Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Three birds and a truck, part 2

One of the main reasons K and I went on this slightly crazy journey to the southwest with our birds was to fly them in the vast, open spaces of New Mexico. Where we live in rural Illinois is vast and open, too, but it’s a privately owned vast-and-open, and a person can’t exactly wander into some random field to launch a couple of macaws, not that too many persons besides us are ever tempted to do this. New Mexico is checkerboarded with BLM land, a lot of which is open to the public for recreational use, and the terrain is perfect for our particular form of recreation: not many trees, good sight lines, starkly beautiful. To the desert we went.

After a quick stop at the Carlsbad BLM office to pick up a map (and to ask for suggestions on the best areas to fly birds, which the helpful BLM officer gave after only a brief pause of surprise), we headed out in search of the vastness. We found the suggested area fairly easily and pulled off the paved road into the parking area. I say “parking area” because there was a letter P on the map indicating that we could park there, but really this was no more than a slightly wider part of the dirt-and-gravel path. Because the path beyond there looked heavily cratered and the camper often has trouble on-road, much less off, we pulled over and stopped.

This particular patch of land was fairly close to town and featured jogging trails, so it wasn’t nearly as remote as we had originally wanted. And though it was a weekday and we clearly would have the place all to ourselves, there were immediate—and disturbing—signs that other recreational activities had occurred here in the recent past. Next to the truck was a huge pile of garbage, or at least what looked cursorily like it: a filthy rolled-up carpet, a used condom, empty soda bottles, torn packaging for cookies, candy, and chips. On second glance, there was an eerie sort of order to the pile, suggesting that it had not merely been dumped there and abandoned but stored there, on purpose. A little further up the path, K spotted the carcass of a coyote and the severed head of a deer amidst the scrubby bushes, along with a large blue water carboy. Again, the juxtaposition looked purposeful.

This is the point in the movie where everyone in the audience is screaming “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE YOU FOOLS.” I was kind of screaming that in my head myself. We didn’t, though; we’d come many hundreds of miles for the privilege of wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into, so we kept ourselves into it.

K took Boston and Phoenix, whom he launched immediately; I got Fred. Fred and the boys have gotten along reasonably well, but there’s far more wariness than chumminess between them, and we’re a little concerned that they might never become the Three Amigos so much as forever remaining the two that fly and the one that doesn’t. But a funny thing happens when Boston and Phoenix take off: Fred notices, very keenly, and reacts. First he’ll start squawking, loudly, with an edge of panic, as he watches them go, and then he’ll lean forward into the wind and flap his wings as hard as he can. When he started doing this that morning, I stretched my arm out to give him more wingspan space and began to move. Fred flapped. I walked. We were flying together, sort of.

If Fred had never come to us, he would never have seen two other birds that look like him who could leap into the air and stay there, soaring, swooping, gliding, flying. Since he did, it’s hard not to believe that something awakened in him, some realization of what he should have been able to do but couldn’t, what he should be but wasn’t, not completely. I wonder if we did him any favors. This was not a child on a bicycle which I would have to let go of. His claws digging into my bare arm hurt, but he had to hold on to me and I had to stay with him. Though sometimes when the wind caught his wings just right, I could feel him lift just a little, it wasn’t enough.

My relationship with our birds has been difficult. They are high-maintenance pets, certainly, but all pets are if you do it right, and that wasn’t the difficult part. I was having a hard time figuring out what these three animals were supposed to mean to me, and I to them. I helped care for them, but K did most of the work there, and they knew it—every creature who wants to survive figures out very quickly where its next meal is likely to come from. I admired their beauty and chuckled at some of their antics (Fred has this trick he does where he picks up a stick in his claw, waves it up and down like a symphony conductor, and then pretends to scratch the back of his head with it), but everyone who saw them could do that. I was still anywhere from mildly to violently afraid of being bitten by them, mainly by Phoenix, who was the best at both flying and breaking things. I certainly did not wish them any harm, because it’s hard to witness any living creature being harmed regardless of what they might mean to you personally.

