Saturday, November 1, 2008

The beginning of an addiction

I often find myself wondering, how did I get here? I think about it way too much I'm sure, but sometimes you can't help but let "what ifs" creep into your mind. What if I had never taken such and such job? What if I had never met such and such?

While it is a total waste of time because NOW is all that we have and it is what it is, I feel compelled to write my story of how I got here. And, afterall, this blog should be about flycatchers in some way, not just about kittens, cowboys, and broken fingers. The flycatchers are where it all began, in a sense. Of course, this story can't all be told in one sitting. So here is the first chapter...

In December of 2004, at the end of my first semester as a senior Wildlife Conservation major at the University of Delaware, I was searching for a summer job. As a sophomore I had taken my first serious look at ornithology—and I was hooked. I worked with Wood Thrushes for two seasons, and although I wanted to study a variety of species, birds were familiar and what I knew. My best friend and roommate noticed a job post for Willow Flycatcher work in the Sierra Nevadas. I’m pretty sure I had no clue what a Willow Flycatcher was, and I certainly had no idea what the Sierras would be like. I was also terrified to leave the comfort of home in Newark, Delaware. But I wanted that job. And I had always wanted to travel “out west” (that’s for you Jill). So I applied, and I talked to my future boss, Heather, for the first time in my interview. She offered me a position on the spot, I made her wait a few days while I decided (even though it was the only job I applied for), and then I accepted.

The first time I met Heather in person was at the airport and I swear I’ll never forget the day. I had a huge, HUGE, bag to carry, my computer, and probably another backpack of some sort. She recognized me, she claimed, by the nalgene bottles on my pack. (She probably also saw my driver’s license, but that detail escapes me). A Texan, Heather took me to her a giant Chevy Silverado in the parking garage of the Reno/Tahoe airport. When she wasn’t paying attention, I heaved my huge bag up into the back of her truck, nearly killing myself, but I didn’t want her to think, uh, know, I was a wimp and could barely lift it. She had a straw cowboy hat on the dash of the truck. She was likely wearing blue.

She claims she talked the whole damn way “home” from Reno to our field housing in Truckee. This is probably likely, as I was still a shy loser at this point and she was the outgoing Texan who didn’t really know when to shut up (she still doesn’t). I remember her telling me about some of the fires that damaged the trees along the way. I remember her asking my permission to smoke a cigarette in her own truck (which, thank God, was a habit she kicked only a few months later with little effort). I also remember being completely overwhelmed by the entire situation—it felt like I was on another planet.

What happened once we reached the field housing at Hill Top, I honestly can’t remember—it was all a blur. I don’t specifically remember meeting any other people with much detail, of course I’d never forget any of them as I still keep in touch with most of them and hope to for years to come. But, I don’t think I’ll ever forget meeting Heather – I guess because of her charisma. She used to tell me she remembered meeting me for the first time in detail too, but no one else, which I thought was funny, but I must confess, I wonder now if it was true or not.

I was shy, but joked around with her in my usual sarcastic (obnoxious at times, I’m sure) way, calling her “evil boss lady” because she was the opposite. She knew how to make someone feel good about themselves—and I thought she was great at letting us all know our work was greatly appreciated. She was also just “one of the gang”, and knew how to have fun with the crew. She took us out for pizza right away to break the ice. She bought rounds of beer when we watched the Astros win together (this actually happened often that year, as I believe they went to the World Series but lost). Although others might see this as a weakness in a leader who is supposed to act professional, I thought it was her strength, it helped us bond as a crew, and we wanted to work hard for the boss lady. I did at least. I remember her taking us all out for omelets and mimosas at the Squeeze on a “snow day”. She was so bummed out about the birds being frozen and she had a horrible attitude because of it. She was passionate about the work and didn’t want to miss a beat in the field. And, she was damn good at it.

I fell in love with the Sierras that year. If you have ever been to Truckee, you probably know what I’m talking about. There’s just something about a little mountain town—even if it is just a tourist trap—that I just can’t help but love. And those amazing snow-capped mountains looming just behind beautiful lakes with the bluest water I’d ever seen. (Keep in mind, I’m from Delaware) The smell of the pines as you drive up from lower elevations -- windows down, cold mountain air rushing in. I can’t really give it words. Somehow addictive.

The people I met were great. Best damn crew I’ve ever been on (ok, at the time it was really the only damn crew I’d been on, but still). They taught me how to get the job done, and also how to have fun. They taught me how to live life on the edge…just a little bit. They taught me that life wasn’t really as fast paced as I thought it was (I was an east coast snob). A constant party, whether working or playing. We sang songs together, we ate great food together, and we hung out on the dock together.

The work was at times daunting. Lots of camping, and driving around getting lost trying to find meadows. Not really knowing if I was ever in the correct spot. It was wet. And cold. Damn cold. Snow in June. I often took my waders off to warm my frozen feet because they were un-insulated and had holes in them (the waders, not my feet). But I didn’t care. The birds…they say “Fitz bew!” -- how can you not love them? They may not look like much, but those little birds have character! And the meadows were filled with all kinds of other birds and wildlife.

I loved every minute of it, and I decided I wanted to come back for more in 2006 -- before the season had even ended.


Johnny Nutcase said...

yeah, but did they sing 'Never Been to Spain' with you? did they? i did not think so.

Lisa said...

no we sang neil diamond. no worries Jill, I will get to you. you don't enter my life until chapter 3!! chill out.