The Black Swan

Overview

Set against a spontaneous cross-country road trip following the migrating birds, this passionate, lyrical memoir is one woman's reflections on midlife, her important personal relationships, her kaleidoscopic past, and her uncertain future.

To fifty-six-year-old Anne Batterson, a woman whose life has been filled with adventure — as a commercial pilot, an international skydiving champion, a trekking guide in Nepal — her husband's decision to retire felt like a death sentence. ...

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Overview

Set against a spontaneous cross-country road trip following the migrating birds, this passionate, lyrical memoir is one woman's reflections on midlife, her important personal relationships, her kaleidoscopic past, and her uncertain future.

To fifty-six-year-old Anne Batterson, a woman whose life has been filled with adventure — as a commercial pilot, an international skydiving champion, a trekking guide in Nepal — her husband's decision to retire felt like a death sentence. Yearning for some way to reconcile herself to the future that was rapidly unfolding before her, she packed up her VW camper and hit the road with maps, bird guides, and little else except the desire to follow the fall migration and the bone-deep hunch that birds had something important to teach her.

In this beautifully written narrative of that extraordinary trip, Batterson writes movingly not only about her experiences with the birds but also about the people she loves, has lost, and connects with along the way. Events from the present trigger vivid stories from the past. In the chapter "The Journey Within the Journey," a long, lonely night in a deserted campground in Virginia conjures up the ghosts of a desperate solo road trip she made when she was twenty-one. A towering cumulus cloud in Illinois brings back a breathtaking free fall into a similar cloud in "My Time as a Bird." An encounter with a great blue heron summons a compelling account of her mother's last afternoon in the world. "Bears in the Woods" describes a run-in with two Deliverance-type men in West Virginia, which brings back the murder of a dear friend in the woods of Connecticut.

By the end of the journey, the ghosts ofthe past, like the author herself, have become part of a more fluid, more spiritual reality — wild and spare and elegant and timeless — one that is always out there, "quickening on the far side of reality."

A unique mix of memoir and nature writing, The Black Swan is a charming story of a woman's odyssey.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Much is expected from a book sharing both title and theme with Thomas Mann's unforgettable pre-feminist novel about woman's fear of aging (The Black Swan, 1952). Unfortunately, Batterson's double foray into memory and nature watching misses the mark on both counts. The author came of age in the 1960s, and her earlier life adventures (skydiving, rock climbing, Nepalese treks) make a bird-watching trip in a battered VW camper seem tame. The enforced solitude provides a platform for reviving memories of her alcoholic father, childhood rebellions, failed marriage, and unmet cries for attention, all of which are treated superficially, making sympathy from readers difficult. As she travels from Canton, CT, across the United States, Batterson relates few human encounters or humorous incidents, but she does report on inadequate hotels and scary campsites. Map-checking armchair travelers will be disappointed in route lapses, nature lovers will find little substance in the observations, and the more poetically inclined should read both historic and contemporary Native American authors for good and believable tales about uncanny communication with birds and beasts. Not recommended. Margaret W. Norton, Oak Park, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A skydiver, hiker, pilot, teacher, and freelance writer watches migrating birds and remembers important moments and people in her life. "I have always known a wild bird lives inside of me," writes Batterson, explaining the wanderlust that periodically compels her to visit the far reaches of the globe, to jump from airplanes in thunderstorms, to leave her husband and other quotidian commitments to be alone with her thoughts, her battered VW bus, and her humming laptop. Batterson can dazzle with her adventurous and usually intrepid spirit. Although her memoir floats on the surface of a recent road trip she took to see large bird migrations (especially in Pennsylvania and Kansas), she is more interested in what lies beneath. Like nesting dolls, her narratives sometimes contain flashbacks within flashbacks. And so we learn about her first solo flight, about a youthful cross-country drive, about "punching a cloud" with a fellow skydiver, about trekking in Nepal. On her journey she visits old friends and family—and takes a few potshots at her first husband ("Some holiday he was," she declares with heavy irony). We learn about her friends Ben, who left his family for five years; Lee, murdered in the woods; Rachel, whose lover died of cancer and who has now taken into her life a homeless Vietnam vet whose behavior is ominous, to say the least; and daughter Anee, a struggling artist in New Mexico. At times, Batterson works both too hard and not hard enough. Some sentences groan with the weight of too much metaphor and self-conscious lyricism. And she frequently fails to moderate what can be an unpleasant tone of self-congratulation. (We are treated to two poems that celebrate her.) Yet thefinal segment (about the rescue of a black swan) is truly powerful: here, she does not overburden her narrative with platitude and attitude. When the intent is not to elicit our admiration, the effect can be striking.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743215534
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.72 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Formerly a national and international skydiving champion, Anne Batterson is a writer, wife, and mother. A dedicated rock climber, she has also been a flight instructor and charter pilot, has guided treks in Nepal, and has taught literature, writing, and humanities courses at the University of Hartford.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One: The Restlessness

