4. The Big Year / by Leslie Seaton

The next day was my final day of travel, but instead of heading straight to Phoenix, I took a dogleg detour down to the Salton Sea and Slab City.

On the way, I continued listening to the audiobook of “The Big Year.” A big year is a quest to see the most species of birds within a calendar year, and the biggest of Big Years is to top the record of North American bird species.

The book focuses on three men and their individual quests to break the record. They crisscrossed the country, racking up tens of thousands of miles, chasing species rumored to have been recently spotted.

One of the men featured in the book, Greg Miller, was recovering from a recent divorce, and was still holding down a job while trying to find the time for the travel he could barely afford. The other two guys had better resources of time, money and support, but they all faced the challenges of trying to get to sometimes remote locations at a moment's notice with the hope they would find the needed bird at just the right time. And all faced disappointments when nature did not cooperate.

The book was entertaining, but I couldn’t find a way to relate to this kind of birding. I thought the driven, acquisitive nature of the hunt seemed at odds with what appeals to me about birding. My style is spacier, dreamier; I’ve never even bothered to start a life list. I like identification for the way it brings me closer to nature, helps me recognize that this wren is not that wren, giving each its own individual identity. But the idea of obsessively tracking just to rack up numbers, turning this into a competition…something about this just does not appeal to me.

Nevertheless, all the bird talk made me receptive to the idea of a little exploration when I reached the Salton Sea. I’d heard so much about it being a dead zone, I was surprised when I spotted it and saw the shore seemed quite busy with bird activity.

I walked down to the shore, took the obligatory pictures of dead fish, then got closer to the water’s edge to get a better picture of a pelican. A few feet from the water, I suddenly postholed through the crust of the shore into muck and my foot was sucked in, trapped.

I got momentarily off-balance, and briefly imagined falling forward and getting slowly sucked into the layers of decomposing fish, bird poop, agricultural runoff and whatever other nightmare made up this disgusting quicksand. There was a couple in the distance; would they even notice if I suddenly started sinking or I cried for help? A brief horror at the idea of a singularly inelegant death flooded through me.

After that nanosecond, I was able to extricate my foot, if not my shoe. I fished down into the hole with my hand, and extracted it, now filled with ooze.

I tapped it and myself off as much as possible, and began trudging back to the car, one shoe off. I rinsed myself off and changed, then hightailed it out of there, no new birds identified, no more of the shore explored.

I felt an outsized embarrassment, an embarrassment that was wholly unnecessary because a) who cares? and b) there were barely anyone there anyway, as evidenced by my flash of worry about getting sucked into the shore unnoticed. 

This is not an isolated kind of event for me. The postholing part, that was novel, but abandoning an activity I was interested in because of an obstacle: yes, very familiar. I think whenever this kind of thing happens, even when laughably minor, it somehow feeds into some internal narrative about an essential and universal incompetence. In the face of that, retreat seems like a better option. 

Maybe it was easier to categorize my lack of identification with the characters in The Big Year because I had some kind of earthy, holistic, communal relationship with birds. Or maybe I just couldn’t identify with each man’s single-minded focus to pursue his goals, despite encountering challenges.

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5. salvation mountain