How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

Cowboy country

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Just got back from a week in Wyoming, the kind of place where the magazine rack at the grocery store looks like this:

You can buy skulls on the side of the road from the animal on the state flag:

bison skulls for sale

And you wake up to this sight in the morning:

The cowboy life is a good one.

The grand square

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Easier than it looks. Also harder than it looks.

In the 1930s, educator Dr. Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw realized that America would soon lose one of her greatest traditions, a tradition whose proponents were quickly dying off. Pappy took it upon himself to travel the country and document all the square dance versions he could find. He then began to teach students and teachers this new collection of steps. Pappy published “Cowboy Dances” in the 1950s right when returning WWII veterans were starting to pair up, and a boom was born (coincidence that the square dancing boom overlapped with the baby boom? I think not).

It’s because of ol’ Pappy that square dancing was a unit in my gym class from 1st-3rd grade. One time I got paired up with my crush, Noah, and it was only during a promenade that I realized Noah had peed himself. End of crush. Thanks, Pappy.

Last night at the Rustic Pine Tavern we filed into a dim, sweaty room for the weekly square dance. While most of the attendees were under 12 or over 50, there were a few cowboys in full getup along the wall. At 17 I would have desperately wanted one of these boys to ask me to dance the first square with him.

As it happened, though, I’d come with 7 family members which meant we formed a full square by ourselves. All capable of discerning right from left, we didn’t need any extra help from the caller. The same caller, I’ll note, was leading these dances 9 years ago when I lived on the ranch just up the road. The songs haven’t changed since 2003–or, I’d guess, 1973–either.

While we were quite competent, I did notice that the cowboys added a lot more flourishes to their dancing. If you want to impress that lady, you better twirl her more times than she’s ever been twirled. You also better not pee your pants.


Wyoming Stories

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For the 17-hour road trip to Wyoming starting this Friday, I got out a few audiobooks to pass the miles. I was particularly looking for something by Annie Proulx, author of Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which are chillingly beautiful, dark, and desolate. She is perhaps best known for the short story Brokeback Mountain, which can certainly be described by all of those adjectives. So this is what we’ll be listening to as we drive through the gorgeous mountains, past oil rigs, and broken shells of barns:

How to be a cowboy

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What you’ll need: boots, chew

Songlist: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Further reading: Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.

Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.

When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.

On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.

We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.

I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.

It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.

How to be a ski bum

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What you’ll need: sicky pow-pow, big air

Songlist: anything by Snow Patrol, I’m Going Down by Bruce Springsteen

Further reading: Skiing and Snowboarding: Everything You Need to Know About the Coolest Sports

Today, December 19th, I look out into my backyard in Minnesota and am more than a little disconcerted. For I can see the ground. Not only is it visible, there is absolutely no snow even lightly dusting the grass. And while I don’t long for last year’s winter–there was approximately 10 feet of snow on the ground by this point–I am, as Bing Crosby so famously put it, dreaming of a white Christmas.

For a few years running, my family went on ski vacations in Wyoming for Christmas, where there was never a lack of snow. In fact, the ski resort we’ve always gone to, Grand Targhee, frequently has some of the best snow in the country.

I loved skiing as a kid but, being from Minnesota, I’d never understood what it was like to ski on a mountain. We learned on “Afton Alps” and at “Welch Village,” names that give quite a sense of grandeur to prairie hills.

Grand Targhee is different. On our very first day at the resort, a guide took us up on a Sno-Cat through acres of fresh powder and we schussed down through it all day long. At lunchtime we stopped at a little clearing with the Tetons just behind us. It was glorious. I remember the end of the day, thighs burning, falling into a deep pile of snow and being unable to get back up, yet grinning nonetheless.

As much fun as we had, I was a tiny bit jealous of the guide. I mean, he was getting paid to have this much fun. And he probably got to do it several times a week. I felt sorry for the other resort workers, the ones who had to man the chairlifts and rent out skis in the morning. But then I found out the incredible truth–they all got paid to play. Maybe they weren’t all lucky enough to be trail guides, but on their days off they could ski to their heart’s desire! I felt like I’d stumbled on a well-kept secret–wouldn’t everyone take this job if they had the chance? I assumed one day soon I’d be wearing the black-and-red Targhee jacket, helping skiers onto the lift and honing my technique in my down-time.

But now, I’m sad to admit, I haven’t been on a ski slope in four years. The job doesn’t seem quite as appealing anymore–a friend of mine works at Winter Park, Colorado and hasn’t spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with his family in four years–but I do miss the mountains. Someday soon I’ll be back in the powder, schussing away.

Grand Targhee trail map

How to be a cartographer


What you’ll need: a location to map out, an artistic sensibility

Songlist: Maps by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs

Further reading: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, Maphead by Ken Jennings (yes, THE Ken Jennings, aka Jeopardy millionaire)

Back during World Traveler week I was going to dedicate one post to maps. But then I started looking at maps and I remembered how much I frigging love maps. They deserve more than one day.

I don’t have a lot of experience in map-making. Sure, there were the occasional elementary school projects for which I had to create an economic map of Africa or label a map of the United States with the 32 American football teams (much like the baseball map above). And sure, I once created a map of a fictional town, about which I was going to write a YA series. But nothing like professional cartography.

A highway map of Wyoming

Maps astound me. When we were driving back from Wyoming to Minnesota a few weeks ago, I was constantly checking our atlas for the small towns we passed (an atlas that is so well-loved and well-travelled that both the Wyoming and Minnesota pages have fallen out). Yes, there were Wyoming’s descriptive towns Sundance and Tensleep, and there were South Dakota’s rather more unpleasant sounding Murdo and Pukwana. And every town was placed exactly in proportion to the next–a fact that I once took for granted but now amazes me. How do cartographers do it?

It’s not so much the technology that amazes me–GPS, lasers, and computers can make short work of a landscape–but the idea of every place on earth being documented. I remember hearing about the goal of Google’s Street View, which is, ultimately, to provide images from every street in the world (although not all countries yet have planned visits from Google’s Camera Cars). I immediately thought of the Borges-like short story possibilities: what if a single person decided to walk down every street in the world?

What I love most, though, is that for every map out there there is a person for whom it is unnecessary. Which is to say, every street in the world is known well by at least a small group of people. While we can feel proud of being familiar with the famous streets of the world–knowing, for instance the expanse of the Champs-Élysées or 5th Avenue gives one a certain cachet–isn’t it our unique knowledge that sets us apart? When we are able to associate memories and intimacies with the smallest names on a map, those maps come alive.