When to fly home

I went out on the last day of winter to see if I believed it.

I had been driving for much of the day, having woken up in a hotel room in the middle of North Dakota to find that during my sleep snow had fallen.

It was the last day of winter and, well, you know how winter likes to hold on to the spotlight around here.

I waited a bit then before scraping the windshield of my car and heading back west on a quiet and slick highway, lingering over morning talk shows and hotel room coffee.

The weatherman said it would warm up nicely, the sun would shine and the roads would clear on this, the last day of winter.

150 miles west those roads were shut down and traffic backed up. Too slippery to be safe.

Not spring yet.

Oh no. Not yet.

But we gave it some time then, under the sun, and the fog lifted off of the thawing out lakes. The snow plow came.

White to to slush. The earth warmed up.

And me and my guitar buried under a mountain of groceries made it back home to the buttes on the last day of winter.

And when I arrived I changed out of my good boots and into the ones made for mud and I went out in it, knowing full well that just because it says “Spring” today on the calendar hanging by the cabinets on the wall, doesn’t mean the snow won’t fall tomorrow.

I heard the snow is going to fall again tomorrow.

But today I’m sitting in a patch of sunshine making its way through the windows, bouncing off the treetops, on to the deck and into this house and I’m telling you about yesterday, the last day of winter, when the brown dog and I headed east to my favorite spot to see how the land weathered the bitter cold of the season.

I followed the cow trail behind the house and through the gate, where the petrified bovine hoof prints from last fall magically turned into fresh tracks in the mud of the elk who make their home back here.

Sniff sniff sniff went the nose of my lab as he wove back and forth, back and forth in the hills and trees in front of me, always looking for something.

Squish squish squish went the rubber soles of my boots on the soft ground.

And then there was the wind, everything is second to the sound of it in my ears.

But as we followed our feet up and over the hills and down the trails to the stock dam there was another sound I couldn’t place.

It sounded like crickets or whatever those bugs are that make noise in the water at night. But it was too early for bugs. Too cold for crickets just yet.

I stepped up on the bank of the dam and watched my lab take a chilly spring swim in the water where an iceberg still floated white and frozen in the middle.

I put my hands on my hips and tried to place that unfamiliar music over my dog’s panting and shaking and splashing about.

It could be frogs, if frogs chirped like that, but there are not frogs just yet…or snakes or minnows or other slimy things that disappear when the cold comes…

No…none of those things…

but there are birds…

and well…look at all of them up there in that tree,

perched and fluttering, covering almost every branch.

Are they singing? I think it’s them.

Listen to that!

Relentless in their chirping conversation against the blue sky of the last day of winter and unafraid of the big, clumsy, slobbering canine sniffing them out.

Not phased by his two legged companion squish squish squishing up to the tree, shielding her eyes so she could get a better look at them.

A flock of proud little birds with puffed out chests, wearing tufts on their heads like tiny showgirls in Vegas.

Putting on a show for us on the last day of winter…

And if you would have asked me earlier that morning if winter was over, the fresh snow stuck to the bottom of my boots, my white knuckle grip on the wheel and my breath making puffs into the morning air as I pulled off the highway and stepped out of my car to admire the view, I would have said oh no, it is not over yet.

But under that tree full of songbirds I would have believed in anything…spring and summer and music and joy and tiny little feathered miracles who know, without a doubt, when to fly home.

We’re like the water

We’ve got mud here people. It’s official.

And never has a girl been so happy to see this slop and slush and muck. I’ve have enthusiastically switched from snowshoes and boots with three inch insulation to those of a muck variety and I have no intention of dodging or jumping or leaping over any puddles or rushing streams.

I have every intention of stepping in as much of the stuff as I can.

Because we have mud people.

We have mud and blue skies

and a bug on my backpack

and magic sunshine that is turning those white drifts into rivers in places rivers only exist for a few short days during this time of year.

