Wednesday, April 4 – Saturday, April 7
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area
Kearney is the World Sandhill Crane Capital, as many pamphlets and websites and generally enthusiastic people will inform you. And it comes by that name honestly: there are cranes everywhere. If you go to Kearney for the Crane Migration, which as a highly enthusiastic convert I most heartily recommend, you will find a quite decent medium sized town. You will also find Fort Kearney Historical Site, which is very cool and the Rowe Bird Sanctuary and no doubt many other things I did not get to because reasons that will soon be enumerated in exhausting detail. It is, though, a nice town. Even though I was a trifle late for the official crane migration – the annual Crane Festival is the second to last weekend in March – there were still plenty of dilatory cranes around. Thousands, actually, just hanging out in the corn (or maybe wheat? I have no idea.) fields doing, uh, crane things. Jumping up and down and warbling at each other, mostly, as far as I can tell. Gleaning seeds and stuff to eat, the internet tells me. Whatever it is, they have been doing it in Kearney for 9000 years at least, on a break between summers in the far far north and winters in the far far south. That’s what we have in the fossil record – and they seem to plan on doing it forever. It is awe inspiring. Cranes are big birds. En masse they are overwhelming, exhilarating, astonishing – it is just an amazing bird thing, a primeval, crazy, awesome thing.
Every night they all get up from the fields where they’ve been hanging out all day and fly in groups to one field by the river, where they hoot and warble at each other until, just as it gets dark, they all fly en masse to the banks of the river to spend their night up to their knees in freezing water. At dawn, they reverse the process, lifting off from the river and flying away in mostly V formations that range in size anywhere from three or four cranes to thirty or more. I was lucky enough to be there for the Wednesday evening roosting and then at dawn – yes, I got up at DAWN and hiked over to a wooden railroad bridge to watch the cranes, I can’t believe it either – for the great, uh, unroosting I guess. Kearney has a long bike / walk trail that crosses the North Platte River with a scenic wooden bridge and that is where I went to watch cranes on the advice of the helpful brochure. The local bird sanctuary and Audobon society outpost also has a photo blind that you can go to – for $75 a two hour session at dusk or dawn; they lock you in. OR, if you are feeling really rich and masochistic, you can go there overnight for $225, bring your own winter camping gear, no heaters or stoves or alcohol or anything fun allowed. A granola bar and bitter tears, I guess. It was down to FUCKING TWELVE again on Thursday night. But the bridge is free, great and you have company: it was swarmed with crane enthusiasts, most with those GIANT LENSES that all the wildlife photographers and birders, except me, have. There was an Asian tourist family – dad, mom, two kids, grandpa – and they each had their very own GIANT LENS. There was a chatty Australian lady in sandals and socks admiring everyone’s GIANT LENSES. There were several older couples with GIANT LENSES and tripods and notebooks, counting cranes out loud. There was a young family with small girls who were sadly lacking a GIANT LENS. There was a single intense guy in camouflage with a camouflage GIANT LENS. It was a GIANT LENS extravaganza. I don’t know, maybe I can’t be a wildlife photographer after all. Or maybe I can, because ya know, it’s not all about the lens. HA! Oh well! I had a grand time and I’m grateful for it, because things were about to take a turn for the extremely sucky.
You see, many years ago I apparently somehow pissed off the Mouse Gods and they have been wreaking vengeance on me ever since. It SUCKS to be hated and pursued by mice, no, really, it sucks. I have many mouse stories. I so, so wish I did not and I honestly didn’t think I was in much danger of adding to them on this trip. I move too fast, I thought, I’m never in one place long enough to get mice. Alas, when you have pissed off the Mouse Gods, all things are possible.
While I was in North Platte I went out to the truck to look for a bottle of wine I was sure I had secreted away back there. As I have probably mentioned many boring times, the back of my truck is my mobile storage unit and guest room. It had, I admit, gotten kind of full. I dug out the shoebox where the one good bottle of wine I’m hoarding to share with my friend Elizabeth was stored to see if by chance there were two bottles in there. No. No, there was only one bottle – and mouse shit and the beginnings of a nice mouse nest. AAAAAUGGHHH!! AAAIIEEEE!! I decided, in a characteristic moment, to pretend it wasn’t happening. I found the bag of rice I had been planning to drop off at a food pantry and threw it away – yes, it’s like a children’s book: a mouse! In a cozy house on wheels! With delicious rice to eat! – and hoped that would be enough, although I knew of course it wouldn’t. But it takes time to psych yourself up for these things. Let me just state here that I am really phobic about rodents. I do not handle mice or rats or even gerbils or hamster or squirrels, at all well. I will take an entire room of spiders over one mouse any time.