And the truth is I did not know what they meant to me personally. I had loved the dog; the birds were like tropical fish to me—beautiful and remote. I could admire them and see to their welfare, but so far there had been nothing personal in it, no deeper attachment. And sometimes, it’s true, I hated them. I hated them for fairly obvious reasons: they were noisy, they were high-maintenance, they took up much of our free time and disposable income, and we had precious little of either to spare. I also hated them for some less obvious reasons; hate is frequently more complicated than you think and often reveals quite a bit about the hater. In this case, I hated them because they were unpredictable. I don’t mean that they were likely to suddenly do something random; there were clearly patterns to their behavior, but I was unable to read these patterns. A lot of things are unpredictable, and I accept that—every true control freak must do so at some point—but accepting what you can’t control is quite different from actively inviting it into your home to be an everyday part of your life. I did not understand them, and I could not see anything recognizable in them at all.

Until now. When Fred stood on my arm trying to fly, there it was, understanding and recognition.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later, though, that I realized something else. We were in south Texas now; we had driven for several hours through an indescribably ugly area of oil rigs and suddenly all of that ended and we were in a beautiful land again, mountains and valleys and even some color despite its being mid-December. Spotting a rest stop off the road, we pulled over to once again stretch our legs and wings.

It was windy again, but much colder; a storm was coming in following a freakish heatwave, and Fred’s claws this time sank into a thick coatsleeve instead of my bare flesh. All three of the boys like windy days; Phoenix and Boston love to go zooming by with the wind at their backs, turning sharply and then floating gracefully back down to K’s arm. Even Fred seems more willing to faux-fly in the wind, but not this day. The wind had teeth, and instead of leaning into it and spreading his wings, Fred fluffed up and huddled close to me. While K worked with Boston and Phoenix, Fred and I wandered slowly around the rest stop, watching them. At that point I looked down at the big red bird sitting quietly on my arm, who looked back up at me, and I felt it: love.

There are wrong reasons to love something. Ideally, at its best, we love a thing not because of what it does for us but because of what it is and because what love can do for it. But let’s be honest, most love is at least a little, and often a lot, selfish. I fell in love with my husband because he is exactly what I want and need. Yes, I also fell in love with him because he’s a good person, but Jimmy Carter is a good person and I’m not sending him so much as a Christmas card. At that moment I knew I loved Fred because I was with him while he experienced one of the saddest emotions of all, one that doesn’t even have a proper name (at least not in English, though I’m sure the Germans have one). It’s not quite regret—you can’t regret something that could never happen in the first place—so much as impossible yearning. I loved him because he looked so calm and peaceful there on my arm, but also so vulnerable. And I loved that these were all things I recognized, potently, in myself.

At that point Phoenix suddenly swooped toward us, so I held up my other arm for him to land. This had happened a few times over the past week, Phoenix and Boston each deciding to come to me instead of K, and while it surprised the heck out of me, we took it as a sign that they were including me in their world, that they trusted me and maybe even liked me. I looked down at the two birds on my arms, one I loved, and the other … well … “I’m working on it,” I murmured to Phoenix. That seemed to appease him, so he turned and flew back toward K, up into the wind and then down, all radiant color yet still full of mystery, descending like an angel.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Three birds and a truck, part 1

Early in our travels to the southwest, we spent a night in the parking lot of a gas station convenience store in Hinton, Oklahoma. This was not a planned stop, so don’t bother Googling Hinton to see if it’s got some amazing place for tacos or the childhood home of someone famous who got the hell out of there as fast as they could. As far as I know, Hinton has none of that, though it is the nearest town to Red Rock Canyon State Park, where we had stopped briefly to stretch our legs (and our wings, in the case of our macaws). It was a weekday, so the park was nearly empty, though our birds did make quite an impression on the handful of people we saw there, including a young couple in prim, formal clothing that suggested they might be Amish, who stopped to watch Phoenix descend gracefully down from a tree to K’s arm. They smiled with delight. This happened a lot, not always with Amish people, but always with our birds, because even though everyone has an idea of what a parrot is, surprisingly few people have ever seen one up close and personal. One week, three states, and hundreds of miles later, at least a few more people can say they have.

