the back dirt road from A-Cross past Salt Gulch and down 20 plus miles to the Salt River inflow.  She bounced into camp crossing one of three creek crossings, she battled deer mice and weathered mud pits.

Commuting to work posed a challenge in February and early March. High water restricted crossing Tonto Creek on occasion and in the tank I drove – windows down, head hanging out to see how high the water set on the tires, hanging on to the wheel, bouncing off unseen rocks and keeping a steady speed. Praying that Miss P. would not  swallow any water. And there were days I was delighted in knowing I was on the far side, all crossings were flooded and I had no where to go.  But go I did. I would drive down to the crossings and sit on the creek and listen to the sound of water eating away at the bank, smell the cottonwoods beginning to leaf out, watch with my eagle eyes for the fleeting glance of an eagle, raven, red tail or black hawk.

I wasn’t the only one at the crossings. It was a neighborhood pastime.  Along the northeast end of the lake are communities, North Bay, Tonto Basin, Punkin Center.  When the Tonto basin flooded, all the people living within those communities were trapped on the other side. Each year they become flood victims, waiting out the flash flood by hopping on their quads and hanging out by the spectacle of water in the desert. I met many a new friend there.

Everything mechanical and tech has reached its limit this trip. The first to go was the digital camera, then the cell phone, then the iPod, then the van warning me with a sharp “shot” from the exhaust. That underlining signal foretold a grave future. A looming leak in the main fuel line and an air leak in the manifold both of which could have blown me up ( or at least the engine) cracking the new valves, seizing me and stranding me mid-highway.  Fortunatly my expedition  didn’t end there, as I resolved that issue with  a little “pickle-sence” and a lot of luck. Now, after my computer giving up I sit here with a paper journal waiting for a new fuel pump.But here I sit  between the mechanics and a beauty spa contemplating whether I should blow my own mind and get a pedicure while Miss p gets a massage….why not?

This eagle season is almost over I am in Payson, Az., 6000 ft with 80 degree temps and dreading the thought of returning to the valley heat below.  I was thinking of my schedule for the next week still having to return to the Tonto nest to verify all flights of the newly fledged eaglets were going well. Then I am off to Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. The final stop is the Ladders nest outside of Camp Verde up against the Cedar wilderness.  All three spots this time of year are deadly hot. But even with those inconveniences, there is something hypnotic and meaningful about staying out to watch the nestlings transform into their true nature. Most nestwatchers  are gone before they get the opportunity to see young fledglings really take flight, spreading their wings and becoming experts with air thermals and stooping and diving and barrel rolling and… gravity.

I am fascinated by the spurts of growth and persistent strengthening of their wings as they hop-flap from nest to branch and back again. Then comes the helicopter flight exercise and on those days I am captivated. I anxiously wait, getting up before dawn, as my theory is they slip away at first light. I sit with camera taking ten second videos listening only to the sounds of a summer morning as desert wakes up. I sit and focus yet, not focus, feeling for the moment when the first flight will occur. This day is certain to be the day.  I am determined to see an eagle take it’s first flight. I can say now having had a little more experience that my theory is off.  They go when they are ready, not a moment before with a few exceptions where rescue has given them a second chance. Ergo, it is important throughout the season to maintain a vigil, abiding with the elements, patient awareness of not just the nest or the nestlings, but for every layer of the ecosystem of which they and I am a part.

I have missed most first flights. But I have been lucky this year with the first fledge on May 6 at 5:47 a.m. I sat alone on the cut bank overlooking the nest, taking in what would be some of my last days at this site. And there before me was the sight I always dreamed. The young eaglet, with a clumsy take-off, circled the cottonwood trees and flew OOV (our code for out of view). Fifteen minutes later the adult female dropped a fresh fish in the nest. Sure enough the young bird flew back and made a perfect landing. Her sibling was still hop-flapping when I left Monday morning on my way to trap the adults at Lake Pleasant.