I am inside the cloud now, flying blind. I scan the drifting shadows for a sign, a flash of earth or sky, something that will tell me where I am. The altimeter mounted on my reserve parachute reads 3,500 feet. I tap the glass a few times to make sure the needle isn't stuck. I look over at the red handle of my rip cord. "Not yet," I tell myself. "Trust your instruments." Just as my fingers fold around the cold metal grip, the ground smashes through the cloud, huge, brown, hard. Panicking, I fight the impulse to pull, knowing that this is the ground-rush effect, not the real thing; knowing too that I will end up landing in the trees if I open my parachute too high.

At 2,200 feet, I give a sharp yank and feel the pins slide out, the snap of my pack as it opens up. Arching back, I watch the small white pilot chute pop free over my head and catch the air. Attached to it, the red-white-and-blue sleeve of my parachute comes snaking out until it stands straight up like a candle. The weight of my falling body pulls the parachute out of the sleeve. It flowers slowly, uncupping delicately against the sky.

Although this particular moment happened more than thirty years ago, it remains, quite simply, the story of my life.

* * *

"What the hell are you doing, Anne Batterson?" I whisper as I begin stowing the last batch of groceries into the back of the camper. The question makes me laugh out loud. And then it makes me scared.

What is it that makes me bolt out the door the way I do, take such hefty risks with my second marriage, my teaching job at the university, my delicately balanced relationship with David's parishioners, my own sanity?

The perennial ring of these questions catches me off guard. I stand in the middle of the driveway, a bottle of olive oil in my hand, shaking my head slowly but also grinning. I know it is the September light that makes me do these things, but I just can't go around saying that to people.

I have always known a wild bird lives inside of me. Have felt it gazing quietly through my eyes, tipping my head back to read the slender twists of mares' tails, the mapping of the stars. And too, there are dreams that are not my own. Dreams of homing, of soaring high above the earth, silent as a glider, following the ancient bearings my body knows. When the weather turns in August, the creature frets and frets until it makes me feel edgy, deprived, skewed somehow -- by the tilting of the light.

I used to fly airplanes for a living. Other things as well: parachutes, soaring planes, antique biplanes upside down. This helped. In more recent years I have flown off to Nepal most Octobers, to guide treks high up into the mountains where the light blinds the mind. Extreme measures, I know, just for a little light, a little momentum. But of course, there was more propelling these migrations. Rapture, for one thing. Fear, for another. The trick was to keep the cycle moving. The light, the shadow. The light.

Two things my father used to say about me turned out to be true. The first was that I was destined to marry an itinerant trombone player. I did that the first time around. Did I ever. That guy could orchestrate anything, from the story of his life to the music of the spheres.

The second thing my father liked to say was that when I really fell in love, I would "go down like a tent." I never knew what that meant until I met David nine years ago, when I was forty-six. It happened the first time I looked into those prismatic blue eyes. Ploof. In fact, I still fold up inside when I see him through the door of his office at home, feet propped up on his desk, phone curled into his shoulder. He always brightens when he sees me, dandles his head as if whoeveritis will never stop talking, so that I cannot resist going to him to touch his shoulders through his cotton shirt and kiss him softly in the hollow of his free temple.

I accepted these events foretold along with the birth of two daughters as strokes of the cycle, like day and night -- although at times they felt more like life and death.

But somewhere in the past couple of years, I started losing momentum. This happened gradually -- after the last of our parents died, and the children's bedrooms became clean and still except for the gauzy curtains, lifting and falling in the long afternoons like huge silent lungs. David and I began to face off at each other every time we tried to talk about the future. Retirement, he would try out over the dinner table, Montana. Photography. More time. Enough time. Fifteen years if I'm lucky, he would say with a sigh.

