Stick in the Mud

May 31, 2015

The other half had important things to do that involved spending the morning in a darkened basement and so I, conscious that I’ll be heading home soon, decided to go for a little bike ride and birdwatching expedition on my own. I wasn’t intending to go far – just to the point where the path is flooded out – but as I was pottering along trying to identify which of the seventeen-hundred subtly different American sparrows I might be looking at, I was passed by a woman on a whizzy looking mountain bike (and as an aside, I find the American habit of shouting ‘on your left’ as they cycle up behind you extremely disconcerting. I can’t help interpreting it as an order, rather than a warning, with unintended consequences. What’s wrong with just having a bell or failing that saying hello?). Shortly afterwards, the sparrow still unidentified, I saw her coming back the other way.

‘Cycle path still closed then?’ I asked her.

‘Oh no, you can get through, it’s just a bit muddy,’ she said cheerily.

Now, I don’t know if she meant ‘you can get through if you scramble up a bank and get onto the road’ or whether Americans have got better at their deadpan humour and she was having me on, but I can report that the cycle path is still closed, as in ‘has a river running over it’ closed, and also that if you cycle through thick enough mud towards the bit where the river is running over it like a complete idiot because you’ve believed someone that the path is not closed, then your bike will come to a standstill with its wheels completely jammed solid and you will have to carry it back across several yards of mud and then scrape it down with a stick before you can so much as turn a pedal

mud jammed wheel

I suppose it should have occurred to me that if it was just a bit muddy then she wouldn’t have turned back on her fancy mountain bike, but she did look quite nicely turned out and I thought maybe she didn’t want to get her lycra all clarted up with mud. Although what then is the point of having a fancy mountain bike, I wasn’t entirely sure…

barrier across path

Nothing daunted, we headed out again this afternoon and did the scrambling up a bank thing, and then attempted to get back onto the river path on the other side of town. After a bit of hunting about for the way down – obviously the only bridge which has bike lanes on it only has steps down to the river – we encountered this path which seemed to lead down quite nicely. OK, so it had a barrier across it, but we’re used to cycling in the UK where the National Cycling Network is full of barriers apparently designed to stop you cycling on it, so we dodged round that and realised that perhaps the barrier was there because when we turned the corner the path ended like this:

path ends

No wonder Americans like their mountain bikes so much: they’re the only way on and off the cycle path… Or, you know, you could load your bikes onto the back of your pickup truck like normal people.

However. There’s no such thing as a bad bike ride… and after riding out to the Nature Center and doing a bit of birdwatching and being disappointed in a park where the cafe does not serve cake or even donuts, and diverting around another bit of flooding (where some teenagers were happily ‘fishing’ enormous carp out of what was effectively a puddle, and a rapidly drying puddle at that) and tackling another scary road (the other half’s idea of subjective safety is different from mine) we finally managed to make it to Nick’s Dairy Creme, which must surely be a contender for the most American thing ever:

Nick's Dairy Creme Drive Thru

And I had a hot fudge brownie sundae. With extra nuts. Because cycling may be its own reward but sometimes you need a little bonus

Hot fudge brownie sundae

And no, I couldn’t eat it all…



April 13, 2010

‘It’s ten to four,’ my aunt said, with a cheery knock on our door. Normally, at that hour in the morning my response – in so far as it was coherent at all – would have been ‘and your point is?’ But this time we leapt out of bed and into all our clothes, and were out of the door in five minutes. We had in a moment of madness volunteered to help survey some Black Grouse leks.

We may have inadvertantly given the impression we had rather more experience than we had at this sort of thing, having casually mentioned that we’d been at a Prarie Chicken lek, but without adding that this was the sort of lek where there’s a hide, and a helpful sign to tell you when you’re there. This may be why we got sent off on our own with nothing but a recording of what a Black Grouse sounds like, a map with an ‘x’ marking the spot (the wrong spot, as it happens), a camouflage net to hide under and a notebook. It was still dark, and a clear frosty night, and our navigation skills have atrophied under heavy Tom-Tom use, but we did manage to settle on what appeared to be a ridge overlooking a likely site and waited under our camo net for dawn.

Camo nets make useless blankets, by the way.

Before the sky was even light we heard a gentle eerie bubbling noise and a less melodic call that sounded something like a cat being sick. As the dawn broke it became clear that there was a grouse party going on all right, but that we’d misread the invitation and were in danger of missing all the fun. Down we scrambled and found a better spot, scattering grouse (oops) into the trees. After that, there was nothing for it but to lie on our fronts on the (recently defrosted) grass and wait for the birds to come back. It took a little while, but just before we’d lost all sensation in our fingers and toes, they did.

If you’ve never seen a lek, and are a fan of the absurd done with high seriousness, I can recommend it. The males puff themselves up and then do the equivalent of starting a fight in a pub: ‘did you spill my pint?’ ‘are you looking at my bird?’ ‘do you want to come over here and say that?’, doing the bird equivalent of jabbing each other in the chest with a finger. They would belly up to each other, making themselves as big and ridiculous as possible, circling round, never quite actually coming to blows. If the hens were there, we didn’t see them – they don’t seem to wade in crying ‘leave it Darren, ‘e’s not worth it’ – but there were six of the males. Every so often they’d forget what they were doing and smooth down their feathers and peck at some interesting looking beetle, but quickly one of them would get back into bonkers mode ‘Do you want to step outside, posh boy?’ ‘come over here and say that if you think you’re hard enough’ and the show would begin again.

We lay there, gently freezing, trying not to laugh too loudly until the sun was well up and we had to go back to where we were being picked up. And it was a glorious morning, too. Almost worth getting up for at that hour…