The odometer read 10,859.1 miles when I turned onto the cobblestones that mark the beginning of my street in Brooklyn. If I ignore the pile of reporter’s notebooks, the infinite hours of audio recordings that need to be transcribed, and the stack of books I’ve amassed in this two-month trip, the things that I’ve collected could fit in my hand. They rode with me in the little carpeted nook next to the gear shift. I started with a soapstone carving of Ganesh, a token of the gods I have carried with me for longer than I can remember. He’s led me along the ribbons of highway in safety; maybe it was his presence that kept me from sideswiping that guy in my blind spot in California, and being sideswiped by the lady whose blind spot I was in in Montana. The elephant god who, along with audio books, Radio Lab, This American Life and gallons of caffeinated beverages, kept me alert and mostly at the speed limit.
There is an acorn, small and dry enough that it rattles when you shake it, that Jim Weaver stopped his truck and got out to pluck from the dwarf desert oak plant. He waded through the waist-high grass to get it, handing it to me as he told me of the Indians that once roamed this New Mexico plateau, when a bumper crop of the acorns would “beat the hide off your shins,” the plants were so thick with them. “They say,” he told me looking across the endless stretch of flat land over the steering wheel of his truck, “that Bonnie and Clyde hid out here.” Burrowing owls stood like sentries among the sand sage as we bumped along in the ruts past them.
There is a shiny copper bullet that has been shot through ballistics gel, causing its tip to flare into an O’Keeffe-like flower, four-petaled and deeply grooved. Peter Jenny of the Peregrine Fund handed it to me as I sat with him and Tom Cade at the Fund’s World Center of Birds of Prey in Boise. It’s weight is solid and in it lies the hope that condors can fly free again in the places where men now hunt with lead ammunition, mushy and toxic and most unflower-like in its firing.
More copper. A penny, year 2005, found face up on the threshold of a Super 8 motel in Salt Lake City like some lucky charm telling me all was right with the world despite word of an economic collapse in some far-off place with tall buildings. In two months, I only needed or wanted to stay in a hotel less than seven days. I camped when I could, in my brother’s backyard, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta, overlooking the canyon of the Colorado River. To everyone who put a pillow under my head, fed me and let me use their washing machines and bathtubs, I thank you. The people who had to smell me after I visited you thank you also. The generosity was as boundless and welcome as the western skies I traveled under.
I took a bit of the earth with me. A rock from a dried up tributary that I ventured into with a friend as we climbed down to the edge of the Colorado River, wide and determined as it headed toward the Grand Canyon. I hold the image in my mind of our two shadows contoured to the red desert rock, two forms instead of one. We passed a couple returning, leaning heavily on their walking sticks as the shadows grew longer, who warned us that it was tough going ahead. We scrambled onward into the fading light, confirming our mutual belief that the idea of waiting until you retire, until age has leached the motion from your limbs, to see all the magnificent, magical and nearly inaccessible places in this world is a waste indeed. Every person I have interviewed, every friend I have visited with on this trip, seemed to me to hold this belief like some core guiding light.
Add a small bough of cedar to the dashboard.
Add a sprig of sage, pungent and hopeful.
Then there is the invisible, collected along the journey as well, the reason for the road, the stories of the people I had planned for months to see, and those who were an unexpected surprise. Their words filled in the blanks in my mind, their faces took shape in my memory, the way they held themselves, their reserve or openness when faced with my notebook and recorder and onslaught of questions. We talked of subspecies variation within Falco peregrinus, about migration and movement and breeding and believing, but we also talked about the books they read as boys that led them to go out and trap their first red-tailed hawk. The impact of a Disney movie or a National Geographic article. Scientists, biologists, zoologists, geneticists, toxicologists, falconers, all people with questions that drive them forward in inquisition. They seek answers, but I think that more than that, they seek the next question. They make statements knowing they can shift. That it’s all a work-in-progress.
And intertwined in the travels were friends and family, precious and scattered across the continent, and the joy and despair in learning about the latest chapters in their lives. Of lives that are just beginning and others that are reaching their end.
I am now the keeper of these tales, and all I can do is try to pass them along, to share them with those who care to listen. In the stories we remain. In the stories life persists.