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Just What I Wanted

 

No chocolate or roses for me for Valentine’s Day. Instead, Husband and I took a day trip. Up Montsearch-1 (1)erey mountain, across Grassy Cove, through Grandview and Dayton. On to Birchwood to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge – a place on my wintertime bucket list for a few years.

Since right after Christmas, I’d moved a post-it note that read “See Sandhill Cranes” from week to week on my calendar. Busyness and snow got in the way. Finally, I suggested that last Friday was the day. “Good idea! How about it can be your Valentine gift?” Husband said. I agreed. In the early 1990s, Eastern Sandhill Cranes began wintering where the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers converge. The days to see them this year were growing short.

As we followed a diesel-powered log-hauling truck for twenty miles on a two-lane curvy road, I wondered if we were making this 180-mile round trip to see the wetlands where the cranes had been, but had deserted. Maybe there would be a few birds.

One car was parked near a wooden platform at the end of a gravel road. Husband and I donned our hooded coats and gloves. Please let there be birds. We carried binoculars and walked toward the viewing area. I heard static croaks before seeing cranes, and not only were there birds, but also a volunteer guide.

Charles Murray, a retired high school science teacher, stood beside his spotting scope mounted on a tripod. He grinned, nodded, and inquired if we’d seen the cranes before. “First time. Been on my bucket list for a while,” I said as I watched cranes feed on grass in a field. “I’m glad they’re still here.”

“You picked a good day. More here today than yesterday.” Charles would know because he came everyday – just to see the numbers (cranes) and spot other birds. Eagles and ducks and pelicans.

About 50 cranes stood along the river shoreline. Many others glided on the smooth water and more stood on the far shore. Using my binoculars, I marveled at the size of those closest in the grassy field. And looking through Charles’s scope, the cranes’ bright orange eyes looked dime size, and they seemed close enough to touch.

Charles has watched and studied birds for years. I learned that the bright red spot on top of a white crane’s head is skin, not feathers. Cranes stand three to four feet tall and weigh about ten pounds. They mate for life. “People can’t tell which is the male or female. They look alike to us, but obviously the birds can tell the difference,” Charles said and then chuckled. Cranes are omnivorous, eating grain in the field and critters along the shoreline. They aren’t good fishermen and were probably enticed to stop in Tennessee, instead of wintering in Florida, when they spotted the Hiwassee’s mud flats.

At one time, this area was home to many fowl species, but the cranes have crowded them out. Using his scope, Charles found ruddy ducks and mallards. As I looked, three cranes flew toward me. I ducked, but they were high above my head. “You were scope bombed,” Charles said and laughed. “You know, like photo bombed.”

It was time for Charles to mosey on because his cats at home needed attention. Husband and I headed back to our car. I’d seen the Sandhill Cranes.

And come March when I hear the loud croaks and trumpet calls in the sky above my house, I’ll marvel at the beauty of the migrating cranes and I’ll think of my Valentine present. Just what I wanted.

 

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An Encounter with Marie and Luna

searchThe SkyWest Airlines gates are a half-day’s hike from the Denver airport terminal. I was tempted to stop for food and noticed every restaurant and vending machine. Determined to eat only the peanut butter and crackers that I’d packed, I passed up ice cream, hamburgers, tacos, pizza, even a plastic container of baby carrots, cucumber slices, and celery sticks. Who would buy vegetables for $6.00 from a vending machine?

Finally, I arrived at my gate an hour before my flight. I purposely chose a seat next to a young woman, somewhere between 18- 33, an age that I can never identify, who had obviously bought vending machine vegetables. She held a pet carrier on her lap. “She’ll eat her veggies and talk to her dog, but not me,” I thought as I reached from my book.

I could see thick white fur through the mesh of the canvas pet carrier. The woman unzipped the top of the carrier and held a carrot in her hand. “Are you hungry?” she said. I saw two ears pop up above the zipper – two long furry ears. Rabbit ears. And he was hungry. He held the carrot between his front paws and nibbled it.

“Tell me about your rabbit,” I said. This was more interesting than my book.

“He’s 1 ½ years old and his name is Luna.” I thought, “And you’re taking him with you on a three-hour plane flight? Really? A rabbit. He must be special.” I wanted to know more and Marie was glad to share. She was moving from Colorado to Murfreesboro to live with Marie’s boyfriend and his family. “When we talked about me to moving to Tennessee, he knew that we’re a package. Where I go, Luna goes.”

Luna runs around the house like a cat. He’s pretty much trained to use a litter box, just like a cat. He sleeps and is happy in a big two-story crate with lots of room for him to hop. (It had been shipped to Tennessee earlier.) Marie’s only concern about the flight was that Luna would get hot. “I meant to get a small fan to hold beside him or freeze a bottle of water to put in his carrier, but I got too busy getting everything packed and forgot,” Marie said as she gently massaged Luna’s neck. “A rabbit is the perfect pet.”

The whole time, Marie talked I thought, “Incredible. It’s a rabbit – not a dog. How much does it cost to fly with a pet? Can all animals fly on commercial planes?” I booked my flight through United Airlines and according to its website, domesticated cats, dogs, rabbits and birds can travel accompanied in the aircraft cabin on most U. S. flights. An in-cabin pet may be carried, in addition to a carry-on bag, and is subject to a $125 service charge.  There’s a long form to complete and submit along with the fee. Then a PetSafe® representative contacts you to discuss your booking request.

Because I boarded the plane before Marie, I didn’t see where she sat and I couldn’t find her after the flight. I assume that Luna made the flight well, and I’m glad that Marie loves Luna and could bring him to Tennessee with her.

