“There they are!” I pointed excitedly.
K followed my line of vision and raised the binoculars. “Hmm … I think those are trumpeter swans.”
We were looking for snow geese, thousands of them, stopping over mid-migration in a western Missouri wildlife refuge. Upon entering the refuge so far we’d only seen various ducks and now these swans. They were lovely and graceful as only swans can be, but I couldn’t help feel disappointed. “Trumpeters were once critically endangered—nearly extinct—but their numbers have come back,” K continued, an interesting fact that made me feel better about my mistake and the initial dismay that the immense flocks, featured in the David Attenborough documentary, which we had driven 7 hours to see had so far not appeared to us.
Of course, we had only just started on the 12-mile loop around the waters where the geese gathered; there would surely be geese ahead. There were certainly plenty of Canada geese, and coots, and grebes, shovelers, pintails, mallards, and herons. And some non-aquatic birds as well, hovering nearby looking over the avian buffet before them. Kestrels, golden eagles, and several magnificent bald eagles, including a family of five gathered near their enormous nest. The two adults perched close together and chirped conversationally. Yes, chirped; those impressive cries you hear eagles making in the movies? They don’t. That’s redtail hawk language. Bald eagles make squeaky little chirping noises. Well, they look impressive, anyway.
All well and good, but where were the snow geese?
We lodged in St. Joseph for the weekend, a town about 30 minutes south of the refuge and an hour north of that more famous western Missouri town, Kansas City. Not being from this area, I had never heard of St. Joseph, Missouri, though K had. He’s a St. Louis native, plus he’d always had an interest in the Pony Express, and St. Joseph had been the starting point of that epic equine road trip back in the mid-1800s. Back then the town boomed. River, rails, and roads all went through it, and business and industry flourished. This was the last civilized outpost before you hit the “Wild West.” Jesse James died here. Quite a bit later, Eminem was born here. Rather a lot happened between those otherwise unrelated events, and in St. Joseph, Missouri, the main thing that happened was the town’s slow fade.
The St. Joe we encountered was like a lot of American towns you come across on road trips, shadows of their former heyday’d selves. The downtown area came straight out of a Springsteen song, all whitewashed windows and vacant storefronts. I’ve been in uglier, scarier towns; the business district we walked through to get to the Pony Express Museum was actually fairly clean, devoid of much trash or graffiti. Or people. We almost expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down the street, to hear saloon doors creaking open before an empty, cobwebbed room.
The Pony Express Museum was surprisingly interesting, surprising because we hadn’t planned on doing anything other than the wildlife refuge but needed to kill a little time in town. K had already known quite a bit about the enterprise—anything involving animals tended not to escape his notice—but typical historically challenged American that I am, I learned a great deal. Funny thing, too: I could joke to any of my fellow countrymen about how long a package I’d mailed via the USPS took to get to its destination and include in the joke a reference to the Pony Express—and everyone would know what I meant, that’s how deeply ingrained that reference is in our cultural conscience. Yet the horse-and-rider-based service lasted only 18 months. Still, what a year and a half that was, horses and riders covering nearly 2,000 miles just so folks could get the equivalent of a line of emojis from their loved ones back east.
The most surprising thing I learned came from a display near the end of the museum, featuring biographical information on a couple dozen riders. A job posting for riders had specifically noted that the men had to be “willing to risk death daily” and that orphans were preferred, but none of the profiled riders died in the service of the Pony Express. Two died in battle during the Civil War; the rest lived long lives. Very long lives, well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s—even past a century in one case. It’s hard to imagine coming into life during a time when horses still figured prominently in the infrastructure of society, and going out of it mesmerized by the color test pattern on a TV screen.
Well, maybe it’s not that hard to imagine. A lot of things have come and gone during the nearly half century I’ve been around, after all. The absence of something can feel just as tangible as its presence.
A snow goose by itself isn’t necessarily a bird that would make you go ooh and ah. They’re still just geese, only different from the ubiquitous Canada goose in terms of size (smaller) and coloration (mostly white). But when you turn a corner and suddenly see what looks like an island in the middle of a lake, and that island is made up of living creatures, and suddenly a portion of the island bursts, erupting from the water and transforming into a shimmering cloud that stretches and swerves and undulates before your eyes—you’re too stunned to breathe, much less ooh and ah.
Time, that most mysterious extra dimension, can feel tangible as well. You feel it when you move. The snow geese were visitors here, just like us. We had come nearly 400 miles, to a place where once men and horses looked 2,000 miles to the west and now geese rested midway through 3,000 miles south, where a nearby town had pulsed with lives long expired. But not entirely gone. The world they lived in is ours as well, and it keeps on moving.