Dispatches From The Road: Day 6

Katie’s life in the lap of luxury is about to be over. But luckily, much like the cranes, she’s chasing warmer weather.

North Dakota has been good to me, in no small part due to my great uncle Ron and aunt Karen, who took me in and fed me for the last five nights as I toured around the state looking for birds and stories. My roving home has sat parked in their driveway, getting out for some good miles on spur trips to the towns of Hensler, Regan and Jamestown, where I found no cranes but plenty of stories.

I find great peace driving around North Dakota. There is reliability in the road maps here. Straight lines intersect with other straight lines. If you point your truck in one of the four cardinal directions, eventually you will hit another street that will take you a ninety-degree turn in another direction. I can reckon my way to the interstate with road signs and common sense, never resorting to GPS or feeling like an outsider. North Dakota’s simplicity is so welcoming, like a body with AB+ blood. If you’re here, and you have something you need to accomplish here, you can be a part of us, it says. Just exist, and call if you need help.

I missed a crane sighting by about an hour on Friday morning. I woke up to a message from a researcher with whom I’ve built a good relationship, giving me a location pinged by a crane banded with a radio to go chase. Hensler, North Dakota is located about 45 minutes northwest of Bismarck. I drove with the sunrise to my back, watching its dramatic brilliance grow in my rearview mirror as hundreds of synchronized blinking red lights of wind turbines danced on the horizon in front of me. As I got north of the interstate, the first sprinkling of snow clung to crunchy frosted ground like salt on the rim of a rocks glass.

I turned down a narrow dirt road and snaked along it for a mile. I eventually reached the body of water where the crane had pinged…or, at least, I got as close to it as was legal. Signs were posted keeping hunters and trespassers out unless landowner permission was granted. I peered down at the small pond from the hood of my truck, but all I saw was a red pickup parked along the bank. The red pickup saw me too, because it turned around and started driving back off the property and onto the road I was parked on.

I was preparing for an interaction with the property owner, telling me and my Connecticut license plates to take my camera and my notebook and leave their land alone. Instead, a boyish 16 year-old with a pleasant grin and head-to-toe camo pulled up alongside me, giving me a chance to explain myself.

I asked if he had seen any whooping cranes that morning, and he nonchalantly nodded his head, explaining that there had been about seven of them down at the pond where he had been deer hunting earlier that morning, but that they were long gone. He motioned to the binoculars and scoped rifle riding shotgun and added quickly that it was still youth deer season, and that he had snagged some geese too. He gave me the property owner’s phone number and explained that the owner was really relaxed and probably wouldn’t mind me walking on his land. He introduced himself as Tyler, wished me luck, and went on his way to get ready for school. The bottom of the sun had barely breached the horizon as I sat there, leaving a voicemail with the landowner. I never heard back.

This was the closest I came to any whooping cranes in North Dakota. The snow eventually fell in Bismarck, and I had my sentimental first morning windshield scraping of the season. My gratefulness for Ron and Karen increased tenfold as I watched the mercury drop to the teens overnight, reminding myself that I don’t have the same comfortable accommodations in any of the other states I will be traveling through. But more stories of adventure will only continue to stack up in my memory as I carry on. And if the cranes could figure out a way to come find me, somewhere around my next stop, I could certainly use the morale boost.

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