Three Minutes of the Condor

By Audrey Gauthier

The low-slung red Mazda convertible eased out of the Best Western Plus parking lot and into the outskirts of Fort Bragg. Although it was 9:30 in the morning, the California sun, in late August, felt hot and direct. Earlier that morning, the weatherman on the hotel breakfast room television had promised a mid-day high of 115 degrees, which translated into 46 Celsius for Canadian tourists.

Man, I thought we were having a warm summer back in Red Deer, Wayne thought as he steered onto the California Shoreline Highway. Somehow, a Central Alberta high of 30 degrees Celsius now sounded cool in comparison.

The rugged California shoreline was pristine this morning –white-capped waves crashing against the rocky shore while the sky overhead was relentlessly blue. The smell of the salt-soaked air reminded him he was next to the Pacific ocean. So much for driving down the coastline in a convertible with the top down, Wayne thought.  He had put the top up and the air conditioner on as soon as he had started the car. He would have to wait until he had driven further north on his way back home before he could look forward to the wind in his hair and the sun on his face. Not that his destination later that day, Lake Tahoe, would be much cooler.  Good thing I love the heat, he mused, adjusting his sunglasses and plugging in his Johnny Horton compact disc.

Wayne had been mentally planning this trip for the past three years, ever since he had retired after 40 years of teaching industrial arts in high schools in Saskatchewan and Alberta. He still substitute-taught and he knew he would be right back into the hustle and demands of a new school year in a couple of weeks.  But this week was his and his alone, free to go and do as he pleased. He had put together a loose itinerary and his wife Audrey had booked hotels for him, but he could fill his days on the spur of the moment.

He passed a sign advertising a roadside rest station a mile ahead. There were no other cars in the stop when he turned in and parked the car, but he wasn’t alone. A huge black bird with a colourful bald head had dragged a roadkill rabbit off the highway and was tearing it apart for breakfast. Wayne had seen pictures of California condors before, but had never been near one before in the wild. The solitary bird’s height was at least three feet. Wayne instinctively reached for his Sanyo digital camera lying on the passenger seat. Photography, film and video had figured prominently in his life. He had taught photography, photographed weddings and been a photofinisher at a race track. For him, that perfect photographic moment was always just around the corner, ready to be captured.

Looping the camera strap around his neck, he quietly opened the car door and got out, then slowly approached the condor, which he recalled was, in fact, an endangered New World vulture. He stopped just 15 feet short of the condor and centred his subject in his viewfinder. As he focused his shot, he noticed through the viewfinder that the condor had turned and was staring at him. So much the better, Wayne thought, I’ll get a face shot. Suddenly the large bird spread his wings. Wayne gasped – its wingspan was at least eight feet. Wayne’s head jerked up as he realized that the condor was now striding toward him.  Not just striding, it was starting to run toward him. Wayne made a split-second decision:  this bird was in no mood to pose for a portrait.  The condor had decided that he did not appreciate having his meal interrupted and was going to take offensive action.

Wayne wheeled around and raced for the car, now in a foot race with the condor. He could sense the bird gaining on him, maybe even breathing down his neck, as he opened the car door and dove inside, slamming the door shut. The condor was right behind him and had decided to press his message home.  Wayne stared into a pair of grape-size black eyes, as the bird repeatedly banged his long, sharp black beak against the driver’s side window.

He started the car, backed up and peeled onto the highway before the condor decided to start attacking the ragtop of the convertible. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest and he gave a parting glace at the bird in his rearview window. The condor stood at the edge of the road in a belligerent posture that clearly said “and don’t come back!”

What if my convertible top had been down, Wayne speculated as his breathing returned to normal. The thing would probably have jumped into the car with me and proceeded to teach me a lesson. Heck, I could have ended up in a hospital emergency room, forced to call my wife back in Red Deer and confess that I had been beaten up by a condor. Wayne shook his head to clear away these thoughts and kept driving.

At the next gas stop, he filled the tank and went inside to pay. The twenty-something cashier was friendly and talkative. “Hey, what’s up with these condors?” Wayne asked her.  “One of them put the run on me a few miles back.”

“Was it eating?” she asked, handing him back his credit card. Wayne replied in the affirmative.

“Oh, you should never go near one when they are eating” she laughed. “They don’t like that.  There have been people hurt by those birds”.

That night, in Lake Tahoe, Wayne reflected on his narrow escape. It had been an interesting experience, but he had one regret – he hadn’t had time to snap the picture of the condor as it had approached him. This condor would forever be ‘the big one that got away…’

Author’ Note: California condors were nearly extinct in the 1980’s. Due to a recovery program, there are now over 1,000 of these birds in California and neighboring states. Condors are the largest land bird in North America. They stand 3 – 3.5 feet high and weigh about 25 pounds.  Their wingspan is over nine feet and they can fly 150 miles a day. Condors can live to be 60 years old. They are scavengers, not birds of prey, but can protect their food supply from all other animals except for bears and golden eagles.

Audrey Gauthier has graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with degrees in nursing, sociology and health care administration and from Olds College with a certificate in veterinary technology.  She worked as a public health manager in Saskatchewan and Alberta, prior to retiring in 2015. She belonged to the Saskatoon Writers’ Group, before joining Inkblots (CARTA). Audrey has had short stories published in Saskatchewan and Alberta. She currently lives in Red Deer with her husband, Wayne, who is a retired teacher and her two cats, Katie and Dixie.

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