At the end of Act I, the reader is reminded of something subtly mentioned in the Prologue: this entire story takes place on September 11, 2001. There is a second narrator named Joseph d’Angelo, a Brooklyn native living in New Jersey, who in Act II is an eyewitness to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. But Pedro, who is three hours behind Eastern time, still knows nothing of the events on the East Coast. In this scene has driven a busload of birdwatchers to a location among the oilfields of California’s southern Central Valley. He had a short night of sleep and a redeye departure before a long day ahead, so he is trying to get some rest in the back of the bus. Instead, he meets Betty Pickett, a “non-birding spouse” who is travelling on his bus, and will become a very important character later in the book.
“My eyes open, for at least the tenth time since I lay down. I check the clock on my cell phone. Only twenty minutes have passed. Birders are constantly hopping on and off the bus, and at little more than sea level with the windsield facing due east, it is already too hot to be at the back of the bus with the sun baking the stagnant air through the windows. If I am going to get any sleep at all, I will have to use the luggage bays.
It is a rather brilliant idea that one of the veteran drivers taught me, perfect for days like today with no suitcases taking up valuable space. Open the doors on both sides for cross ventilation, crawl inside and voila, instant king-sized bed. It often works wonderfully –say, a group is taking five or six hours at an amusement park: too short for a hotel room, too long for that uncomfortable doze across the seats. I once caught a four hour nap at the Santa Anita racetrack while my customers played the ponies, and it probably saved my ass later when weekend traffic jammed up the I-10 and the 101 most of the way home.
But this isn’t going to work here either. The group is confined to a close proximity to the bus, and I am too much of a spectacle with forty-four people standing nearby. Rather than let me rest, they all have to offer their two cents about my strange nesting habits. That’s OK, I think, the next stop will offer a couple hours of solitude, and it is shaping up to be an easy day anyway.
Eventually someone calls out, “LeConte’s thrasher!” across the street and the whole flock makes a hasty retreat, leaving a lone figure standing by the edge of the chaparral field. I poke my head out for a closer look at the straggler. A slender, silver-haired woman smiles at me, genuinely, with no indication that she considers the encounter unusual. In her white windbreaker and matching slacks, she gives the impression of a small but sturdy birch tree, which is somehow enhanced by hoot-owl bifocals.
“Good morning,” she says, more as a declaration than a greeting.
I crawl from my nest to make a proper introduction. Sometimes, for none of the typical reasons, a person will interest me more than others before saying a word. Generally it is something invisible, a spiritual trait that I lack but desire. In this case, I think I sense an elaborate root structure. Some people do not end at their feet.
“Hey, I’m Pedro. Good to meet you.”
“Betty Pickett,” she replies.
“Hello Betty. Seen one LeConte’s thrasher, seen ’em all, I presume?”
“Not exactly. I am what they call a ‘non-birding spouse.’”
“Oh…interesting. So you’re just coming along for the 12-hour bus trip then?”
“I’ve endured much worse. Picture this, only on a Bengali airboat.” We share a laugh at that image.
“I’ve been tagging along with my husband for many years now. He has brought me to the four corners of the earth chasing birds. I’ve been to places I’d never imagine seeing otherwise.”
“I see. Right on….So why aren’t you a birder yourself?”
She smiles just as before, neither smirk nor grin. Surely she has answered this question a zillion times, but the answer seems unrehearsed.
“I prefer a good walk,” she says. Not a hint of derision, but there is an undeniable silent emphasis on “good.” I dig that.
“Hope you don’t mind if I linger by the bus at times while they do their thing,” she continues.
“Of course not,” I say, “we’ll just bird the birders together.” She is delighted by the suggestion.
“Wonderful. Well for now I am going to stretch my legs a bit more. Very nice to meet you, Pedro.” And with that, Betty turns and begins strolling back toward the hills to the west.
“You as well.” I feel like I just got a visitation from my own grandmother, only better. Betty is not going to make me eat all the gross overcooked butternut squash on my plate. Actually everything about Betty seems so grandmotherly and gentle, but solid. I keep coming back to the tree image, because it is the most important aspect I can relate. Trees are the silent unsung heroes of all animal life on earth; by the end of the day, I will feel the same way about Betty Pickett.”