Blue Grouse Strut

I have five days until we close on the sale of our house. There are countless boxes to move, countless things to pack, countless odds and ends to fit into a trailer and take to the storage shed, dump, or mission. There is much to do before the deadline and no second can be spared. So today I’m going hiking.

If you want to call it rebellion, that’s fine. Immaturity and procrastination also work. After all, my idol Jim Harrison said that being an “immature hermit” is a prerequisite to being a writer. This gives me great hope. Whatever you call it, it’s necessary. There are days when one must leave the world he’s buried under in order to catch his breath. Therapists call this grounding. I just call it going for a walk outside.

It’s late April in Idaho and the snow is slowly receding into the highest country. Green grass, weeds, and mountain flowers are beginning to reveal themselves in a subtle yet encroaching carpet of new growth. Before long, shed antlers - of which I’m looking for today - will be buried and safe from my eyes and hands. But it’s not really the antlers I’m after. It’s perspective. Clarity. No matter how often one hears the advice so many have given, it becomes increasingly difficult to make yourself go through with following it. Go outside. Take a break. Decompress. Take some time for yourself. Get away. This advice is drowning today in the ringtone abyss of emails and social media. We forget the world outside of the one we are beholden to. But we’re not really beholden to it. That’s the funny part.

All we have to is turn the volume down. Or better yet, turn the fucker off.

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I take the first turn to national forest and park at the first spot I can fit into. The road is badly rutted and already I have bottomed out my old truck, straining to hear calamity in the whiny recovery of its axels. This truck and I have been through a lot together. It has carried me through many adventures. One day I will be forced to buy another. There was a time I anticipated any excuse to upgrade. Now, I regret the inevitable like an aging dog whose burial I know is much closer than not. Does this mean I’m becoming the man I could not understand in my youth? Someone who dismisses shiny new toys as wastes of money, braggadocious and silly? Maybe. And maybe that’s not so bad.

Not long into the hike up the first ridge, I am already stopping to collect seashells. That’s what we call them anyway, my family and me. They are, in fact, abandoned shells of Rocky Mountain snails. There are hundreds, and I can’t help but stuff my pockets. Soon, many are broken and crumbling. I take my backpack off and transfer ones intact to a safer place. Dozens more surround me, their off-white exteriors glowing like tiny, buried stars. I could spend a lifetime trying to free the mountain from these contemporary fossils. But I only have today. So, I keep hiking. It’s colder than I expected. The sky is overcast and wind comes haphazardly in strong, announcement-like bursts, as if to remind me that I am in someone else’s living room. And I am. This is God’s house.

But I’ve never felt like a trespasser outside. No matter how many days that pass between visits.

I stop before long to glass the surrounding hillsides. Again, I’m looking for antlers. Deer and elk and moose began casting them away as early as March and will continue into May. Soon, I find what I’m looking for. Two of them. Right next to one another. The problem is that they’re moving. They’re attached to a head - one that’s alive and feeding along the drainage to the north of me about 600 yards. It’s a small bull and he looks to be alone. His cape is bright tan, almost yellow, ratty and crumpled in a wild, wonderful kind of way. I watch him through the binoculars and feel a calmness I have not felt in weeks if not more. This may be the only place in the world I’ve ever felt at home: outside watching wild things be themselves, me hoping to follow their lead but knowing also I will fail and try and fail again.

He feeds out of view and I don’t want to bother him. Animals at this time are recovering from a hard winter. There’s plenty of new browse and the snow is no longer hindering their escape, but still, I don’t like to scare animals away from me. It’s as if, with every galloping flee from my presence I am reminded of my own humanness. I wish I could run like them, unashamed and strong.

I make my way south to the next ridge, up and over. I crest and walk a few hundred yards, my eyes trying to balance the impossible task of looking closely for sheds but also far away for vistas and game. For too many days my eyes have been indoors, staring zombie-like into computer screens and smartphone apps. Recently, I was given one of those online DNA ancestry kits. I looked over the utterly inundating collection of data to learn I am predisposed to macular degeneration. I don’t know anyone in my family who has actually been diagnosed with this (a caveat the online disclaimer made clear to illustrate), however, I can’t help but feel that my time to look at this world I love is limited. The idea that a day may come in which I cannot see all these mountain peaks around me - all of them white on top, their bosoms revealing melting trees and river-birthing tributaries now forming – both depresses me and gives my feet fuel to burn.

Time is of the essence. And the time is now.