Lake Pleasant was another hard earned success story for fledging and in the pre-dawn morning I made my way up to my trapping observation point. I settled in against the cool unrelenting wind and sent my gaze to the cliff nest on the Agua Fria inflow. One chick made her debut. In the background, the morning’s first light silhouetted the cliff rising out of the inky blue lake. She took one great leap, soared down from the nest along the bluff and then with a six foot wingspan flapping in the up-currents brought her to rest at the top of the mesa.  I could almost make out the look of exilaration and puzzlement as she settled in among the rocks, looking first at her footing, grabbing a hold of the earth for her first time, looking over the edge to the water below, then ruffling each wing as she settled in, waiting for her parents to locate her. She spent five hours in that spot, barely shaded by brush hanging on the steeply sloping wall, no doubt recovering her composure after such an enormous expenditure of energy. I sat with her, watching the day go from cool to extreme hot, noting the movements of every bird, duck, vultures (that were most likely waiting for a meal-me?). I sat in silence. I sat in reverence. I sat and took in every nuance of light, of light and shadow, of light and water, of light and heat waves washing across the landscape.

I returned to Tonto after an unsuccessful trapping with two pairs of ripped out bottoms of my pants, shredded by the razor sharp limestone seats of the cliff. When I arrived at Tonto both eaglets were airborne. One more night in the hot desert air, with just a cot and the stars above, I slept deep until the sun crushed me with the heat coming over the Sierra Ancha peaks.

I moved on to  Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. Two of the three at Orme had fledged. One final chick gave us a bit of an adventure and now I am in Payson gearing up for the final nest. It is June, it is hot and where I am going – even hotter. I looked again, at the sign that said Spa and braved the startled looks I would get after 4 months of camp living.  A pedicure? Sounds nice. Feels even better for desert rat feet.

And Miss Pickle you ask?

She just needed a little guy time and we hit another dirt road.

 

Eaglewatch – Ladders

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June 2007

I am in the final days of being out alone, all the other nestwatchers are gone -off to their homelands or some field work in cooler climes. I am checking the last eagle nest on the Verde River, near the Cedar Bench Wilderness.

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Miss Pickle sits in a precarious slant with one wheel 2 feet below the graded dirt road, making it impossible to seek sleep in any comfortable position. A ditch – a failed back-up plan has stranded me. The sun still bears down. Even though sunset is 30 minutes out, the temperature is hovering somewhere above 110. I know there is no one out here on this stretch of road, 13 miles in from the Camp Verde and possibly no vehicles to come for 4 or 5 days. A hike out is not an option I look forward to.

There has to be another way. Thanks to an army shovel last year’s nest-watchers left behind, I start digging and carve the drop-off to a more pleasing angle. I spin- out, the smell of burning rubber wafting among the juniper.  I think back to Alaska, being stuck in the snow and Utah in the red rocks and then again, New Mexico when I buried my vehicle up to its axle in a sand pit.  I wonder if I have learned anything since then. Apparently, I haven’t learned to stay off the “roads less traveled”. Unlike snow, sand in the desert has no pavement or purchase beneath it. I am royally stuck.

These are the moments when tears come but I find I am lacking in body moisture to spare. I am hot and exhausted and my big green tank is too, much for me to push. After releasing some air from the tire, with no further success, I considered tying a rope to the front end to create some sort of winch.  This proved to be a faulty concept considering there were no trees of any size, much less any way I could think of rigging up the front tires – which don’t spin- to act as the winch. I sit down in the dirt once again. It’s now shadow time and the temperature has dropped by 2 degrees.  Stuck seems to be the only thing I have accomplished.

The best solution is always a  little  bit of ingenuity and sweat and I had and plenty of sweat, tho my brain cells were on the verge of a slow boil.

What I need is something solid under the tire, something to allow the tires to gain some purchase.  Eureka! – if I put flat rocks in place to create a stone ramp, I might have a chance. I dig out a spot for the jack and gingerly raise the left side of the van to create clearance under the tires. I can only tell you how dicey this feels as I jack up several tons of metal,  jack creaking ,stones cracking and sand base crumbling.  As fast as I can, I slide large flat rocks under the tire and in the path of extraction.

The day turned to dusk with dark just moments away. I looked up and prayed to the first stars in the night sky. In this – a dilemma (that shows no mercy),  I recognize there is no better time  than now to attempt anything in this life. It was just me and the pickle I am in. I got behind the wheel, gave Miss Pickle a little pat on the dash, said, “one more time Miss P. “, turned the ignition, set the gear, punched the gas and released the clutch.

If ever there is a good time to be present…to be in the now.

