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Bird in the Bush

IMG_4535The sagebrush is singing a golden song today as we creep towards the chukar, urging Cedar along. I am aching deep in my chest, a hollow feeling—I want so badly for him to find this bird, to lock up when he hits the scent—but the lessens while I listen to the sweet hymn that rises as we walk, each step stirring up the quiet harmonies of a world grateful for the bright mid-winter light. He is excited, looking back at all of us, a crowd for what we hope will be his first point. His little spotted body quivers in anticipation of something he doesn’t understand yet, his wee snout tests the air. We walk him out a little farther, bring him a little closer to where we think the bird is. Mt. Hood looms over us, a deep, resonating bass line to the many melodies weaving their way through the valley floor—and then, the music stops. Cedar smells it, suddenly, his head whipping to the left. He is confident, sucking down scent in ways that we cannot imagine, as he heads for the bird in the bush. The whole world goes still, waiting—until he freezes, drops his shoulder, locks his body with unerring tenacity at that chukar, and what feels like all of creation erupts back into joyful noise. My bird dog’s gonna hunt.

Later, on the drive home, my Dad will say it gave him chills, and I’ll admit that I teared up, and my Uncle will even go so far as to say that it was pretty cool. I am proud to have witnessed that moment, when my puppy—that little life that I have been responsible for nurturing—found his place amid the grand order of things. He was born knowing bird, hardwired for one smell, and it was on this golden-song day that he was celebrated for it.

We cheer as he holds his point—good boy, good boy, Cedar!—and then I creep up behind him, forcing the bird to flush. The sudden burst of energy, all those feathers in motion, surprise him and he startles, looking back at us for affirmation. That’s such a good boy, Cedar. Such a good boy. We are ebullient, the sky cheers too, we are all so happy to be here and witnessing this soul-stirring moment.

One puppy’s success does not define the rest of the bird-hunting day for the three big shorthairs waiting in the truck (we couldn’t let them steal his thunder), so we keep moving. The big dogs are rambunctious and rowdy, they know what’s out there and what’s to come. They are eagerly anticipating that smell—that most satisfying of all stinks in the world—and they are none too patient in the car. We release the hounds, Darren takes Cedar further away from the guns, and the rest of us head up the road to see what else we can find.

We are walking towards Mt. Hood now, a little chaotic as a group—I walk next to my Dad, Michael out to our right, and my Uncle to the left. The dogs are running wild, free of the truck and eager to burn some of that excess energy that built up while Cedar was discovering his reason to be. A small price to pay. We fan out over the sagebrush, get lost in the rippling shades of sun that the light breeze is turning the grass to, and watch the dogs. I am always too eager, they say—I want my gun (the Verona, you know her) on my shoulder while I’m creeping up behind the dog. Patience, then action, that’s the key. Remi is holding a stiff point, and I move slow, getting conflicting directions from my Dad and Uncle. Then the bird flushes and instincts take over, a magnificent rooster hanging—suspended for a heartbeat—against the backdrop of Mt. Hood rising up to meet the sky, Mt. Jefferson and Adams close behind, and then the drop when my aim is true.IMG_4598

Hank brings the bird back, beady black eye now shut, feathers no less shiny for death. The gentle weight of the bird settles into Michael’s vest, one scaly foot still lightly clawing the tan of the canvas. The dogs nose the back of the vest as if to ensure the bird is really there—that it all worked as it should—then they move on, a job still out there to do.IMG_4562IMG_4551

All day—from sun-up to sundown, it is surreally beautiful, a privilege to be where we are. Do you know that feeling, to look around and see people you love in a place you feel lucky to be in, doing a job you feel proud of, connected to a universe larger than yourself—do you know that feeling? All day—even when it’s a cluster and the dogs are chasing a pheasant through seven-foot tall reeds and no one can get a shot off, even when we hit the dirt so Michael can shoot over us, even when Remi gets heat-sick—I feel so content.

And all day I go back to that little puppy, how proud I am of him, and how excited I am for us to learn and grow up a little (maybe a lot) together. He points again and again, incorrigible when it comes to smell, he comes back with a face full of feathers from a different fallen bird, he whines whenever the big dogs get too far away. By the end of the day he’s out with us, fine with the noise of the guns. His velvet ears fly above the sagebrush—sometimes the only visible part of him—as he bounds through, still too small to even get close to seeing over it. Everything in this light is magic, the camaraderie palpable and the pride overwhelming, all of us a part of one timeless tune.

Darren and Michael a shot they shouldn’t have and go off in hot pursuit of the bird, unwilling to admit defeat. Or unwilling to endure the taunting that’s sure to follow a performance like that, which they might still deserve. All three big dogs follow them, afraid to be left out, while my Dad and I sit on a rise over the creek, watching their progress. Cedar takes one look and instead seeks the shade my back is making, one quick sniff to the wind and then he flops to the ground, asleep before he can catch himself.