Something across the next ravine looks out of place. I glass a north slope of sparse quakies, large patches of snow still gleaming on the sun-hidden slope. There’s an elk calf laying down, its head nestled into the front of its legs like a housecat. Then I see another one, lower and to the left. Then I see countless mounds of dirt that turn out to be not dirt at all but a massive elk herd, all bedded in the comfort of this hillside, out of the wind and the perfect temperature for their clumpy, shedding coats. It’s a miracle they haven’t spooked. I’ve been walking conspicuously for a hundred yards or so. I look again to see another wild object, higher than the rest and greyer. It’s a mule deer, alone in specie but akin to all ungulates, gathered purely out of the necessity for security and comfort. I see a larger cow elk, bedded squarely in the open, looking my direction. Does she see me? Her ears are jutting out and perked, a sign of great attention. Another elk stands up in the quakies and I wonder if the herd is about to bust, but then it beds back down. It was only repositioning itself. The large bedded cow stares at me intensely. I take in the sight of unspoiled nature and back away.

The climb gets steeper but my legs adapt quickly. I am both surprised and proud of the way I scale the peak. I always worry between long bouts of hiking, as if one day I’ll find the climb too arduous, my legs too atrophied or too old. Perhaps I hike to keep mortality at bay, an impossible and lovely thought.

On top the peak levels out to a long plateau which leads to more peaks, higher and further off in the distance. Behind them is Wyoming and the Tetons, then Yellowstone and grizzlies to the north. Recently, the first bears were seen coming out of hibernation, an annual celebratory event. There have been grizzlies reported here, but no doubt those are young, lone males searching for their place in the world, almost never this early in the year. I find this to be another reassuring parallel. Even grizzly bears search for something they have not yet grasped, a kind of bracing peace of the heart led only by new mountain sunrises and quelled only by exhausted legs and full stomachs. I look forward to filling my own.

Sometimes I hike only to remember what it feels like to be truly hungry.

I trod along, weaving in and out of the long patch of snow still clinging to the shadowed parcels of this undulating ridgetop. There are tracks and sign everywhere, but no bone. Once, I am sure I see a bleach white antler in a bush, but it is only broken limbs of the oak brush, their new splinters shining like ivory in the sunlight. I take a break and snack on beef jerky and water, halfway seated in snow, the wind chilling on the back of my sweaty neck. To the east is a deep ravine with multiple spines leading in every direction away from a wagon wheel center. Soon, I see movement there as six elk file out of the heavy timber and feed southwest, eventually fading into the tapestry of brown, white and green. I glass all the hillsides I find no antler.

“I’m too high,” I say to myself more than once. All of this landscape and much lower was covered in snow not that long ago. The elk and deer and moose likely shed their antlers much closer to sea level. But I remind myself that I have found sheds at this height, one of which came from just a few peaks over, higher than I am now.

“They could be anywhere,” I say to the pine trees. And then I get up and begin the boomerang loop that will lead me back to the truck.

  Walking back, my feet crunching thin snow and then finding solid earth, I round the corner of a patch of pine trees and stop dead in my tracks. Something alive stands before me, no more than five yards away. It’s a bird. About the size of a turkey. It’s blue, the feathers a smooth and regal ocean, sleek and painted over the form of some aviary being that looks at me with wide, yellow eyes. It’s a blue grouse, I realize, the closest one I’ve ever seen. A handful of times I’ve flushed them without seeing anything other than flapping wings, too big and blue to be ruffed grouse. And I’ve seen their spruce cousins on multiple occasions. But this bird is much different both in its appearance and the way it’s acting. It sees me, surely, upright and intrusive. But it remains, indignant and proud. It’s exhilarating to be this close to it and I don’t want it to go away. Then, without warning, it takes a step, not in retreat but in some purposeful strut. It’s a male. He lowers and elongates his neck. He fans his tail as a turkey does initially, however, this is much different because he doesn’t fan it all the way, as one might a deck of cards. Instead, it is primarily the top and center feathers, held open but then tight on the sides, as if to show that there is much more to his beauty than he is willing to disclose. This is indicative of blue grouse, and instantly I recognize it even though I have never seen it in the wild. Some part of me knows this bird, on a primordial level, as if an ancestral cousin hunted his great-great-grandfather on a mountain not far from here. I know it’s a male because like the pheasant in my home state of Oklahoma the males display vibrant and attractive feathers to entice prospective mates. And then immediately the bird illustrates this further by ballooning two air sacs on the side of his neck, previously undetectable. They are gill red, vibrant and salacious, enwreathed in a glorious white shroud of down looking feathers. They’re called gular sacs, made famous by this bird’s cousin, the sage grouse. But this is a different bird entirely. Pure. Elegant. Haunting.

He struts for a few brief moments then takes cover behind a dying tree, the sparse bare branches barely breaking up his silhouette. He stays there, eyeing me. Still he is no more than ten steps away. I am floored by this experience. It came when I least expected it and without a single ounce of anticipation. There were antlers and elk and deer on my mind when I came here. Maybe an arrowhead. Maybe an early rattlesnake. But I did not envision a dusky grouse, which is their proper name, meeting me on the mountain top, showing me his cocky side, allowing me the demonstration of this ancient ritual within spitting distance.