By Thursday in Kearney it was too late to keep pretending. After I got back from the sunrise cranes – and I am SO VERY GLAD I did get up at 6:30 and go hang out with the sunrise cranes, because it was the one bright spot of that whole shitty, shitty day – I had to deal with it. I had gone and bought a mousetrap and some mouse poison but instead of just putting them down I decided to do it the right way. I started emptying the back of the truck. When I say the back of the truck was kind of full, I mean half my clothes were back there, some in plastic bins and some in plastic bags. I pulled them all out. There was a suitcase full of more clothes. I pulled it all out and opened every compartment. There was a full set of extra sheets in a plastic box. A box of knitting wool and needles and books. And there were any number of random things: a heavy cooler, boxes of rocks, bits and pieces, hoses, etc, all calling the back of the truck home. I pulled out box after box. They were heavy and it was hard. To top it off, there is a bed back there, a futon on a wooden platform. It was made up, sheets and blankets and a very nice, expensive pillow. I pulled it all out, including the futon, which I put on the picnic table.
The mice or mouse, had been busy. There were holes in the blankets. There were half completed nests of shredded summer clothes in a lot of the boxes. There was mouse shit everywhere. I have, yes, heard of hantavirus but I wasn’t wearing gloves or a mask because, I don’t know, I’m an idiot. I did put on rubber gloves as I began to realize just how bad it was. I opened all the truck cap side windows and carried on, filling the dumpster. I took long breaks to shake and cry. That was the end of my extra blankets. The end of my good pillow. The end of so many clothes. And then, in one box whose lid had gotten misplaced, as I dumped it, increasingly hysterical, I found a nest of live, tiny, pink baby mice. Squeaking.*
Well there was a lot of screaming.
I dragged them on the sheet that I’d been hoping to save over by the pond and hoped, oh hoped, that something would eat them quickly. I screamed some more. Nobody, I must note, cared, although I stopped a few passersby and told them my tale of woe. That worked about as well as it does in Poe or the Ancient Mariner, nobody ever wants to hear the wild eyed woman with crazy hair wringing her hands and screaming out a tale of ancient horror. Go figure. Nobody, anyway, volunteered to help me. So I finally went over to where two ranger dudes were bulldozing something and begged them for help. Bless them forever, the older one started laughing and volunteered his younger apprentice ranger for the job. He hopped in the back of the truck and pulled out the bed frame. And the rug. And the bed liner. And we both beat on the sides of the truck with brooms and waited for the momma mouse to emerge, but she never did.
He tossed the baby mice into the pond, where I’m sure they made some fish very happy. And he gathered up and threw away the last remnants of my summer wardrobe and all my extra sheets. The mice had really concentrated on woven cottons, by the way, the good 400 thread count sheets, the cotton men’s dress shirts that are basically my summer uniform, that sort of thing. They did not, somehow, get into the box of knitting yarn. He left after we got the bed liner and the rug (are you worried about hantavirus, he said doubtfully? And I said, yes, of course, but the rug just had a little shit on it and we’ve beaten it all out and, fuck it. And, by the way, dear reader, I am completely terrified that I have hantavirus, which, by the way is pronounced Hahn-ta not Han-ta, everything’s a fucking learning experience, but I won’t know for one to six weeks, so what the fuck ever) and the bed frame back in and I went to the laundromat with the seven trash bags full of clothes I was able to salvage. On the way to the laundromat I had to stop twice and take everything out of the cab of the truck to re-reassure myself that there was no sign at all that there had ever, ever been a mouse in the cab, only the back. There’s a lot of stuff in the cab too. So by the time I got back from the laundromat and put everything else back into the truck – the cooler, the boxes, all wiped down with bleach, etc., etc., everything cleaned to a fare thee well – I was exhausted and shaking and psychosomatically going through the first stages of hantavirus.
Fun! I did not do much more crane watching. The next day it snowed and blew (in every sense of the word) and I stayed camped in Kearney, worrying about freezing pipes and fighting off the panic attacks (I mostly get my panic attacks AFTER the trauma; I’ve had two full on ones about the mice now and I am sure there will be more) and put arnica on my aching muscles. Sore muscles are indeed an initial sign of hantavirus but they are also a sign of having spent 10 hours schlepping boxes and bags and also of having fallen flat on your face the day before. Long story, cranes were involved – look, I didn’t see the bob wire until it was too late – but the camera didn’t get broken and neither did any bones. All good, but I am too old to fall down in the woods and not feel it for at least a few days.
And yesterday I left and drove way too long to this bullshit crappy ass RV Park between Lincoln and Omaha Nebraska and all would basically be okay EXCEPT
I am almost sure that there was mouse shit on the ONE FUCKING BLANKET I MANAGED TO SAVE that’s in the back of the truck. I washed that blanket in hot water and dried it on high, and then I spread it on the futon. The futon had no holes in it, not one, and no stains, and I think the blankets had protected it, so I kept it. I do not think a turd could have survived the laundromat, but there was most definitely one on it yesterday afternoon in the Wal Mart parking lot in Seward, Nebraska. So I put the poison out in the truck and now I am sitting here, on another freezing, windy day in a truly shitty RV park, pretending that this isn’t happening. Because that worked so well the last time. And I do not have the faintest idea, where, if it was hiding that whole time, the hell it could have been and I hope, oh gods I hope, that tomorrow morning I can summon up the nerve to drive again, thinking about where it might be hiding. I have never before in my life hoped so hard to find a dead mouse.
* I actually could not hear the squeaking! They were moving, I could see that, but in one of those tiny silver linings of age things, I have apparently lost my ability to hear super high pitched noises. The young ranger heard them right away.