Condor Gulch

Dave and I went to the Pinnacles (National Park) last Sunday afternoon. We arrived somewhat later than we’d planned, but we still wanted to do the High Peaks hike, a trail we have done many times in the past. We started out at 4:30, knowing that the days are longer now that we’d have time to complete the hike before dark.  However, a ranger saw us starting off and suggested we take a flashlight with us, which we did, though we weren’t planning to use it.  (We didn’t have to; no false suspense on that account.)
It was a longer slog up to the top than we remembered, (and how wonderful that it was that way, since if we’d really remembered what a demanding hike it was, we might have talked ourselves out of it.)

I have been training myself to look up and around now and then instead of just down at my feet to avoid tripping. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, perfect for hiking: a cool breeze, uncrowded trail, lots of green still.  On our way up, we saw four large birds, each on its own high peak, but far enough away that we couldn’t determine if they were crows, vultures or maybe even condors. They looked pretty droll, each guarding its own pinnacle.
When we finally got up that last stairway, actually shallow little notches carved out of the rock, we looked out over the valley to the west and the coastal range.  The light was soft and lovely in the distances with different greens and purples, blues and grays.

As we were catching our breaths, right in front of us, maybe 25 yards away, soared a big bird we had never seen before.  Amazingly close.  Its wings were spread out on either side of its head, almost in a wave, with white patches along the edges. Its head was so odd: tucked right between the shoulders, bright red, and a yellow bill pointing straight ahead. Its posture made it look more like a duck or goose in flight than anything else.  We just looked at each other, with that kind of wonder that sighting an unusual bird calls forth. Then about 30 seconds later, another identical bird, in the same gliding posture soared by, and then another, and finally, a fourth.

By then we’d understood, without a word to each other, that these were the birds we’d seen sitting on the peaks above us.  The red was clearly a condor head, and the white patches on the wings another condor diagnostic. (I just checked the bird book to verify the yellow beak—and there it was.)  To have seen four such high flyers, at eye level, and so close was almost unimaginable. The profile of the soaring condor in all the birdbooks doesn’t come close to the actual undulation of the wings in flight. And to see the head tucked into its shoulders, and the beak pointed forward. We forget how unique and thrilling living beings are in their own true lives.

We felt so proud and fortunate to have seen such a sight. We floated back down the trail, and arrived at our car at dusk. No need for the flashlight.  A perfect hike.

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