Monday, May 9, 2011

Diablo’s Backside

Remember how I told you I wasn’t a birder? I’m not. Really. I don’t keep a list of the birds I’ve seen in my lifetime. OK, I own a bird book and I can whistle like a Mockingbird imitating a Western Meadowlark. It doesn’t really count. That whistling thing was an aberration of adolescent boredom while I was riding my bicycle. And there really wasn’t that much to do at the time in eastern New Mexico besides watching the fenders rust.

It’s like my introduction for each birding class: “Hi, I’m Marcia. I’m not really a birder. I just like hanging out with birders because they are generally quiet and don’t want me to fix anything to do with a computer.” It sounds like a joke but the truth can often be pretty funny.

Nevertheless, my friend Ronda and I like to go to birding workshops and give each other the gift of a trek outdoors looking for our little feathered friends or whatever lands in our path along the way. Birding is generally a slow moving activity because sudden movement and noises make them fly away, spoiling the effort. We thought this year we would go somewhere we hadn’t been before, Mitchell Canyon on the “back side” of Mt. Diablo.

Tea Tarot
(c) copyright 2011 Marcia McCord
We figured we would see different birds from the ones we’ve seen before in Marin, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo Counties. And the description of the class had the tempting line, “…an easy stroll.” Ronda’s back has been bothering her but she’s recently made some excellent improvement with exercise. I have a bad knee from a scooter accident in 2001. I would call it a trick knee, but that sounds like more fun than it really is. Essentially, we birdwatch at approximately the same pace.

We had no idea how hard we would have to work for this “easy stroll.”

The first obstacle in our path was the paperwork.

“Did you see the form they want us to fill out?” we pinged to each other at approximately the same time. It was a medical history form. They wanted to know our complete medical history, what prescription and over the counter drugs we took, what our preferences were for lunch and dinner, all in case the emergency medical technicians had to be called.

“Does this mean the EMT’s are bringing our lunch?” Ronda quipped hopefully. The last time we had to call an EMT to one of our events, he was very entertaining eye-candy and right handy with a band-aid for our friend’s cut thumb. We paused in the vision of a well-made fellow in a uniform with a tray of our favorite snacks.

“Should I say I like unsweetened iced tea with extra lemon?”

But in all seriousness, this form was out of line with the current HIPAA medical privacy rules. There was no mention of who would have access to the information and what would be done with the records once the class was over. And there was the interestingly implied conflict between “an easy stroll” and the need for a med-evac by helicopter. We were smart women with long experience in business and technology, we reasoned. We’re pushing back. This form was like nothing we’d ever seen. They were asking questions my doctor wasn’t interested in and my husband probably didn’t know the answer to. And it seemed like they were discouraging the less than Olympic fitness crowd from attending. How’s that fit into the “easy stroll?”

We contacted the director’s office. He was on an excursion to Antarctica, the kind of trip on which I expect you might need to tell the EMT’s your menu preference, nothing like the little walk in the woods looking at the birdies we had in mind. After much back and forth with the organization, including mention of dropping membership, citing HIPAA laws, mentioning the federal funding they no doubt receive which could be looked upon with disfavor if the Americans with Disabilities Act folks should misunderstand their benign intent, I finally distilled my position on this ill-designed form with its invasive and ill-conceived questions with the ultimate sentiment from the parking lot scene of Fried Green Tomatoes: we’re older and we have more insurance. Basically, I told them, we’re just two old broads with bad knees and good cameras who won’t be giving them our money. They changed the form.

After this victory, we felt we had to attend. Fortunately, the day proved to be beautiful for being outdoors, although not ideal for birding. It was clear and sunny and that wonderful in-between temperature that requires your light jacket in the morning. It was also windy. The two ways you find a bird is by sound and by sight of movement. On a windy day, all the trees, branches, leaves and critters are moving. But we were surrounded by a concert of beautiful birdsong. We were a big class and I feared any self-respecting bird would flee in terror from a parade of binoculared grey-hairs traipsing around with lists, scopes, cameras and a class leader who believed he was making attractive bird calls. Doubtful as we were, we saw birds. I was jazzed about the golden eagle, my first. The coolest bird however was this lovely swimming-pool blue juvenile Lazuli Bunting, a blue like I had not seen on a bird except perhaps parakeets in the pet stores. Here's a fantastic photo taken by Steve Zamek featured in At that point in the path, that had been the high point of my day. Some bird!

I’d say it went downhill from there, but strictly speaking we were walking uphill and at a pace that Ronda and I couldn’t sustain. Of course, I like to take pictures of everything that isn’t moving too fast, so I have some yummy wildflowers currently in peak bloom in Mitchell Canyon and a rather unfortunate yet interesting dead mole on the trail, still in good enough condition for final viewing, RIP.

Our loud-birdcalling trip guide plunged forward at a breakneck pace, promising that our lunch stop was just around the next corner. About the fourth time he made this empty promise, Ronda had left “happy” back on the trail something like an hour previously and I was beginning to whine. Checking my watch, I noted quietly, so as not to start food riots or other insurrection among the birders, that we had three more hours of this trudging and the sun was rising high in the sky. “Easy stroll,” I muttered, both my bad knee and good knee singing louder than the birds. I had worked hard for this torture session but I was long past the point of caring if I saw one more bird even if it was roast chicken on a nice whole grain bread.

“OK,” the devil…I mean Dave the guide announced proudly as he dashed down the steep bank of the creek, tip-toed across a couple of unstable rocks and bounded up the steep bank on the other side. “Here’s where we’re stopping for lunch!”

Ronda and I looked with dismay at the impossible physical obstacle and the tick-infested clearing beyond. No. Way. If we got down, we knew we wouldn’t get up again and I didn’t relish walking back through the creek, including culverts, until we got to a flat spot to get back onto the trail.

Arizona has a Stupid Hiker Law which says approximately that if you wander into the wild and into a situation that you know you can’t get yourself out of, you ought to pay for your rescue. Of course this was California, but the point was well considered. Wise women that we are, we turned back. That croning ceremony wasn’t fer nuthin’. About 30 minutes back down the trail we found a log to sit on, ate some of our lunch, rested our aching joints and admired the microcosm of nature within our immediate view. We actually saw a few birds on the way back that we hadn’t seen on the way up and attributed that to our being fewer in number and quieter than the large class. I brushed a tick off Ronda and to our credit we both suppressed our bug screams. We made it back to the parking lot, the bathroom, the water fountain, the nice ladies in the visitor center and gratefully to Ronda’s SUV. A couple of ibuprofens later and by the time we were in civilization again that awful grating noise in my joints had stopped and we were treated to the best bird sighting of the day, a mommy mallard duck and her four baby ducks crossing Clayton Road in the crosswalk. All traffic had stopped for the little parade and we rejoiced as the last little straggler ducky hopped the steep curb from the road to the sidewalk.

We need something duck speed next time, I thought. “So, next time,” I suggested aloud, “maybe we pick a botany class.” After all, plants don’t move too fast.

Later that evening, while I was selling drink tickets at the church spaghetti feed, I felt a tickle on my back. A tick! Grateful that it hadn’t yet found a good spot to bite, I quickly flung the little devil on the floor of the church hall and smashed it with the metal cash box from the drink ticket sales. There. I fixed it.

Best wishes!

1 comment:

  1. My own Mt. Diablo photos are posted on Facebook starting with the unfortunate Mr. Mole.