Thursday, December 18, 2008

Before "Blue Highways"

During the spring of 1968 I set out in a 1964 suburban that I had converted into a camper. I had just graduated from high school and had been planning my "Travels With Charley" for three years. It may have been the first hippie van, as hippies were still hitchhiking in 1968. When they saw me go by on the "Blue Highways" of America the thought finally struck them that a set of wheels was not a bad idea. "Far Out". I lived in that old truck all summer and national park hopped all the way across the country and back through Canada. I searched out birds, and other wildlife, through swamps, up mountains, up and down beaches, and across the Badlands.
It was a time in history when gas station attendants would fill your tank and check your oil. I remember this because, I cooked on my engine block. The guy would say, "Check your oil?" and I would say, "Yea, and see if my meat loaf is done will ya?" They would always laugh until they reached in for the dip stick. Then I would hear, "Holy cow, he does have meat loaf in here." It was not only an easy way to cook lunch and dinner, but it was always good for a laugh.
I don’t know if 1968 was a special time in history, or if it was just because I was 18 and the biggest concern I had was dry socks and clean underwear. All these years later I still feel 18, but the world seems to have grown much older. It was so fresh and new then, and today it seems somehow used and a bit tattered. I met my first trumpeter swans that summer in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley. I spent several days with them and remember wondering if I was looking at the new generation that would stock tomorrow’s skies, or the last of the wild trumpet callers. I sat against a Doug Fir in the shadow of Washington’s Hurricane Ridge and listened to a spotted owl. Had I known he was going to become such a celebrity, I may have pushed my way through the dense morning fog and introduced myself.
I backpacked hundreds of miles that summer with heavy gear. I couldn’t afford what little high tech gear was available. Everything I carried I bought with S & H green stamps, and measured in pounds not ounces. A few months later the Marine Corps was a cake walk compared to what I had been carrying. Except I didn’t have some guy that looked like a bulldog screaming in my face, and it was easier to talk to marmots than drill instructors.
I remember trying to get a picture of a ptarmigan in Glacier National Park, and every time I looked into the view finder I would see a roasted chicken. It wasn’t that I was getting tired of peanut butter and rice crispy treats, but my mind would constantly drift back to mom’s home cookin’. All through high school I had worked with the best bunch of people you could possibly assemble. They are the ones that started calling me Dick E. Bird, and quite often egghead. It was an Airstream travel trailer dealership and I knew I wasn’t going to wait until I retired to try this traveling life-style. Before I left they had a big party for me and everyone brought canned goods. I ate like a king for months.
That trip was my first formal education in ecology, vastness, splendor, conservation, wilderness, and limited resources. Even my young untrained eye (my good one) could see that Bob Dylan was right, the times they were a’changin’! I could see then the future battles over these resources were going to become more fierce and that it was a no-win situation. We were trying to manage nature’s pantry by slowly doling out her stores without restocking her shelves. We studied the forestry methods of Gifford Pinchot, and listened to his prophecy of doom if we didn’t put them into practice—but this was not Europe, this was America, and our natural resources could never be depleted.
I met a ranger on Kalaloch Beach in Olympia National Park. He was a seasonal that had worked the park for many years. I have seen him since and perhaps he is still teaching summer visitors to that part of the world about the mysteries of Kalaloch. On our walk in ’68, we talked of the old growth forests of the region and that one day they would all be whittled away by the slow process of politics. We talked about the life forms that depend on what is left, and the order in which they would disappear. We are now into the environmental battles that he described to me as "fall on your sword and die" issues. If we cannot come to grips with our needs and necessities now, our destiny will be one of less not more.
I can never have 1968 back, but I’m not looking back, I’m looking ahead to a time when the majority face reality and make judgements that include the feelings of nature, the wellspring of life.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

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