MY BROTHER, THE BIRD-BRAIN
Trip Start Jun 15, 2003
44Trip End Nov 26, 2003
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My brother had taken a job working with california condors near to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He was a biologist and a bird-lover. He was and had always been younger than me, and he'd just graduated from college.
California condors are huge, black, vulture-like scavengers with nine-foot wingspans. My brother was paid modestly to track the birds, research them, drop cow carcasses to feed them, and haze them if they tried sleeping where coyotes could get them. Sometimes, my brother and his co-workers would have to track the condors at the Grand Canyon.
Tourists would take an interest in the condor work. The average Joes and Joans didnīt know much about condors. They asked questions of my brother's co-workers, such as:
"California condor? Does it look like the bird on your hat?" (The hat was a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap.)
"There are condors in the park? Is that why they don't allow hang-gliding?"
"When the batteries are low on your tracker, does that bird fly slower?"
"That thing hovering above us is a california condor? Aren't they extinct?"
"Are them baby condors?" (They were ravens.)
Yep. I had to go to Arizona: to try and identify with those poor, giant, misunderstood, hideously ugly condors.
My second ride out of Monterey was a guy who stopped four times while I was in his van. 1. to try to buy heroine. 2. to buy heroine. 3. to buy us Burger King. and 4. so we could eat the Burger King at his trailer. Heīd been in jail a long time once; I think he might've killed someone.
Southern California was a rough place. I spent a very un-glamorous night in Bakersfield, pop. 100,000. It was late when I arrived, and it seemed really dangerous. The only safe place I could find to sleep was on the highway itself. I slept in some bushes between two ways of traffic. Cars zoomed by all night, but at least no one could see me.
Bearded Paul, a biologist, was one of my drivers the next day. He studied desert turtles in the Mojave Desert. These animals' numbers were down 75-90% in recent years. The re-release of turtles after people had taken them for pets was a big problem.
South of Las Vegas, we passed Joshua trees. They were very beautiful, because they were the only intermittent trees among a vast, dry desert made up otherwise of dirt and shrubs. These twisted, black shrub-trees stood lonely.
I left Paul and spent the day's evening in Las Vegas. My Grandpa and Grandma Breen just happened to be there (they were out West visiting my brother), so we happily joined each other.
Vegas was loud and bright with lights. I lost $10 on the blackjack tables, while my grandparents won $175 on the slots. Las Vegas wasnīt as bad of a place as Iīd thought it would be.
The best thing about Vegas was the fact that Americans really DO know how to have a good time sometimes. In one bar, drinking girls turned cartwheels because the Chicago Cubs won a baseball game. My grandma and I loved visiting a karaoke bar, where nice people from all over the country sang funny songs, sang good songs, dressed in costumes, and made jokes.
I left Vegas and my grandparents the next morning. Continuing on towards my brother, I came upon Zion National Park in southern Utah.
Trails, forest, streams, and peaceful lawn decorated the floor of the park. A fat, cartoon-cuddly, paddle-tailed beaver scurried from hedge to tree. Rock walls and small plateaus rose around the parkīs narrow bottom. Nature had painted Zionīs rock maroon, tan, burnt orange, and peach stripes.
The shades of Zion, and the road southeast of it, were lovingly mystifying. Nathalie and her quiet dog, "Caleb," drove me through a long tunnel and past all kinds of red rocks. Some rocks glared dwon from above the road, others hovered in the distance.
Nathalie even made a sidetrip to show me Best Friends, an injured animal adoption center co-founded by her parents. Horses, a bull, dogs, cats, and birds shared hundreds of wild-West acres while waiting for someone to want them.
I slept that night in northern Arizonaīs red desert. It was a very alone experience, and my thoughts seemed connected to the moon-bright, shrub-filled night. I woke happily and was still in red desert at ten a.m. Iīd hitched an hour south, though. And, I was alone now more; Iīd found my brother.
My biologist brother, Brandon, was gallavanting around in some shrubs, beneath a long, red cliff where the condors usually lived. He was in a green vest, holding an aluminum antenna, trying to get a visual on a condor.
He came and hugged me. Unlike me, his head was rounder than long, he had green eyes, and his hair was blond and he shaved it. When speaking about serious subjects, he spoke with academic, scientist-like care as if to ensure he was going only on matter of fact. He was also a creative, quite happy guy, with a smile sharp like a can-opener.
We spent the day looking at and taking radar readings on the condors. Brandon took me afterwards to he and his co-workers' home in Vermilion Cliffs, pop. 20. I could hardly believe a place in the U.S.A. could be so remote. Two towns, also of approximately twenty inhabitants, neighbored Vermilion Cliffs. Forty miles distant, another town housed several thousand.
Another characteristic of the area was its heat. Brandon and I spent the next few days - Brandonīs days off - outside.
