In October of nearly every year, when the autumn leaves are at their crispest and most vivid in Michigan, our family had driven to Calhoun County, often with our friends Daria and Virginia and their children, to see the annual migration of the sand hill cranes to the wetlands. Just a one-hour drive, there was usually a festival in honor of the occasion, with distractions for children who were not as excited as the adults were to bear witness to the swelling descent of the cranes. After the children had visited the crafts booths, watched tamed wild animals perform their feats for the visitors, and drank warm cider, we would amble over to the hillside where the best viewing was to be had.
On that hill, devoted bird watchers, many with binoculars, some with scopes, were gathering, patiently waiting for the cranes, which would begin arriving about 4:30 but would not fill the skies until dusk. One could count on the good cheer of people who love birds: outfitted in their warmest outdoor gear, and watching intently as the numbers of cranes grew by the minute, swooping through the sky before their tremulous feet touched down on the watery earth. By the time it was peak viewing for the cranes, the kids were usually getting antsy and ready to abandon the cold hillside for the car and drive to nearby “Turkeyville,” where comforting hot turkey sandwiches and dinners were to be had. All of this was warm and wonderful: the companionship of good friends, the traditional turkey eating, and watching our children traipse about in the wooded sanctuary. But for Nancy and I, watching the cranes was the magical event, to be repeated year after year.
Nancy died on October 1st, shortly before the sand hill cranes’ migration to Michigan. A memorable photograph of the sand hill cranes was placed near her bedside as she approached death. And as we (Nancy’s closest friends, two of my sisters, and our daughters) sang goodbye to Nancy the night before she died, we hadinvoked the image of a sand hill crane comforting her and carrying her to the other side.
On a brisk and bleak November morning about a month and a half after Nancy died, I decided that I needed to see the sand hill cranes again. I bundled up in my new winter cap, hiking shoes, and down coat, determined that the cold would not deter me from my mission. I planned to explore a nature trail that I had never visited before just down the road from the festival arena.
This was a trip that I had made many times before, and I thought that the drive would take care of itself. But I soon realized that I could take nothing for granted anymore. At the beginning of the trip, as the highway split off into two different directions, I inadvertently took the wrong turn, and it was quite some time before I discovered my mistake. This was a minor setback, and I turned off the highway in order to enter again in the right direction. But when I got to the general area of the crane sanctuary, I took the wrong exit off the highway. After what seemed to be miles and miles of flat farmland that failed to trigger any memories, I realized that I had no idea where I was.
I pulled by the side of the road and wept, overwhelmed by the ways in which my grief was making it impossible for me to find my way. I then turned again to the task of finding my destination. After fiddling with my phone’s navigational device, I eventually got headed again toward the trail I had been looking for.
Finally, I drew in my breadth, grateful that I had finally arrived at the Marsh Nature Trail. The wooden sign told me that I would encounter wetlands, woodlands, and most likely great viewing venues for the cranes. It was cold, but I was fortified for the weather, and braced myself to encounter the grim natural beauty of November in Michigan—a fitting landscape for the barrenness I felt.
After a very short time on the trail I began to see numerous felled trees blocking me in several directions. Many of them were overlapping, and the entire way ahead of me was strewn with obstacles to walking. Whether the trees had been felled by nature or humans was unclear, but as I moved on it was clear that the path was non-existent. I began stepping over fractured and distorted fir trees, telling myself that I was exercising more muscles than I normally would, but also anxious about falling, because it was unlikely that any other human being would be likely to trek through this stricken landscape. I stopped to sit on one such fractured log, wondering if I would ever find my way through this chaos.
Climbing over the branches, I finally found a clearing, with a flat hill ahead of me, a good spot for catching sight of the cranes. The plaintive cries of the sand hill cranes greeted me before I saw them. First a group of three, then groups of four and five spread their wildly wide wings above me, soaring in a pattern I strove to discern, as I could not see where they were headed. It was daytime; they would not be settling down on the marsh. Instead they would be foraging for their meals—where, I did not know. I walked around haphazardly trying to follow their pattern; each time I caught a sight of them I would feel a softening of my grief.
I still had plans to go to work that day, so I soon decided to find my way back to my car. The high clearing allowed me to see where I was, but there was no way that I would be returning the same way that I came in, as there was no path to follow, and I had seesawed my way to where I was. So I stepped awkwardly around the trees, until I saw the bench that signified proximity to the beginning of the trail. I was close to the end.
As I approached my car, I checked in my pocket for my car keys, where I had left them. The keys were gone, even though I distinctly remembered putting them there. I looked behind me, paralyzed by the thought that I had lost my keys on the trail. There was no way that they could be found without endless wandering, of which I was incapable in my present state of mind. And even then, it was unlikely I would find them. Whatever resourcefulness I once possessed had been eroded by my grief.
I walked a few more steps closer to the car and saw the keys on the ground just a short distance from the car. The found keys appeared to be a blessing, maybe even a sign from Nancy, or even God if he/she existed, that somewhere in the universe something/one would be looking out for me. Probably the found keys were just a fortunate coincidence, but looking up at the gray sky and at my car awaiting my drive home, I wondered if maybe I would find my way after all.