In which Katie turns south and sees her first sandhill cranes…not quite the whooping cranes she was hoping for, but still something worth giving a whoop about.
I had turned on Wynona Judd’s cover of “Free Bird” to boost my morale. I had just crossed into South Dakota and conducted my usual “stop at the border sign and take a bunch of pictures” routine. The weather had barely improved from the grey days that preceded, and temperatures were hovering right around freezing and making every wet patch of road a cause for concern. I was leaving North Dakota without having actually seen any cranes. I had come so close in Hensler, and I had observed ducks and geese by the thousands. I felt like I was knocking on the cranes’ door, just waiting for them to answer.
At least I was going towards warmer weather. My blasting heat and heavy coat reminded me that I was technically migrating too.
Wynona was really starting to warm up. She keeps her composure through the first few verses, just like Ronnie Van Zant does in the Skynyrd original, and then she lets her vocal cords bust open. I let mine do the same.
I turned and glanced dramatically out my window at my surroundings, just to confirm that I was, in fact, free as a bird. And suddenly, there they were: well over 100 skeletal birds, flying high. I knew they were sandhill cranes because they were way too abundant to be whooping cranes, and other birds don’t have midget flamingo legs like these birds did.
They certainly didn’t look very free. They kept a disorderly V formation that needed constant readjusting, awkward like a blindfolded marching band. I refocused on the road ahead of me and started racing the flock. I needed to get far enough ahead of them to pull off the road and photograph their passing. Wynona sang her heart out for me as I gunned on for another two minutes before screeching into a gravel driveway.
I watched as they slowly approached, and eventually they fell within earshot. The flock sounded like second graders at recess, making a big fuss about important crane topics like half-frozen ponds and mediocre food availability. I was absolutely stunned when they took a sharp left turn immediately overhead my truck and my camera lens and cut a disjointed doughnut in the air.
I giggled. I cussed. I teared up. I sang along with Wynona under my breath as they awkwardly completed their circle. I told myself it was all for me, since no one else was around paying any attention to them, and why else would they just show off like that?
And then they were gone. They were probably cold and in need of a serious morale boost, too. The Dakota border is a little more than halfway through their 2,500-mile trip. They had their nightly stopover to go find, just like I did. Wynona sang her last lyrics and the six-minute guitar solo fought on as I turned back onto the road to chew up more lonely mileage. But a glance to the sky was all I needed to remind myself that I was far from alone on this journey.
I eventually made it Pierre to restock on some necessities (peanut butter and jelly), then I began my charge into the Badlands for the night. This took me a good bit west of the Central Flyway, and while I did feel like I was regressing when I re-entered the Mountain Timezone, the extraterrestrial-looking topography was begging for me to spend the night. I’m cuddled up in my backseat bungalow again, and freezing rain is lightly touching down on the roof of my truck. I can’t help but wonder where those sandhill cranes are.
Maybe they’re huddled up around a campfire in a field somewhere, passing around bottle of Jack Daniels and telling stories from past migrations. Maybe they pulled out an old guitar to sooth their weary souls. Maybe they’re all hitting the long-winded crescendo of “Free Bird” right now.