The car is loaded with binoculars, books on CD, wading boots, a good flashlight, a tape recorder and a cooler. Maps and guidebooks litter the back seat.
Tomorrow morning, the Subaru and I take off for the central Texas coast and two salt marsh bird refuges, followed by a jaunt north to Galveston, where I'll see my sister Kim.
The winter migration from Colorado to the Texas Gulf Coast has become a familiar ritual to this old bird, the monotonous route across the wretched northern plains of the state stamped in rubber on asphalt and permanently embedded in memory.
It's only beyond Abilene that I get to alter my route, searching for back roads and scenery. This year, I'm in pursuit of the whooping crane, the tallest bird on the American continent, nearly extinct just a few decades ago. In North America, there now are more than 400 documented whoopers in the wild, and no fewer than 250 of them spend winter along a 35-mile stretch of the Texas coast.
If the weather's good, I'll get a tour-boat operator to take me out along the flat maze of border islands and inlets to see the whoopers and hear their call, to watch them peck for blue crabs and clams.
In Galveston, I'll eat shrimp and see my sister, whose Alzheimer's, combined with the early aging effects of Down syndrome, has taken much of her voice. My mother says she's sleeping more and talking less, that she doesn't write much anymore. But since Christmas, she has enjoyed painting at the kitchen cabinet in the late afternoon. Formerly eager to go anywhere at any time, Kim now only wants to go to Randall's supermarket, where she can get a hot chocolate at the in-store Starbucks. We'll probably make a daily trip to Randall's.
Thinking of seeing my sister, I imagine her soft, small hand, with its flexible bones, enclosed in mine. Across her palm, the head and heart lines are combined into one crease, a genetic trait that characterizes her well. As she has grown quieter with Alzheimer's, her presence has become more of a heart presence, her voice absorbed by her gentle spirit.
When I am with her, and when I am among these huge, magnificent birds, my noisy head is hushed, my head and heart lines merged.
Kim and I usually walk on the beach, holding hands and not talking. She has been a great walker in her life, fit and steady-paced. We walk along the fizzy tide line, looking straight ahead or out to sea. We used to climb along the rock piers that jut out into the bay along Galveston's seawall and stand at the edge, where waves crash chaotically, filling the cracks between the rocks with roiling saltwater. But the rocks are too hard for her to navigate now. We'll keep our walks flat and easy.
That is what I look forward to most: her soft hand, her dark blue eyes, beneath fluttering pink eyelids, looking directly into mine. We don't need to talk a lot anymore.
Among the birds, I look forward to the lift of their wings, their exotic profiles against a sunset or sunrise, their glide and fall, their astonishing feet reaching for a sandy perch and a smooth landing.
One winter in Galveston, Kim and I wandered the sand paths of the state park at the western end of the island, looking for birds. We walked and walked, not seeing a single bird, the marsh grass even with our foreheads. When we came to a clearing that overlooked the bay, we turned around to walk back to our car and the air exploded with the stir and updraft of birds' wings, rising to the sky. I looked up and saw, for the first time close-up, pelicans with bills like hand tools. Their bodies were brown, their heads white with yellow markings. They soared high into the sky above the bay, then plunged downward with their pointed bills, pouches poised for captured fish.
We watched them for a few minutes, then went back to the car.
"Those birds were pretty," Kim said, and I nodded yes.
Tonight, pre-road trip jitters rattle in my brain. I wonder what crosses Kim's mind these days. Tomorrow begins the long migration home.
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