At a very early hour in the rosy ambience of a half- moon dawn, I found myself alone on an empty highway and watched as the rising sun cast shadows over corrugated hills that had felt those first rays of the day for millions of years. Rearranged from periodic burps of the earth, the rounded hills soared to abrupt heights and spread for miles in all directions, preventing any straight lengths of this road, which twisted and climbed and dropped like corduroy pleats in a heap of disheveled laundry. Vast sheets of rippling grass covered the vertical terrain, while trees and brush clustered along the occasional deep canyons.
After ten miles in this terrain, the road climbed to cross a high ridge, and at the top I approached one of the very few vehicles that were transiting this route, some lost soul that wobbled to the shoulder and let me pass. The other side of this ridge opened to a vast panorama of coastal mountains that blocked a view that would otherwise reach the Pacific Ocean. Gifted with flowing streams, the abrupt drop down the other side became more wooded, and in the early morning light I spied a roosting owl securely nestled deep in the tangled branches of a tree.
I had a destination, but it was still far off in the distance; one, two, four layers of ridges away at a minimum. Winding downward from the mountain top, wide valleys of pasture opened up, and I spied a lone elk with a swath of pasture all to himself. As the miles clicked by, I mused over the likelihood of finding the wild creatures that I sought at the end of this drive, since it is never a given that nature will reveal her secrets.
And I thought about the miles I had left behind, with relief, since those miles were in the congested realm of freeways and crowded cities. I had been in crowds for four days of showing art work, and the solitude of this early hour on the long homeward journey was welcome. Those city miles were well worth it, for I had been honored with a permanent sculpture installation in a public sculpture garden and park. The large eagle pair that I had carved in white cedar was well received in its new location, and I had reunited with past collectors of my work at the weekend art exhibition that coincided with the dedication ceremony of my sculpture.
Finally, I found the turn off that I was seeking on this remote highway, and after four more miles I arrived at the open gates guarding one of our national parks. Curiously, the admissions booth was unmanned, though that was understandable early on a Monday morning. I drove on through to the parking area of the trailhead that I had chosen to explore, which was also absent of cars or people.
Elated by the promise of solitude on these wilderness trails, I trekked up through the escarpments without hesitation, eager for a chance to observe one of the rarities of nature that had drawn me to this place. Within half a mile of hiking, I paused at an unusual hollow tree formation dominating the trail, and as if it were an omen pointing the way, I glanced up at the skyline– a California Condor was sprawled atop a pinnacle of rock! Preening and rustling his feathers about, he ignored my close presence as I quietly crept up the steep hillside to the base of his rock. In one thrilling moment I was within fifty feet of the condor, a quiet victory after traveling many miles uncertain if any glimpses of these monolithic birds would actually occur.
After waiting patiently to see him soar with no results, I continued up a narrow ravine that gained altitude and eventually opened up into a wide canyon lined with cliffs and stark pinnacles reaching for the sky. This was the “High Peaks” region of the park, and it was here that I hoped for a glimpse of more condor action. Just seeing the one fulfilled my endeavor, but true to human nature, I wanted more, and my next desire was to see the magnificent birds in flight, soaring freely in the wild.
I was not to be disappointed. Patiently scanning the escarpments with my binoculars, bumps of black appeared silhouetted against the blue sky at the ridge tops. I spied three separate groups of condors on three separate cliff tops, and as I watched, random individuals dived from their perches and glided over the canyons. At one point at least six birds were soaring at once, dipping low over gorges and sweeping high and circling out of sight over the highest crags, and returning to alight on their favored ledges. The entire time, two kingly elders held their positions at the very peak of two different monoliths with full wingspans stretched out and held in place to absorb the sun’s warmth, a common pose among coastal cormorants.
As an afterthought, I was perplexed that the condor that I first viewed perched on a precipice was not startled into flight. A wild turkey vulture would never have allowed a human to approach within the same distance without taking flight. The well- being of wild animals includes a security zone that cannot be breached, with many species intolerant of any human presence. This encounter of the condor languishing on his pinnacle proved the obvious, that he was familiar with people handlers and although living in the wilds, was not nearly as wild as his turkey vulture cousins. That degree of “wild” could take many generations of fledglings hatched in the wild to achieve.
Fortunately these carrion seeking birds are heading in that direction, as I discovered later that somewhere up in the High Peaks, up in those rocks pocked with small caves, was a nest with a newly hatched chick. This boosted the Central California flock to ninety one birds, and most importantly, a newcomer that was not raised and trained in captivity. He [it’s a boy!] is condor number 912.
In many cases, my approach to carving wildlife individuals is to follow a “celebrate the species” mindset, and to acknowledge recovering species by doing so. The condor recovery program fits this mold perfectly. It is on the backs of many biologists and ornithologists that we are able to see this endangered species up close and personal in the wild. In creating art with a “Celebrate the Species” mindset, I am currently sculpting a “celebrate the species” condor in tribute to their dedication and outstanding achievements that has reversed the certain extinction of the California Condor.
Where on Earth?! Pinnacles National Park, Central California, May 2018