Nov 19 2013
America is no longer a rural nation. Most of us live in cities or somewhere on the expending penumbra of suburban development. Breaking free from the familiar landscape of the work week takes both time and money, and for many of us, one or the other of these is almost always in short supply. So we live (and save) for our annual vacations. The rest of the time we make do with what we can get: the canned images of television nature shows and the canned sweat on offer in the neighborhood fitness center.
There is another way, however. If we only look, we can find opportunities for exercise and wildlife-watching right on our doorsteps. Even a drainage ditch at the edge of a shopping mall is probably home to someone. Wildlife is drawn to water like metal filings to a magnet. So the next time you set out on your daily commute or embark on the weekly trek to the mall, put down the cell phone, leave the supersized coffee cooling in the cup holder, and ease up on the accelerator. Look around you whenever it’s safe to do so. Better yet, ride along in someone else’s car, or take the bus or trolley. Or ride a bike. And if you can, bring your binoculars with you, too. Now open your eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you see.
I was reminded of this during a 6,000-mile bus trip in which I crossed—and then re-crossed—the North American continent. It was a bit like scouting a river from headwaters to mouth and back again, in fact. I left Canoe Country in the midst of a lake-effect snowstorm, only to pass from winter into fall and then from fall into summer, ending the outbound leg of my journey in Southern California. Cross-country bus travel is a curious hybrid. You’re not a prisoner behind the wheel, as you are when you drive long distances in your car, but you’re not exactly a free spirit, either. Life on the bus is dictated by a printed schedule, and the hours of compulsory idleness are broken by brief intervals of frantic activity at station-stops. Still, you have lots of time to think — and plenty of opportunities to take in the passing scene. My latest bus trip took me south and west, through the heart of the Great American Desert. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I discovered paddling opportunities nearly everywhere I looked. Not for the first time, I wished I had a folding bike and an inflatable boat stowed in the luggage hold beneath my seat.
At first, however, there was little that wasn’t familiar. New York is a well-watered state, and I was rarely out of sight of swamps, streams, ponds, and lakes, many of them old friends. But Ohio’s bumper crop of kettle lakes was new to me. Some could even be spotted among the oaks and maples on the median that divided the Interstate’s east- and west-bound rivers of asphalt. Countless globular, leafy nests—the homes of gray squirrels—occupied commanding heights in the trees that towered above the little lakes, while migrating waterfowl rested and ate along the sheltered shores. Deer and foxes slaked their thirsts at the water’s edge, too, and herons strutted in the shallows.
All of this passed before my window. As day faded into soft dusk over a swamp not far from Indianapolis, the dying light silhouetted a flight of ducks setting down on a weedy slough, safe from shot for one night. Freshly peeled and neatly trimmed limbs floated on the water near a beaver lodge. It was as wild a scene as any I’d ever witnessed. Yet this was no wilderness. The headlights from a steady stream of passing cars and trucks swept down the frontage road that paralleled the Interstate, and the glow of Indianapolis did battle with the dark. Further down the road, the Embarras River flowed beneath the highway. It was a river in name only here, no larger than many New York creeks. But the dabbling ducks drifting in its current gave no sign that this bothered them.
The bus continued westward with the night. Before long, we’d put the Ozarks behind us, and the arid plains of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle lay ahead. I was sure that I’d seen the last well-watered land. But I was wrong. The rising sun disclosed a tattered cloak of scrub and shrub, nourished by seasonal rains and irrigation canals. Flocks of geese wheeled low over the cotton fields outside Amarillo, while the warm morning light disclosed the nest holes of thousands of bank swallows, strung out along the red bluffs flanking the Llano. Miles passed. The hours ticked by. But when we reached the desert Southwest, it, too, revealed unexpected treasures. Even here, amidst the buttes and dry washes, there were scores of pools, each with its attendant guard of ducks and songbirds. We crossed the Pecos, Gila, and Colorado Rivers. And who would expect to find wetlands in California’s Mojave Desert? Not I. But they were there, thanks to irrigation agriculture. These weren’t wild waters, to be sure, but I didn’t once hear the snowy egrets and herons complaining. Like Blue Duck, the arch-villain in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, they asked only that their water be wet.
Soon we were climbing the rubbly shoulders of the Coyote Mountains. The Pacific coast lay just ahead, but now, for the first time in my journey, the land along the highway was truly arid. Cacti and spiky desert shrubs competed for each drop of ground water, and taps bloomed at intervals like iron flowers to replenish the radiators of overheated RVs, if not to refresh their thirsty drivers. (Signs repeatedly warned, DO NOT DRINK THIS WATER!) Still, far out to the west, I saw the first hint of the cloud bank associated with the humid air mass known as the “marine layer”—unmistakable evidence that the hydrologic cycle was alive and well.… Read more…