We’d stopped at the Hinton convenience store after the park because we needed a roadmap. That’s right, a good old-fashioned paper map to unfurl awkwardly and try to refold even more awkwardly so that it’s a little less cumbersome to read. This was not out of nostalgia. K’s phone was dying and the DC converter wasn’t working and he had brought the wrong charger for the inverter (and I have no idea what I just said, as electronics are not my area of expertise at all). We had to go retro to get ourselves to New Mexico, where we intended to camp, hike, and fly our birds in as secluded a spot as we could find. The tricky part, or so we thought, would be the finding. When K came back out of the store empty-handed and tried to start up our moving-truck-turned-camper, we realized that the even trickier part would be avoiding spending our entire vacation in Hinton.

The truck has had a number of mechanical issues in the past, all of them loud and smelly. Parts screeched. Smoke wafted out from the engine. Yet the most frustrating indicator of something gone terribly wrong was nothing. When K turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. No sound, no smoke, just silence and stillness. It was 4:30pm on a Friday and we had no real idea where we were, other than that it wasn’t where we wanted to be.

K walked up the street to an auto dealership and luckily found a couple of mechanics. They were jovial, jokey, chain-smoking guys who didn’t seem at all put-out that we’d caught them right before quitting time. They checked it out. “The starter,” they said, and one of them drove to the next town 45 minutes away to get a new one because they didn’t have such things in Hinton. An hour and a half, a new starter, and $300 for parts and labor later, still nothing. They shrugged. They told us they’d left a message for their boss, who would get back to us tomorrow morning to see what he could do.

Of all the terrible things that can happen to a person, being stuck in a truck in a small town can’t be considered more than a minor irritation. At the time, however, I can tell you it felt a great deal worse than that. We’d been hankering to see the southwest for over a year, since we’d had to postpone this trip when we bought our old farmhouse. Back then we’d figured the time would be better spent on fixer-upper work than gallivanting around the desert. A year later, the farmhouse remained a fixer-upper, we had yet to gallivant, and we might be spending the whole weekend here, possibly much of the week if the truck needed some special parts that were a lot more than 45 minutes away. We couldn’t stay in a hotel, if Hinton even had one, because of our birds, and the manager of the gas station didn’t seem terribly pleased that we’d be spending the night in their parking lot. I suppose it might have been different if our truck were a normal-looking camper, tan with brown swirls instead of white with white blobs where we’d painted over old graffiti. I suppose it might also have been different if we were from around there, which we clearly weren’t, or if we otherwise fit in some easily relatable or graspable category, which we didn’t. We’d sought escape in the vastness of the desert and instead we were crammed into 200 square feet with three restless birds and the suspicious eyes of small-town Oklahoma upon us. What were we doing here? What were we thinking? That question quickly became an accusatory, resentful what were you thinking in each of our respective heads as our nerves frayed and our hopes of being able to salvage the week dwindled. We had been driving a long time. We were dirty and tired. If we ever got the truck moving again, it might be too late for us to do anything but turn back around and go home to our miserable old farmhouse and wonder how two people could fail at so many things at once.

The next morning, K went back up the street to the dealership to see if the boss was in yet. A few minutes after he’d gone, I heard someone knocking on a window in the cab of the truck. A displeased-looking woman was peering suspiciously into the truck. “Nobody is supposed to park here overnight. Did you break down?” she asked. She was probably the morning shift for the convenience store and the night shift had forgotten to let her know we’d be there, like they’d said they would. Yes, I told her, our truck broke down, we were here overnight—wasn’t that fun!—and her manager was supposed to have been told. “Well, no one told me,” she frowned.

