The Pileated

“Sam! Come. Now. Pileated!” I cupped my hand around my mouth in the direction of the bedroom door hoping the big bird wouldn’t be startled. From my desk window, I saw it land on the bench seat Sam had made from the five trunks of the cedar which he had cut down.

Often, we hear the bird drumming in the woods, and sometimes see it flash by. Once, walking back to the house down the long drive, I saw the pair fly over my head. I stopped, held my breath, and gazed. Seeing the bird settle on the little bench not fifty feet from the house allowed us to watch at leisure.

Sam came at a trot. I pointed. The woodpecker hopped off the bench to the trunk, not a foot from the ground, and pecked while we stared. Sam went back to the kitchen for the binoculars. The bird hopped down to the ground and began to dip his head over and over.

“It must be eating ants,” I said. “Remember the ant hill at the base of that cedar?” Mesmerized, we observed and whispered. Ah, the wonder of nature.

We had been packing the teardrop camper and our suitcases to spend four days hiking in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which runs 19 miles across the state lines of Kentucky and Virginia. On the way we stopped near the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which has over 100 natural limestone arches, and hiked a mile up to Natural Bridge Arch. