As college cross country season ended in the fall of 1976, I started thinking about what to do during January interim. The previous year I drew nudes for six hours a day. That was enlightening. But my other keen interest in life at the time was birds. I loved drawing them, painting them, and I sold some artwork to friends and collectors.
Wildlife art as a genre was taking off at the time. Yet there was one bird artist that I particularly admired, a painter from the early 1900s named Louis Agassiz Fuertes. I’d first seen his work at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. My father attended Cornell after World War II, and his sister lived in nearby Binghamton. During a visit there we took a trip to the Lab, as it was called, and I stood mesmerized by Fuertes’ paintings in a gallery dedicated to his work.
With a bit of bold and irrational initiative, I wrote to the Lab and asked if I could do an internship there. To my surprise, the facility’s director wrote back and said that I’d be welcome if I was willing to help curate the collection of bird art the Lab had on site.
That sounded exciting to me. My art instructor Doug Eckheart approved of the trip as a January interim project, so I contacted my parents to see about borrowing their car and it all fell into place in a few weeks. It’s a bit hard to imagine how all that planning took place in the age of expensive long-distance phone calls, letters sent back and forth, and no Internet. But it did happen. I made it happen.
My parents scrapped together $750 to send with me to Cornell. I climbed into the big old Buick LeSabre my parents owned and drove east to New York through the snow belt of Indiana, Ohio and Northeastern Pennsylvania. I was nineteen years old, a combination of eager and dumb at the same time. I knew nothing about real winter driving conditions, and the winters back then were typically brutal. My father warned me that the LeSabre could be quirky during really cold weather. He often sprayed starter fluid in the carburetor to free it up whenever the engine froze up from condensation. I didn’t even know what that meant. I was obsessed with getting to Cornell, and I was driving. That’s all I knew.
Buffalo and beyond
First I stopped to stay with cousins in Buffalo, New York. The snowdrifts in town were ten feet tall. Plows had to cut the streets open for people to drive around. The next day I drove over to Cornell and showed up with a grin to meet the Lab director, who asked a simple question. “Where are you staying?”
I stared back at him blankly. No one had thought to ask me that before leaving. Not even my parents.I didn’t think to ask about it either. Perhaps I thought there would be a dorm room waiting for me, like there was back at Luther College. Perhaps everyone assumed that I’d arranged to stay somewhere. Yet here I was, some dopey kid with a big head of thick hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a pile of expectations. The Lab director told me to wait a few minutes, conferred with an employee and came back to me with an offer I really couldn’t refuse. “Listen,” he said. “Mike here has a place a mile down the road. It has no running hot water, but it has cold water and heat. You can stay there for $150 for the weeks that you’re here.”
That sounded fine to me, and that’s where I stayed, living on a diet of waffles, frozen vegetables and pan-fried meats.
But I was happy. In the morning, I’d sometimes walk the mile from the house to the Lab on the quiet road covered with fresh new snow. It was a daily wonderland because it snowed almost every night that I stayed there. I’d go to the Lab at 7:30 in the morning and pore through bird art the entire day, making lists of what they owned while recording the images and their artists in a ledger. It felt like I was doing something important, and actually, I was.
Not once during that first couple of weeks did I worry about running, or fitness. Instead, I focused entirely on meeting everyone in Ithaca that knew about bird art. I interviewed a somewhat reclusive artist named Bill Dilger, who was kind and honest in everything we discussed. He was a bird illustrator by his own description and openly warned me that making a living as a bird artist was not easy.
I also wandered the halls of a giant museum collection of stuffed birds from all over the world. I’d learned some taxidermy already at Luther College, so I knew not to handle the skins much. But I could not resist viewing a specimen of the ivory-billed woodpecker, an extinct species that once was called the God Bird, for how big and impressive it was. I also found a passenger pigeon, another extinct species of bird.
Several days were spent drawing falcons at the Hawk Barn, a series of buildings and pens where peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons were being captive-bred to restore their populations in the wild. Those species had been devastated by the presence of DDT in the environment, so the opportunity to study these birds up close was prized. I stood face-to-face looking at a gyrfalcon through a small window. That image (above) is one of the prized drawings in my entire life.
During those three weeks at Cornell I cataloged nearly the entire collection of bird art. Along the way, I made prodigious notes about the work of dozens of different artists. Years later, in curiosity about the state of the bird art collection at Cornell, I visited their website to look up a few of the drawings that I’d cataloged back in the ’70s. Finding them again was like visiting old friends. I also noted that a few of the newer pieces of art on the site were mislabeled by species, and sent emails to the curators. They thanked me for that.