What I heard was: Hurry. Hurry. There's no time. It's almost over.

I couldn't do it, that conversation. The language was all wrong, and I had no words to offer. Up until then, I had lived my life as if it were a never-ending series of intriguing chapters, each one more compelling than the last. My eyes were invariably on the one ahead, and the next, so much so that I was absurdly unprepared for the chapter David wanted me to contemplate. Maybe nothing could have prepared me for that singular moment when the rest of my life unfurled before me in one seamless piece, like a winding sheet.

After that, my universe tightened up like a fist, very slowly. So slowly I could not name my losses until they were long gone: the trail that once cut up the ridge behind our house, the exact weight of a child on my hip, calling my mother on the kitchen phone to chat while I washed lettuce and chopped up vegetables for dinner.

The harder David struggled to find his way into the future, the more I recoiled from it. I began to back away from him too, and from my grown children, because loving was becoming too painful, because it made me want to grasp on to things that can't be held. My withdrawal was a form of dying, really. Willful. Private. Just a little bit every day; just enough to get the hang of it; not enough for anyone to speak up about, especially me.

As far as the rest of the world knew, I was leading an enviable and adventurous life. My bio was a good read, filled with strong words, except that for me, their energy, their sweet force, had leached out.

If I had to pick one incident to illustrate the state of my spirits, I would choose something that happened a couple of months ago during an early summer trek I was guiding in the newly opened kingdom of Mustang in Nepal -- a trip I had been dreaming about doing for thirteen years.

We had climbed up the Tey Khola River bed to visit Ludi Gompa, an ancient monastery, nearly hidden in one of the many caves that pock the cliff walls of a high, uninhabited valley. It was an astonishing place, as wild and strange as any on earth.

I was feeling restless and removed as I explored the dark shrine rooms, even though I was chancing upon incredible treasures: deities draped in tiger skins, stomping on demons and copulating with their consorts; Buddhas and bodhisattvas waiting quietly in the darkness until the last sentient being passes into Nirvana. What is the matter with me? I wondered as I moved from room to room like a sleepwalker.

I had hoped that returning to Nepal would recharge me. But it wasn't happening, even at Ludi Gompa. At one point, I crawled up through an opening into what was left of a room with a spectacular view of the valley. A meditation room probably. Once inside, I seated myself cross-legged on the floor, just as others had been doing for thousands of years. I tried to focus my mind, but it just skipped along the surface of the moment like a flat stone on water. Down below I saw David on the steep path, his head hidden by a large black hood. He was shooting pictures of the monastery with a large-format camera. I understood then that I was going through Nepal just like that camera: recording what was there without responding to it, without feeling it.

Shame and loss scuttled through my body. In my mind I saw a line of dark-haired women winding their way down the mountain path below me. Identical forms, moving in single file: hair swinging with each step, day packs thudding softly. They pivoted slowly at each switchback, one by one, their trekking skirts flaring slightly. All those women, all those selves, leaving me. The daughter, the wanderer, the aviator. The stepmother, the divorcée, the single mother. The English teacher, the lover, the adventurer. I'd driven them all away.

I returned from that trip depleted, not sure I would ever go back to Nepal. David and I drifted erratically into the heart of the summer, lovers one day, adversaries the next. Both roles made us sad. It was David who broke through first. "I've been an Episcopal priest all my adult life," he said one day as if he had just been hit over the head with it. "When you're a priest, you can never stop being one. Not for a moment. People won't let you." And then, without another word, he made an appointment with his bishop to give him a one-year notice.

I could not believe the way this single act quickened his step. All the logs in the jam came loose at once. His cameras leapt from the upstairs closet, and swags of dripping negatives began looping back and forth in the guest bathroom, like Tibetan prayer flags. He started climbing the local ski hill every day to get in shape for a trip to the Tetons. He bought a computer, a box of pastels. His sermons became more vigorous and poetic than ever. And he became infinitely gentle and focused when he was with me, knowing that I was still jammed, knowing that I did not know what I needed to do to get going again. So it was that we fell in love again, for the hundredth time.

