A restless traveler finds solace in the quiet beauty of the annual sandhill crane migration
By Amy Butcher
June 6, 2016
Ecstatic is not a word I would use to characterize Hal, and yet on a recent morning, as we stand together in an unheated viewing blind along the Platte River in Nebraska, it is precisely this word I come to. Hal defies my expectation. He is 76, with hair the consistency of a child’s—peach fuzz, fading out—and a hunched demeanor that suggests, regardless of whatever came before, a life now lived in stagnation. The skin on his hands is translucent, nearly blue, and covered in the minutiae of burst blood vessels and liver spots that conjure a sense of pointillism, as if he is a man made of many things—colors and experiences alike—though up close, as he is now, he looks remarkably ordinary.
Ordinary he may be, but today we will greet the extraordinary, will become one, we are told, with Earth. Such is the promise advertised on posters everywhere—in the hotel lobby, at the front desk, adhered with blue putty to bathroom stalls. Our tour guide, Bill, reminds us again as he leads us first through prairie grass and then through winding mulch into the woods where we now stand. It is cold and unfathomably dark. With noticeable apprehension, we move by way of a small red laser attached by carabiner to Bill’s denimed hip, the beam so subtle in shape and shade that I worry aloud that I might trip.
Hold steady, Hal tells me, simply, as if intent alone could do the trick.
We arrive at a place unassuming but miraculous: a small, thatched viewing blind not more than 30 feet from the bank of a shallow stretch of the Platte. This is south-central Nebraska, the middle of America, the middle of absolutely nothing, a place that seems apathetic to either coast, thousands of acres of farmland giving rise to a Burger King and a Taco Bell, a few blinking traffic lights, a Grandpa’s Steakhouse. But every spring without exception, this town of Gibbon, Nebraska—or more specifically, the famed Rowe Sanctuary, owned and operated by the National Audubon Society—draws several thousand visitors. They come from Canada or Texas or the Carolinas, from Washington state or Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between to see what National Geographic has hailed “one of the world’s greatest natural wonders” and what CNN has dubbed one of “15 of nature’s most spectacular shows.” The annual spectacle in Gibbon is right up there with the aurora borealis, with South Korea’s cherry blossom festival, with the Great Migration crossing, in which a million wildebeests traverse the Mara River from Kenya to Tanzania.
The phenomenon that everyone comes to see appears at first as a swath of gray, uniform and blurred. There is a prehistoric cooing, a rising noise as the sky fills with light. And then, in one smooth gesture, some 600,000 sandhill cranes lift their wings and then their legs to rise together above the river, the prairie, and the cabbage trees. It is like this every year: for reasons we cannot know, Bill the guide tells us, they select this particular stretch of river, this exact same swatch of trees and yellowed land, as their only prolonged stop in a migration of several thousand miles, a custom as much a part of the birds as bone or beak or feather.
Home for me is New England, a town 30 miles from the nearest grocery store, a place with an economy dependent on forestry, farming, and welding. The woods there are dense and dark, but there is no vastness like Nebraska’s vastness. Also no kindness like you find here.
My time in Nebraska is temporary, as it is for the birds and nearly everyone around me. But unlike the birds, I have no final destination—no place my body is drawn to. I am young and often feel younger, explorative in the way the young cannot help but be. Until arriving in this state two weeks ago, I had never even heard of the sandhill cranes, but since then, they are all I hear. They purr in every cornfield, every pasture, every plain. They purr, yes; there is no other verb to describe their constant noise. The first time I heard it, it was like a choir—echoing, without barrier, across the vast nothingness. I rolled my window down, stopped my car along the shoulder.
Nebraska, is what I thought, simply.
And although my knowledge of their existence is new, I take great comfort in their migration. I’m not alone in this—in Nebraska at this time of year, the cranes are all anyone can talk about.
Have I been out to the Rowe?
Have I made my appointment to see the birds?
An appointment, as it were, consists of $23 paid in advance for a man like Bill, his carabiner, and expertise.
“Do not talk,” he advised us earlier. “Do not cough. Try not to sneeze.”
