The Sandhill crane migration is something I've wanted to visit for almost ten years, since a beloved professor of mine mentioned in passing that she and her partner had visited and found it life-changing. At least, that's the jist of what I remember. I can't actually swear that she used the words life-changing. But she had tears in her eyes when she spoke about it. And I admired her so much and had learned so much from her (she was life-changing, I guess you could say) that I thought I needed to see it, too. I hoped it would be life-changing.
About a month ago, after a few particularly long and taxing weeks, I admitted to myself and then declared, that I needed a day away. Away from the house and away from all the things and tasks I feel so tied to. My plan was to visit the cranes. It was going to be an odyssey. For boring old home-bound me, the nearly three-hour-one-way drive was going to be an adventure, something that would take me outside my comfort zone. And I hoped that the sight and sound of all the prehistoric birds would awaken something in me.
A few weeks passed and I didn't make any hard plans for my trip, so Dave tried to encourage me. Somewhere in the discussion we decided we might as well make this our first mini-vacation with Nettie. We would make it an essentially 24-hour trip and Daddy and Nettie could hang out at the motel and swim while I went out to see the cranes. It seemed like an okay compromise between two things we thought we should do.
We packed up the car with an astounding amount of things... three pairs of shoes for each of us, as well as a full-size cooler full of food (because when you're vegan, you can't count on finding much fresh food at restaurants, especially in smaller towns), coats, blankets, Nettie's potty chair. It was a van full of fun, let me tell you. We would have needed a U-Haul if it had been a three-day weekend. Even though we were leaving on Friday afternoon and planned to be back at about the same time on Saturday afternoon, all the familiar vacation feelings of dread, encroaching hysteria, and a desperate hope that the car might break down a few miles from home, were flowing full-bore through me.
The ride to Kearney proved to be almost as bad as both Dave and I feared it might be. Nettie has only ever taken hour-long car-rides, most of these interrupted by a bathroom break, lately, which happens on a little portable chair we bring with us. We stopped five times for bathroom "emergencies," only two of which produced any results. This added a full hour to the travel time and by the time we were nearing Kearney, the sun was setting and we were watching flocks of cranes lifting out of the cornfields, all flying back towards the river.
The pages of directions Dave had printed out didn't turn out to contain any directions to the viewing sites we were hoping to visit, so after driving around frantically for half an hour on the outskirts of Kearney, going from snarky and irritated to hostile and angry, Dave remembered that I have a smartphone, and could look up directions. Oh, yeah. Isn't that handy?
We figured out where we were, and arrived at the viewing site just as the light was dying. The trilling of cranes was loud and unlike anything I've heard before. Nettie was excited, and the noise was sort of exciting to hear. We walked the trail as fast as we could to the viewing bridge, which was crowded with people, and watched a very pretty sunset over the river. There were no cranes in sight, though we could hear them somewhere nearby, and a few stragglers continued to pass overhead. We stayed until Nettie's patie nce ran out and she started picking things up and throwing them toward the river, and by that time, it was pretty well dark.
I left the motel in the morning an hour before sunrise, and drove ten minutes to the park, which was already filling up again. Sunrise was still a ways off, but the sound of cranes was loud as I stepped out into the cold. I walked towards the bridge, passing couples and groups of people coming back, which made me suspect that whatever was going to happen already had. Only a few dozen people remained on the bridge when I reached it. From what I heard others saying, the cranes had taken off about ten minutes previous. So that was that. No cranes for me.
From the park, I drove a few miles down a gravel road and parked to watch a small flock gathered in one of the countless cornfields. The air was hazy with dust and the field had clearly been recently drilled with anhydrous ammonia, which is liquid nitrogen fertilizer. In concentration, it's extremely deadly. I wondered whether some of the haze might be anhydrous, though I'm sure any farmer, my dad included, would laugh at that suggestion. Still, as I sat with my window down, something in the air burned my nostrils. And there were the cranes, standing in the furrows where the fertilizer had just been applied, eating presumably contaminated grain. It was a little eerie.
It wasn't a life-changing trip by any stretch. I didn't experience chills or become emotional viewing the cranes, though admittedly, perhaps I didn't give myself the right opportunities to do so. There are blinds you can reserve, and one night and one morning probably wasn't enough time to allow if I really wanted to be sure of some good viewing. Though I didn't have any epiphanies, I did experience the old thrill when we pulled out of the motel parking lot, headed for home. If I'm going to be anything but a homebody in this lifetime, it's probably going to take some intensive therapy, drugs, and a team of experts. In a way, the trip did have part of its desired affect: it left me feeling more grateful for what I have, happy to be where I am, with the people I love.