Small Concussions In the Distance

I’ve driven across the United States dozens of times, usually a round trip every year for the past sixteen years, and before this year I’ve never had trouble finding things to do. The trips I take take time, usually two weeks from California to Ohio to visit family, then two weeks back, stopping all along the way to see the country, to make contact with its people. COVID changed that, removing museums and restaurants and bookstores and thrift shops and anywhere there might be crowds and almost anywhere indoors from the list.

My two daughters and my daughter’s boyfriend are all biologists and are all interested in birding. We each have binoculars and we carried with us a spotting scope, ready for action, unburied in one of the cars. Outside of Boise we had a gap in our schedule with nowhere to stop and so we searched the Internet and found a large pond just off the highway known as a prime birding location and we saw it from the interstate as we passed, turning off to go find the road in.

The signage was poor and it took a few tries to locate the correct dirt road, and that road led to a closed gate, gun club signs on the gate. We almost turned around before trying an unmarked road heading off to the right, which we drove down, a ridge of land forming on the left, the reservoir at last on the right.

There were birds, lots of birds, the Internet doesn’t lie. There were lots of American Coots, lots of pelicans and cormorants and blackbirds by the shore. There were grebes of all kinds and swallows and even two vultures and a harrier hawk. My daughters log in their sightings to eBird and this is the full list:

My favorite was the ibis, a White-faced Ibis the kids tell me. Though I don’t recall seeing four of them. The two I remember were near the shore to the left of where we’d parked, motionless on the large stones at the edge of the water, almost invisible from my angle, camouflaged by the jumbled background. The kids were, again and again, all excited about some bird way across on the other shore that I could barely discern, even through binoculars, so I looked mostly at the ibises and admired the Great Blue Herons, though those are common near my home.

You could hear the shooting from the gun range, small concussions in the distance. But where we were was a public area, a place to admire the wildlife and picnic. There was nothing to worry about.

One of our vehicles, a Honda Element, had a drop-down tailgate and so we lowered it and used the surface as a table for our own picnic, enjoying the sun. The sound of gunfire came closer, the sound growing louder with each crack, the sonic character of the shot growing fuller and deeper. As we ate I kept looking up onto the low ridge behind us, expecting to see a shooter emerge, skylit like in some Cormac McCarthy novel.

The shots were quite close now and the kids looked to me and asked if we were o.k. I told them we were fine. None of us were accustomed to guns and I’d only shot a .22 once during my brief tenure as a Boy Scout way back when I was a teenager. Hunter-types knew better than to shoot toward an area where people might be, an area that they couldn’t see well from their position. We were in Idaho, after all. The kids here were probably given rattles in the shape of hunting rifles when they were born, gun lore soberly passed down from father to son, each one respectful of the weapon’s power and fully aware of their responsibilities.

A bullet passing nearby, above you, sizzles. It sounds like a sort of firework, it zips, passing very quickly but with the sound of the sizzle detailed and clear, so clear that you could hear the sound repetitively change as if the bullet was tumbling through the friction of the air, which it probably was.

When the first sizzle went overhead everyone looked at me to check their concern and, keeping my voice steady, I said, “Time to go,” making a sort of finger-in-the-air rotating motion with my hand. Lunch was over. The second one went by, closer than the first, making an almost cracking noise in addition to the sizzle, my kids asking me what the sound was, although they already knew. “Let’s go, get in the car,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant but moving things to the cars, scanning the ridge for a man with a rifle, who must have been just below my line of sight.

The gas station was only a minute or two away, next to the on-ramp, and we pulled in to fill up before the next leg of the trip. A semi-truck was parked next to the exit, the fire that consumed it must have burned unchecked until the flames died only for a lack of fuel.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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