For unknown reasons I was thinking today about my stint in Battlement Mesa. I was going to write you all a story about bison, but I think I'm going to slip this in ahead of it . (Sorry, Rock Ridge! I'll get to it, I swear.)
Back before Vet School, I was in graduate school getting a master's degree in Wildlife Biology. One day I was sitting in my office, minding my own biz (okay, I admit it: I was doing the crossword in the campus rag.) In comes one of my fellow grad students (who we shall euphamistically call Maggie). She has been out in the field - in her case, Battlement Mesa, an arid, rocky mesa in Western Colorado, not far from the better-known Grand Mesa. But she's back visiting at the U because she can't do her fieldwork for the moment: She'd fallen off a cliff not so long ago, and her left arm is in a cast. We'd all heard she'd had an accident, but not the extent of it; I eye her cast in some bemusement. It's made so that her wrist is tilted laterally, and her left hand by consequence sticks out to the side like a seal flipper.
"Jeez, what'd you do?" I ask her.
She explains: when she fell, she shattered her radius (the larger of the two bones in the lower arm) and the pieces were too small to pin, wire or plate back together. The solution was to tilt her wrist to the side, putting tension on the soft tissues overlying the bone. This compressed the fragments enough to get them more or less lined up and close enough together that they could knit.
The down side of this ingenious arrangement is that Maggie can't drive her Forest Service rig: It's a one-ton four-wheel-drive pickup, for starters. You need both hands to manage the wheel, especially in rough terrain. If the cast angulation didn't prevent Maggie from being able to grasp the wheel, the fact that her entire plam is covered with hard, slick fiberglass would have done the trick. Moreover, her rig is a stick, and the 4-wheel is old-school: Two gear shifts, and you have to get out to lock the hubs. Locking the hubs would be the least of her problems; that, she could manage with her right hand. But you can't really steer a one-ton truck with one knee whilst simultaneously putting in the clutch with the other leg and taking your only good hand off the wheel to shift.
Hence Maggie's visit to the U: She's trolling for volunteers. Time is a-wasting, the summer is winding along, and nothing is getting done on her project while she's laid up.
Well. I have a hiatus in my own project, as it turns out. I have 5 weeks I can spare her. This could be fun. Or maybe not, but at least I'd be able to help her get back out into the field.
So, we cobbled together various arrangements (some things easily, others fraught with very tedious details, which I'll skip) and two weeks later I found myself living in the Forest Service bunkhouse in Plateau Creek, Colorado.*
Maggie's project was a desert bighorn study, jointly funded by the Forest Service and the Division of Wildlife. Accordingly I drove our rig hither and yon, being introduced around as Maggie's fill-in help. There were a few days of errands to run before we went into the field: re-check doctor appointments in Grnad Junction for Maggie, groceries to buy, field-camp equipment to assemble. As it turns out, Northern Geophysical was surveying in the area, and the company - eager to make nice with the locals and keep relations with the regional government agencies cordial - vonlunteered to fly one of their choppers up and drop our entire field camp at the designated base camp site.
I had mixed feelings about this; we'd been planning to haul our camp up on horseback, and one of the things Maggie'd been looking for in her volunteer was someone who could ride. I'm competent enough on horseback, I suppose, and I'd never had a chance to do horse-packing like that, so I'd been looking forward to it.
On the other hand, there was the small but significantly tempting detail that Northern Geo would need us to fly up with them in the chopper and scout the field site so they'd know where to drop our camp.
Flying. In a helicopter.
Oh, goodie. I've always wanted to go up in a chopper.
On the day of, I drive the rig to the designated take-off point, a grassy meadow outside of town. I am prepared to be all circumspection - it isn't my project, after all, so I am ready to sit meekly in the back of the chopper. I firmly bite my tongue and do not (though I dearly want to) ask to sit in front. But Glory Hallelujah, Maggie doesn't want to sit where she can look down between her feet through the plexiglass bubble and see the ground slipping away beneath her - nor where there is an open door to her right, with only her harness to keep her from falling out the door. Personally, I don't understand this: I myself am dying to do that very thing. But when Maggie makes a face and asks me if I'd mind sitting up front, I decline to look a gift horse in the mouth and tell her as graciously as possible that I'd love to.
I get to fly up front in the right seat! Yay!
We get in, strap down, don headsets. The pilot checks to make sure we're secure and can all hear each other. He fires it up and the blades of the rotor begin to turn, ponderously at first, then faster, driven by the throaty roar of the engine. The heavy whup of the blades rises in pace and pitch, their power translating down through the frame of the bird, and I am so excited I'm having a hard time holding still. I bite my lip on an ear-to-ear grin, trying not to look like a complete moron, but I can't help it: when the pilot lifts his bird into the air, a laugh escapes from low in my throat, gurgling up from a deep well of delight. I get a sidelong glance from the pilot and a half-smile, as if he's saying: Yeah, I get it.
I look down. My heels are on the metal frame of the chopper, my toes on the clear plexiglass bubble. The earth falls away, grasses flattened in the prop-wash, and then our nose pitches slightly down and we are skimming forward over the tops of the trees. I am enchanted.
We approach Battlement. The pilot asks if we want to do a quick scout for Bighorns before we locate our camp site. Yes, Maggie tells him - after all, if we can find animals now, we'll find them all the more easily when we are up on the Mesa. Obligingly, the pilot threads us up and down the canyons that crenellate Battlement's edges. I am beside myself with glee. This is the coolest thing ever. I am watching the cliffs skim by alongside us, looking for desert bighorns. The pilot, with better skills than I, sees them first: they're moving along the cliff to the right of the chopper, and he banks his bird to tilt Maggie's seat up and mine down, giving both of us a better view. I count seven, maybe eight, desert bighorn ewes, guessing at five or so lambs, all leaping lightly along the cliffs. They are running toward us, so they're gone in a flash, but it's no less a thrill for all that.
The pilot banks us back the other way, peeling away from the cliffs and carving a wide circle through the sky, buying us altitude before he swoops us up over the top of the mesa. This gives me an enjoyable roller-coaster thrill in the pit of my stomach and I laugh again, unable to help myself. The pilot doens't spare me a look, but from the corner of my eye I can see him smiling. Oh, well; I may be a dork, but at least I'm entertaining him.
Maggie points out our future base camp and the pilot makes a wide loop around it, scouting the slope and assessing landing sites. There's a decent amount of flat in the midst of the mild undulations of the mesa-top; our camp will be a hundred or so feet below the crest, down a relatively gentle slope.
Scouting complete, the pilot turns back toward town. Ah, well; I knew it couldn't last. Still, this is one of the coolest things I've ever gotten to do, and I lean forward to watch our shadow racing over the earth between my feet, trying not to waste a minute of it.
Next up: Installment two of this tale, as yet untitled.
*In the interests of privacy for various parties, this is a mythical name.