But it was not until the end of August, two weeks ago precisely, that my own future opened up again, abruptly, like a stuck door sprung by the heft of a body. This happened during an early morning run on a shore road in Rhode Island. I had been sensing the end of summer as I jogged along: the loaded seedpods gone to amber, the bleached grasses clicking by the roadside, the erotic stench of wild grapes. And the swallows were, as my mother used to say, "ganging up on the wires." As always, this sight stirred shapeless longings. "Every year," I said out loud. "Every year!" The sound of my voice startled me. I looked back up at the birds, squinting hard, trying to decode my feelings. What is it, this feeling I get every August when the birds are getting ready to go? What do I want...so much? What have I lost?

As I ran on by the saltwater marshes, by the high-stepping white egrets, more words and images began to surface: a vivid language of wind and water and slant of sun, of comings and of goings. I realized that the voice I was sensing was the same one that was stirring up the birds. But for me, it was just an echo: loud enough to disturb, yet distant enough to ignore.

I slowed down. All of me, feet, thighs, hips, respirations, the convulsing of my heart. My mind grew very still. Centered up like the needle of a compass.

What I thought was lost forever was now all around me. The spare elegance. The elemental articulation of stone and blood; the forgotten world that this language alone has the power to communicate. "This is the real reality," I said to myself in amazement.

Beyond the marsh and the bright sea, I saw the sky deepen, rolling out its circumference like a fresh chart. Two ropes of Canada geese swung by, their cries pealing through the morning. Why not just go? Like the birds. Try out their reality for a while. See what happens.

I felt the jump start, the purr of adrenaline. Dear God, how was I ever going to explain this one, I wondered, thinking of David, my fall schedule, all the people whose lives were interwoven with mine. Then I knew it didn't matter. Suddenly I was feeling very strong. And very much alive.

September 11, my fifty-sixth birthday. Even though I have a lot left to do before I leave tomorrow, I sit quietly at my grandmother's writing desk by the French doors of our bedroom in Canton, Connecticut. During the two weeks that have passed since that run in Rhode Island, I have been reading all I can find on migration. I am haunted by an eerie scenario reported by researcher Stephen Emlen of Cornell University. Wild birds that have been detained in cages during the migratory season will face in the direction of their would-be flights and start hopping up and down. They will continue this for days, changing their headings as they complete various legs of their ghostly routes. Scientists call this "migratory restlessness." I think about the wild bird inside of me, hopping, hopping.

On the dark surface of the pond before our house, two yellow leaves drift back and forth. My dictionary tells me that to migrate means "to come and go with the seasons." Perhaps it is my birthday that makes the simple definition seem so auspicious. I say the words over and over like a mantra, feeling their potency, their promise.

Copyright © 2001 by Anne Batterson

Chapter Two: Just Going

As I soar over the Hudson River in my vintage VW bus camper, the September morning sun at my back, a gravelly mix of adrenaline and guilt creeps into my system. It feels familiar. Well, I've done this before, I admit to myself, as I snap a cassette into the VW's tape deck and turn up the rear speakers. And I have always figured out a way to justify my actions to others. "I'm looking into the adventure travel business," I'd say to my children's teachers. "I need to keep up my guiding skills," I'd say to David's parishioners. "I'm studying Buddhism," I'd tell my department head. But I knew that those were just partial truths, and the unspoken responses to them rang loud and clear. What kind of mother...? What kind of wife...? The truth is, I don't know why I have to take off the way I do. I have always done it. The trade-offs are always the same: infinite guilt in exchange for unmediated freedom, one jagged tear down the center of my being in exchange for clean cold air in my face, for fire.

But then, what can we ever do to reconcile the demands of love with the demands of the spirit? Some families, such as the one I grew up in, have more trouble with this than others. Jimmy, Nicki, Jon, and I adored our parents, but this was no simple matter. Our father was the funniest man alive and also the sloppiest drunk. He was crazy about us. He read us thrilling books like The Three Musketeers and The Swiss Family Robinson. And when he had not had too many cocktails, he told outrageous true stories at the dinner table, making us reel hysterically back and forth in our mahogany chairs until our mother would tell us to settle down or we would break the chairs.

Our mother kept her head up and her mouth shut, no matter how bad things got. Even though she was not one to pick us up and crush us to her bosom, we could tell she loved us by the things she did, like the time she actually went off to a fancy party wearing the sticky blue spangle earrings my six-year-old brother made for her. We also knew she loved our father as much as we did, which may explain why she joined him for a few awful years in his alcoholic cocoon.

