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.