Consider the Vulture, the Vanity, and the Cows off of University Blvd.
11:08 AM, JAN. 1, 2017. ROUND ROCK, TX, 78681
I had been driving my rust-adorned purple 97 Ford Ranger around Williamson County with no plates and no registration sticker for 3 days in preparation for this sunny Saturday morning beginning. Call it an extraneous moment of inspiration or a sickening indulgence in vanity, but I had to have custom license plates on the truck in order to do this. A bottle of champagne busted over the hood would have been perhaps more fitting for the christening of this road-trip voyage in a meta-ironic hipster sort of way, but I quit drinking 5 years ago this February. The only alcohol I've purchased in that time is a six pack of Bud Light in metal bottles for my sister-in-law last summer; I've paid for enough soon-to-be urine and court costs at this point and there is no need to tempt the beast any further under the guise of generosity or ceremony. The plates may have cost more than convenience store champagne, but they cost significantly less than my 7 trips to the slammer in 3 Texas counties, including this one. I figure it's more fun to buy the plates then make 'em. :)
I ratcheted on the custom plates in the maintenance-only drive way by the overflow tank masquerading as a pond next to our apartment complex and posed for some awkward but earnest self portraits and footage of the affair. There is something intimately desperate about photographing and filming oneself, even in the current age of the social media shared selfie and as an ambivalent elder-brother of the Millennial generation. What if no one ever sees them? What if no one ever sees them while you're alive? What if no one ever sees them--ever? Why is there no one around to hold the camera? What if no one gives a shit?
I suppose this is where I depart from both the age and the generation: I find deep comfort in the disappearing reality of being unseen and of anonymous shits remaining ungiven. I don't need to be "liked" or "seen" by my "friends." Yet here my goofy ass is, dicking with a tripod and an until then unused timer feature of my smartphone's camera app hoping no one catches me in this narcissistic act of premeditated sharing. A stranger pulls up to the curb to pick up a neighbor. I hastily grab my gear and toss it in the truck bed, needlessly fiddle with the tripod bag zipper, sideeyeing the strangers vehicle. A cat slams into a glass patio door while chasing a bird on the other side. She hastily turns around, needlessly preens herself, side eyeing her owner. Enough. Let's get this show on the road, shall we?
HESTER'S CROSSING ROAD. 12:02 P.M.
Despite a graduate level education and enough rational skepticism to kill the resurrection of Christ, I hold a reckless and passionate belief in both signs and spirit animals. And speaking of decomposition, lo and behold, what should cross my paved path between my apartment complex and a strip of doctors' offices in La Frontera but a lone turkey vulture picking apart a road kill in the passing lane. I hadn't even gotten out of second gear yet, a few feet from my starting point, and here was something I have never seen in the flesh before, especially not in the bland beige bowels of a commercially zoned part of a city. I rode the clutch to a stop, flipped (or poked, rather) the hazards on, slid over to the right lane, and killed the engine so as not to spook this symbolic moment, pregnant with literary and cinematic possibilities.
I rolled down the window and the stench hit me in the nose with the unexpected wrath of an improperly flicked cigarette butt. Whatever that animal used to be, it was now in that ripe state of glistening death shortly before the remainder of bodily fluids began to make their way elsewhere. It must have been prime, fresh out of the kitchen and still steaming as far as the buzzard was concerned. That fucker was diverting traffic for a couple more beak-fulls before his flight instinct kicked in enough for him to fly off to the nearest light pole only to return again.
After our buddy finally flapped off for good, I hopped out of the truck to get a closer look at what she had left behind. Nothing but paws and entrails and if you can figure out what the hell kind of animal it was, more power to you.
I stood there in the middle of the road, taking pictures, shooting film, and trying to solve the forensic puzzle of the animal's identity while the flies clocked in for their clean up shift. Am I a vulture, feeding on the decaying leftovers of other beings' authentic experience? Is that what this project is about? Am I just a garbage collector, a no-talent junk artist picking through our society's slow sub/urban-rural rot in the hopes that someone higher up the food chain will come along and call my digital carrion special? I think not. Or, ta' hell with thinking. Let's see what spirit-animal.com has to say about it:
"If Vulture has flown across your path;
Vulture is asking you to be patient with yourself and think things through. Take your time before making decisions and choose paths that support your higher consciousness and your heart. Use all of your resources combined with your past experience to approach the problem from a different angle. Know that you are always free to choose your own path but be flexible while moving forward."