We drove GREAT AMERICAN HIGHWAY - AZ67. The road floated across the beautiful Kaibab Plateau. We were 7900 feet in altitude, and it felt high. The air felt new.
A yellow field stretched out from the road, ending at hills with forests of pine trees, birch, quaking aspens, and maples. The plateau pasture invited like a giant, snug carpet, and it called to me to spend days there. Mule deer grazed, and I begged my brother to stop so we could explore. Penetrating the hilly forest that seemed to gently glow, my brother showed me a giant ponderosa pine that smelled like vanilla.
Our road brought us ultimately to the Grand Canyonīs less-visited North Rim. The canyon was a mile-deep, ten-mile-across hole. Its edges were made up of tan cliffs, gray outcroppings, red pillars, sprouting brown stubs, and infinite other layers of rock that each fell into the hole in its own way. Trees grew down most slopes, contributing splashes of green. It was one giant, elaborate thing. But, I enjoyed more the Kaibab Plateau.
Back at Vermilion Cliffs, my brother and I tried one day to scramble up the Vermilion Cliffs themselves. We walked a drainage through blue dirt, then climbed up a hill that became red rock cliff. My brother madly led us up. It was so hot, and I struggled to maintain my brother's pace and motivation. But, it was definitely a fun adventure. We made it nowhere near to the top of the cliffs before turning down. On the trek home, I tested my Crocodile Hunter skills and caught a footlong dinosaur-faced lizard. "By craiky!" he was cool.
The only place nearby where we could beat the heat was in the leg-numbing, 54-degree Colorado River. It was possibly the coldest swim of the trip, but it was beautiful. The quick river was a healthy green-blue color so clear it seemed illuminated. It seemed more colorful when compared to everything around it: red cliffs; red boulders; a vegetation-less, red court.
Even when my brother didn't have days off, we had fun. His job required him to hike down into the Grand Canyon, and I joined him.
I liked the views inside the canyon better than those from the top. From the Grand Canyon's South Rim, we made the long descent to canyon depths. Mile-high, multi-rock-colored walls then impounded us at every direction.
We hiked on, through a dry, tree-less, and beautiful landscape. Knee-high cacti with their flat, ovate, saucer-like pedals sat beside our trail. Other cacti made up of ouch-spiky lobes dotted the sand and rock, amongst more numerous shrubs. Tall stalks of strange yucca plants protruded from sharp-sharp plant bundles to hulk over all.
Though my hiking brother and I were low in the canyon, Colorado River level was even lower. The canyon hole opened up beside us in a steep, dramatic chasm, and the Colorado (slow and chocolate brown here) could be seen and heard below.
Ever-altering shadows moved in on us. It was dark when we reached our campsite.
The most amazing experience of my Grand Canyon hike, I would have to say, was when I got to shit on an open-air toilet. There was no outhouse nor walls; just a cold toilet on a board, my bare butt, and the magical dark air of the world's biggest hole swooping all around me.
There were many stars and a near-full moon. The lit-up canyon seemed just like someone's big bedroom.
It was, after all, someone's bedroom.
It was the bedroom of the world's newest fledgling california condor, lovingly named and called by biologists: "305."
Baby 305 was a source of hope for condor enthusiasts. If 305 would live to see its first flight, it could become the first surviving california condor born out of captivity in years.
My brother and I clawed our way up Grand Canyon walls to obtain a good vantage point of the condor in the morning. Baby 305 had been born and still lived in a cave high up in the hot-red rock. He paced around his cave and eyed the canyon, while his parents were out getting food.
Through Brandon's binoculars, I watched 305. The bird had ancient-looking, labyrinth-creature eyes and skin, and a large body. He was black, black-eyed, insecure-looking, and ugly.
But, to biologists like my brother, and to his condor momma, he was the cutest thing around.
My brother had been a silly-looking baby, but we loved him.
Anyone who's ever known or been a silly-looking baby should certainly empathize with 305. Go, condors, go!
I left my brother to do his noble condor-watching work. A long, grueling hike out of the canyon consumed my day. Silly-looking biologist babies: you gotta love 'em.
And we'll all be rooting for the Peregrine Fund to aid the condors' existence. Defy extinction, condor buddies! Foil them hungry coyotes!
Go Orioles! (I mean, condors!) - Modern Oddyseus
Thanks to Eric; Chris; Miguel; Alfredo Gutierrez; Bill; Bob; Paul Salazar; Brad; Paul; Kevin; Jeff; Dan; Nathalie & "Caleb"; Damion + 3 workers; and Tom for the rides!
Much thanks to Grandpa & Grandma Breen; and Brandon & The Peregrine Fund for the places to stay!
NOTEABLE WILDLIFE SIGHTINGS: elephant (in a fair I accidentally entered), Joshua tree, beaver, wild turkeys, condor, mule deer, ponderosa pine (my mom's favorite tree), lizards, yucca, cacti, baby 305