Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chasing geese

“There they are!” I pointed excitedly.

K followed my line of vision and raised the binoculars. “Hmm … I think those are trumpeter swans.”

“Swans? Boo.”

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.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Not there yet

It is the 15th of November; winter is over a month away, and yet the view outside my window is stark white with snow, far as the eye can see. Normally the first snowfall of the season engenders reverential awe, surprised delight, or some other positive adjective-noun combination. Not this time, it seems. A collective dismayed groan has sounded across the land. Maybe it’s because everything already feels so grim right now that the last thing we want to see is a reminder of the darkness and cold that lies ahead. Maybe we already feel tired of it all.

And yet there is, undeniably, a vitality to a wintery landscape. That swirl, that bite on your skin, that billow of steam when you breathe. You know there’s life here, despite everything.

I went to visit my family this past weekend. As miserable an experience as air travel is these days, I try to get back to see them at least a couple times a year. My parents are in reasonably good health, but given their age, that statement tends to be followed by “all things considered.” My father is 90, my mother 86. My father has trouble walking, hearing, and seeing. My mother’s mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be; there are muddled moments, particularly in terms of time. If you say “we’re leaving in 15 minutes,” she will respond with blank silence, like you said only “we’re leaving sometime.”

I always brace myself for my first glimpse of them in many months, fearing the worst, fearing they’ll appear hunched over, shrunken, skeletally thin and frail. I’m always pleasantly surprised. They’re old, obviously; polite strangers hold doors open for them and help them up steps. But they never seem to have changed all that much from the last time I saw them. In fact, this most recent visit, the only changes I noted were good ones.

“Look at this!” my mother tugged at my sleeve. She had a new elliptical machine in the corner of the living room. “I use this almost every day, 25 minutes.”

I looked over at my sister for confirmation, since who knows what 25 minutes meant to my mother. My sister nodded. “Yep. She does. Also, did you know that she and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are almost exactly the same age? Only two weeks’ difference.”

“That’s great! I hear she pumps iron. You two should work out together,” I said. “That way both of you can live forever.”

“Who wants to live forever,” my mother retorted. “No fun.”

My parents frequently say such things, as have other people I know who have beaten the actuarial odds and lived beyond the average life expectancy. As they say, everyone wants a long life but nobody wants to be old. Your world shrinks. Things you once enjoyed either no longer interest you or else can’t be enjoyed because of your physical or mental condition.

And yet.

“Look what I got myself for my 90th birthday,” my father said. On the wall of his den, there were three very large photographs of stunning Pacific Northwest landscapes—mountains, rivers, waterfalls, vast and vivid, in stunning colors and sharp definition. “I saw these in a shop right after we went to the DMV to renew my license. It seemed like a fitting gift.”

My father had been afraid that when he turned 90, he’d lose his driver’s license because his vision isn’t good enough. This worried my sister and me; my father has been driving for three-quarters of a century, and the autonomy it confers is clearly important to his sense of self. He never goes much farther than the grocery store or the library, but we knew he’d go stir-crazy or worse without the ability to do these things. Luckily he found out that someone in his condition could be granted a limited-use license if his doctor OK’d it, which is exactly what happened. Our dad got his license; my sister and I breathed a little easier.

“Aren’t they amazing? I was so impressed with them that I decided to treat myself to a birthday present as a celebration.”

The fact that he treated himself to a present was nearly as amazing as the present itself. My father has always been a frugal minimalist. We had a black-and-white TV, no remote, throughout my entire childhood. There was one car, one computer, one stereo. He bragged that his shirts, which my mother had sewn, were decades old and still good. And now here he was indulging in a bit of extravagance just on a wonderful whim.

Amazing, I agreed.

Even as time, confusing concept that it is, grows shorter, people can still surprise you with their undeniable vitality. It’s not winter yet, after all.