Hummer Journal 2017: QCastillo. Photo 110: Rufous Band No. 27894 Male. Only 3.1 grams. Another underweight bird—
The dawn’s tally of hummingbirds from my mist nets is entered on data sheets. I wrap up my scales, pliers, metal bands, all the tools of the trade, in reverse order of last night’s unpacking. All summer alone in the mountain wilderness, I waited, content, for each new morning’s brief captures, weighing and banding neotropical migrants. But today a strange eagerness pushes me down to Torrent Creek Road and its twelve miles to the Wind River, to catch the highway for our designated spot. Today, a weird dislocation rushes me toward our small crowd of seven other passionate researchers.
My life as a perpetual volunteer is…unfettered. For thirty-three years, I’ve lived with empty space around my sun-dark skin. The world has been enough.
I hike my last few miles out, unfamiliar loneliness growling in my gut. The sun’s rising heat erases scents that morning’s damp brought out—the rock aroma, and the peppery leaves of mule’s ears under my battered hiking boots. Stark, shadowed escarpments contrast with dawn’s citrine sunlight. Today, I am jealous even of the dark metamorphic bedrock, spooning as it snuggles alongside glimmering quartz.
Hordes are gathering for the moment. Being with one’s people feels somehow necessary. Because: this morning at 11:36, here in the narrow geographic band where the sun’s total eclipse can be witnessed, that whole brilliant orb will go dark, offering a delicious paradox. The ever-present but seldom-perceptible solar corona will dance outside the obstructing—and revealing—moon.
It feels wrong to blast away from this glorious late-summer backcountry, but eclipse mania grips me. Or eclipse phobia. Strange things happen, we’ve all been told, during the sun’s disappearance.
At the trailhead, RVs crowd the gravel around an outfitter’s horse corrals, and people compare their protective eclipse glasses. Shrill energy reflects against all the sharp, shining metal. Bacon stench lifts from someone’s propane stove. A middle-aged woman in madras shorts and oversized sunglasses waves me over.
“Well aren’t you weighed down? You studying the eclipse? Tell us what you’ve been up to out there, and I’ll get you some food.”
My stomach convinces me to oblige, and I uncinch the bulky pack, shrug it off my shoulders. I confirm her accent with a quick glance at their camper plates. A test, then. “Working on a recently unfunded government climate study.” I gauge the reaction as I steady a paper plate. I dig into salsa-drenched home fries, remembering blue-ribbon salsa from Texas.
“So who’s funding it now?” A man in huge golf shoes hovers.
“It’s Crowdsourced. Through the League of United Conservationists.” LUC tries to be so mainstream, avoid the pointless politics.
“You mean, random people donate?” His wife hands me a plastic mug, and I grip it between my bare knees on the camp chair.
I nod. “Hummingbird research. No one wants to lose hummers.” I turn to Golf-Man, trying to find the factoid that’ll most impress him. “Their wings beat sixty times per second. Can you imagine that?”
“Nope, and don’t care. What good’s it do ’em?” He plops down across from me and chomps on a glazed apple fritter. So much for finding kindred spirits. A torn piece of napkin sticks on his lip.
“They manage a 7,800-mile circle between Mexico and Alaska every year.” I see the wife’s eyes widen, and think how far these two drove to be in on the big day. “About 157 million body-lengths of travel.” I hold my thumb and forefinger up in a three-inch spread. The calculations a person can make while waiting to net birds.
“Our hummingbirds go to Mexico?” Her eyebrows make one continuous line.
He stands up, shaking his head. “If they can’t stay in America, they don’t need my money.”
I know Spanish, Mixtec, English, and a bit of Shoshone, but body language is the easiest of all, so I stand up too, potatoes unfinished. Not worth a geography lesson about the countries currently counting the American continent as home. The truck is at the far side of the parking area, and their arguing voices follow me across crunching gravel. I heft my pack over the side, where it thunks on the ribbed metal bed, and I wince. Slow down, dammit—research instruments inside.
Hummer Journal 2017: QCastillo. Photo 111: right front headlight broken
When your truck is wearing an enviro-logo, it attracts a certain kind of attention. LUC uses a pale gold sun with red rays in slanted S forms, like native dancers. The group has grown in fame recently, and in enemies, obviously. I appreciate the half-assed nature of the assault, since they only took out one light. A subtle wink. A warning shot.
Below the trailhead, the difference in landscape is sudden and extreme. Wiry grass speckles the arid valley cupped within red sandstone cliffs. Sheared off the sidewalls, rectangular slabs of rock big as log trucks lean back on their right-angled elbows. Other than the creek-side green, a burnt yellow surrounds the two-track road, aiming for the highway that will connect me with the team. Small as a beetle from here, someone in a tall western hat rides along a curving ranch road, kicking up dust. I follow Torrent Creek down its now-gentle grade toward the Wind. Near Ring Lake, a sharp curve.
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Image by Philippe Donn via Pexels.com