I wrote this piece to publish in a magazine a few months ago and now I’ve made a few slight updates. I have Oregon license plates for instance. (Nice to have a Blog in the pocket when I’m off to the Lower Salmon River for a river trip….!)
When my son Ian fledged from high school in June 2015, so did I. His journey to college signaled the time to spread my wings. Within a month, I’d sold half my belongings, stashed the remainder in a 10’ X 12’ storage unit, and moved out of my house in Missoula, Montana. My gypsy home is a compact, popup camper that rests on top of a spruce-green, mid-sized pickup truck.
I could have waited until I retired, but as a freelance writer in my 50s, that’s never going to happen. I might have waited until I had more savings. Instead, I took a cue from the bird I write about and follow the most—the Belted Kingfisher.
If I were to ascribe human traits, I’d call the kingfisher cocky, not afraid to go it alone, and most of all a brave bird willing to take a headfirst plunge.
As soon as I bought my truck, I chose for my Montana Audubon license plate the personalized “ALCYON,” in honor of the Belted Kingfisher species name, Megaceryle alcyon. On the dash above the radio, I’ve affixed a porcelain ornament of a male kingfisher. Inside the camper, a pair of ceramic kingfishers mounted on a piece of driftwood provide cheerful company.
“Alcyon” refers to an ancient Greek myth of Halcyon, when the Gods turned a tragic drowning into a wondrous transformation. The lovers, Queen Halcyon and King Ceyx, became kingfishers. Each year, Aeolus, God of Wind and father of Halcyon, calms the seas over winter solstice so the pair can nest and brood their young, a tranquil period that sailors came to dub, “Halcyon Days.”
While far away in North America, I freely apply the Greek myth to the Belted Kingfisher and to my own transformative expedition. I’ve even changed my name unofficially from Deborah to Marina, my great-grandmother’s name that flows like the sea.
On newfound wings and name, I’m taking calculated chances. I strive to be safe as I travel solo like kingfishers often do. This popup camper is the ideal gypsy vehicle – streamlined, energy efficient, and secure with a locking door. While the 4WD truck with its light camper is made for driving rough roads into public lands to camp at dispersed sites, I’m savvy about when to camp alone versus in a campground.
For example, when birding near the Mexico border at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, my friend Sandra and I camped on the Coronado National Forest under the spreading limbs of an immense Arizona sycamore tree, falling asleep to the soft hoots of a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. We’d made our decision to “wild camp” after consulting the locals on safety.
If I’d been on my own? I would have taken the extra secure step to camp at Patagonia Lake State Park, an excellent jumping off point for birding along Sonoita Creek, a haven for the Elegant Trogan and two kinds of kingfishers—the Belted and the Green.
Juxtaposed with the suspense of where to camp is an uncomplicated lifestyle in the community of birds. Inside my aerie of a one-room home on wheels, I can more fully immerse in nature and writing than when inhabiting a multi-roomed, stationary house.
Simplicity also comes with a dose of luxury in a camper equipped with solar panels, a fridge, two burner stove, sink with hot and cold running water, a propane furnace, and an outside shower. A petite dining table for two is ideal for writing and plugging my laptop into the solar-charged inverter. The bed over the cab pulls out from a full to a queen or even king size. When I’ve popped up, the screen windows give the airy feel of a tent, yet can close up for warmth and privacy.
The cleverness of the expandable living space often attracts interest. I’ve become an impromptu tour guide to my abode. It’s easy to manage and maintain as a not handy person with limited upper body strength. The strut assists make it a snap to push up those three feet of raft-like vinyl wall. I can now set up camp in five minutes. That includes stringing up battery-operated gold bauble lights inside for ambience and displaying my ceramic kingfishers.
Like the kingfisher, I often trace waterways. I’ve camped along Oregon rivers, where ancient ponderosa pines harbor Brown Creepers nesting in crevices of thick bark that waft vanilla scents through the forest.
I’ve wandered down the California coast, popping up on the beach at Prairie Creek State Redwoods and hiking in Fern Canyon, where I photographed a dipper only three feet away in transparent waters below luminescent green walls dripping in ferns. In the cathedral redwoods, spider webs glimmered in shafts of sunlight.
At Point Reyes, California, I stayed put for two weeks in early November, finishing my last chapters of the kingfisher book, and inspired by the daily flights of a female flashing her cinnamon-red belt on Olema Creek that murmured by my campsite.
Heading south to Morro Bay, a female kingfisher gazed down from the top of a sailing mast to her realm of wetlands teeming with wintering Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels and Godwits all feasting on the estuary’s banquet.
So far, journeys in “Alcyon” have taken me from Montana to Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. By attuning to the familiar kingfisher, I find my way into new ecosystems that would otherwise seem overwhelming. It’s like meeting a friend in every new town who can show me around to the best dining, music, and of course—birds.
Even when the kingfisher is not present, I feel its lucky companionship when exploring a birding hotspot like South Fork Cave Creek in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. On a late November day, a lone chip chip of an unseen warbler led me to a bobcat that slipped out of the shadows and into the sun for one brilliant moment.
One February morning south of Tucson by the gentle falls of Madera Creek, a pair of Painted Redstarts flitting high in a juniper pointed me to a Townsend’s Warbler I would have missed.
That’s another lesson of travel. Tracking one bird can pilot you straight to another marvelous inhabitant. Other times, birds have a way of finding you – like the Vermilion Flycatcher perching on a dog-on-leash sign in Patagonia City Park.
Wherever I go, I strive to be receptive to the nature and culture of a place, and in doing so, I meet the good people who give back and conserve habitat, whether in their own backyards or on public lands. That’s where I see a dilemma in the gypsy naturalist travel. If always alighting from one place to another, what am I contributing in a deeper sense?
Trailing the migratory paths of birds, I can write about them and share what I know, but I also believe in roots and a home region. The female kingfishers of northern climes may migrate as far as the Mexican border in winter, yet by March they are back to find a mate. After courtship, the birds will excavate a long burrow deep into an earthen vertical bank near fish-filled waters. They’ll raise a family and only then will the female head south in fall.
Returning home is important, and so is travel for revelations on nature’s bounty and our interconnectedness. For many years, I’ve called Missoula my home. Before that, I lived in Northeast Oregon and set deep roots in the Blue Mountains.
As part of heeding the kingfisher’s confident dive, I’ve moved back, choosing a modest rental bungalow in the college town of La Grande where I can easily pack up and head out for short or long flights in Alcyon.
Gypsy life has changed my perceptions, deepening this great love I have for our miraculous planet, and inspiring a renewed commitment to conservation at a local scale.I believe that fledging can take place at any time in our life, that transformations are always possible, and that there’s beauty to be experienced everywhere a bird will lead us.
For me, it’s the Belted Kingfisher –with its rattling, chattering, awakening call, its hovering, breath-stopping flight above water, and its comical, two-parted, shaggy crest and big head with that long dagger bill—reminding me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy. Laugh. Savor every bird-filled halcyon day.
Note–while I now have a home in La Grande, I am still a gypsy at heart and take off as my readers know regularly for forays in Alcyon….