Great, now the vulture spirit animal is asking me to think. Fine. I'll think about vultures, specifically turkey vultures. The scientific name for them is "Cathartes aura" which is Latin for "cleansing breeze." Yeah, that waft of death that smacked me in the face when I rolled down the window smelled purdy cleansing alright. Speaking of smell, they have the largest olfactory system of any bird, meaning they can catch a whiff of foul death literally a mile away. While they love feasting on the dearly departed, they are the only scavenger bird who don't kill their prey. They don't kill because they can't; the turkey vulture's talon's aren't worth a damn, even against dead prey. That's why they have super-strong beaks, which they use for stiff diving into juicy body cavities.
Contrary to the popular notion of vultures taking what they can get out of the proverbial back alley McDonald's dumpster of the animal kingdom, they're really more like Zagat's subscribing foodie connoisseurs with a preference for only the finest, the freshest, the most sumptuous of dead delicacies. Their highly developed sense of smell allows them the luxury of sniffing out dinner a mere 12 hours post-mortem.
So, yeah...if a celebrity chef with 3 Michelin-starred restaurants under his belt had a grand opening for his latest authentic ethnic cuisine meets artisanal butchery concept, the turkey vultures would already have a seat at one of the VIP 2-tops on the patio while the condors and buzzards are still lining up outside waiting for a seat to open at the bar/chopping block. Technically, it would be a table for one, since they tend to dine alone. On a couple of less sophisticated notes, they shit themselves to cool their feet and if you fuck with them, they will projectile vomit on you--as will their chicks. Although they dine alone, they travel and live together in a group know as a wake. When a wake of turkey vultures fly upwards in a spiral--to heights of 20,000 feet as reported by airline pilots--this is known as a kettle. And, yes, the pot called it; the kettle is black with an assortment of brown wing-feathers. Their wings are used more for soaring with little flapping required since they are very good at finding thermal updrafts to carry them along with as little energy expended as possible. They just glide along like long haul truckers in the slow lane on the Interstate doing exactly the speed limit.
So what would a vulture do now on this journey, both the science and spirit version? I popped the parking break and soared off with no destination in mind, which is uncharacteristic for me. I usually don't drive without a destination, or multiple destinations. When I used to deliver for a living (pizza, legal pot, nuclear pharmaceuticals), I always had anywhere from 1 to 30 destinations in a single day already decided and dispatched before I popped the parking break loose. Point A and Point B were out of my hands, all I could do was decide how best to make the line and which paths to take.
Vultures don't have predetermined destinations or dispatchers; they make their own way guided by the wind, the dead, and the dying. They do the work that no one else wants to do, but must be done. They're one of the first to sense expirations and endings, they do something about it, and they perform this act alone. Others inevitably join them, for better or for worse. They bring the unliving back to life, no matter how long they have to wait to get to work. Moving forward.
12:52 PM. UNIVERSITY BLVD., ROUND ROCK, 78665
On one of your ways out of Round Rock heading east bound on University Blvd., not too far from one of Texas State University's campuses (where I took some night classes in grad school), I saw something worth pulling off the paved path and on to a grassy one.
Moo-cows! There they were, just standing around, about a dozen of them. It struck me as strange to pull off the side of the road for a non-emergency. No flat tire, stalling vehicle, no stranded motorist. Just some barbed wire fence on pipe posts and a gang of teenage cows. The video above was actually taken right as I was about to leave and head up to Jonah, a tiny town in the county. When I first jumped out of the truck, the cows were quite a few yards away. As if they didn't know what to think of the human staring at and talking to them from the fence. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes at the fence, talking to them. One of them would move a little closer, then the rest would. And then they would stop.
How long had it been since I just pulled over to get a closer look at, well, anything? When did so much of my life become a succession of staring at and through glass? Why the fuck won't these god damn cows come closer so I can pet them? I wouldn't pet them, but, some inner-child sort of shit started coming out while I was talking to these cows.
I don't know how the hell else to say this, but: I miss life. I miss the country, I miss having a connection to the land, to creatures, I miss having a connection to something/someone besides a cell phone tower. And, I know, those cell phone towers help connect people, but it's not the same as standing within arms length as they moo, I mean talk. There has to be a balance between the wide open pasture in front of me and the big box traffic behind me on University Blvd.