As the weeks went by, I started to grow a bit restless with the spare accommodations. Every other day I bathed by heating water in a cooking pan and washed my long, thick hair with shampoo as well. I’d get it all sudsy and then step outside in the frigid air with a full pan of warm water to rinse it out in one giant pour of the pan. The house where I stayed backed up to the area where the university kept a pack of wolves. I saw one of them standing near the tall fence one night. That giant canid stared at me as I stood half-naked in the dark. Talk about recognizing the frailty of your humanity.
Most of my time was spent out on at the Lab, but I wandered into town to visit a childhood friend that I knew at Ithaca College. She and I had grown up together in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was a skinny little thing back then, and we played together on long summer days and shared our childhood dreams. She’d grown into an incredibly beautiful woman in her late teens and I was intimidated beyond belief when she extended a close hug upon greeting me after all those years. To this day I find it funny that her family owned two dachshund dogs named Meg and Jenny. Later in life, I dated women by those names.
Toward the end of the three weeks at Cornell, the heat went out in my little house in the woods. I stayed overnight at the home of the Lab director, who was kind enough to host me for a night or two. I showered for the first time in days and decided to head to the Cornell University indoor track and get in a run.
Wearing my Luther College sweats, I started jogging around the indoor oval in the ancient old building where it was housed. A set of Cornell runners started out running across the track from me, and it became a competition to keep the same distance around the track between us. When they picked up the pace, so did I. That’s how it went for a few miles, and I finished exhausted, sweaty, and clearly a bit out of shape. But I didn’t care. My time at Cornell was worth a few lost weeks of running fitness.
The day came to drive home and I stopped to thank the director and finally meet the President of the Lab, who’d been traveling during the month of January. He looked through the paintings I’d brought to share and had compliments about some of them. He was also honest and realistic about my need to work on creating form in my work. He was right about that.
But I’d learned quite a bit studying those weeks at Cornell. One of the highlights was going through the work of an artist named Richard Bishop, whose estate donated an entire trunk of his preparatory drawings to their collection. His drawing technique was smooth and amazingly efficient. I copied his drawings to learn how he did it.
Outside in the parking lot, I went to start up the LeSabre and it wouldn’t turn over. Apparently the short drive from the house up to Sapsucker Woods created enough condensation to freeze up the carburetor again. The guy from whom I rented the house wandered by at that moment, and pulled out some starting fluid from his car to spray in the LeSabre’s engine. After a few shots, it fired up like a big old drag racer, roaring to life in the cold New York dawn. I thanked him and shook his hand, and thanked him again for letting me use his house. Then I climbed in and drove off. As I was leaving, he motioned for me to roll down the window, and said, “I’d try not to turn that thing off much. It might not start again.”
So I drove and drove west toward Chicago. South of Buffalo, it started to snow and continued all the way past Cleveland. I placed my wheels in the ruts of a semi-truck ahead of me and concentrated on its taillights. When the truck pulled off to gas up, so did I. But I didn’t turn the motor off. I fueled up with the motor still running. Dangerous, perhaps. But I kept on rolling.
Somewhere in Indiana, the snow let up a bit, but the road was still thick with inches of slush. So I kept on driving all the way around the southern part of Lake Michigan and up through Chicago to our home back in St. Charles. Pulling into the driveway, I felt a level of exhaustion pass over me that was completely unfamiliar. I’d driven straight through from Ithaca to Illinois, breaking only for Cokes and to fill up the gas tank. I had a Standard Oil charge card but the gas stations along the way, Sunoco and whatever, all honored it that night.
I carried my stuff into the house and walked into the bedroom at 1:00 in the morning. I’m not sure my parents even knew that I was home when they got up the next day. Finally, I heard my mother poke her head in my bedroom and ask, “Chrissy, are you okay?”
“Yes,” I replied quietly. “Just really tired.”
I slept through the entire day until 3:00 that afternoon. My father was outside trying to get the car started again, without much luck. “What did you do to this thing?” he wanted to know.
“I drove straight through from Ithaca,” I told him. “I didn’t even turn the car off the fill up.”
He muttered and stuck his gloves back on and fired another shot of starter fluid into the engine. The car did not start for days. I’d really done a number on it.
My dad drove me back up to Luther College that weekend. The drive was six hours in the winter months back then. He dropped me off and turned back home, as I recall. That Buick LeSabre must have hated our family.
That winter my times in indoor track showed only modest improvement from year-to-year thanks to those weeks off from training while studying at Cornell. But formative experiences like that are worth some time off from running. Plus that day racing the Cornell guys on their own oval shot my heart rate up so high it probably made up for two weeks off from training.
I did round into shape that spring and qualified for nationals in the steeplechase. In the end, it’s all about outcomes. And having starter fluid ready when you need it the most.