Friday, April 11, 2008

Chasing spring and picking up roadkill

Two weeks ago, Richard and I set off on what turned into a 4,400-mile drive, chasing spring across the Great Basin to the Pacific Coast. The first four days were a birthday gift to my 78-year-old mother, who asked for "spring" as her gift. So we planned a tour around the red-rock country of far western Colorado, the low elevations where spring has already arrived - a catered tour, mind you, complete with picnic meals I made myself and history and natural history interpretation, informed by my research for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, due out this fall.

After dropping my folks in Grand Junction to catch their train back to Denver, Richard and I set out on our own tour, taking Highway 50 across the inland West. We
ended up only going as far as Moab the first night, following the scenic road along the Colorado River from Cisco instead of the interstate. We discovered spring wildflowers in the red sand desert along Onion Creek. (That's a crescent pod milkvetch with pink flowers that positively shimmer in the evening light.)

The next morning we discovered Arches Book Company - we already knew its sister store across the street, Back of Beyond Books, which has one of the best selections on the slickrock country in existence. We met store owner Andy Nettell, who also happens to be president of Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, a trade group dear to my heart because they nurture local authors and local books.

Then it was time to get serious about heading west, first on I-70 across the San Rafael Swell, one of the most dramatic and wonderfully lonely features of the Colorado Plateau, and then on Highway 50 across the Great Basin Desert. We chased snow showers and dust devils, ogled mountain ranges rising like waves out of the shrub desert basins, spotted abandoned mines and desert marshes, and saw elk resting, golden eagles soaring, and pronghorn racing their shadows.

The mountain ranges were still white-crested with snow, and the basins were just beginning to green up. The night skies were dazzling, littered with stars, and the air was crisp and so fresh that breathing it was like a cleanse.

It was a breath-taking trip, a pause in what has been a crazy year-and-some of work for me, a time to think beyond next week's deadline. And a reminder of why I write: to give voice to those whose lives and voices we have forgotten how to hear.

Coming over a rocky summit between two lonely basins, Richard spotted a hawk lying on the roadside, just off the pavement. He thought its head moved, so he pulled a quick U-turn and drove back. And there on the gravel shoulder, inches from the roar of passing traffic was a gorgeous adult red-tailed hawk.

The bird lay on its belly, the wings that span four feet in the air folded at awkward angles, flapping loosely in the backwash of passing vehicles. The hawk was alive, but immobile, its spine broken. It stared at us out of the fierce dark golden eyes, able to blink and move its feathered head, but nothing else. There was nothing we could do but move it away from the road.

We got a blanket from the car and Richard wrapped the hawk in it, and then he carried that hawk - so light for such a great bird! - off the roadside. He laid the broken bird in the thin shade of a sagebrush. And then we stood for a long moment, tears running down both our faces, saying goodbye to the hawk that was beyond help.

I've picked up roadkill for decades. I believe in stopping to move the broken bodies out of harm's way as a sign of respect. It allows them to decay in peace and thus feed other lives in the doing. It's been my ritual of atonement for the harm we humans do with our thoughtless lives.

But never in all of that time, with all of the bodies I've handled, have I felt so helpless as I did leaving that red-tailed hawk, broken by a collision with a speeding vehicle, and still so fierce, so vital. I don't grieve leaving the hawk there to die - moving it into the desert to dream its dreams in peace was the kindest thing to do. I grieve how it died, the completely unnecessary loss of its unique and individual life.

I hope that the hawk we laid gently in the shade of the sagebrush away from the traffic that killed it passed peacefully into dreams of free flight under the spring sun. In my dreams, the world has room for red-tailed hawks like that bird to fly free - without ending up immobile on the side of the highway, wings crumpled and flapping loosely, backs broken.

Tonight, I can't write past that hawk. Perhaps in another day's entry, I'll continue the journey we began.


Alice Trego said...

Susan -

What an endearing story of the red-tailed hawk. It brought unshed tears to my eyes. I'll be looking at roadkill in a different way from now on.

Alice Trego

Susan J Tweit said...

Thanks, Alice. It breaks my heart that we can't live in a way that is more generous and less harmful to all the other species whose lives and relationships make this planet not just habitable for us, but a spiritually and intellectually enriching place.


Deborah said...

I'm glad about your road trip, and sorry about the hawk. That one was beyond recovery, of course, but the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, here in Fort Collins, does wonderful rehab work on raptors who can be saved. Some are released; the ones that can't be (because their injuries were too severe) become educational ambassadors to help humans understand a bit more than they might otherwise the majesty of these birds.

I've tried to save some animals. Sometimes it works. When it doesn't, it's tragic. One time I saw a small car in our neighborhood hit a cat. It was alive, but again a broken back and although I got it to help I wasn't in time (I had to run home to get the car, but I was probably too late the minute it got hit; I covered it in my coat to protect it until I got back). Until its owner moved, every time I walked past that car I kicked one of its tires, although it wasn't the car's fault.

Gail said...


Susan, what a sad story; I appreciate how you honored the hawk. I tried to save a Steller's Jay once, but it wasn't to be. I was more successful putting dove babies back in their nest last spring when the wind blew them out.

I wish, like you, that everyone could slow down if not for their own sakes, then for the lives around them. And Deborah, good for you for trying to help the cat (and kicking the car tire).

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Wow, that story really takes a left turn! From the lyrical beginning of the mother poetself who wants spring for her gift...and it becomes a catered road trip complete with book content and replete....then, on to the discovery of the fierce, vital hawk and it's plight/your quandry.

Powerful story. Powerful writing.

Janet Riehl

Karen said...

I cried.

Margie Joy said...


I have a fondness for red-tails and especially enjoy watching the "locals" from my dining room window. But I have had close contact with one or two, and that only increases my fascination.

A few years ago, my son and I captured an injured hawk in the open space behind the house -- picture us, heavily bundled and gloved and goggled with a clothes basket and a bath towel in a spring snowstorm. The hawk was ferocity itself but docile when bundled tightly for the trip to the Raptor Center here in Pueblo. They had to put it down because of the nature of its injuries -- badly burned feet and legs from contact with a power line. These folks do fine work in rehabbing birds of prey and in educating the public about them.

Another red-tail, a juvenile already dead when found by my husband, went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to be pat of their study collection. I was amazed at the information they gather from dead birds and animals brought in to them. Not only about birds themselves but their parasites and other things we don't think about.

Margie Joy