I apologized like mad, explained our unique situation, how we couldn’t go to a hotel because of our macaws. “What’s that?” she asked, frowning again. Parrots, I explained, instantly realizing this wasn’t going to make us seem any less like nutjobs. I kept apologizing and she seemed to relax a bit. “It’s OK, I understand, but you know, I came in this morning and saw this unmarked truck here and, well,” she leaned in and lowered her voice, “you know how things are these days.” I nodded. I did, though I suspected my perspective on these days was likely very different from hers. There’s an ugly, snobby side of me that threatens to take over in times like this, when I start to think about how incredibly little I have in common with the people around me, when I become hyper aware that I don’t look like them or do the kinds of things they did. Yet, because I did the things I did, I was there.

K returned and the boss mechanic soon followed, along with the boss mechanic’s son. The boy was maybe only nine or ten and looked a great deal like Bobby from King of the Hill; he was a little shy around us but competently assisted his dad, bringing various tools as requested. “They may be at it a while,” K said to me grimly. “How are the boys?” They were restless, rattling their beaks against the cage walls like prisoners with tin cups. K shook his head. “I don’t blame them. Let’s take them out for some air.”

I did not like this idea at all; we hardly needed to attract more attention to ourselves, plus all we’d need was for Boston to get up in a tree and decide to camp out there for a while, as he was wont to do, while we cajoled and coaxed and begged him to come down, as hours went by, to make this experience truly special. But K had a point; we had not enjoyed being confined to a small space for a long time ourselves, and our birds were not normally kept in small cages; their habitat at home was so big we could have parked the entire truck within it. If this experience was frustrating for us, it was likely even more so for them. Out they came.

And out came everyone else. The woman I’d talked to earlier from the store reemerged wide-eyed and mouth agape, then ran back in to grab her phone. A young couple who had just pulled in to the parking lot in a car that was more wreck than car (and yet the engine was running, which was one up on us) got out and walked right over to us, as though we and not cigarettes were why they’d stopped. The Bobby look-alike was transfixed. K gave him a piece of walnut and instructed the boy how to hold the treat so that Fred would have to stretch a little to take it, which the big red bird did, gently and gratefully. The traveling parrot show was suddenly the hit of the town.

“I’ve never seen one before, only on TV,” the boy said excitedly. “I want to get one someday.”

Macaws were pretty much the reason we’d spent the night at the gas station, the reason we were traveling in a rickety moving truck instead of a car or a plane, the reason we couldn’t stay at hotels or camp any place where their raucousness might disturb other people or visit anywhere that didn’t allow pets. They were largely the reason the place we called home was a town far smaller and more depressing than this one and a house that barely qualified as having indoor plumbing. In short I was not feeling too especially fond of our critters at the moment, but I do have at least a little bit of a heart, and seeing the kid’s beaming face, all I said was, “They’re a lot of work, though they can be a lot of fun too.”

And then the truck engine suddenly roared back to life. As it turned out, the problem was a fuse—that’s right, a cheap, postage-stamp-sized piece of equipment (so cheap and such an easy fix that the guy refused to charge us). The boss mechanic had smartly taken an existing fuse from the truck—one for the blower, which we knew worked—and moved it to the starter to see if that was the problem. It was.

For want of a fuse the kingdom was very nearly lost, but now we could get on our way. The question was, which way. This time a fuse; what would it be next? The truck had been one minor disaster after another (full disclosure: this was not the first time we’d spent the night at a gas station parking lot, and I can tell you that these would be two more times than anyone who isn’t a trucker getting paid for it needs to spend in a gas station parking lot). As bad as the night was, it could easily have been so much worse. The gas station had a restroom, after all, and all the junk food one could want. If we stalled in the middle of the desert, no one around for miles, which had sounded so appealing when we planned this trip and so very problematic now, what would we do? Did it really make sense to keep going?

You know full well we kept going.

I have never believed in simplistic solutions to complicated problems, so I can’t be completely satisfied in gushing about how wonderful it was to spread some joy and bring different people together through our birds. We’d gone on this trip in part to escape humanity for a while, after all, so bringing people together was not at all on our agenda. But humanity will never be escaped for long; we always come back to it, by plan or by accident, in the small spaces we inhabit in the brief time we’re here.