Little legs fluttering, even in his dreams he is chasing birds, and I know we’re about to have a thousand more days like these—or close. The view may be different, the company might change, but there are a few things I know for sure—my dog and I will chase golden song days and the rush of bird flights, together, a team.IMG_4610IMG_4538

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Haven of Green

A motley collection of cars sit in the parking lot, one blasting metal so hard it makes my teeth hurt from 20 feet away, so we hurry past the big direction sign and avoid all eye contact. I think for a minute back to our sweet little campsite a ways down the road, the tent tucked under a tree so we stay cool, and I surprise myself with the ferocity that I hope that none of those people desecrate our place by looking at it. When we get to it, the trail is made of that particular kind of dust that coats your skin on contact, so fine you can barely feel it but not so fine that you don’t notice it. Little trickles of sweat carve out paths down my arms, legs, face, feet—everywhere, pale little lines appear in the dust I’ve accumulated throughout the day. 6 p.m. and still blazing hot, especially here in the canyon, especially after the day we’ve had. We climbed all day on Monkey Face, you know, and even with the sprinklers, we’re sweaty, tired messes making our way to the Falls. Will this even be worth it, is what I want to know. The lure of a dark, cool plunge into oblivion—that feeling when you first submerge into deep water—is too tempting to not try though, so we go. A half mile in, a half mile out, how bad could it be? So here we are, barely stopping at that sweet campsite after we get back from the park. I mostly watch my feet walking in, trudging along behind Darren who keeps pulling ahead. Around us the canyon walls are bathed in the hot, the tan of the rock burnished by the sun, all piled together in millions of years of sun and water, moving earth. Trees decorate the sides of the path, providing welcome respite, but only in patches as it steadily curves down along the river. Soon we get close enough—too long though, I think—to hear the sound of the falls.

The noise is the thing I like best about waterfalls. There’s something about that dull roar that’s a kind of music, it’s the sound of power, but a gently nuanced one. And each has a different tone, a different song to sing to the rock and to the moss surrounding it. My feet gain a new lightness as we move towards this one, and then we’re there, breaking out onto a plateau amid groups of lounging teenagers, too young to look as old as they do. Darren immediately jumps off the rocks into where the river tumbles below, the water dropping unexpectedly 30 or 40 feet before resuming its leisurely pace down between the walls. I take a different route, scrambling down a narrow chute in the rock, a break in the cliffband. There I can slip gently into the water, no boulders lurking just below the surface to break me, as I’m sure there are every time I look down into water every time I think about jumping in. No, I take a small jump, just enough to get into the water, gasping a little as I break the surface. It is a kind of oblivion, an abrupt break between worlds of water and air, enough to feel as though a slate somewhere inside has been wiped clean, and when we emerge, face first and hair pulled back by the strength of a thousand droplets, we may be someone brand new.

That’s how I feel, but maybe only because three days of dirt are starting to drift off my tired skin. I swim for a minute, taking in the falls from the front now, where I can actually see the water gather, gracefully drop over layers of steps into the water below. Is this real life, I ask Darren, swimming back over to where he’s sitting on the rock I came out on. There’s a spot for me to grip my toes into, the rock goes down to the river bottom, farther than my toes can reach. I don’t think so, he says absentmindedly, watching the water too, his feet in the water. This is pretty amazing. We stay like that for awhile, dazed in our good luck, this little haven of green in the desert a gift after so much dry. Well, here we are, I say. Here we are.

Eventually we get out and sit in the sun, drying off, and then get up while we’re still damp. Darren has been collecting a little pile of garbage while we’ve been here, things that floated down the river or people left behind. If we don’t do this, who will, he says, picking up cans of Arizona teas and bad beer. I get up to help him—to my surprise, the last group of straggling kids offer to help and let us use a plastic bag to put everything in. It makes me so mad, to see people be so careless in a place like this, he tells me as we leave. Maybe they just don’t know better, I say. No one told them. I guess so, he says.

It should be intuitive though, I say, looking around again. You wouldn’t litter in a church.

Later, we eat frito pie on a blanket outside our tent and watch the stars appear on the horizon as the night fades into pinks and blues, then a purple black. A man comes screeching down the dirt road in a little red car, stopping abruptly in front of us—hey! No shit you can’t build a fire here? Anywhere around here? Darren says, sorry man, nope. I tell him you can’t ever build fires out here. Never. Well fuck, he says. At least it’s free, Darren offers, and he laughs. They end up camping just out of sight of us, which I’m grateful for, so all we hear in all that dark velvet is the sound in the tree spreading its limbs above us, and the night all around us.

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