Any movement, however subtle, might startle the birds and, beyond disrupting their natural schedule, risk their premature departure before the sun is up for us all to see it.
“How disappointing,” Bill reminds us, “how sad to have all of this be in vain.”
Our viewing blind, then—and our careful concealment within its hay-stuck walls—is of particular significance: we must take on the appearance of the land because it is precisely the land the birds know and trust.
“Keep in mind,” Bill told us earlier, “these birds are far smarter than we even know. We can’t even begin to mine that depth.”
That depth, he advised us all, is what has brought the sandhill cranes to Gibbon every year for at least the past several thousand. Likely more, he says, even if we can’t prove it. According to a poster hanging in the wildlife sanctuary’s gift shop, the oldest known sandhill crane fossil is an estimated 2.5 million years old, or double that of most bird species still alive today. Their antiquity makes them valuable, their permanence a symbol of significance. The land here has been built up, the highway an ashy stroke connecting eight hotels to another eight, all of which serve the many thousands of tourists who pay big money and drive great distances to stand in frigid viewing blinds to watch and wait.
During this time, roughly mid-March to early April, the birds gain back more than 20 percent of their body weight, enough to sustain them as they travel farther north. They eat bugs, Bill tells us, frogs, snakes. They eat seeds and corn and berries and, on occasion, the smallest of mammals. They spend their nights roosting in the river, where they can better hear the approach of predators: coyotes, foxes, bobcats, the occasional raccoon. When once again the cranes take flight, it is with the sustenance of Nebraska, the sustenance of America, this place that connects the places they have been—namely, California and Mexico—to the places they will go: northern Michigan, Alaska, Canada, even Siberia.
“Siberia?” I’d asked earlier, standing in the lobby and straining to trace the geography in my mind, which required a level of concentration I felt unaccustomed to at 4 A.M.
“Yes,” Bill said. “Yes. Many will go on to travel as far as Siberia.”
So I have paid $46 to see them twice—once at dawn and once at dusk—and I’ve driven many hours and bought a guidebook and reserved a hotel room beside a pool, because I trust, the way humans are wont to do, that my investment will translate into experience: into the birds, unfathomably significant, and my place—there, beside them—as they rise.
Because proximity to the birds is, in many ways, sacred and beyond value, this particular stretch of land has remained largely undeveloped, populated only by local residents who have made their homes along the Platte. Tourists stay, instead, in the neighboring town of Kearney, pronounced “carnie,” in its Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson, Wingate, Best Western, or Ramada. Kearney has 21 hotels, all of them seemingly apropos of nothing at other times of year. But in spring, for these four weeks, they create a cluster of illumination—an artificial North Star that guides tourists to their beds.
Kearney makes me think of a man with missing teeth, denim overalls, and an aluminum doublewide. I think of broken lawn chairs in the front yard, a chihuahua that barks until someone yells.
But last night pulling into town, I found first a Thai restaurant and then a Mexican grocery, an Italian buffet and half a dozen big-box stores: Target and Office Max and Walmart, plus a CVS, a Rite Aid, an Ace Hardware, a Hobby Lobby. They fluoresced with the promise of what south-central Nebraska has to offer other than sandhill cranes: a good meal and a choice of rooms and your friendly neighborhood pharmacy, all conveniently located just off the highway.
But we had come for the cranes, and Kearney’s distance from them made us nervous—what if we overslept? what if there was highway construction?—which is why, upon arriving a full hour early, I found myself in good company in the sanctuary’s lobby. Our group of 20 or so bird enthusiasts had a median age, I’d guess, of 60—mostly women in windbreakers and men with bed-fussed hair wearing sweatpants. Couples embraced for warmth and shared Styrofoam cups of free coffee while Bill began to take roll. Although it is not easy to make a friend at this hour of morning, I gravitated to Hal immediately. We were the only people there alone.
“Isn’t it a little early for someone like you?” he asked, joking about my relative youth.
Hal guessed 25, and I felt a swell of pride when I said 27, as if those years really mattered. I had spent them mostly fumbling, spending money I barely had.
