A few weeks ago, the family and I took a much needed but ill-timed (weather-wise) trip to Camano Island for the weekend. February is no time to head up the Washington coast. That wind. If you live in the PNW, you know that wind. We couldn’t do a lot. But my wife and I did get to take a good walk halfway across a vast bay that went full dry when the tide went out. It was clear from the pieces of driftwood that were still visible when the tide came back in, that we could probably have walked across it wet, too. Aside from that, the weather kept us mostly indoors. It was a nice rental, with a telescope for eagle spotting, and we did alright. Even the kids.
On a local’s advice we made a short drive from there up to La Conner. We were told we might see some snow geese on the drive. Swans, too, but mostly geese. And we did. One of us pointed out the window to a field next a barn and said “She was right. Geese.” The wife and I shrugged. The kids shrugged. Our sharp black Mercedes shrugged and sped along the Pioneer Highway. And for a few minutes we saw a few more – dozen here, dozen there. “I think that one’s a swan.” But then we turned West onto Fir Island Road.
In the distance we could definitely make out a vague brightening, groundward, inverting the natural order of a Northwest winter, where the light we wait for – we pause for, we die for – is the elusive and short-lived sunbreak. The sky was far too thick to hope for that, but the dark earth of those coastal farms held an entirely unexpected thrill. We drove on and slowed so that my wife could avoid the cars pulled half-off the narrow road while also trying to see what they and their tri-pod mounted cameras were there for. We finally put two German wheels in a bar ditch and looked. Someone must have said “wow,” because it was the only word that could have made any sense. The road was a new beach, and we had pulled off of it to look at a whole new ocean – this one snow white and downy, the furtive waves of a fallow field covered in snow geese. Thousands upon thousands of them. I believe it’s Carver, maybe Ford (maybe neither) who has a brilliant short story that takes place on a hunt during the height of the snow goose migration in Washington. Richard Ford it is, the story is Communist:
“I put down my gun and on my hands and knees crawled up the earthwork through the wheatgrass and thistle until I could see down to the lake and see the geese. And they were there, like a white bandage laid on the water, wide and long and continuous, a white expanse of snow geese, seventy yards from me, on the bank, but stretching onto the lake, which was large itself – a half mile across, with thick tules in the far side and wild plums farther and the blue mountain behind them”
Our geese were in a muddy field, and with Ford in mind I knew I wanted to ignore the fact that the pure white birds were hiding filthy undersides. This was no time for that. I don’t know if I said anything to my family then about that story – I know I remembered it right away and I hope that I said something. Let them know. Let them in. The world gets too big at a time like that, and a man shouldn’t be alone in it.
We looked for a while. There’s nothing ese to do about it. I hoped someone would do something else – honk a horn, sneeze, fire a gun – that would make the whole thing lift off. Ford called it a “raft,” but of course his were on the water. I wanted to see if they would all take off at once, or if it might start gradually from one end and curl fantastically off the ground like a giant vegetable peeler scraping off a skin of soap. Or maybe it would be random and messy – disappointing. We didn’t find out.
We moved on to La Conner. Cute, quaint, all that stuff. It has the mildly interesting Rainbow Bridge. We spent a good couple of hours hiding out from the rain in curio shops and galleries. Bought some things we didn’t need, and had a grand finale in a candy store where the proprietors were wonderful with the kids. Walked out of there with way too much chocolate (I’m a sucker for a classic turtle – milk chocolate, caramel, and good, old-fashioned peanuts). The kids ate ice cream in the cold and rain. We went back to the car.
On the return trip the geese were still there, but I think some had left. Or maybe it was just that we’d already had our first time, and it would never look like that to us again. A lot of them were flying, having robbed us of the sight of the take-off that I wanted so badly. One of them, in a display of trite symbolism that could only disappoint, shat a great wad of stewed grasses onto the hood of the Mercedes. This is its own story, I thought, and I wondered if Richard Ford’s characters could drive their Nash Ambassador back out to that lake for a second run, and still pull their triggers:
“I don’t know why I shoot ’em. They’re so beautiful.” He looked at me.
“I don’t know either,” I said.
“Maybe there’s nothing else to do with them.” Glen stared at the goose again and shook his head. “Maybe this is exactly what they’re put on earth for.”
I did not know what to say because I did not know what he could mean by that, though what I felt was embarrassment at the great number of geese there were, and a dulled feeling like a hunger because the shooting had stopped and it was over for me now.
And to think, there was a moment in there when I wondered why we went.