But the very idea of paying good money to bring a rabbit across country on an airplane, well, that beats all, as Granny used to say. And putting $6.00 in a vending machine for a handful of veggies – that beats all, too.

At the Zoo

 

DSC01747It was a cold, 50-degree windy day.  A Friday during school spring break when Husband and I visited the Denver Zoo.  And so did hundreds of other people. The Colorado wind blew fiercely. If it’d just been the two of us, I’d have suggested we choose another day to see the animals.   As we got out of the car, Son said, “Dean, we’re in a parking lot.  Choose a hand to hold.”  Our two-year-old Grand screamed, “Pop!” and reached for Husband’s hand.  Husband and Dean walked two steps in front of me.  Son and Daughter-in-law, pushing nine-month-oldNeil in a stroller, led the way. Dean turned to look at me and said, “Come on, Gran!”  He held out his little hand to take mine. The wind blew much less fiercely.

 

Many groups in the ticket line looked just like us.  Grandparents, parents, grands.  But I doubt that other groups had experienced leaders like ours. “Dean, what’s the first animal Pop and Gran will see?” his mother asked.

 

“Lions!  GRRRRRR!” Dean said.  Pop and I walked fast to keep up with his churning legs.  The massive male lion lay sleeping on a boulder just a few feet on the other side of the thick glass inside Predator Ridge; the female slept on the ground.  “Pop, pick me up.”   Husband held him and Son stood beside them.  The lion opened his massive copper brown eyes and then yawned.  His head was as big as Neil’s stroller seat and when this cat stood on the rock, his eyes were level with mine.  The female lion stood, looked toward the male, and turned away when he lay down.

 

Thus, our day began at the Denver Zoo that first opened in 1896.  It encompasses 80 acres and in 1918 was the first zoo in the United States to use naturalistic enclosures instead of cages.  The animals roamed in open spaces, and we walked along wide walkways that followed the lay of the land and were bordered with tall trees and vegetation.

 

“Look, there’s Bert!  He’s out of the water,” Daughter-in-law said.  Bert is a 57-year-old hippopotamus, and he stood beside a large swimming hole.  I’ve seen many hippos’ heads, but not those enormous bodies.  Bert lumbered close to the edge of the water.  He put one foot in as if to test the water’s temperature.  Then his barrel-shaped body slowly, but not gracefully, entered the pool.  When the water splashed, we all laughed – even Neil.  Then all we could see were Bert’s eyes, tiny ears, and nostrils.

 

Among the trees of the Primate Panorama, white cloths the size of a sheets, hung on tree branches.  Cloth that looked out of place until we watched an adult orangutan, holding a baby in its arms, wrap the cloth around herself and the baby.

 

The wind continued.  I stood behind anything or anyone bigger than me to knock the 15-mile-an-hour wind out of my face, and I went inside every building even if I had to maneuver around fifteen baby strollers and didn’t know what animals were inside.

 

It was a perfect zoo trip.  This day really wasn’t about the animals or the weather.  It was about being with two of our Grands and their parents.  And holding hands.

 

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Keep the Animals Warm

Unknown            Television newscasters have given suggestions to endure the frigid temperatures we’ve had this month.  If you don’t have to get out, don’t.  If you do, travel safely.  Bring your pets in.  Keep your animals warm.  When I hear that last one, I think of a night that my parents told my older brother, who was 15, and me the same thing.

The animals were newborn piglets, born during a late winter snowstorm. When the temperature fell below freezing, my brother, Roger, and Dad were concerned that these tiny animals might not survive in the barn.

Before Mom and Dad left our home one Saturday night to play cards with friends, Dad said, “Now, check on those pigs. If one or two aren’t close to their mother, bring them to the house so they won’t die. You know where the bottles.  I’ll check the others at the barn when we get home.”  We’d brought pigs to the house before.  And a colt and calf, too, and bottle-fed them – that’s what farm families did.  So Roger and I knew that Dad meant that we should put the piglets in a newspaper lined cardboard box and bring them to the enclosed back porch.

As Dad backed the car out of the driveway, Roger and I ran out the back door toward the barn.  We put all ten piglets in a box and carried them to the house.  Those newborns snuggled against each other.  I sat on the concrete floor to watch them and I got cold.  A small room heater heated the back porch and it wasn’t nearly as warm as the rest of the house that was heated by a coal-burning furnace.  “Let’s take the pigs in the living room,” I said.  Roger reminded me of Mom’s rule:  No animals in the house.  I probably begged and whined, as only a ten-year-old little sister can, and Roger agreed.  We’d let the pigs get really warm for just a little while and then take them to the back porch before Mom and Dad got home.

To protect the living room hardwood floor, we covered it with old towels and set the box in the middle of the living room.  Those little hairless animals were cute.  Eyes closed.  Soft and cuddly.  They were my dolls and I wrapped them in tiny blankets.  Roger and I fed them milk from bottles, and then they curled up in a pile and went to sleep.

Roger watched television and I watched the pigs and we both fell asleep.  He slept in Dad’s recliner and I, on the floor.  That’s where our parents found us when they got home.  The pigs, Roger, and I were all sound asleep.   And, of course, those ten little pigs had wet through the newspaper and cardboard and towels.  When Dad moved the box and towels, there was a big dark spot on the wood floor.  It was wet and the varnish had completely dissolved.  Not only had Roger and I broken Mom’s rule, but also we were responsible for ruining the floor.

Our punishment?  We helped refinish the floor and we never ever complained the many times for years afterward when we waxed that floor with Johnson’s paste wax.  And the piglets?  They all survived because Roger and I brought the animals in and kept them warm.