Saturday, 17 October 2015

Geekrant and The Vulture Chillout

So another week has gone and so Geekrant finds the need to pick up my pen again and write another missive blowing open the strange relationship between the British and our colonial cousins, the Americans! Did I say "strange relationship"? I meant to say "special relationship" of course.

Now, until my social security card decides to show up in post, I can't actually work it seems (pesky legal work requirements), so I find myself, more often than not, home alone in the apartment while Mrs Geekrant slaves away attempting to keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed. Not that it's not that hard to keep me happy, just like every geek, throw me a six pack of Mountain Dew and I'm your friend for life. Its all I need to be happy. And the love of Mrs Geekrant, of course.

Despite this unintentional house arrest that I find myself under, I do get out and about occasionally. This week's excursion involved two walks, a trip to the social security office ("Excuse me dear boy...but where the heck my social security card at?"), a wedding to attend and a visit to the university book store (much cooler than it sounds).

All these things, of course, were fueled by liberal lashings of Mountain Dew, including the first of the two walks which Mrs Geekrant had originally described as "a hike". I hasten to disagree, by the end, my portly frame and tiny legs felt that it was more of an endurance test.

So as to how it began, on Monday my wife sent me a message from work suggesting that that afternoon we go to Devil's Lake. Now she said this in much the same way that my parents used to suggest a walk in the park, by which they meant a nice saunter through some woods and past some swings and slides, maybe a roundabout. There is no roundabout at Devil's Lake. Although technically a state park, it lies about 40 minutes drive from Madison and the hike would take us two and three quarter hours. Mrs Geekrant didn't get home from work till three. So it wasn't exactly a walk in the park...only that's exactly what it was.

Devil's Lake lies high, well highish it's not Kathmandu or anything like that, in the Baraboo Hills, a mini mountain range that wikipedia tells me may once have been taller than the Rockies. Only now they're...not. As you approach the hills grow in height, in exactly the same way that my home county of North Lincolnshire doesn't. Last time I came to Devil's Lake, it was my first time in the United States and I just paddled in the lake, this time though, I was to face the WEST BLUFF TRAIL!

Now, for those who don't know, the Great Lakes region of the United States (a region known for...well some massive honking lakes for a start) owes much of its landscape to the last Ice Age and Wisconsin does in particular. Much of the land in those days was covered, unsurprisingly, in ice, snow and one massive glacier, well probably more tha one, but who's counting. But however many there were, one of them got itself into Devil's Lake and turned the narrow river gorge already there into a mountain lake surrounded by quartzite bluffs. I'm not sure what all that means, but it was on an information board not far from the top of the climbing part of the hike.

Did I mention there was climbing, oh yes folks, maybe not ropes and helmets style climbing although that is possible at Devil's Lake, but walking where you have to really watch where you're treading if you don't want to get hurt. The West Bluff Trail is a 1.4 mile trail which is expected to take you one and a half hours to complete. Why so long to walk it? Because the first half of the trail is all uphill with a 50 to 70 degree angle to climb and by its highest point, hikers are 500ft above the lake itself. There were several points where my short stumpy legs wanted to give up, especially when passed by college students in t-shirts and shorts whose glance at me seemed to say "Dude, you think this is hard? This is nothing, for my fraternity pledge, they left me out here for three days and nights with nothing but my wits and a novelty hat with two beer cans and a straw attached". Also there was a girl who probably weighed half my weight, who skipped bouncily past us on the way down, like a gazelle. I felt like a hobbit and a short one at that. The girl was obviously running the trail as a loop. I'm glad I couldn't run it and that I had to stop occasionally. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have seen the views. From the top, you could see the whole lake stretched out before you, trees with their autumnal colours on display and wheeling above it all were birds. But not just any birds. TURKEY VULTURES!

As we had climbed, the thin soil seeming to make a totally inadequate covering for the solid quartzite rock beneath our feet, we became aware of birds flying above our heads. They swooped and glided, catching thermals in some silent ballet of the skies. They were everywhere, as numerous as starlings in autumn skies back home. And they were big. Bigger than any bird that I have seen outside captivity and actually most that I have.

They were Turkey Vultures. They're called that because it looks like someone stuck a red turkey head on the body of a scary vulture. I never thought I'd see great birds like that, so untouched by humanity and so unbothered by its influence. At various points on the trail, the bluffs created shelves from which to lookout. Walking, carefully, to the edge, we could see a group of about 10 to 12 vultures "chilling out" roosting in a tree. We stood there watching them for five minutes or more. They didn't care and I felt suddenly, something of the feeling that the earliest settlers in the Americas must have felt when first faced with the untamed wilderness.

The way down was tiring, the downward slope hurting already tired muscles but the tiredness was worth it.

I was privileged enough to see a great bird of the Americas in its natural environment and that was worth any tiredness. Walking back to the car park, the trail followed the banks of the lake through boulder fields that looked like some lunar landscape and a silence and serenity that seemed to melt everything else in the world away except us, there in that moment.

Thus passed my first hike into the American wilderness, not that it was really out there wild, but it was, at the same time. And though I hail from Shakespeare's "sceptred isle" and love its rolling hills and hidden coves. Still I am blessed to live here right now, and see these things and be loved by my beautiful wife.

So until something grabs my fancy to commit to black and white words on posterity's page. This is Geekrant, signing off.

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