The Sleepy Owl

One sunny morning, many years ago, I was rolling westward along US 12 in Broadwater County, Montana on the section of the highway that passes through the Helena National Forest. Suddenly, in the opposite lane, I saw what appeared to be a large bird sitting in the road. As I slowed beside it, I realized that it was an owl…

owlinroad

I’m a big fan of leaving wild animals alone to do what they do, but when it comes to animals in the road, I can’t help but take action. I always stop (safely) when I see a turtle on the pavement; sometimes I’ll just sit in the car with my flashers on until it has completed its journey, other times I’ll carry the turtle to its destination on the far shoulder.

This owl was in the eastbound lane of the highway at the end of a fairly tight curve, and as the morning sun would have been in the eyes of those driving in that lane, chances were high that it would have been crushed by the next vehicle to come along. So, on went the flashers and I pulled halfway onto the eastbound shoulder to block the owl from approaching traffic, then I got out of the car for a closer look.

Naturally, I’m wondering, What is this owl doing in the middle of the road? It appeared to be sleeping. If so, it could have found a better location!

Perhaps it was sunbathing. Whenever I drive rural roads in the morning, I frequently see birds sitting on the pavement to get warm, since asphalt retains heat quite well. But they always fly away when a vehicle approaches.

Perhaps this owl was sick. If so, I wouldn’t know.

Perhaps it was stunned in a collision. That was my best theory at the time, although I didn’t notice any blood, any missing feathers or any body parts out of place.

Really, it just appeared to be…sleeping. Content, relaxed and in charge. This is my road, I’m taking a nap, deal with it.

My attempts to rouse this beast by shouting and clapping failed miserably; the only response I got was one slight turn of the head. Though the eyes never opened, at least I knew someone was in there. I then grabbed a branch from a nearby shrub and gently tapped the bird on the back several times. Nothing.

No cooperation forthcoming, I went to the trunk and grabbed my leather work gloves and a towel. Approaching the bird from behind, I gently covered it with the towel, lifted it carefully and carried it through the tall bushes on the south side of the road. There, beside a small stream, I set it down in a patch of sunlit grass…

owlingrass

Fortunately, due either to the remote location, the time of day or the day of the week, no vehicle traffic appeared during this encounter (had there been any, I wouldn’t have held things up by taking pictures).

Using field guides, I was never able to positively ID this owl. Looking at the photos now, many of its feathers remind me of those on juvenile raptors. Working with that assumption, and considering the bird’s size (somewhat larger than an NFL football) and the curved black beak, and after scanning through internet images of juvenile owls, my best guess is that this was a young great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). (This ID was recently verified by the folks at Montana’s Owl Research Institute. Thank you!)

Had I access to a smartphone at the time, I would have tried to contact a local bird rescue operation. But this was years before I owned a cell phone, and I have to wonder if you could get a signal even now in that remote area.

I hope this owl lived to fly another day.

The Spot

Valley

No, it’s not an oil painting…just a low-res video frame captured in 2004 in the Davis Mountains of western Texas, one of my favorite parts of North America. Stumbling upon a valley this beautiful, bathed in evening sunlight, is certainly just cause for stopping and gawking. But it was on the return trip in the dark of night that my mind was completely blown.

Parking in this same spot and shutting off the engine and the headlights, I was immediately swallowed by darkness and silence of an intensity that I had never before experienced. Once the shock abated to the point where I could actually move, I got out and walked over to the rim of the valley.

Now, the darkness was no longer darkness. There was starlight…incredible starlight. Though there was no moon in the sky, the blazing stars were bright enough to reveal the outline of the hills in the distance, and then the patchwork of trees, brush and grass. As my eyes continued to adjust, I could even discern various shades of green.

The air was quite still, but soft sounds began to emerge…a bird rustling in a nearby bush, a pebble rolling a short distance down the hill, and the zing of a few insects, likely some species of cricket.

While I was awed by what I was seeing and hearing and feeling, I was equally thrilled by what was missing from this moment: The twenty-first century. The panorama contained no power lines, no cell towers, no buildings. I scanned my entire 360-degree vista and was elated that I could not locate a single artificial light source.

