"Those might be some condors," says my professor during the semesters and boss for this summer, as he continues driving the white minivan down the Zion canyon road. Eyes and necks straining to gain a better view of the large birds soaring nearly directly above the van, there is not even a hint of brake calipers being squeezed. On we drive with no idea if they were truly the great condors, leaving me in bewilderment. I hate missed opportunities like that, and it feels even worse that it might be the condor that were are nonchalantly driving past. I know I will eventually see one, but when? Not sure my bird nerves can take it. Somehow I am always in the back of the van where visibility is 10% or less out the flat window to my side when someone yells something like "ROADRUNNER!" I never saw the roadrunner, and never saw it each successive time someone yelled it, again, without the slightest suggestion of stopping for a view. (I eventually saw the roadrunner with my brother and Andrew Youderian in Baja, Mexico. My brother jams the breaks for anything. What a great brother).
Traveling to the Grand Canyon for some further spotted owl training was another chance for condors. Several visits to the North Rim Lodge revealed nothing. A descent down to the Colorado River down the North Kaibab trail also turned up nothing. For the remainder of my break, I decide to try Marble Canyon, where Kerri, my coworker and classmate, saw them years ago, claiming, "oh yeah, they just fly right beneath the bridge and hang out in the parking lot." To get to Marble Canyon, the road leads east out of Grand Canyon NP, through the ponderosa pine forests with the tassel-eared Kaibab squirrel, down through pinyon-juniper, and out into a playa. The Vermillion cliffs greet me with reddish-orange intensity, towering straight up from the low lying playa. Around to the east of the cliffs toward the massive Navajo indian reservation, I find Marble Canyon and the famous condor bridge. An old gentlemen greets me, the type of old guy that you know is chock-full of experiences and loves to talk about them. And he did. Telling me the time he flew a plane under the old bridge during a search and rescue mission for a head on passenger plane collision in the 60's. Of the world-class trout fishing just below the dam, and how the environmentalists want the trout to be all but eliminated due to resource competition with the dwindling humpback chub. Just wait till they are 40 and they will have forgotten about it, he says. Seems like a reasonable way to deal with environmentalists to me. At the visitor center I ask two clueless 'rangers' (regardless of occupation, they all were the same outfits, not really being rangers, but appearing so) about where to find condors, because obviously at this point I still hadn't seen them. They mention the release site on the west side of the Vermillion Cliffs, where they feed them every three days at midnight. Seems like an odd way to make them a naturally successful breeding population. But I'm sure they have reasons. The ladies say that they haven't been seen in a while, but the feeding is supposed to occur tonight or tomorrow night. I take my chances, not really expecting much. I arrive at the viewpoint of the release site, which is far away on the rim of the cliffs. Scoping the cliffs, I see nothing and prepare to hang out for a while, just in case. Size is difficult to tell from this far, but I see a large bird appear above the rim skyline. And then another. The first I lose in the blueness of the sky to the west. The other lands near the release site. It looks as big as the fences are. I have only size to tell me what it is (which doesn't tell me anything), until a couple from Colorado join me with a spotting scope. We find another bird on a knob pecking at something, dead I'm sure, with a nearby raven. It is huge comparatively. The scope and the scoper, obviously experienced, finds one or two others along the cliff face. Time rolls by and one by one more condors soar in, settling into the whitewashed roosting sites along the cliff face. We count a total of ten after celebrating with a beer. "Cheers to the condors!" White armpits, red heads. Juveniles as well, with a little white in the armpits and black heads. Most are tagged, forever marked for the purpose of man's peace of mind. How wild they really are is an interesting question, especially with many hand-raised condors and being fed all the time. The sun is about an hour from being set and I suddenly realize I need to make camp...and what a better place than right below the condors. BLM land...got to love it. I jam all the essentials into my backpack: sleeping bag, tarp, pad, pizza for dinner, camera and tripod, stool, stove; and scurry towards the cliffs, winding through cacti, russian thistle, and wh0-knows-what-else who's sole purpose seems to be to jab you with a prickly part and make you dance around on one foot to get it out. Shouldn't have warm chacos. At camp I watch the condors, all settled in their spot on the cliffs, waiting for night to descend. Some shift to another ledge with a loud muffled scrape of air against feather. Even the sound of their flapping winds exemplifies their hugeness. Under the stars, as always, my bed is nicely situated beneath a juniper. I am only slightly fearful of scorpions, snakes, spiders, etc, crawling into my warm sleeping bag with me. Until I look over from my eating spot and see a huge spider scratching at my tarp. That was the end of my fearlessness. I moved my bedding, after discovering that Mr. Spider was just freaking out because I had covered the entrance to his home, to a nearly level flat rock that perfectly fit my size, raising me up off the desert floor, away from all the critters that freak humans out. And I sleep as soundly as one can that is sleeping on a rock and trying not to fall of the edge into more prickly foliage. The condors slept just as good. Probably better. And they slept in. I sense they are lazy birds. The sun had been shining for some time before the first decided to move. From their perches in the shade (the sun rising behind the cliffs), they took off with an airy explosion of sound with each flap and soared to a spot on the rim, letting the sun warm their black feathers. Wings held out in worship position, whether worshipping God or the sun, they were statues, gargoyles on a castle wall, gazing out across their empire. After an hour of such radiation absorption, the slothful beasts finally decide to leap from the precipice and start their day searching for the dead and rotten. A juvenile, meanwhile, still remained in his sleeping roost getting the most shut-eye as possible. Much like my brother would. As the sun warmed the earth, and winds began to form thermal upheavals, the birds set out. This is probably the true reasoning for their morning laziness; they must wait for the thermals to carry them long distances in search of food that could be many miles away. The less flapping, the less energy used, the less food needed, the longer they can travel in search. Eventually, I retire from my observation seat, pack up and head back to the car a mile away. I see what I will call "tourists" stopping at the ramada. I see them get out, take some pictures of the life-size picture of a condor, look around, and leave. From a distance I long to tell them that there are condors in the cliffs. Fourteen of them, as I counted. I want to share my excitement, for they probably had never seen condors before. I wanted to tell them that what they thought wasn't there really was there. I wanted to see the excitement in their faces when they saw the behemoths sitting on the cliff faces or soaring high above. But the tourists were gone. Maybe never to see them.
God is there. He really is. People don't see Him, and so assume He isn't there. If only I had gotten to them in time. I could have told them that the invisible is visible. Look a little harder. There, on the cliffs. There, in God's word. See the silhouette? See the creation, the handiwork of God? You must scan the cliffs. Scrutinize the dark blobs. Is it a tree or a condor? Is it the truth or a deception?
Disappointed, I watch them drive away. I continue to plod back to my car in the ever-increasing heat. At the ramada, I watch the last condors take flight from the cliffs and head off in various directions. A woman, Claire, volunteering for the Peregrine Fund (in charge of the condor recovery program), arrives and switches on radio telemetry gear to track a few of the 300 birds (the total world population). The size of the population is very good, but far from 'safe.' Losses to lead poisoning still threatens the population, and continued feeding of nonlethal carcasses is important until hunters change from lead to copper bullets. She is very hopeful, crossing her fingers and knocking on wood (several times). The cost of such excitement for me? A flat tire.