One of the sports of my childhood was the capture of lizards. Horned toads were common prey until the pet trade made them scarce: few were able to keep them in the ants they craved, so most died in captivity. Alligator lizards invited a special challenge because they fought back. One fellow I knew bragged that he caught them by getting them to bite him. But most of us were content with what we called blue-bellies or the Western Fence Lizard, a little gentleman that we found underneath rocks and large pieces of wood. (How we never bumbled into a rattlesnake is a minor miracle.)
Uphills strain my heart. I struggle up inclines listening to the pound of my jugular vein. On especially hot days, I have to stop once or twice to drink water, eat, and regain my senses. I call the dizziness that I feel when I stop the “white blindness” because for a second or two my vision fades behind a speckled curtain of receding blood pressure.
Lynn has little trouble getting up hills. She passes me easily, her walking poles clicking in sync with her effortless ascent. Downhills are another matter. I zip to the bottom, waiting or turning back to see what is taking her. She struggles. The reason for this is a rare bone condition. She recently wrote to me:
Ten feet separated the canyon wall from the railing. Ten feet. But a busload of Chinese tourists crowded the asphalt. A surge of electric panic chilled me. My shoulders shook. My heart thudded. A deep unease roiled in my gut. Every time someone touched me I jumped. A ripe odor worse than a rancid cheese concentrated in my armpits. My fingertips led the rest of my body in a terrified creep along the cliff. A pair of tourists walked towards me along the wall. Unable to speak to them directly, I waved my hands frantically. They saw my terror and conscientiously gave me space.
I edged towards the rail, remembering a trick that I had learned from a photographer buddy who was also scared of the mere proximity of a sheer drop. The camera went to my eyes and I looked at the world through it. Everything was contained and manageable as long as no one bumped me. But they did. I snapped off a few quick shots and scurried back to the wall. The other travelers paid me no heed as they surveyed the wonders of Bryce Canyon from the head of the Navajo Loop Trail. The Bryce Amphitheater yawned as I scrambled back to what my mind told me was the more solid — and protected — ground of Sunset Point.
The little bird working the edge of Pond 1 looked like a chicken to me. A small chicken that poked its beak in the water.
“Anything interesting?” another birdwatcher asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been looking for the Orange Bishop.”
Oh he’s over there,” said the newcomer. He looked for it. “I saw him from a different angle.” He walked back to where he had been standing. His wife pointed to it and we found it by triangulation.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Well, I think I’ve seen a rail. It’s been running in and out of those reeds.” I nodded down the embankment. This piqued the couple’s interest. “A rail? Do you know what kind?”
“I don’t know my rails very well,” I said. “I’d have to look it up.” It was true. Until I investigated my guidebooks and web apps, I had had no idea that coots were related to rails. Made sense because coots looked an awful lot like these little birds. Several birders joined us. The rails came out of the reeds and waded into the shallow water. A middle-aged East Indian gentleman with the biggest set of binoculars that I had ever seen slipped behind us and asked in a voice just the slightest of tones past a whisper “Anything interesting?”
I told him about the rails. He looked at them through his lenses. “Sora,” he announced. “Look at the yellow bill.” Another rail came out of the reeds. “Down there is a Virginia Rail. Dark beak. That is how you tell them from the soras.” Everyone was excited about the rails, even more excited that they were about the Orange Bishop. I had hit on the Popular Thing of the moment.
“It’s a good day when you see a new bird,” said the expert. Yes, it was.