The gear engaged, Miss P. lurched, the rear wheels spun, black smoke of melting tires and… I was air-born! The front tires and Pickle’s nose were pointed starward. Then like a bucking horse, she leapt out of the ditch, propelled forward and landed less than graceful on all fours. Needless to say, objects in motion remain in motion, including me and every loose item, turned projectile, in the van. To the cacophony of metal I added a Yee-Haw!, as I gripped the wheel trying to add some control to my (em)motion. I laughed my ass off as soon as I was sure both me and the van were not mortally injured.

I sit after the sunset scramble under the light of the last waning, full moon of my trip, illuminating the landscape of rolling hills dotted with junipers and cactus.  Exhausted I call a friend in Tucson who wants to know when I am coming home. I honestly can’t tell her. Though I am tired and hot and not looking forward to a 6 mile hike each day to check on the last eaglets, I also, have no desire to return, and am very unsure if I am very sane about the whole situation. I figured I would know when it was time, when it felt right…without a shred of doubt.

The next morning I hike out to the cliff at 4:30 a.m. in hopes of getting back to my shelter by the 10 a.m. heat wave. There at the cliff nest, I find no birds. They have slipped away overnight. When an eagle flies, it is important for us to know that it can actually take wing from the ground up – to avoid predators – so our job is to spend a few days observing their flights. With the high temperatures and extreme terrain, my plan had to be laid out to avoid the heat each day. That day, I know the only search I can do is visual from my eerie. I walk the edge of the bluff, scoping up and down-river and focusing in on all the vegetation 200 feet below, along the river’s edge. In this heat, every critter seeks shade and if I was an eagle, a sweet spot on the edge of riffles would be my choice. A family of otters playfully move up stream and provide me with a sense of vicarious cooling as they jump and splash from rock to pool… from pool to rock. My water will hold out for 3 hours before it is imperative to hike back.

In the early days of flight and for approximately 45 days into mid-summer, the eaglets will spend their days perched in the shade, exercising daily by taking short flights and curiously and voraciously learning the differences between edible and non-edible prey. The adults remain nearby. The eaglets watch, as the parent stoops on a  fish. Now that the river shallows in the extreme heat, the fish struggle in the riffles between pools. The fledglings watch as the adult strikes once, twice and lands a 20-inch catfish on the sandbar. This daily routine continues until one day, when the eaglets are strong enough, they are called to migrate north. And they simply go on their way.

Sitting and being patient is a lesson well learned in eagle watching. Knowing that any action other than stillness – most often results in a waste of energy, a futile attempt at controlling an environment we have literally no control over.  Within my field of vision is the river below, the rough vertical cliffs dropping two hundred feet, the shallow rapids that are home to the family of otters, the White-throated Swifts that flit and soar 5 feet from my face, the clear sky stretching into the horizon, the Mogollon Rim and the peak of Mt. Humphrey rising over the plateau 70 miles away … not a soul in sight … just me… in an area of several square miles or more. How many times do we ever get the chance to be that alone?

Time runs differently when we no longer adjust our lives to hands on a watch face. The sky and shadows tell us where and when to go. The animals know this. The red ants know this and inform me of the onslaught of heat as they head to the center of the earth. Each morning they scurry about the cliff top, traveling hundreds of yards in search for food, frantically gathering grass seeds before the heat of mid-morning forces them back underground. They found my sunflower seeds and as I watched, those little ol’ ants carried whole seeds away from my perch. I follow one 200 yards away to the fortress. They never give up, sometimes they back track – but most often they keep a steady course, up and over the rocks in their path, not even seeing the clear space between the rocks, six inches from their march. I take this lesson to heart – not to get so myopic and unwittingly forge ahead, but perhaps taking a pause now and then to survey the landscape, to look at the big picture and realize that many paths exist that will bring us home.

All of this and more in these few hours of stillness. Meantime, I continue my search along the cliff face. I am convinced that a shadow against the opposing cliff is an eaglet precariously perched on a narrow ledge. I strain my eyes trying to ascertain any movement. The heat waves of the sun trick my eyes into believing there is movement, a slight shifting of a wing, a turn of the head. Eagles can sit still for hours on end, conserving their energy for one opportune moment.

I begin to plot the removal of all barrel cactus within range of the nest! Convinced, as I was that the shadow is an eaglet, I discover in the shifting sun that I am staring at  a barrel cactus that is clinging to the wall.  Mind you, this is not the first time I made that mistake. I spent three hours at Lake Pleasant watching a barrel cactus and taking field notes on its movements only weeks before!

