The first walk when we get to the ranch is always my favorite. Whenever we leave, the quiet settles back in around the cabin and across the hills, no dogs racing across the fields after squirrels, no tractor trundling up the road. We can be a startling presence here, no matter how strongly we believe we belong. But our noisy humanness makes for good wildlife viewing, a good chance to see what’s out there while we’re gone—once we pass through, all the animals go to wherever they go when they hide, and we have to work harder to see them. Ten or so turkey are on the road when we get there, fluttering their wing tips at how uncomfortably close the truck is, and we crawl over the gravel, trying to get a count before they disperse. They head into the timber, almost all jakes except for one—the hobbler! my Dad says, pointing him out as he lurches up the hillside. A birth defect, I think, he explains as we make our way to the garage. He walks on his knuckles, the claw is bent over—he curls his fingers into a gnarled fist, demonstrating—but he’s old, his waddle hangs low, he’s made it for a long time. A wizened old hobbler gobbler indeed. The cabin is as the cabin always is, which is to say there is a thin line of dead bugs outside the door and the distinct scent of pine logs and still, quiet air inside, an opened sleeve of saltines ready in the cupboard. There is something soothing about this sameness, a return to the inside pieces of my heart, when we’re here—standing on the porch, looking out at the road curving away into the little valley we call our own, well. You know what it means.
First—after we eat questionable hard-boiled eggs and feed the dogs—we take to the fields, which Farmer Lee has recently planted. Alfalfa from last year has grown in bunchy, low patches across the furrowed ground but what we’re looking for is evidence of the seed that was just sown—a native grass and plant mix that Lee says is going to take this year, as long as there’s rain. Crouching low over the field, we dig with tentative pointer fingers through the clodded dirt, hoping that a week is enough time for even just one those sweet grasses to unfurl from the seed and seek the sky. Here, Dad look, I say, and show him the two miniature green leaves—looking impossibly delicate against the expanse of this wide earth we stand on—but stalwartly growing anyway. That good be something! and we walk away proud of those little plants, beating the ground squirrel and seven-year drought odds just by getting started.
The first walk starts in the field and takes us winding through the ranch, disturbing all that big peace and quiet with the very quality of our being. At the pond, we startle a rangy Canadian Goose out of the water—he takes to the sky in a flurry of honking, both dogs staring wistfully as he beats the air. His mate is hiding in the reeds, we discover a few seconds later walking around the far edge of the murky green, she has a tight nest woven with a clutch of milky blue eggs tucked inside. She takes off too, the honking now reaching a raucous fever pitch as it echoes off the ridgelines, and we lengthen our strides while calling the dogs off the nest (Dexter, his little brown nub of a tail rigid as he points the eggs (dare I say) doggedly), only to be met with the talons of a Tom who has been startled off the road and interrupted in his flight path towards the timber by us (the disruptive, disruptive humans).
Turkeys, as it turns out, are very ominous flying dinosaur birds when they put their minds to it, even though their gobble is a noise I find very, very silly.
The red-tailed hawk from the upper field comes to see what all the fuss is about, landing on a branch not far above us while we make our way out towards the second piece, and sees fit to add his warning screech to the cacophony of noise already erupting from every flying creature in a two-mile radius. It is raptor city, my Dad says, waving a hand overhead as if to ward off them all off, and we don’t seem to be welcome here.
On the second piece, when the road starts curving up to meet the trees where they touch the sky, it starts to snow a little, spitting ice from pearly gray cloud cover. Mister Owl glides across our path, silent and deadly, to perch on the other side, from which to better watch us pass. I have my head down, on account of the snow, but my Dad sees him (he is better attuned to these things, I have discovered) but I catch the tail-end of his whisper flight through the trees, and I can feel his cool and steady gaze on our backs as we keep walking.
My Dad still asks why I want to come out with him, which baffles me. How many times, how many ways, do I have to say the reason is this, all this, always—the chance to see an owl in daylight, to watch the wind whip new cheatgrass flat across the hill, to feel the tangible connection to something larger than myself, to see the glory of all the universe has to offer spread out at my feet. To shed the cagey feeling that wells up too often in the city, held in as I am by concrete and commuting, to walk and not see another soul for miles. The same reason you do, I want to say, but then again—we all have our reasons, things to run from and to. Different shades of the same color, though, and we’re all painted through with pictures of this landscape.
This too—I learn more out here, walking around, than I have most anywhere else. I’ve been following my Dad through the woods for as long as I can remember—first at the old cabin, when I had to look up at the teasel by the nut hut, to now, hiking up to an elk wallow my Dad found last spring. These are the times that live deep in my chest, at the center of my soul, where I pick up the things that I think I must have always known—that ponderosa pine smells like vanilla in the sun, what an elk track looks like, how to follow a game trail—and new things too, the difference between pacific ninebark and bitterbrush, how many gallons of water a day juniper trees pull out of the ground. It’s a homecoming of sorts, these first walks—all of them really, whether I’m eight, deer hunting with a hammering heart and Rachelle and my Dad under a tree while coyotes yip just beyond us, or 23 and chukar hunting a hard ridgeline in Cottonwood Canyon . Back to land, back to my family, back to myself.