I’m not fat. James Gandolfini is fat. Larry the Cable Guy is fat. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s rape file is fat. I’m stocky. Stout. Barrel-chested. A densely-packed man of action. Not fat.
So when my wife casually grabbed a handful of my waist last night as we were walking out of the Dairy Queen with a couple of Butterfinger Blizzards, I was a little offended. “We need to get some exercise,” she said. We. Meaning you.
I yanked my blubber from her grip. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that.” I nodded thoughtfully, a rivulet of Butterfinger juice running down my chin. “Why don’t we go for a walk tomorrow?” I was thinking of a four-block loop that takes us through our neighborhood in about 15 minutes. “Be a nice day for it.”
Barb licked at her Blizzard and put a hand in the crook of my elbow. “I was thinking more of a hike than a walk. Like Blodgett Canyon.”
I choked on my ice cream. “Blodgett Canyon?” I sputtered. “We already did that. Like, five years ago. Father’s Day. I have the pictures.”
“Well, why can’t we go up there again? Just you and me. No kids, no dog. It’s beautiful.”
I can smell a set-up from a mile away. She must have stumbled across the paperwork for a $20,000 life insurance policy I’d recently taken out from Tri-Allegiant Car & Life Online. Cost me three bucks a month, but it makes me worth more to my family dead than alive. Hell, after I’m gone, the money they save in Butterfinger Blizzards alone will pay for one of the kids’ college books.
I remember Blodgett Canyon. Plenty of “scenic overlooks” where a guy, even a guy with a low center of gravity, could tumble over a thousand-foot cliff from a well-placed bump of the hip. “Hmm. I don’t know, I could go for a hike, I guess, but how about somewhere not so steep? Or with so few Life Flight landing zones?”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Okay, Edmund Hillary. Why don’t we take a walk through the wildlife refuge? It’s going to be a pretty day, we’ll probably see lots of birds.”
So that’s why we climbed out of the Grocery Getter in the small parking lot of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in the Bitterroot Valley yesterday, just before noon. No one else was there (or so we thought). We gathered our water bottles, camera, binoculars and bird book, and headed for the trail. “You’re bringing bear spray?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I hefted the beefy bottle and strapped its holster onto my belt.
“There aren’t any bears around here.”
“Well, you never know. Besides, they didn’t have any duck spray.”
We took a few steps toward the trail, when a Fish and Wildlife guy came out the door of the Information Center. He was chewing a mouthful of food, and had crumbs on his olive green shirt. Obviously in the middle of lunch. “Howdy, folks. I just need to tell you a couple things before you head out. Stay on the trails, and today is the first day of bow hunting season. Have a nice walk.” He went back inside and shut the door, eager to return to his egg salad.
Bow hunting season. Great. Just then we saw a pair of camouflaged dudes walk past the building, carrying duffle bags and the lifeless carcass of a large goose. Or maybe it was an owl. Or a condor. I didn’t have the bird book handy.
“Great,” I said, picturing the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones is escaping the natives under a hail of arrows. “This ought to be relaxing.”
Egg Salad stuck his head back out the door. “I forgot to tell you, the hunters are supposed to stay north of here, past the end of the trail. Just keep your heads up.”
Wonderful. Suddenly Steve Martin’s old arrow-through-the-head gag didn’t seem so hilarious.
“Don’t worry about it, honey,” said Barb. “Let’s just go.”
So we marched up the trail under a cloudless blue sky, talking about adult things and enjoying the freedom of not having to constantly haze the dog, who we’d decided to leave at home. It was blissfully calm, no other hikers on the trail. The water level of the wetland was about as low as it ever gets, so the bigger birds were swimming in a far-off pond. White geese, Canada geese, white pelicans, ducks, and the odd cormorant moseyed about, drying in the sun or dabbling for minnows in the big flat pond. We watched through a spotting scope at one of the blinds, and laughed at the drama inherent in every life, even the winged creatures.
As we walked back, we startled several grouse, which exploded out of the underbrush a few feet away, momentarily scaring the crap out of us and making us laugh at ourselves every time. It was a good walk, mostly level ground, but with a wide variety of terrain, going from riparian to woodland. We took a spur trail that went down by the river, and hung out there for a while by the water. Any body of water is rejuvenating to me, and the strong, quiet flow of the Bitterroot helped massage away the stress I’d built up from work, parenting, money issues and all the other nagging problems that constantly nip at us every day.
For a couple of hours, I could forget all that and just watch the natural world and wonder at its elegant complexity. Why do some birds do more voices than Frank Gorshin? How come bear spray doesn’t seem to bother a crow? How come nobody’s ever seen a baby crow? That tennis ball in the river—where’d it come from? How can dragon flies mate while they’re flying? I can’t even do it in a camp chair.
All these questions and observations were a great mental break from the day-to-day parade of the mundane. Why did the bus run over your new lunch box. Whose bicycle is in the bathtub. Who put a Wheat Thin into the computer. Who fed chorizo to the dog. It’s the same thing every day.
So hats off to Mrs. Wire, who helped me find a way to burn off some calories and smooth out the washboard dirt road of my frazzled state of mind at the same time. I suppose I could burn more calories quicker working out on some machine at the gym, but that seems more like spending time in the exercise yard at the penitentiary. Even James Gandolfini wouldn’t go for that.
We’re already planning our next walk through the Metcalf Refuge. The bow hunters might still be lurking in the area, but that’s okay. My life insurance is paid up.