I just finished Kenn Kaufman's birding classic, Kingbird Highway, and it struck such a chord in me that I thought I'd blog about it. Most birders have probably already read it, so I'll try not to spend too much time blabbing about the "plot" such as it is, because there's so much more to the book.
On the surface, Kingbird Highway is a fascinating look into one young (18)man's "Big Year," trying to see as many bird species as he can over the course of a year. He's competing against other birders for the record (626 species), and his competitiveness reaches a level of obsession that drives him to hitchhike all over the continental US, Alaska, and Baja California (Baja was included in the American Ornithologists' Union's coverage area back then). He sleeps on roadsides, eats cold soup straight out of the can for breakfast, endures blazing heat and freezing cold, sometimes goes hungry for days, and works picking apples to scrape enough money together to take a few pelagic boat trips and two plane rides in Alaska. He lives on about a dollar a day, and his Big Year cost him a total of less than $1,000, which is pretty incredible even by 1973 standards.
The book is also a great picture of the country in the early 1970s, with all the "longhairs" and "hippies," the popularity of hitchhiking as a real mode of travel, the undeveloped areas on the coasts and other birding habitats, and the truly rugged nature of living on the road. Further, it's a study in pre-Internets birding: small telephone networks of birders who'd call one another when a rare bird was seen, meaning that by the time news of a rare bird got out, the bird might already have moved on by the time you heard about it, much less got there to see it. He meets most of the big-time birders of the day in person on his travels, depending on "friend of a friend" introductions to help him find his way in strange territory.
As a beginning birder, I appreciated learning about his field craft: finding birds on territory, differentiating habitats, sticking with a spot until you find a bird, and really studying each bird to get more than just the typical fieldmarks you find in a guide. I'd really like to get one of the Kaufman guides; I bet there would be tons of information in them.
The idea of doing nothing but birding, living for the next bird, full-time, is enchanting to me. I would love to live that way, but I have a family; it just wouldn't be possible, or even desirable--they need me, and I need them. Still, when something mundane like work or school trumps birding on my schedule, it's a sweet fantasy to think of leaving those things behind and just going birding any time I want.
His writing is at once straight-forward and lyrical; he appreciated not only the birds but everything around him as he traveled the country. His eagerness to learn more about each bird instead of just checking it off a list and moving on finally turns his obsessive quest into a chore by late September of his year, but he sticks with his commitment. He probably wouldn't have gone on to write his field guides had he not learned the value of truly studying each bird and enjoying it for its own sake. That's an important lesson for me, as I work to not only see (and count) new birds but to learn more about bird behavior and bird life; to see birding only as "listing" is to shortchange both the birds and yourself.
He doesn't end up setting the record; another guy who has the money to travel as fast as he needs to beats his list--but only by three species. Still, by the time you learn this fact at the very end, you really don't care anymore than he does. His Big Year changed him forever, just as beginning to bird has changed me--in ways I never anticipated. I have new birds, new friends, and a new life in the blog universe.
Now if I could only get the similarly titled Gordon Lightfoot song "Carefree Highway" out of my head, I'd really appreciate it.