From where I stood, there was absolutely no visible sign of human influence other than the road and the car behind me, which I dared not look at for the next several minutes; no audible sign other than the fading metallic tick of the Pontiac’s engine cooling in the night air.

I don’t remember how long I stood there in my hypnotic state, but I was lucid enough to know that I didn’t want to leave. Once I did depart, I knew that I would never forget how it felt to look across that valley on that night, and to know that, for a few moments, I had it all to myself.

Large tracts of unspoiled wilderness have always fascinated me, and I’ll continue to seek out such places…on the plains, on the tundra, in the mountains and in the desert. I’ve been to a handful of locations that were also quite sublime in their raw beauty and silence, but this one stands out as my favorite. Even so, I hope it won’t be long before it moves down to second place.

I plan to return to The Spot the next time I visit western Texas. Is it too much to hope that, after eleven years, the valley is still pristine?

The 25th Day of December

My personal favorite? 1990. I had just moved to California eight weeks earlier. Didn’t have a job, an apartment or any friends upon arrival; I found those first two items in short order. The friends came later, but I was never one to sit at home due to a lack of someone to hang with, and I quickly launched a program of solo excursions exploring the beauty of the Marin County coast.

6 gull

A year earlier, the Loma Prieta earthquake took a big bite out of the hillside just south of Stinson Beach, dragging a large chunk of Highway 1 into the sea. The scar is still visible today on aerial views.

map

The area was fenced off for a long time (over two years, I believe) during the lengthy reconstruction process. The northern gate was located near the far left edge of this map. This provided a perfect spot to park the Pontiac and roam the coastal trails, free from the noise of traffic…nothing but the sounds of birds, surf and the wind. I’d often see a few other hikers in the area, but on that Christmas day, I had the whole playground to myself.

One of my favorite spots was along that ridge you see to the northwest of Gull Rock. There is a giant slab of stone that sticks straight out of the hillside like a snake’s head.

snake

This is a nice spot for sunbathing or meditation. I enjoyed stretching out on the cool, hard rock and staring at birds soaring on the breeze and listening to the waves crashing below. It also afforded a great view of the construction area, and during work hours, I would watch the bulldozers launch truck-size boulders on a long bouncing trek down the hillside (they seemed to be moving in slow motion), ending in a titanic, silent splash in the cold water.

The weather for this holiday visit was sunny with a nice sea breeze and a temp in the mid-50s. From the snake’s head, I spent a good amount of time working my way down to the rocks at the water’s edge…

surf

…and then moving back up another section of the cliffs; rinse, repeat. Not technical climbing by any means, just scrambling, but the faces were fairly steep and demanded careful navigation.

The crown jewel of the area is a tiny, beautiful crescent of a beach and a cove (bottom center of map) located where Lone Tree Creek empties into the Pacific.

beach hi

The “trail” to reach this wonderful stretch of sand is a precipitous little adventure clogged with large rocks, scrub and poison oak and it begins right at that “1” symbol on the map.

trail

Due in no small part to the lack of a proper trail to this beach, I never saw any other people there during my many visits. It really is a fantastic spot to have all to yourself and it was always part of my itinerary when I’d leave my apartment on Carl Street and drive to the coast.

beach lo

Once the sun got low, I walked backed up the silent highway to the Pontiac, loaded a CD (something appropriate for the mood and the scenery) into the boom box in the back seat, sat on the hood of the car with my back against the windshield and watched the sun blaze into the briny blue.

At this point, the mood for food came on with authority, so it was back over the Golden Gate and into Chinatown, which was fully open for business and fairly packed. I found a table and ordered a big dish of beef chow mein.

As for this particular slice of California, it’s been more than twenty years since I saw it last. Perhaps it looks quite different today, perhaps not. Stop by if you’re in the area and tell me what you see.

Note: These photos were shot on Ektachrome film with the only working camera I owned at the time, my grandfather’s vintage Argus C3 rangefinder, along with a handheld Weston Master II exposure meter.