One of us had a car but no binoculars; another had two pairs of binoculars but no car. The third had nothing but a smile and a desire to see some western birds.
One of us had a great set of eyes that spotted the tiny bird and another of us heard its musical trilling, but the third had the bird book that told us what it was. (Rock wren, probably.)
On an early-morning trek up Kamiak Butte, three birders who had just met helped each other see and hear some interesting birds that don't generally visit the eastern half of the U.S.--chattery magpies with their iridescent backs, a black-headed grosbeak and a red-shafted flicker. Our little group came together when I saw a conference attendee carrying binoculars and a bird book, and she agreed to share her spare binoculars if I would drive us to a good birding spot--which is how, early Friday, we ended up at Kamiak Butte.
I had been to Kamiak Butte very early Wednesday morning--and I know how early because I found a gate blocking the entrance. Opens at 7 a.m.--I had a full hour to kill. (I don't adjust well to time changes so I'd been wide awake with bright sunshine beaming into my dorm-room window at 5 a.m., and if I'm up, I may as well do something interesting.) When the gate across the road turned me back, I drove northwest a few miles to Steptoe Butte, an immense block of quartzite rising 3612 feet from the rolling waves of green. From the top of the butte, all those rolling green waves looked as flat and fake as a child's plastic play farm, and off to the east a wind farm's slow-moving blades looked like a yoga class stretching in unison.
I heard some bird calls up on the butte but had no binoculars or camera or bird book so good luck trying to figure them out. Maybe a yellow-breasted chat in the distance, if they have yellow-breasted chats in the west. (If "tweet-tweet-tweet-squiggly-tweet" sounds like a friend of yours, please send me his name!)
Throughout my trip I was astounded by the dearth of trees and water. Where I live, you can't spit without hitting some sort of water--a roadside brook, farm pond, puddle, creek, drainage ditch, or one of several area rivers. Spit in the creek at the end of my driveway and your saliva might float downstream to the Muskingum River and from there to the Ohio River and on down the Mississippi clear to the Gulf of Mexico, but in all my driving around the Palouse, I saw only the distant Snake River and one small creek. A ditch winding through campus calls itself "Paradise Creek," but if there's any water flowing beneath all that shrubbery, it's very well hidden.
So in the absence of trees and water, I looked at lichens. Striped and streaky Quartzite rocks on Steptoe Butte were so spotted with lichens in deep earthy shades--yellow-green, gray-blue, jet-black, and deep rust--that they looked like the clowns of the rock world, their stripes and spots competing for attention. I even tried to sketch one particularly well-dressed rock, but my sorry effort looks like what happens when you give a pen to a two-year old.
So I looked at lichens, listened to birds, felt the cool morning breeze, and felt that the butte had given me a great start to my day. But it was just a start. Why settle for one butte when you can climb up two? That's when I turned around and drove to Kamiak to make it a two-butte-iful morning.
Oh, and the buttes helped me repay a portion of the debt I'd incurred when the traffic cop let me off with a warning. Because while Kamiak Butte charges no admission fee, Steptoe Butte requires a day pass costing $10. I could easily have sped past the self-service day-pass station--there was no one there to stop me that early in the morning. However, the west had conferred some grace on me and now it was payback time: I pulled over, filled out the envelope, and opened my purse to find that all I had was a twenty-dollar bill.
It was a small price to pay for a morning of beauty that touched all my senses--and a few days later when it was time to go birding, I knew the perfect place.