Maybe it was the unruliness of love that made me take off by myself whenever I could during childhood. Who knows, maybe it is the reason I still do it. Of this I'm sure: I work hard to keep this part of me hidden because I know it scares the people who love me. It frightens me too, but in a different way. Like the way it feels to sit in the open door of an airplane, head stretched out, goggles chattering against my cheekbones, the mute earth sliding by underneath. When the pilot cuts the engine for the exit, there is abject silence, a pause so powerful, all choices are neutralized. Then you just go, that's all. Just go.

I feel "just gone" right now. Pablo Casals is playing the Bach suites, his cello modulating the flow of my blood. I trace the course of the music through my body, a squeeze at my wrists, a bounce at the nape of my neck, a cresting behind my eyes. He is playing the landscape too. Green hills heave and fold, billow up again.

Sitting high above the road in my captain's chair, armrests down, cruise control switched on, I celebrate having the bus all to myself. When David and I go on vacation in it, we painstakingly divvy up every inch of storage space. Now my laptop and bird books fill the chest reserved for his cameras; my tape recorder, cassette case, Books on Tape, and binoculars sit beside me on the passenger seat. My clothes have cavorted into all three bins under the couch/pull-out bed that runs along the driver's side.

The bus's decor is southwestern. Zigzagging soft yellows, multiple blues, and salmon pinks for the curtains, the couch, and its pillows. The backseat, covered in slate blue tweed, serves as a second couch and as a headboard at nighttime. A wooden storage chest quadruples as coffee table, footrest, and dinner table when the weather is bad. In the far back over the engine, the kitchen gear is stowed for easy access through a large hatchback door. All in all, it is a fine traveling machine for two, and for one, a Waldorf on wheels.

I've brought a map of the United States, campground guides, and the names of birding hot spots on migration flyways from one coast to the other, along with the telephone numbers of friends I may or may not call along the way. The shape I have imposed on the next five weeks has been penciled in very lightly, because what I need right now is not to know where I am going. That is, if I am going to learn what this trip is really about.

And this is the way I learn, by experiencing. Words, those of others as well as my own, have never been enough for me. It was hard on my parents having a child who had to jump off things, go swimming when the waves were too big, sneak out at night just to roam, test the thin ice, touch the fire, disappear for hours so that she could dream her stories without interruption and often act them out. It has been hard on my children having such a mother.

I head south through the Poconos, now on a straight course toward Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, my first stop on the eastern flyway. I'm thinking about the different ways I have managed to jump-start my life in the past. Some were theatrical, like throwing myself out of airplanes, and some more subtle, like committing myself to teach a course on something I knew nothing about.

Or popping a quarter for a phone call into the pocket of my running shorts and heading out of Canton on foot to run outbound until I dropped. One time I ran all the way through the town of West Simsbury and after that Simsbury, and then I ran up the long slope of Talcott Mountain in the steaming noonday heat. When I reached my mother's house on top of the mountain, I hooked a left, peeling off my putrid shirt as I tore down the long driveway through the woods. I toed off my Nikes as I passed through the garden, hopped out of my shorts on the wide lawn, and dove into her pool without breaking my stride. Moments later, as I lay on my back, cooling my burning scalp, my mother appeared at the side of the pool bearing a white terry cloth robe. "You may need this," she said tactfully, her kinetic blue eyes sparking with amusement as she laid the garment carefully over the arm of a metal chair.

And there were those chiseled autumn nights when I felt compelled to sleep out on the front deck of our house so I could feel the earth spinning through the universe. This one always worked, even though it horrified my kids when they were in elementary school. Anee (pronounced Ah'-nee) and Mandy lived in terror that I would oversleep and their car pool would arrive to find me lying in my sleeping bag for all the world to see, like a huge green slug. In those days it was hard enough to have a single mother, not to mention one who slept outside.

But sometimes I get so blunt nothing can sharpen me, except to go. So I construct the most plausible story I can and then disappear. Fast. Before I change my mind.

When I first told David that I wanted to take the camper and drive around the country for a few weeks to think and write about migrating birds, his handsome blue eyes grew quite merry. "Well then," he had said, without missing a beat in the conversation, "I'd better get you a new set of tires!" I think he was glad to see me brighten up after so long. And I suspect he knows me better than I think he does.

