Sunday, December 9, 2007

Mornings in Big Sur

Photo by Lucy Goodhart

A winter morning in Big Sur, we’re still waiting for rain. My husband, the optimist, is wearing his rain hat. He opens the sliding glass door to our bedroom, and suggests I get out this morning and take a walk, it’s so beautiful. Yes dear, I reply, and continue tapping on the keyboard.

Later though, I’m up and out, drinking in the morning light, walking with the dog down to the oak tree on the point. North and south views inspire me. I watch my shadow walk down the opposite ridge. Enormous waves in the ocean, swells that give the impression of someone very, very large in the bathtub, sloshing around. The mist at the edge of the cliffs up and down the coast for miles is sea spray, not fog.

Driving north on my way to work, I see a condor perched on a steel highway guardrail. Impulsively, I pull a quick u-turn into the pullout and speak with an Australian man and his red-headed son, who’ve just come out of their truck to look at the bird. “What is it?” he asks, “it’s a California condor," I say, elatedly. "I’ve never see one perched here like that.” These ancient birds have been carefully re-introduced to this area by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

I spring into spontaneous docent mode. I need to sell them on the idea that we have to scare this magnificent fowl away so that it doesn’t start to enjoy hanging out with people, handicapping its ability to survive in the wild. If condors get real cozy with us, VWS will have to take them to a new, more remote area.

With no natural predators, condors are curious, and that’s how they became extinct. Starting in the mid-19th century, people would take their eggs as souvenirs, and they were shot and poisoned (by eating lead bullets in carcasses) for more than a century.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet some of the VWS folks. True believers all, there’s a special category for a naturalist like “Condor Joe” who I once coaxed into making condor sounds at an educational event. Hint: Condors have no voice-boxes, so when they make sound, they grunt or hiss. Joe put himself on the map that day.

A condor is one of the definitely “not cute” endangered creatures. The sparsely adorned head above the glossy pink flesh of the bulging wattle, the long mortician-style black feathers. This one is so big, he reminds me of a crouching child, v. a perching bird. They’re such a wonder, prehistoric creatures brought back to life. You can even adopt a condor chick, if you want!

Another gentleman shows up with a camera. I expound further, "they’re raised in captivity with a technique called Human Aversion Therapy," (I love this term.) "We’ll have to shoo him off." "That’s all right," says the guy with the camera, "I want to photograph him in flight, anyway." OK, here we go, I say, happy with my role as team leader, let’s send him, off, on the count of three. One…two…three, we all run a few paces towards the bird, waving our hands in the air and yelling.

#94 (as he or she is tagged) hops off the stanchion, landing about a foot away, on the edge of the cliff. And looks back at us, balefully. It is here that I see something (or have yet another anthropomorphic moment) when the condor and I make eye-contact. The photographer comments, “Hey, he’s saying, what are you doing? I like you guys.” We all laugh.

Then, crazy woman that I am, and late to work to boot, I hike my skirt and climb over the guardrail, flap my arms and…he lifts off. We watch him glide, without even a flap, to the cypress trees on the point several hundred yards away. This moment makes my day. Ah, said the photographer, getting his shot of the creature’s easy grace and huge jet-black wing-span as he coasts down to the trees.

Dad and son return to their truck, and as I turn, I see Mom, sitting inside in the passenger seat. A small note of sadness enters the scene for me. Who sits in the car on a beautiful morning when this magnificent bird is so close? Maybe she’s afraid of heights. But I know the sadness that keeps one from jumping out of the car and embracing a life experience. (I’ve been that sad myself, and am grateful this morning, that I’m not.)

Contact with the wild is one of my cherished dreams. While other people want to get high by parachuting out of planes, black diamond skiing, or doing stand-up comedy, I want to have a timeless moment of communion with an exotic, maybe even dangerous, member of the animal kingdom. I’m still waiting to see a mountain lion in my yard so I can offer him a bowl of milk. But I’m also content to see little wild rabbits hopping across the road and enormous rare condors gliding beautifully across the sky.

I did get to have a death-defying experience the following morning, though.

That night, my early-bird husband suggests we go down to Partington Cove to see the monster waves before work. Somehow, I agree to this. At 6:30 in the am he is puttering about, coaxing me out of bed. “It’s cold,” I moan. “Get up,” he admonishes. After 12 years of living together, I know how to follow this order, especially if some experience of natural phenomena is promised.

At 7:30am we’re hiking down the path to the cove. We walk into the tunnel through the mountain made with hand-split redwood by John Partington and neighboring homesteaders, in the 1870s. “Do you think that the light at the end of the tunnel you’re supposed to see in death could just be a repetition of the birth experience?” I muse. “If so, what happens to people born by C-section?” Hmmmm, Toby says, then snaps a picture.

Emerging from the tunnel, sea spray makes the air smell of iodine, the foam below us is thick and creamy, like God’s beer. The last time I was here was on a gentle spring day, foraging for mussels at the water’s edge with friends.

I was posted as the lookout and made the mistake of bringing binoculars. My job was to call out the incoming waves, but I got distracted by a funny little sea otter, head poking out of the water, looking directly at us, probably thinking, “those guys are going to get creamed!” A surge swept in and covered everyone except me for a few terrible moments. Mercifully, it was just a salt-water group baptism.

This time, we walked just a few feet beyond the “Danger” sign and stopped on the tip of the rock, looking to the north. Monster waves, alright, stacked up, 30’ high, crashing joyously over the rocks beyond. We started taking pictures, and couldn’t stop. Remembering the loss of perspective that can happen from looking through a lens, I keep an exit path in my mind’s eye. Down the rock and back up a few steps. With wifely trust, though, I assume we're safe.

As a child, I was once swept out to sea at a beach. I can still see my Dad, like Superman, stripping down to his swimsuit and diving into the surf to rescue me. I've had the occasional tsunami nightmare ever since. Now I am looking at waves much bigger than those on the beach 40+ years ago. As they explode over the rocks, roll into the tiny cove below us and shoot up spray dozens of feet, I squeal, not with fear, but with delight. Their wild, crashing power is exciting and joy-inspiring.

Finally, common sense returns to us and we back down the rock face and hike up the trail to the highway. “We were safe, there, weren’t we?” I ask hesitantly, “Well, pretty much,” Toby says. “The trick is to hold onto the rock and let the wave roll over you.” “O great!” I laugh, “I just faced my greatest fear and didn’t even know it!”

Another Big Sur lesson, this one before my first morning cup of coffee.

Definitely NOT a musselling day...

"Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think" —A.A. Milne (Christopher Robin to Pooh)

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