Back to the scanning – convinced that two or three more days will be necessary to confirm the eagles are flying. Already, I had decided that the Starbucks on I-17 I passed miles back was worth the drive. That and to fill a cooler full of pure ice now fills my brain as the heat waves shimmer making it almost impossible to scope any distance.

Just as I am preparing to pack up for the day – an adult eagle flies into view. She has been perched across the canyon from me all this time, hidden behind a pinnacle. I grab my binoculars and follow her flight downstream, where with the naked eye; she would have been lost to view. She perches a kilometer away, fading into the landscape on a rock outcropping 100 feet above the river. Glued to the spot with my binocs, I make a mental note of the features surrounding her. At some point I will have to look away and I want to be able to go back to her.  Parents in any species are fairly predictable around their young. When an eagle flies for the first time, the adults will follow them. Though they cannot help the youngster, or support their wings, they will watch as the eaglet, with its over-sized feathers clumsily flap and twist and turn in the sky. Getting air is one thing, landing is another! I have watched young eagles over-estimate their power and with no finesse, crash past the nest and fall like a stone to the earth below. The adults are usually within eye-shot. They’ll cock their heads, wait for the final movement of the eaglet and then swoop down beside them. Much like any caring parent, they will assess the situation and stand by the young one, encouraging them to shade, to flight or to rest.

My search continues along the river’s edge. Where there is an adult, there must be young.  I catch the flicker of a dark, large shadow below and downstream. Is it a vulture? Is it a raven? It is an eaglet! How silly can I be, convinced that a barrel cactus is an eagle? For when you see and eagle, there is no doubt – it is an eagle! The fledgling is flying, up and over the cottonwoods bending in the breeze along the river.  He apparently saw the parent and took wing to fly nearer. He circles and lands along the shore. A perfect landing!  O.K. – a perfect landing for a gangling teenager still getting used to appendages that 12 weeks prior were only featherless wing buds!  Another mass of wings and sleek black is flying in the sky now heading upstream to join its sibling.

In this one moment I know what I have to do. In this one moment my voice that has been silent all morning, rises up and I say to the world of the desert I have spent the past four months living with – “It is time to go home.” I stand on the edge enjoying the beauty of the birds and the canyon. I take one last panoramic snapshot in my mind and sing the James Taylor lullaby I sang most every night to the eagles as I headed back to camp.

Another Eagle season has come to a close. I am home.

Eaglewatch – Thunderous Gravel

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July 2009

It’s not often in life you get to sit, on a rainy day, on a thunderous gravel road, nine thousand feet above the earth’s lowest point. The White Mountains in Arizona is where I find myself today. And when I say find, I really mean, find a place inside that embraces the nurture of nature.

A rain and hail storm just passed. It hammered the gravel road. White pellets swept into drifts along the edges. More ominous , slate-gray clouds hover over Mt. Baldy, building in rage and slowly shifting east; shifting straight towards me. In this lull, the quiet of the storm, the land is not quiet. Rumbling rolls over the meadow as the first storm journeys into New Mexico to continue its rampage on high. Monsoons.

The meadow, though seemingly still, no wind stirring the grasses; chirps and tweets as Brewers blackbirds, flit about sipping the moisture from the knee-deep blades of green. The horned lark and killdeer run and pause, run and pause, calling out to their mates and skittering across the road.

It is the ending of a beginning and a beginning, again. My sabbatical, my healing journey is coming to an end. The journey to eagles – of eagles, has healed me.  It has presented me with another view of life and numerous choices for the future. You either jump into life on your own, or like the Crescent eaglet, the winds of change will send you into the atmosphere with the full reality of gravity fast approaching. And in that moment, you grow…you grow wings and you fly.

I am waiting for the adult male eagle to return. He brings a fish to the perch of the newly fledged eaglet. The branch is too, narrow. He drops the fish. Puzzled, he looks through the thick canopy, searching for a glimpse of silver among the scattered debris of the pine forest floor. The young eaglet looks on with a curious tilt to his head. 

I am amazed every day of the tolerance and patience the eagles display amidst the odds of weather and human interruption on their landscape. It strikes a forgotten, yet tangible chord within me. Since my beginnings with eagles, the chord within me is a constant hum. I am now finding patience and tolerance, not just with others and the myriad of things life throws my way, but mostly within and for myself.