But I know that was not how he was feeling this morning when I left. Last night was very long for both of us. I could tell by the angle of his head that he too was watching the stippled moon sail through the high Palladian windows of our bedroom, but my coming departure had sealed our lips like a contract. At dawn, we made love very carefully, watching each other's faces, distilling our apprehensions down and down until they became one singular shared blind spot. Afterward, we lay side by side, looking up at the ceiling. There wasn't anything to say, really. I was already rolling west in my head, and he knew it. When we finally got out of bed, his eyes were blunt, fixed into an expression of resignation that was difficult for me to own.

"Enough of that," I say out loud, trying to shake David out of my mind. I crank the volume on the tape deck louder and louder until it fills me all the way up. This is the way I want to feel, I think as the strands of notes become green and deep, splashed with sunshine. Every moment a first time, a unique triangulation of time and place...and me. Although I have driven this road several times before, I have never been precisely here before. This landscape consists of Pablo Casals' cello and four turkey vultures riding the ribbon of warm air rising from the highway. Concrete forms for abstractions my mind can only grope at: the wings and blood, the blue and black and float and soar, the aching beauty.

Copyright © 2001 by Anne Batterson

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First Chapter

Chapter Two: Just Going

As I soar over the Hudson River in my vintage VW bus camper, the September morning sun at my back, a gravelly mix of adrenaline and guilt creeps into my system. It feels familiar. Well, I've done this before, I admit to myself, as I snap a cassette into the VW's tape deck and turn up the rear speakers. And I have always figured out a way to justify my actions to others. "I'm looking into the adventure travel business," I'd say to my children's teachers. "I need to keep up my guiding skills," I'd say to David's parishioners. "I'm studying Buddhism," I'd tell my department head. But I knew that those were just partial truths, and the unspoken responses to them rang loud and clear. What kind of mother...? What kind of wife...? The truth is, I don't know why I have to take off the way I do. I have always done it. The trade-offs are always the same: infinite guilt in exchange for unmediated freedom, one jagged tear down the center of my being in exchange for clean cold air in my face, for fire.

But then, what can we ever do to reconcile the demands of love with the demands of the spirit? Some families, such as the one I grew up in, have more trouble with this than others. Jimmy, Nicki, Jon, and I adored our parents, but this was no simple matter. Our father was the funniest man alive and also the sloppiest drunk. He was crazy about us. He read us thrilling books like The Three Musketeers and The Swiss Family Robinson. And when he had not had too many cocktails, he told outrageous true stories at the dinner table, making us reel hysterically back and forth in our mahogany chairs until our mother would tell us to settle down or we would break the chairs.

Our mother kept her head up and her mouth shut, no matter how bad things got. Even though she was not one to pick us up and crush us to her bosom, we could tell she loved us by the things she did, like the time she actually went off to a fancy party wearing the sticky blue spangle earrings my six-year-old brother made for her. We also knew she loved our father as much as we did, which may explain why she joined him for a few awful years in his alcoholic cocoon.

Maybe it was the unruliness of love that made me take off by myself whenever I could during childhood. Who knows, maybe it is the reason I still do it. Of this I'm sure: I work hard to keep this part of me hidden because I know it scares the people who love me. It frightens me too, but in a different way. Like the way it feels to sit in the open door of an airplane, head stretched out, goggles chattering against my cheekbones, the mute earth sliding by underneath. When the pilot cuts the engine for the exit, there is abject silence, a pause so powerful, all choices are neutralized. Then you just go, that's all. Just go.

I feel "just gone" right now. Pablo Casals is playing the Bach suites, his cello modulating the flow of my blood. I trace the course of the music through my body, a squeeze at my wrists, a bounce at the nape of my neck, a cresting behind my eyes. He is playing the landscape too. Green hills heave and fold, billow up again.

Sitting high above the road in my captain's chair, armrests down, cruise control switched on, I celebrate having the bus all to myself. When David and I go on vacation in it, we painstakingly divvy up every inch of storage space. Now my laptop and bird books fill the chest reserved for his cameras; my tape recorder, cassette case, Books on Tape, and binoculars sit beside me on the passenger seat. My clothes have cavorted into all three bins under the couch/pull-out bed that runs along the driver's side.