How invigorating, then, to have spent the past two weeks on the road, traveling 1,572 miles and 24 highway hours, and seeing what felt like everything and nothing: wind turbines churning or at rest against the sky, lobster crates being roped down to 18-wheelers, lighthouses erect and red against green earth, dimly lit bars at quiet exits off the highway. I am in search of something I dare not call ecstasy: a concrete sense of experience, the feeling of being outside myself. The town where I grew up expects that all who are born there will choose to stay—will be content fishing alongside riverbeds where we caught rainbow trout as children, pushing shopping carts down the same cracker aisles where we ourselves had once been pushed. Why go when we can stay? But those comforts don’t speak to me. Instead, I fear I could be crushed by the stagnation they imply.
Thus the solace I take in these birds: in their constant, annual movement. A quiet beauty resides in being in flight, in one body flitting between two spaces, and Hal champions me for this—for how I have shown up here.
He says, “Birds aren’t normally of interest to someone your age.”
A real trooper, he calls me.
But I am not the only one. At his last count, Bill informs us, the Rowe Sanctuary estimated 170,000 cranes sleeping beside us in the darkness. Two weeks ago, it was half a million, and by this time next week, only a few thousand will remain. Their departure is predictable—and it is hard not to envy that freedom, how it is expected that they will go.
Standing there shivering against the viewing blind’s plywood, with the window covers open, and the sound of the cranes growing, Hal whispers that he was an Army brat—a truth he shares with nearly everyone, he tells me, because it implies a certain sense of impermanence.
“We always lived all over,” he says. “Every land you could think to live: China and Vietnam, very briefly in Korea.”
Texas, too, he says, and a little time in western Florida.
“I didn’t much enjoy the heat,” he says, “which is why I live now in Kansas.”
I imagine Kansas as arid, prairielike, and hot. Not a land of tumbleweeds, exactly, but one where lizards lie flat as pancakes on the roads, a home to foxes and prickly wildflowers. Kansas has no lizards, Hal tells me, and the heat is cumbersome only in summer—the winters are cold.
“And anyway, it’s the change I like,” he says. “So I take the few months of heat like I take everything.”
This is not Hal’s first time viewing the cranes, though it is the first time he has come alone. Next month, he says, will mark the one-year anniversary of her death—his wife of 47 years. Last year, she was here to stand beside him, just like all the many years before, and they watched the birds take off together—their wings extending in perfect angles, their bodies gleaming in the morning light. It was still so smooth in the quiet dawn, he said, that the water mirrored their departure. “Birds everywhere,” he said. “On the ground, horizon, sky.”
Hal explained that during their most recent visit, he and his wife learned that the sandhill cranes are believed to pair for life, though their guide conceded it was nearly impossible to trace each partnership from year to year. Still, Hal tells me, enthusiasts take comfort in how the birds seem to share humans’ inclination for monogamy. Very few roam alone, and Hal says there’s a lesson in that. His eyes narrow when he looks at me. He stacks his sneakers one on top of the other for warmth.
They are a creature, he reflects, open to love, to company lifelong and migratory, and I, too, prefer this idea of pairing, how the birds can be nomadic and yet not alone.
“I met my wife,” he says, “and everything about the world I knew changed.”
He means, among other things, his world of impermanence. Unlike Hal, who saw in travel a certain freedom, his wife feared the dangers of mobility—she would not fly, would not board a boat, once famously called the ranger station outside Yosemite to inquire about the roads’ stability.
“Are they steep or winding?” she wanted to know.
Hal laughs as he tells me this; it is a part of her he learned to love. And it was worth it, all those years, to have given up the open road, the atlas stained with grease and coffee, the paper-wrapped hamburger with its softened pickles and grated onions. It was enough to be beside her. But in the 11 months since her death, he has seized his own vitality—visiting first their daughter in San Diego, then their youngest son in Baltimore. Most recently, he took part in an eight-hour, elaborate bird-watching tour along the California coast, a package that promised viewings of more than 150 species. Hal counted 144, but didn’t complain. When I ask him which was his favorite, he pauses.
