In less than four weeks, I am supposed to embark on an easy solo road trip for my graduate reporting project. I say “easy” because, directionally speaking, it should be impossible to mess up. I drive east out of Missoula until I hit Bismarck. After spending some time in North Dakota, I turn south and drive until I hit the Gulf shore of Texas. Then, I turn around and come back to Montana again.
But everyone knows travel hasn’t been “easy” since before Valentine’s Day.
I’m bisecting the lower 48 to follow the critically endangered whooping crane’s fall migration through the Central Flyway. They leave northern Alberta every fall, fly 3,000 miles to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas, stay for a few months, then turn around and go back to Canada again. Rain or shine, pandemic or global climate crisis or election year, North America’s tallest birds don’t care. They carry on. How incredibly ignorant of them, you might say. But I think they might be on to something.
The pre-travel planning process is probably nonexistent for whooping cranes. They just wait until the time feels right. They don’t check interstate travel restrictions before landing in Nebraska or Oklahoma. They cross the Canadian border without a single blink of a beady eye. They certainly aren’t required to practice social distancing, and their sharp beaks would render masks useless. But they take all necessary avian precautions to ensure they are safe and healthy from start to finish, like building their energy reserves and fat stores whenever possible and avoiding interaction with humans at all costs.
While I definitely don’t condone misbehavior or defiance in the face of COVID-19 travel restrictions, I really wouldn’t mind being a migratory bird right now. Maybe the next trend in self-reliant solo travel should be acting a little “bird-brained.” Birds are the world’s most successful travelers. The Central Flyway alone hosts hundreds of thousands of migrants every year.
Maybe this is why humans love to emulate birds. I recall Ryan Gosling passionately proclaiming to Rachel McAdams that he was a bird (but only on the condition that she was one too). I often dig through my ridiculous Spotify playlists and find the 8-minute Skynyrd ballad, or preferably the Wynonna Judd cover, and sing to my rear-view mirror reflection; “I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you’ll never change, NO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!”
When elementary school teachers or camp counselors asked me what my superpower of choice was, flight was always the obvious answer. Nothing has changed since then. At the time, I likely chose flight because it posed the prospect of freedom, something that my nine year-old self had yet to experience. Today, I would still echo Ryan Gosling’s sentiments. I would take ornithological flight in the open skies over any other mode of transportation, even though it would lack the gas station gummy bears and delivery of private Norah Jones concerts to passing drivers that the open road boasts.
I would fly with the cranes tirelessly. I might even set the course speed record, simply because I had the freedom to do so if I were up to the challenge. And if I didn’t like where I landed, I could just muster up a little extra energy and take off again.
Everything that sounds enticing about being a migratory bird would normally apply to being a solo road-tripper, too. But right now, trying to plan ahead for this road trip has been like building sandcastles during high tide. The most recent of the many destructive forces at work is the explosion of COVID-19 cases tearing through the Midwest. Thanks to this Travel Restrictions Map put together and maintained by United Airlines, I can track which states have specific restrictions in place, which states I might need to test negative before entering into, and even which states have reopened their bars and restaurants.
But the ever-changing nature of emergency orders and community spread ensure that I need to stay on my toes until the day before I’m set to leave. Any solid plans I make would need bailout options. I can’t give firm answers about a specific itinerary to my graduate program or the grant foundations I’ve applied to, because a wrench shaped like a nose swab could get thrown into my agenda and require three to 14 days to dislodge.
But whooping cranes deal with uncertainty too. They face the unknowns of shifting weather patterns and food availability. Right now, they are gearing up to fly towards one of the country’s most at-risk coastlines for climate change impacts like high-intensity hurricanes, sea level rise and freshwater salinization. But the biological forces at work in their brains tell them to go anyway. They wait until the timing and season feel right, and they roll the dice.
Maybe whooping cranes don’t do much planning for a reason. If they were to try to predict an early-season freeze in Saskatchewan or a drought event in Kansas, they’d drive themselves crazy. The likelihood that they plan for each small disaster properly would be low. Whooping cranes don’t try to fool themselves with the charade of situational control.
Since I can’t fly with them, I guess I have to drive like them instead. And I would advise anyone who is ready to slowly reintroduce safe and responsible travel to their lives to do the same. If the cranes try to over-plan for the unavoidable crises they will likely face in a few weeks, they might never take off in the first place. Luckily, like Ronnie says, those birds you cannot change.