Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Cloudy with a Chance of Geese

In mid-March the sky was overcast and the rain, steady but light at 7:00 a.m. I double-tied my hiking boots and zipped my rain jacket over mismatched sweats, stuffing the left jacket pocket with tissues. On chilly or windy days, my eyes water and my nose runs, bringing to mind Mom’s predictable quip: “Everything’s working.”

Through the spring and summer, I take a break from my indoor fitness course for senior citizens and switch to the outdoors, taking morning walks on a paved hiker-biker path. Occasionally I’ll drive to a park and walk the trails, but that’s impractical every day. It takes too much time.

I walk for my health, hoping to balance my appetite with exercise, and I walk to train. In early June I’ll be joining a group in England to hike in three of the country’s national parks. After spending 17 weeks on the Appalachian Trail in recent years, I know not to show up for a hiking vacation without  prior conditioning.

Ohio is flat where I live. The only hill within walking distance is an embankment separating a shopping center from the nearby homes. When I line it up visually, the top of that “hill” is about as high as the gutters on the nearest two-story house. In addition to serving as a buffer between retail and residential properties, the grassy embankment is a sometime meeting place for geese. I hear them barking in the sky as they head somewhere and cross my fingers it’s somewhere else. Do geese experience memory loss the way we do? Can they forget their gathering places?

I remember how the geese land: a flock of 30 or more suddenly fluttering, hissing, honking, and heading in every direction. When they arrive, they take over, pecking at the ground and chattering like cronies in a fast-food coffee club. In past years I have slunk by hoping not to be noticed, but geese intimidate me. Most often their presence is my cue to make an immediate U-turn and cut my elevation training short. 

My attitude toward geese is “Live and let live.” I’ll take ducks.

For the longest time I couldn’t tell ducks from geese, the way as a young girl I couldn’t tell lettuce from cabbage. I now know that ducks are not only smaller than geese; they are friendlier. I’m not intimidated by ducks.

One day it was raining hard, so I put on my sweats, waterproof hiking boots, and rain jacket before heading out. In hindsight, I should have worn my rain pants, too; next time. I had to walk around puddles, and two young ducks stood along the path. “Nice weather for you,” I said in passing.

Most days when I reach the other side of the hill, I see a lone duckling sitting next to the wet end of a drainage ditch outside the strip mall. Where are its mother and father? Its siblings? And don’t ducks imprint on other species in the absence of their own parents?

“We’re just friends,” I said to the duckling the first time I saw it. “Just friends.” I didn’t want it to follow me home. I had enough wandering geese and energetic squirrels in my yard.

The following day the duck was back, sitting alone beside the ditch. I could hear his soft quacking as I reached the bottom of the hill and turned around. He wasn’t afraid of me either.

Sometimes the little fellow was in the same spot, and sometimes he was gone. One day I watched him toddle away with another duckling. Maybe, like so many humans, he doesn’t want to go home for good. Maybe he favors his independence or—can ducks be introverted? Maybe he likes to visit and then get back to his alone time.

I conclude my morning walks by going over the embankment two or three times: up one side, down the other; up that side, down to where I began.

A few weeks into my training, spring burst onto the scene after a long Ohio winter. Forsythia bloomed, the treetops turned pink and white with blossoms, and the grass stood lush and green awaiting the mower. A lone bird, still as a Hallmark ornament, chirped on the tippy-top of an evergreen tree.

I continued to pass the solitary duck on my turns. Most days it sat in its usual spot, and I’d say, “Until next time.” Recently as I crested the hill I looked ahead and saw only an empty stretch of grass, but then I spied my little friend on the other side of the empty road, as though he were waiting to cross.

Now it is the second week of May. The grass is mowed, the walking path resurfaced. I no longer need to wear a sweatshirt on my walks. Today I hiked over the embankment twice—four times up and four down--without slowing my pace. My hiking trip is less than a month away.

The little bird still sings on the tippy-top of the evergreen tree, but the duck has been gone lately. I read that it takes a baby duck 50 days to fly; is my little friend still grounded, or has he taken to the sky? I hope he is safe. The geese have not returned. If they do, I will find another hill to climb.