Riding shotgun across state lines, nine hours became a blink in time. If I could relive but one day in the last 365 it would be last Saturday.

My co worker and friend Joel played driver and guide. I envied his ease behind the wheel, his knowledge of landmarks, historical sites, nature, birds. “Show me where to go and maybe I’ll venture out on my own,” I had said months before I owned a car. Then thinking I might get a rental and explore the scenic riches of Minnesota and (dare I dream?) bordering states. Our photo shoot had been delayed—schedule conflicts, someone forgot to call someone, months passed. Now even with the  recent purchase of my Nissan Altima I couldn’t muster up the nerve to travel beyond my five mile radius. Stuck in side streets and avoiding the web of highway detours and never ending construction zones reminded me of level one on the latest Play Station game. But Autumn had arrived and I needed to witness it, document it beyond Lyndale Avenue.

“I only take a picture of a new bird after I’ve seen it a second time. The first time I simply enjoy the bird,”  Joel offered while zooming in on a rare sight by feeders in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. A friend had pointed out that in Joel’s effort to photograph birds he missed actually experiencing them live. So now, he waits. When he first spots a bird he marvels at its’ plumage, hears its’ song, witnesses flight. The next outing if he sees the same species he captures it in pixels. Maybe that’s why I took less photos. I enjoyed the moment, experienced the sunshine, gentle breeze, the God’s eye view of valleys. From Bloomington to Red Wing to Wisconsin farms and silos, fields of corn, lakes, docks, the subtle arrival of autumn in green, yellow, red, and orange connected me to life more than anything has in a long time. Along the way Joel identified birds but I failed to retain the names. Still, with no pop quiz on the agenda I allowed the woodpeckers, finches, sparrows, doves, ducks, and wild turkeys to dart in and out of my moments.

Picture perfect weather, great company and even my shoes were comfortable! Walking and driving alternated enough so that I did not limp despite the compression stocking on my right leg.  From 11:00 am to nearly 8:00 pm conversation flowed free of awkward silences or moments when the sound of the other’s voice makes you want to jab a pencil in your ears. We were both in our element, bonded in the shared passion of natural splendor. I took in the beauty of the land. Farms and open space as far as I could see. Absolutely stunning. Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A had more meaning when I could see what he sang about like a virtual slideshow. Books, movies, television fail to do justice.

Life should be that laid back, that picturesque, that undemanding for all of us. A life on a farm or in the woods feels about right. Pulling back from my urban setting, turning away from the homeless, the poverty, the politics of my normal waking world sounds good. Letting go of what I know to spend my days marveling at the earth’s natural wonders could be the best way to heal. Or to escape. My world feels so tiny at times with all the pain, suffering and ugliness crammed into a small space. No matter where I turn I see what I cannot change. I hear what I cannot undo. I bear witness to the underside of beauty, peace, grace. The reprieves so short and ineffective. Life taking far more than he gives, too often leaving me worn.

I want to quit my job. I want to sell my car. I want to move from my apartment. But what would fill those empty spaces? I don’t know. But tomorrow morning I’ll be up early and return to the National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington—alone. I’ll stand at the overlook, gaze into the valley and survey treetops adorned in an array of autumn colors. I will breathe deeply and empty my mind and soul of all but this moment.

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