Spots Before the Eyes
FIeld editor Kenn Kaufman set out to break a big year record in 1973, the year that he turned 19, by hitch-hiking around North America.
About the time I was moving, finally, into the Texas panhandle, I ran into a scatter of rain showers. I might have known: it was mid-September, and the first fall weather was advancing across the continent. The weather got worse as I continued east. Lines of thunderstorms, one after another, intersected my route across the Midwestern states; and as I approached the Pennsylvania border, weather reports on the car radios would tell me that rain blanketed the mid-Atlantic states, solid rain from the Appalachians east.
Fall weather fronts were bringing cooler temperatures as well, so I had to watch out for getting soaked. Pneumonia would slow me down. Besides, most drivers seemed disinclined to pick up sopping wet hitchhikers. So from Texas on, I was watching the sky as warily as I watched for the police.
For a while, I was lucky. A pattern developed: I would be let off on a roadside still wet from rain, under skies that foretold more rain any moment, but after a long wait I would get another ride just before the shower began. The ride - whether for five miles or for a hundred - would take me through the downpour to another spot where it was, at that moment, not raining. Then the sequence would repeat. I won every round of this rainfall roulette across Oklahoma, but I knew the weather must take the lead eventually. It did. A short distance into Missouri rain caught me out, soaking me to the skin before I could reach the shelter of the nearest overpass.
From there east it was raining nearly every time I was let off - and I was let off far too often. Usually, hitching on Interstate 70, I would eventually catch a long ride, but on that trip to New Jersey the long ride never materialized. It was nearly all short hops: ten, twenty, maybe fifty miles in which to dry out and warm up a little, and then I'd be out on the rainy roadside again.
In the long Indiana night I stood for five hours beneath an overpass where the trucks pounded through, trailing plumes of mist from the wet pavement, so that I remained thoroughly wet even though I was out of the falling rain itself. Tired, I was tempted to crawl up to a high dry corner under the bridge and fall asleep. But I had to keep thumbing; I was still in a hurry, even though my quest was beginning to seem more and more absurd. Asked where was I going, where was I coming from, I'd mumble, "Atlantic City. Sure, it's fun. Got friends there. No, not far; just coming from St. Louis. From Indianapolis. Left a week ago. Not in any hurry..." Anything was easier than trying to explain where I was really going and why.
Well into Pennsylvania I finally got a decent ride, a couple of hundred miles' worth, with a casual longhair from Seattle. He was smoking a pipe of some illegal substance and listening to tapes by Blue Oyster Cult, and we talked about theories of education, and about why modern poetry might have abandoned the strict meter of former days. After a while, in this context, my trip almost began to make sense. So I told him about it.
The guy listened, intrigued. He had never heard of any such thing- but as with most children of the sixties, he had no trouble handling the idea. There were many paths in life, after all. If some character wanted to thumb 2,500 miles to look at one individual bird, this was a pursuit that did no harm to anyone. Far out, he said.
So I kept talking about this bird from across the water...no telling what winds had driven it, what path had brought it to the Jersey shore. Then by another coincidence, some watcher had chanced upon this Spotted Redshank. I could picture it: the discovery. The image coming into focus, the birder's hands beginning to shake because he knows there is only one big sandpiper that could show so much black in the plumage. Then the dash to the nearest telephone: No kidding - a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine. More telephones ringing, in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, the unofficial birding grapevine swinging into action. The next day, the first wave of cognoscenti descending on the refuge, to locate the bird and agree: No question - a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine. The message would have been put on the local Rare Bird alerts, from which the news would reach a wider circle of birders. During the week, a second wave of observers would come, those who could get away on weekdays. And then on the weekend following the initial discovery - which was tomorrow, damn it, because it had taken me all week to get across the country and it was now Friday - tomorrow, I told the guy, there should be a crowd at Brigantine, all looking for this one bird.
"Heavy," said the dude. The whole thing was obviously crazy enough to appeal to him. "Must be one fine-looking bird, huh?"
"Well, yeah," I said. "Pretty striking. Plus the fact that it's European. Usually can't see it around here at all."
"Do the birds in Europe just look better than the ones in Arizona?"
"You can't make that much of a distinction," I told him. "Once you get into it, any bird looks good. I even like to look at sparrows. But say I'm an American birder who's probably never going to go to Europe - if I ever want to see a Spotted Redshank, I've gotta get down to Brigantine right now. And when you see something that you know is a once-in-a-lifetime bird, that makes it beautiful, no matter what the hell it actually looks like."
And now the guy was starting to smile, a look of understanding lighting his face. "I get it, man," he said. "I really do get it. It's like the line from the Beatles, right?" He started tapping out a slow drum solo on the edge of his steering wheel. "Like what John Lennon wrote in 'Come Together': this bird, he's 'got to be good-looking cuz he's so hard to see!' Am I right?"