This is the ending of that beginning – the eaglets have flown and my job is over. Six months in the field – with desert and now mountains and tomorrow I go home to begin again. They say times are tough, work is hard to find, life may not present itself the way I expect, but the winds of change surely will come. I think I now have the patience I desire and the tolerance to persevere. If I ever doubt that my dreams can come true, I can look back and picture this thunderous gravel road and watch the young eagle wait out the storm.

Eaglewatch – San Carlos

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My first season on the San Carlos Reservation, pulling into the unexpected camp at the edge of the illegal dump, my new nest partner and I stood in stunned disappointment as the Game and Fish truck pulled away. The site was desert scrub nestled along an anemic creek. A single track of dusty road weaving its way beyond Peridot, Arizona through the dumping grounds of the Apache residents, past overturned easy boy recliners, skeletons of horses, Elmo suspended in a straggly bush. It was bleak.

I looked over at Anna and could feel the tears, both hers and mine surfacing, ready to flood this parched landscape. Not wanting to open the floodgates I instead asked “how do you feel about lamb?”
Anna’s face appeared frozen for a nanosecond, eyes glistening with teardrops ready to flood this barren landscape, her lips frozen slightly turned down as if a wounded child was ready to jump out and exclaim “the world is not fair”! That nanosecond passed and her face softened with a glint of confusion and surprise – shaken loose from the cold horror that surrounded us. And then, on cue we broke free of the chains of fear and had our first big laugh together.
I was not joking when I said lamb.

Miss pickle was stocked as if royalty was going on safari. We began to set camp in a postage stamp flat spot as far away from the main mass of the dump surrounding us. The talcum powder dirt road just twenty feet away. We were here. Our first eagle nest watch and there was no turning back.

Anna is from Michigan. She is a biologist and especially brilliant with birds. She stands 4′ 12″ with long brown hair. Though having traveled and studied in various environments, this is her first taste of the Arizona desert. And to my surprise, perhaps both of our surprise, we picked each other at eagle orientation as partners to live and work together for the next three months.

I managed to get this gig almost as a fluke. I am not a trained biologist. I am a left-brained trades person. But in the fall of my 47th year I discovered something missing while driving down the city streets of Tucson. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing here. And then I spied a pretty beat 1971 VW Westy parked in front of a dealership with a for sale sign. Mind you I wasn’t looking to buy it as I already lived with a precious 1978 named Miss Pickle. I just wondered why, whoever owned her, was willing to part with her? Inside the dealership of new fancy versions of the bug, and Jettas I did not expect to find a reasonable answer, but the side benefit of stopping to ask why became my journey to eagles.

A salesman. Yep that is what I said – a car salesman was selling his old VW. I asked him if he ever really spent time in her, in the element of nature she was designed for. With that question, my life changed. His eyes lit up – it was like talking to a different person than the one before me dressed slick and ready to make a deal.

He told me of a season he had spent monitoring bald eagles for the state of Arizona. Camping in some semi-remote desertscape, he was paid to keep an eye on one breeding pair of adult eagles. I had never heard of such a thing before. Someone… much less a bureaucracy, was willing to pay me to go camping?

Within ten minutes, I had the skinny on how to get in on this gig. The flatness of my life was emboldened. Little foothills started to grow in my internal landscape. I had three days to obtain and complete a proposal for a bid opening as a subcontractor to the state of Arizona Game and Fish.

After obtaining a packet of legalese, by convincing an administrative assistant in Phoenix to email me the packet vs. snail mail, (This was a task unto itself – for I was breaking the rules according to her), I sat down and poured over pages upon pages of department contractual obligations, and subcontract responsibilities, licensing and insurance. All this paperwork to go camping? Then it came down to the meat of the contract – the application. I was worried after reading the preceding jumble that the application was going to require massive documentation and experience and perhaps I was just being naive about my even being considered.

Unlike many applications for jobs, this one did not require me to fill out my employment history. If fact, the whole application consisted of four questions. What kind of vehicle I drove, what camping experience and gear I had, what kind of similar wildlife biology experience I had and the final question was a response to a scenario of an individual(s) harassing an eagle or trespassing in a closed breeding zone.

