Birds on the Highway

I hardly notice birds, unless they are doing something unusual. For instance, I’ll look at chickadees if they’re bathing in pools of dust, and I’ll look at crows if they’re goose-stepping about, plucking up shiny pieces of gum foil with their black beaks.

Of course, I’ll also notice if a bird is unnaturally close to me, such as the time I excused myself from a dreadful party for a cigarette, and a red-breasted robin sat on a stack of cinderblocks near the door, as if waiting for me. I watched him as I smoked, and he watched me. What went through both our minds as those grey flakes of ash fell? It’s impossible to say. He flew away when I flung my cigarette to the ground and stomped it with my foot.

Birds on the highway, however, are another matter. I never fail to notice this variety, no matter how stationary or distant they appear: a hawk perched on a blue amenities sign, scanning the surrounding brush for mice and vole; a group of starlings, far off in a field; a dead and yellow finch placed delicately on the shoulder. The monotony of the highway accentuates the appearance of any and all winged things, who are so often relegated to flotsam in my walking life. In a car, my eyes have no object of focus other than the great expanse through the windshield. After driving for an hour or so, the mind shuts down, and the world can be observed as it was meant to be—without consequence. Look at that mountain, that tree, that stream, that car dealership, that McDonald’s, that bird. Nothing to think about, just things to see.

Sometimes, however, this disassociated mode of looking yields terrifying results. Driving through the desert one night, north on an Arizonan highway, I flipped the high-beams on. Tall

yuccas mobbed the road on both sides. This particular species, soaptree yucca, as I later learned, grew tall and furry. The traditional green, spiky bundle of a yucca plant became a head to the thick, distorted stalk that supported it, looking more like a tree than a plant.

But that night, the plants looked most of all like people bent, tortured, and frozen. The yucca had bloomed earlier in the season and shot up flowery stalks, but the cold had killed the flowers; all that was left were dead antennae sprouting from the heads of these people, like ejaculated distress signals. The wide and peculiar light of the high-beams cast a grey veil over the figures, and, as I drove mile after mile, the plants looked more and more like statues or casts of the dead from Pompei. At any moment, one could have turned its face or made a move toward the car. I needed to remind myself they were plants.

This ceaseless run of horror put me in a fragile state, and I grew quiet. It was past midnight by the time we rolled through the next town, a tiny stop forgotten by the modern world. Nicole brought my attention to the trapped corner intersection of two cinder-blocked buildings. I looked and gasped. My heart sank. Liquid dread flowed down my spine. My worst unspoken fears were realized. In the shaded light of that cement corner, I saw something black-veined and menacing, a creature from the unknown world rustling between walls.

It was only a large tumbleweed. When Nicole asked what had happened, I couldn’t explain why I reacted the way I did, why I screamed and jerked the steering wheel. Nerves were all I could offer—it must have been my nerves. The true blame, however, belongs to those lifelike soaptree yuccas that primed me for such a fright. In the black blank of the desert, they were all I could see, those floating forms. The tumbleweed was their descendant.

An owl stood near the painted line of a Texas highway earlier that same day. The mid-morning sun had cast narrow shadows, the sky was a pale blue, the clouds a diluted white. Our car alone commandeered the highway, a situation we found ourselves in often, not only on that drive, but many times throughout our marriage as we cut across the green fields of Illinois, the pinewooded expanses of Michigan, the rocky walls of Kentucky, the deserts of Arizona; we wouldn’t see another car in either direction for miles.

I picked up on the owl early. The flatness of the panhandle and the prosaic colors of the sky left my eyes hungry, and that silhouetted dot was a perfect snack. It was a discarded tire at first, then an empty box, then a complete mystery before the animal finally revealed itself.

These transformations were stationary and instantaneous. By the time I realized the owl was an owl, we were so close that I didn’t have the time to point it out to Nicole. When I eventually told her to look at the bird, the owl was once again a dot, this time in our rearview, receding as fast as we had approached it.

All this took place in a manner of seconds, yet I still remember the look on the owl’s face during that brief moment I passed him. He was standing (rare for an owl, as they are usually nestled into an oval) on thick, feathery legs with his body leant forward at an angle. His wide,

globular eyes were trained at the ground. The rumble strips were behind him, and the tips of his clawed toes barely graced the golden line of the highway. He was situated in a no-man’s land of pavement. He looked of two ways. Either he was focused and lost deep in animal thought beyond the nominal world, or he was harrowed and reckoning with costs, his blank stare not unlike those of some men leaving strip clubs in the early morning with their shirts unbuttoned, their bare chests exposed.

Why did I see this owl as a Janus? I didn’t identify with the intensity of his gaze, at least not at that moment, but I still gave him a consciousness. Hours later, when we exited Texas and were welcomed into New Mexico by rolling hills, it occurred to me that the owl might have been sick at death’s door, and his pillared stance on the highway was his last stand, a malformed cry for help. Were I a more considerate person, I would have pulled over and helped, wrapped him in the felt blanket we keep in the car, and driven to an animal control center. But it’s impossible to envision actually myself doing such a thing.

Driving on, we ascended the mountains of New Mexico as the sun fell, the world painted in a burnt, nostalgic color. One peak leveled off, and we unexpectedly found ourselves on a flat stretch of land like those in the middle of the country, albeit much higher above the sea. Out the grasses came a flock of small sparrows. They swooped in front of our car, and before I could plow through them, they rose up and down like ballasts in the water, then darted back to the soft grasses of the mountaintop. It was a small model of something I had seen on TV once: great masses of birds dipping and diving across the skies of Rome in synchrony.

That evening, eating a light meal of chicken alfredo at a second-rate restaurant before driving into Arizona, before I saw the soaptree yuccas, I thought once again of that owl. Nicole and I had spent the entire day together in the car and exhausted all conversation. We slouched over our pasta bowls and slurped up the noodles while my mind roamed. The owl hadn’t moved when the car sped by. If he wasn’t sick or depressed, then maybe he was hunting. But there couldn’t have been much food for him in that desolate Texan tundra, especially so close to the ground, to the highway.

Our table was in the back, next to the restaurant’s windows. Nicole wanted a good view of our car parked in the lot. The backseat was full of laptops, camera gear, and clothes. Looking out, I saw the canals of rubbery asphalt covering cracks in the pavement. They looked like black snakes. That must have been what the owl was waiting for—one of those tasty black snakes to crawl his way! A king’s feast waited for him on that highway, he probably thought.

Poor owl. Poor birds. Forced to live as they are in our new systems with their old modes. No wonder they fly into our windows, our jet engines, and our windmills. They don’t see what’s in front of them. And if they do, they can’t comprehend it.