The morning after the storm is just for returning north along the coast, but the next exit is east to Ojai and I remember I have someone else to thank. Coleus from the farmers’ market makes a small gift.
I’ve never been here, but do know this has been his home for more than fifty years. A low stone fence. Beyond the back gate a young woman walks the lush green toward me, and I ask after Mr. David Essel. She points to a man already walking with care, slowly and unafraid down a path from the house.
He is dressed in coat and knit hat on this sunny day in Southern California, although the warmth I remember across decades is still right there inside. He asks after me and my life and talks to me softly, some of science, some of India, and some of Krishnamurti and Christ and a certain Tibetan monk. Compassion. I tell him I remember his lessons.
In his mid-eighties he cares for his ill wife in their home. As we part, he tells me, “she will die at home.”
I thought I knew all roads there, but found myself inland driving through what felt like open doors. Soft light and emptiness, snow on far peaks, and a sky to fall into. Then a crossroads: east to the freeway and the fastest return. Or West. Back to the sea on a road I’d never traveled.
Effortless curves winding ever upward, then a plateau where horizons vanish and the day is full of sun. Hardly any other travelers in this stillness, but then just up ahead a car is swerving around something standing right in the middle of the road. Up close I see it’s a goose. Up closer, I see the long slender beak and know this is no goose. It looks to me like a brown pelican.
Even before curiosity, guilt flows in like a tide. What’s that about? Obviously something has gone wrong when a seabird is trying to hitch a ride along what amounts to a high desert highway, sixty miles inland. I’m tired. I want to go home. What am I supposed to do about it?
How comes a seabird here? I drive on and think about it. Along the coast I’d driven through the leading edge of the fierce storm two days before on my way south. Black, pelting rains and hail and winds lifting against the mountains, winds that made my truck shudder and slew near the summits.
Minutes and miles go by, and when I finally sigh and get turned around I’m no longer sure where I saw the bird. I slow. There is nothing in the road. No cars. Nothing. I drive back and forth, searching the shoulders.
Then I see, just out of the corner of my right eye, down a steep ravine to the right. A large bird has flown out just high enough I can see his head as he falls.
No shoulder. No place to park. A quarter mile down the road I pull into a turnout.
I can’t see anything. No movement. No flight. I watch the stillness. Nothing. Nothing.
Well I tried, I think to myself. The guilt recedes, and it’s an easy walk back to my truck. Out the window, there’s where I thought I saw the bird. Nothing. Accelerating, I start to think about where I might stop to eat.
I drive north. Twenty miles of high, soft grasslands, and a day like a dream. But also the thoughts of the seabird I’ve left there. Thoughts of storm and cloud canyons, and winds like walls in the sky.
When you fly in storm, lightning strikes are strobes that halt and hang raindrops before you, motionless, filling an infinitude.
Thirty miles on. I picture the separation of bird from flock and sea. I remember Terry Tempest Williams and wild geese passing in front of a full moon, their great hearts beating in flight; of the storm’s unexpected fury and the sudden parting from the flock, of the panic and calling out, of endless tumbling. I remember how she found the goose there by the lake and cleaned and arranged its broken body, covering the golden eyes with small dark stones.
And I thought of the times I have been alone and afraid, in the air, or at sea.
Turn back. Forty minutes later I find the little stretch of road with its small, lonely tree. Walk along the shoulder. At first the seabird is hidden from my sight, then all at once so easy to see. Wings drawn in tight. Head on chest. Eyes open. He seems to be waiting.
Walk back to the truck. Drive it closer. Park. This may take a while. I put on boots and jacket. Sort gear out of a big black duffel.
He is calm at first at my approach, then stands and spreads his wings. He makes a little hop and glides down clumsily a few feet. There is bewilderment in his eyes at a sky which no longer buoys the graceful long wings. I move above him and he stumbles on feet made for ocean swells, struggling ever down through sand and sage to the bottom of the ravine, the small dark stones all about our feet.
Shimmering heat – we watch the other’s eyes: golden; blue.
At my first try at covering his head with my black bag, there is the clack of beak and the feeble cry. The long, lovely beak catches my finger, but I realize then how defenseless and weak he really is, for he can’t even break the skin. A few more tries as he, master of sky and wave, tries to walk away from this danger. I drop the bag and we stare deeper into each other. Quiet words of a longing for horizons that recede forever, for winds laden with sea mist, for the thrust of surf and birth. Calm, calmer, open. I carry him out of the dry ravine.
We drive together a few hours. When the cell phone signal appeared again, I called the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, and with a few more calls I reached their sister facility in Morro Bay. The saints there will wait for me late beyond their usual hours on this Sunday night.
Over the hills and out of dryness, now the sea mists makes soft cones of light beneath road lights, and then I hear surf behind the power plant at Morro Bay. The pelican stirs in the front seat with a low, liquid calling.
They are kind and gentle, as I knew they would be. I think they will let him be at rest at least for this night, here at the sea and the end of all things. I drive on again filled with a quiet elation. Maybe we both can return to a home.
Then back on the freeway near Cupertino, the call comes. They’ve taken him to a vet, who has found a shattered wing joint. It can’t be repaired. The talk on the phone is of what is best, and I am left to drive on with my quiet grief for this son of the sea, and the sky.
I think of another someone I want to thank sometime, for teaching – so much a Haiku, who was strong in life and who would have chosen all things be always in motion, just for the delight of it. I think of hope, and how meaning comes from dissolving into the world. And I wonder how many times I have given up too early, and too easily.