The time between winter and the full on sprouting, buzzing heat wave of spring. The time where the snow still peeks through the trees, the wind still puts a flush in your cheeks, birds are still planning their flights back home and the crocuses haven’t quite popped through the dirt.

My favorite time of year.

When I was a little girl I lived for the big meltdown. My parent’s home is located in a coulee surrounded by cliffs of bur oak and brush where a creek winds and babbles and bubbles and cuts through the banks. And that creek absolutely mystified me. It changed all the time, depending on rainfall, sunshine and the presence of beavers or cattle.

In the summer it was lively enough, home to bugs that rowed and darted on the surface of the water and rocks worn smooth by the constant movement of the stream flowing up to the big beaver dam I would hike to daily. In the typical North Dakota fall it became a ribbon carrying on and pushing through oak leaves and acorns that had fallen in its path. In winter it slowed down and slept while I shoveled it’s surface to make room for twists and turns on my ice skates.

But in the meltdown it was magical. It rushed. It raged. It widened in the flat spaces and cut deep ravines where it was forced to squeeze on through. It showed no mercy. It had to get somewhere. It had to open up. It had to move and jump and soak up the sun and wave to the animals waking up.

And I would follow it. I would become obsessed. I would step out on the back deck and at the first sound of water moving in the silence of our backyard I would pull on my boots and get out there to meet it, to walk with it, to search for the biggest waterfalls and gawk at how it would scream out of its banks and marvel at how it changed.

I would be out there for hours.  Around every bend was something a little more amazing–a fallen log to cross, a narrow cut to jump over, a place to test the water-proof capacity of my green boots. The creek runs through multiple pastures on the place and as long as the daylight would allow I would move right along with it for the miles it skipped along and then return home soaked and flushed and refreshed and completely and utterly exhausted.

And then I would do the same thing the next day. Because even as a kid I knew this magical time was fleeting. I knew the creek wouldn’t always act this outrageously marvelous so I had to get out there…because someone had to see this. And at that time, and still to this day, there are places on that creek that very few people have ever been.

But I was one of them. I was one of them and that creek was performing for me.  Oh, I remember feeling so secret. So special and lucky to have this show in my backyard. And although I loved summer and all the warmth and sunshine and green grass it brought with it, I never wanted this early spring witching hour to end.

I vividly remember a dream I had about the creek when I was about 10 or 11. I dreamed the creek behind my house was huge, like a river you would find in the mountains–a river I had yet to discover at that time. The landscape the creek wound through was the same in real life as it was in my dream–the oaks and the raspberries existed there–but the water was warmer and crystal clear and it pooled up at the bottom of huge and gentile waterfalls that rolled over miles of smooth rocks and fluffy grass. And I was out in it with friends I had never met before as an adult woman with long legs and arms and we were swimming in its water and letting the current push us over the waterfalls and along the bottom of the creek bed until we landed  in the deep water where we would float for a while and then launch ourselves out for another run. And we were laughing and screaming with anticipation for where that water was going to take us. But we were never afraid. We were never cold or worrying about getting home for dinner or what our bodies looked like in our bathing suits.

We were free. I was free. And the water was rushing.

We may never know if there is a heaven while we are here on this very volatile and fragile earth, but that there could be that much water and that much power and change rolling through our backyards and then one day we wake up to find that it has just quietly moved on and out and along still mystifies me to this day.

That there are snowbanks that fly in with the burning chill of winter’s wind and reach up over my head and stay for months on end only to  disappear in one day with the quiet strength of the sun is extraordinary for lack of a more powerful word.

That the water in my creek is made from the snow that fell from the sky in early November and is currently rushing around the trees, settling in hoof prints, being lapped up by coyotes and splashed in by geese and sinking in the earth and changing it forever is something that makes me believe in something.

…like perhaps we are like that drop that fell from above,  afraid of the mystery that was waiting for us as we hurtled through the atmosphere only to find when we finally hit the earth that we are not one drop alone in this world…

…we are the water.