This time of year is both immersing and bittersweet. This morning I birded a bike path next to the Fox River south of Batavia. There were hundreds of warblers and songbirds in the trees. I stopped to watch a Wood Thrush perched on an open branch. It’s long pink legs and pale bill were clearly lit by the morning sun. It’s speckled breast and russet head and back were perfectly composed. And it sang so beautifully I was transported…
It’s been this way so many spring mornings. Ever since I was twelve years old carrying around a big old pair of Sears 10 X 50 binoculars. They were heavy by comparison to binoculars today. But we didn’t care. My brothers and I would hand them around as we birded together to find new species and revel in others.
But May tends to be a time of many other obligations. As a runner in high school and college, there were always workouts to schedule and do. Often we trained twice a day. That left little time for birding.
Yet I recall a morning in early May during college when the urge to get out and bird was just too strong to resist. The weather had finally warmed up and there were birds migrating by the thousands through the Oneota Valley where Luther College resides. I borrowed a Schwinn bike from a dorm buddy and rose before dawn to ride out into the hills. The Schwinn was a heavy, slow bike but I didn’t know any different back then. Without a car to drive, the bike was my tool to reach into the wilds.
There were no streetlights beyond the campus. I pedaled out Pole Line Road into relative blackness. It was perhaps inadvisable, and spookily silent except for the whirr of tires and the squeak of the chain. My legs were fit but tired from all the track training. But as the ride got going and the binoculars clunked against my chest with every pedal stroke, I knew somehow the morning would be special.
Three miles out of town the road bends to the north and west. An outcrop of mossy limestone juts out toward the road. As I rode past, still a bit asleep due to the rich darkness, the voice of a whip-poor-will exploded right next to me. I was so startled that I jumped, and the bike wobbled, and I almost fell off.
The wild nature of that call jolted me awake. Not long after that the sky began to brighten. The hills turned violet and the dawn chorus of robins and other songbirds began. I pedaled to a park along the Upper Iowa River with a path that leads to a spot called Malanaphy Springs. Before long the trees exploded with activity from migrating birds. Beautiful Blackburnian warblers with fiery orange breasts. Tree-hugging black and white warblers and their near counterparts, the Blackpoll, were common.
For an hour I birded along the river, making slow progress back toward the springs, which poured clear and wonderful out of the hillside. It felt wonderful to be so far out in the quiet and the wilds. So I stripped down to nothing and stood there in the woods with my feet on the moss. I’m sure I’m not the only wandered that has gotten naked by those springs. The hills of Decorah call to the earthy side of everyone.
The chill in that air that morning was cool, and it was heightened by the rush of the freezing cold water that pours out of the hills. So I got dressed again and sat listening to the water pouring over the rocks. The birds came closer as I sat so still. The sense of being one with the world was overwhelming.
It was still only 7:30 a.m. by the time I pedaled back toward the college. Crossing a bridge over the Upper Iowa, I noticed the flickering white wings of a Forster’s tern as it made its way up the river. There were wild turkeys in an open field, and the call of a pileated woodpecker sounded from a dark woods.
I’d gotten what I wanted that morning in Decorah: a real sense of being someplace, and of being myself. And as I sat in class at 8:30 a.m. it was tempting to stand up and tell everyone what the morning had been like. It seemed so much more important than the subject matter at hand. Who would understand?
But then again, how with any accuracy or sense of startled wonder could one describe the sound of a whip-poor-will calling from the black hills before dawn? That was just one moment of many so impossible to describe. So I kept quiet. My trip that morning remained a rich secret, an experience gained against all other realities.
By chance that afternoon the distance guys on the track team ran the loop called Wonder Left that traveled past the very hill where the whip-poor-will had sung that morning. It was less than ten hours earlier, but the jolt of that moment seemed as if it were from another lifetime. Perhaps it was.
Two years ago I returned to Malanaphy with the woman that I married this past weekend. We rode fat tire bikes out the same road and stopped at the springs. Then we rode around the Wonder Left course and back into Decorach. It was a fall day rather than spring, but the point was still well taken. There are lifetimes to be experienced every day. You just need to get out there.