Lil’ Squatch frightens the birds. At least that’s what Rachael likes to say. I’d like to think that his charisma extends to the animal kingdom but I have to admit that she seems to be right. Countless times we’ve slowed down or pulled over to get a better look at some unknown animal near the road only to have it scamper away at the sight of our strange contraption. Roadside wildlife is often indifferent to the vehicles rolling by, but we’ve seen deer, squirrels and all types of birds do a double take when we round the corner. A staid and well hidden Barred Owl taking flight when we meandered by, Pronghorn dashing off when we break the horizon. I’ve learned that trying to be a naturalist at 50 mph is not very fruitful. Holding binoculars in a moving vehicle can be nausea inducing especially if you are behind the wheel. However, when you’re laying down a lot of backroad highway miles you’ll inevitably see plants and animals that demand a closer look.
We drove over a 1000 miles in the south before we finally got a close look at a tree with red draping from it in late winter, realizing that it wasn’t old leaves but the flowers and seeds of the Red Maple. Lately it has been the American Larch, a strange deciduous conifer that is unfamiliar in my part of the west. It seems to favor a boggy soil that infrequently lined the road and we breezed out of its range in Minnesota without finding a spot to pull over for one. Earlier this spring a mysterious gauzy web was catching our eyes, wedged in the crotch of certain trees and glowing in the sunlight. A little effort revealed that it was the silk of the Eastern tent caterpillar, an unusual species that gathers by the hundreds for warmth and increased metabolism before going off separately to metamorphose into moths.
Not all the creatures we hit the brakes for are elusive or easily frightened. Back in Mississippi, in the neatly landscaped roadside of the Natchez Trace we spotted armadillos foraging inches from the road. As we pulled up and put Squatch into neutral one little guy couldn’t be bothered to pull his nose out of the soil in his search of earthworms or whatnot. More recently, while traversing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula an anomalous stately white bird caused Rachael enough excitement that I was compelled to make a u-turn.
I quickly stepped out to the guardrail leaving our little home in idle and the beautiful Snowy Owl could barely be bothered to briefly rotate his head in my direction before calmly returning to his meditative pose.
When we get Little Squatch parked and calmed down for a bit he actually makes a passable wildlife viewing blind. Any number of skittish little birds have wandered up below our large rear window. When the day fades if we leave the interior lights dimmed we can watch and hear the beginnings of the evening prowl heralded by the chorus of coyote. Back in New Mexico we voyeuristically observed the courting and mating of a pair of Great Horned Owls in the grove of cottonwoods we had chosen to camp among. As I write this on a blustery spring morning down a lonely backroad in a remote section of Badlands National Park, a lumbering wooly beast, with an entourage of tag-a-long black birds, has browsed his way over giving our white and orange vessel only the slightest wary glance from its dark eyes.
The stoic and hefty American Bison have seen their share of hardship. They adapted to all the extremes of North America from dry deserts to the bitter winters of the High Plains. They survived Paleo-hunters when many large mammals like mammoths and short-faced bear could not, even with the technique of coercing them to stampede by the hundreds off of cliffs. Slated to wholesale slaughter for the sake of “opening up” the west, they are still here thanks to conservation efforts and their own hardy stature. Calmly wandering across this open landscape, oblivious to the alarm chirps as they saunter across a Prairie Dog town, they animate the landscape with their 10,000-year gait. Massive heads and shoulders somehow graceful on slender legs when at a gallop. After all that maybe our little relic of the late 1970’s seems quaint to them too.