The closeness of this bird fills me with a resuscitating joy the likes of which I can find nowhere else but outside and in nature.

And then a low, humming sound, in three quick bursts. I strain my ear. The wind blows in and out, careening like a faint chorus of ghosts. I watch the bird. Then the sound comes again in exact sequence with his drumming breast, the outline of which pulsates against the backdrop of a rocky mountain outcropping, civilization somewhere far beyond the blueish grey skyscape. The bird is singing in deep hoots like an owl, but the pitch is lighter and not as ominous. It’s a rhythm I could die to, honestly, not because I wish to not exist anymore but because I wish to exist only in moments like this one. Pure, elegant, and haunting.

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Then, after soaking in the wind song with drumbeats, he perks up, his neck rising like a periscope. He walks to the right and unveils the complete watery visage of his plumage, tucked tightly now against his lean, mountain-trained body. I curse myself for not having my good camera because as he strides out into the open, he stops briefly against the clear backdrop of a slight, snow-blanketed ridge. His contrast against that natural theatre of white would be the picture of a lifetime. But it was not meant to belong to print or digital memory. It was meant only to exist in my mind, so that I can tell you about it here, my words the only instrument available, fallible and shortcoming, but also open to interpretation and imagination and therefore unique to each reader in his or her conjuring. How I picture this bird right now is not exactly how you picture it, despite my best abilities. And this is where the captured digital image fails. It belongs entirely to itself, no escape of spirt possible. But with you, in your mind now, you have an image entirely your own, and I get to keep mine the way it is.

Pure, elegant, and haunting.

I crest the top and run immediately into more elk. These are not so lax, and they spook away a few ridgelines. As unsoiled as the previous moment was, this one is unsettling in the pretense that I can exist in exact harmony with nature. We are nature too, as Shakespeare said, but if this is so then we are the predacious part of the pie, the elk running from me now as they do from wolves. And perhaps that is the best lesson today, for me and my overpacked mind of real estate and volleyball games and dance recitals and cheerleading competitions. I am not meant to exist as a complete part of this wild game, even though the blue grouse allowed me that brief guise. We as a people have traveled about as far from the harmony of native American and frontiersmen-like husbandry to the land as ever before. We’re not going to leap back in a day. Instead, we must take walks when we can get them, come as close as we can to nature, expect no union of anthropomorphism but also no dominion over lesser beasts. It’s a new world we’re moving toward. And maybe that’s going to require a new connection.

In the last drainage before reaching the truck, I dive into a thicket with a menagerie of limb and fallen timber. The going is rough, and I put my sunglasses on after a rebounding branch comes much too close to my eyeball. Again, I’m reminded of Jim Harrison who lost sight in one eye as a child. Part of me wants to let the thorn puncture my soft pupil just to be considered a legitimate writer. But that would hinder my shed hunting severely. Better to press on with both eyes.

In the back of my mind, a deep hope does well to stay restrained. I have wanted to find a moose paddle in the wild for as long as I’ve known it was a possibility. I never have. Here, in this low valley country close to thick, damp cover, the moose sign is abundant. Shiras moose roam these hillsides. They like the thick, river bottom country, close to thick security. They can be found up high too, but the tracks I follow are fresh and large. Soon I see white bone glowing in the underbrush of this maze-like canopy. It’s a collection of ribs and leg and hip bones - a common sight in public, well-hunted country. Usually, it simply means a tag has been filled, and all but the bones remain. But sometimes, it means mother nature herself has notched her never expiring license, and perhaps a prize of antlers is left unclaimed. My hopeful, childlike side anticipates moose antler like my youngest daughter wishes for gifts under the Christmas tree. I wiggle through a collection of vine-like growth and come face to face with a skull. I’m disappointed at first. It looks to be just another cow carcass rotting in the willows – a sign of this impossible tug of war between man and animal. But the skull looks different. It’s longer and skinnier than a cow, much too narrow across the brow and much too long in the bones protruding from the nasal cavity. It’s a moose skull. And it’s a bull. There are no antlers but there are two wide pedicles that held them not long ago. It’s what I was looking for in a way, even though it isn’t what I wanted. Again, nature has surprised my expectations, turning them upside down and fulfilling them in a strange, unforeseen way – wiser and older than I will ever be. I carry the head off the mountain, holding it close to my ribs like a newborn baby, sacred to me because it is most unlike anything I have packed in the last two weeks. It is dirty, archetypal and new, even though its months old. It’s something I’ve never held, something I’ve never encountered in all my walks afield – like the blue grouse. I take it with me, perhaps unlike the Indians or the frontiersmen would have. I keep it to remind me. The world I live in mostly is not the only world. The volume is controllable. And the view is still stunning out here. Pure, elegant, and haunting.

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