“Hard to say,” he says. Then, “The pelicans.”
In June, he’ll fly to Anchorage to spend four weeks in remote Alaska, camping outside Denali with his two sons and their wives. He made the same trip as a young man, long before the government thought to expand Denali. It was smaller then; you could sleep beside the mountains.
By fall, he’ll be in Maine—more specifically, Kennebunkport—where he’ll watch the leaves catch fire, the most impressive display of foliage the nation has to offer. They are colors I know well, and when I offer this to him, he says, “Soon I’ll know them, too.”
“The things I never saw,” he said. “All these things I never did.”
However far from her I am now, I am reminded of a woman I met many months ago on a plane. We sat, stalled, on the tarmac in Charlotte; she was but bone beneath her blanket. When finally I inquired where she was headed, her face lit, jubilant.
“Maine,” she said. She was 98, visiting—for one last time—each of her five adult children in their respective homes across the country. Her itinerary freighted her down the West Coast and to southern Texas, to Minnesota and Lynchburg, Virginia. It spanned well over a month, and at its culmination: a nursing home.
But when I expressed condolences, she said there was no need.
“This is just the way it goes,” she said, “if you are lucky.”
If you are lucky. If you get to live before the living stops.
It seems to me a matter of perspective: the way we choose to think about a life, landscape, loved one, or circumstance. After all, even from the farthest edge of our viewing blind, Hal and I see only darkness: there are no birds or beaks or wings. We know and trust that they are there—we hear their frenetic calls—but without the glint of sun cannot see their multitude, those birds, all several hundred thousand, converging and veering across the Platte.
As we approach our third hour in the warming viewing blind, Bill tells us to “hush up” and prepare our cameras. The cranes’ prehistoric noise is building.
Hal pushes his elbow into my stomach, ecstatic.
What do the old have to teach the young? Much, though too often this knowledge takes the shape of life lessons, hard won, or life’s lessons hardly won, when the greatest lesson you can learn is how to be content with yourself—and only one’s self. For no matter how long we might stand beside another, eventually we all encounter the same aloneness, must confront the very same curtain, the teeth of its fabric pulled back, the world at large still irksomely waiting in all its beautiful, terrifying, strange, frightening love.
“Get ready,” Hal says—as if I am his child, as if I stand on tiptoes at his feet. As if the very years that have brought him here with regularity have altogether faded away, have rendered him open to what might prove an altogether new experience.
Hal is not old or without love; he is, above all, held captive by its renewal. By these birds, preparing to rise from murky darkness, however traveled, however weary.
I raise my binoculars and lower my camera. It is not, I know, what matters. I have come to see the birds, and when at last they finally rise, they do so together, their wings extended at an enormous length, their density above the river like a churning turbine, roiling quickly, rising up.
A single blade of gray interrupting this empty landscape.
“Amazing,” Hal says to me.
“Amazing,” I repeat.
There’s no way for me to know it now, but three months from this quiet morning, I’ll find myself in a parking lot in Fairbanks, Alaska—a place I’ve chosen to see because of Hal. Nothing about it will seem out of the ordinary: it is simple yellow grass that gives way to birch. But it’s here, in Creamer’s Field, I’ll read that the sandhill cranes land, having at last reached Alaska.
Have I heard of them, a stranger will ask? Have I ever heard of sandhill cranes?
“Yes,” I’ll say, and will think of Hal: there in Denali, many miles south, beside his sons. Beside the comfort he seeks—that he knowingly extracts—from the art of movement. I remember the literal meaning of ecstatic: “to be or stand outside”—of yourself, your environment, your consciousness, I suppose, or in a viewing blind along the Platte, hundreds of miles from your point of origin.
That day in Nebraska, Hal said to me, “The world requires no audience.” And while I could admit that that seemed true—the world would indeed go on without our presence—it seems nothing if not miraculous when our lives align so that we might bear witness.
When we begin to notice, for the first time, that we are not altogether different, or alone.
Amy Butcher is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Iowa Review, and Brevity, among other publications. She is the author of a memoir, Visiting Hours, and teaches writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Sitka, Alaska.