The bus's decor is southwestern. Zigzagging soft yellows, multiple blues, and salmon pinks for the curtains, the couch, and its pillows. The backseat, covered in slate blue tweed, serves as a second couch and as a headboard at nighttime. A wooden storage chest quadruples as coffee table, footrest, and dinner table when the weather is bad. In the far back over the engine, the kitchen gear is stowed for easy access through a large hatchback door. All in all, it is a fine traveling machine for two, and for one, a Waldorf on wheels.

I've brought a map of the United States, campground guides, and the names of birding hot spots on migration flyways from one coast to the other, along with the telephone numbers of friends I may or may not call along the way. The shape I have imposed on the next five weeks has been penciled in very lightly, because what I need right now is not to know where I am going. That is, if I am going to learn what this trip is really about.

And this is the way I learn, by experiencing. Words, those of others as well as my own, have never been enough for me. It was hard on my parents having a child who had to jump off things, go swimming when the waves were too big, sneak out at night just to roam, test the thin ice, touch the fire, disappear for hours so that she could dream her stories without interruption and often act them out. It has been hard on my children having such a mother.

I head south through the Poconos, now on a straight course toward Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, my first stop on the eastern flyway. I'm thinking about the different ways I have managed to jump-start my life in the past. Some were theatrical, like throwing myself out of airplanes, and some more subtle, like committing myself to teach a course on something I knew nothing about.

Or popping a quarter for a phone call into the pocket of my running shorts and heading out of Canton on foot to run outbound until I dropped. One time I ran all the way through the town of West Simsbury and after that Simsbury, and then I ran up the long slope of Talcott Mountain in the steaming noonday heat. When I reached my mother's house on top of the mountain, I hooked a left, peeling off my putrid shirt as I tore down the long driveway through the woods. I toed off my Nikes as I passed through the garden, hopped out of my shorts on the wide lawn, and dove into her pool without breaking my stride. Moments later, as I lay on my back, cooling my burning scalp, my mother appeared at the side of the pool bearing a white terry cloth robe. "You may need this," she said tactfully, her kinetic blue eyes sparking with amusement as she laid the garment carefully over the arm of a metal chair.

And there were those chiseled autumn nights when I felt compelled to sleep out on the front deck of our house so I could feel the earth spinning through the universe. This one always worked, even though it horrified my kids when they were in elementary school. Anee (pronounced Ah'-nee) and Mandy lived in terror that I would oversleep and their car pool would arrive to find me lying in my sleeping bag for all the world to see, like a huge green slug. In those days it was hard enough to have a single mother, not to mention one who slept outside.

But sometimes I get so blunt nothing can sharpen me, except to go. So I construct the most plausible story I can and then disappear. Fast. Before I change my mind.

When I first told David that I wanted to take the camper and drive around the country for a few weeks to think and write about migrating birds, his handsome blue eyes grew quite merry. "Well then," he had said, without missing a beat in the conversation, "I'd better get you a new set of tires!" I think he was glad to see me brighten up after so long. And I suspect he knows me better than I think he does.

But I know that was not how he was feeling this morning when I left. Last night was very long for both of us. I could tell by the angle of his head that he too was watching the stippled moon sail through the high Palladian windows of our bedroom, but my coming departure had sealed our lips like a contract. At dawn, we made love very carefully, watching each other's faces, distilling our apprehensions down and down until they became one singular shared blind spot. Afterward, we lay side by side, looking up at the ceiling. There wasn't anything to say, really. I was already rolling west in my head, and he knew it. When we finally got out of bed, his eyes were blunt, fixed into an expression of resignation that was difficult for me to own.

"Enough of that," I say out loud, trying to shake David out of my mind. I crank the volume on the tape deck louder and louder until it fills me all the way up. This is the way I want to feel, I think as the strands of notes become green and deep, splashed with sunshine. Every moment a first time, a unique triangulation of time and place...and me. Although I have driven this road several times before, I have never been precisely here before. This landscape consists of Pablo Casals' cello and four turkey vultures riding the ribbon of warm air rising from the highway. Concrete forms for abstractions my mind can only grope at: the wings and blood, the blue and black and float and soar, the aching beauty.

Copyright © 2001 by Anne Batterson

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