You See These Things

The other day Sawyer asked if I’d drive a shuttle car for him. He and some friends were planning to “crust-cruise” (a spring skate ski phenomenon) over the Gallatin Range. My picking them up would save them a prohibitive drive to stage a car on the far side. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I agreed. Actually, it’s a pretty nice drive, up Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River and then, using my “geezer pass”, into Yellowstone Park. Beautiful morning. The Yellowstone coming up, but still far from flooding. The mountains deep in snowpack, potent with uncertain prospects for flooding, great paddling, natural drama.

I drove up past the Mammoth Terraces, the roads gritty with sand. Few visitors, winter-gaunt elk and bison searching for greening grass. I got to our rendezvous before the crew arrived and was standing by the car, chastising myself for forgetting binoculars, surveying the distant slopes and meadows for skiers. Geese flew overhead. A sandhill crane called from a nearby meadow. Some bison moved slowly across a bare hillside near Bunsen Peak. I heard a funny ticking noise, some soft thumping. I figured it was the cooling engine, didn’t give it much thought, but it persisted. Finally I looked over.

On the far side of the car a female mountain bluebird was flitting energetically around the sideview mirror. She landed on the mirror itself and started pecking away at her reflection, then hopped on top of the mirror, then to the window, back to the mirror, more pecking. She paid me no mind. Eventually she came to my side of the car and repeated her obsessive behavior on that mirror, completely oblivious to me. The male bluebird arrived. The two birds twirled together in a spiraling flight maybe thirty feet high, then broke off – courtship, spring energy, love . . . They disappeared into the open end of a metal hitching rail near the trailhead, emerged again, did another acrobatic spiraling flight, blue wings tangling in the blue sky. Then the female returned to the mirror, took up her OCD preoccupation with her image. I assume she thought the bird in the mirror was an intruder. She was so energetic in her attacks I worried she might break her thin beak on the glass.

I had brought a couple of magazines to read while I waited, but the birds were so entertaining, so bright, so active. Then I caught some distant movement on far slopes, four skiers skating across the final feathering stretches of melting snow, eating distance. Suddenly they were there, twenty-some miles in their wake. They were full of all the wildlife they’d seen – grizzly and wolf tracks, moose and bison and elk, a fox, a skunk. I showed them the bright birds, still obsessed with the car mirror.

When we drove off I imagined the relief that bluebird must have felt, finally free of the territorial interloper so immune to her attacks. I wanted to put up a no parking sign so she’d be spared the trial of another reflected challenger showing up. How much spring energy will she use up fighting off the endless stream of herself, provoking her, strangely oblivious to her attacks, and then mysteriously disappearing? What unintended challenges we present, being in the world with our inexplicable geegaws.

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