Three of the four information requests, I felt I had in in the bag. Even tho I never worked a field job, my voluntary bird counts with Audubon were the only field experience I could claim. No matter…you can’t win if you don’t play. So after agonizing over my penmanship and making three copies, and sealing it in an envelope, I had just enough time to drive to Phoenix and submit before the 3 p.m. deadline. Phoenix is only 90 minutes away – I could do it with my eyes closed, and so off I sped in Miss Pickle. It was a perfect fall day, windows rolled down, music cranking.

It was a perfect… until I hit rush hour in Phoenix. It was only 2:15 and the game and fish office was only 11 miles away. Normally one would consider that enough time, but panic began to build as the traffic slowed to a crawl. Miss pickle and I never like being in rush hours in foreign cities but until this moment, I never knew how agile my van and I could be. The common mantra of all Westy owners was slow and steady.  I jumped back and forth in lanes making a little better headway thinking i was a good, assertive driver. Perhaps I was not as good as I thought and perhaps people stayed out of my way since I was driving a big, green, steel machine.

I managed to get to the Game and Fish office with minutes to spare. I ran thru the front door and asked loudly to submit my application only to be told I was in the wrong office. I needed to go across the parking lot to the overflow buildings and submit there. I turned on my heels and ran. Ran across the lot…the clock was ticking, dodged a truck backing out…the clock was ticking louder and rushed thru the front door of the mobile office. Flinging my arm across the counter a woman got up from her desk as I said “Bald eagle nestwatch application.” She didn’t hesitate, grabbed it from my hand took several fast steps and time punched my submittal on a machine in the back corner of the office. She then looked at the time stamp and exclaimed to me that I had 30 seconds left! She went on to say that never in all the years of this project had anyone ever come in so close to the wire. Note to self…this happens to be a recurring theme in my life…being somewhere, being someone…and in heartbeat everything can change. I find myself on a different path, redefining or should I say refining my self.

Several weeks later, I was in. I was a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher.

The story begins with Anna and San Carlos and eagles and spirits in the night and …Miss Pickle.

Miss Pickle and My Search

March 21, 2017

I have to admit – it is awkward. It is awkward to go down the road in anything other than my Westy. I had to find her a new home and move on. ( that is another story for another time) .  I am now traveling in a new mode and I find myself turning back the clock a little to tell you all about my search.  Here goes….
22 years with Miss Pickle is hard to beat. I have been spoiled. I know to not dwell too long on this subject, for to do so would send me spiraling into tailwinds and tailspins of nostalgia, joy, loss and grief. So many memories-adventures, both humbling and character building.

Hmm… Character. Would that be a noun describing me or Miss P? I once had a friend that looked at me with concern and compassion and stated ” Joan – you are not your van”. I suppose, for many people looking on, that at some point, the character I am became inextricably entwined with my 1978 Volkswagen Westy. She was the iconic green with orange canvas. A powerhouse of metal shaped like a big box. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but to many of us, not just a vehicle of transportation, but a way of life. A way of believing and creating. A way of showing up in the world with fewer restraints and “shoulds”. To those on the outside, looking in, a Westy is an unspoken dream. The freedom to believe we can explore and set aside the world we are told to believe in. I have trouble with that world – it is obvious to everyone that knows me. I don’t fit in, or perhaps I should say I fit in this world from a very different perspective. Rules? I get them, I know they exist. But however hard I try, I don’t seem to follow the path, achieve the sense of satisfaction, reap the rewards of society as we know it. Wow, that sounds like an ego. Sounds like a luxury problem. What it does tell me is the there are many sides to us that live in a very complicated world where choices begin to define who we think we are, sometimes burying who we really are and always will be. I guess that is why when driving down a desert highway with a little music vying for attention over the rumble of engine, the drone of tires on pavement, that it becomes a meditative state. Hour after hour the thrum of life is channeled thru this hunk of metal. The VW Om. Once you have tapped into that state of being, it is hard to go back.
But I digress ( which, as everyone that has ever sat with me around a camp fire, or tequila will attest) I can go on! The story will wander.
So here I begin to tell you the stories of a VW van named Miss Bertha Mae Pickle. Make of it what you will. It may touch a spring that trickles within your being. It may just be a moment in your day that sends a a tickle of amusement, it may inspire you to step outside your daily world And take a chance, make a choice…many of us have. And we are still here!