I write this sitting in the town of Pahrump, outside of La Vegas. So this is a rich perch from which to think about gambling. I always say I’m not a gambler—I’ve bought a Lotto ticket or two but I wouldn’t know what to do in a casino. Yet the truth is, we all gamble all the time—when we decide to take this job and not that one. When we decide to go to dinner with this person we will fall in love with and not that person. If you leave money out of the definition of gambling, replace it with, for instance, birds, then it reads like this: playing games in order to find birds. I gamble in this way all the time.
When I left my motel in Lee Vining, California, I wasn’t thinking about gambling on birds. I was revisiting the past. In 1980 I hitch hiked with Michael, my boyfriend at the time, to Lee Vining. We camped by the tufa towers of Mono Lake and dreamt of the summer to unfold before us rock climbing on the granite domes of Tuolomne Meadows. I am a bit haunted by that summer, the one I refer to as “the best summer of my life.” And it began in Lee Vining. I wanted to walk through a piece of that past.
As I strolled down a creek side trail I soon snapped out of my daydreaming. A Dipper could be frequenting this stream, I realized. And so I went on high alert, in hopes that one of these gray, cheerful birds would sing for me. The Dipper, often called the Water Ouzel, was John Muir’s favorite little caroler, and in his day, not a stream in the Sierras was without one of these songsters. I scanned the water, knowing a Dipper bobs about, but in general presents as gray on gray, as polished as the rocks in the stream.
As I looked for the Dipper, it made me focus outward and I started to see the lovely small canyon: sandy soil, running water, rock outcroppings. Not part of my memories, but more beautiful. And as I admired the world, I noticed a…Christmas tree bulb in the tree. I pulled up my binoculars and looked at the round, speckled little owl. A Northern Pygmy Owl. I stopped. The owl swiveled its head, showing its large “eyes” on the back of its head, then turned to look at me again. It sat, nonchalant, unaware how it had cheered my day.
After spending time with the owl, I bid him goodbye on his happy perch and continued on. Soon after, I heard the song of the Dipper, a musical medley that rose above the movement of the creek. I scanned the water for this joyful little bird, and found him bobbing in the creek.
I had not gambled, and yet I’d still won. Maybe I should gamble on not gambling. I often feel as if the birds I stumble on are the most special—special because I saw them and special because so utterly unexpected. Unexpected, just like the adventures of that summer spent in Tuolomne in 1980.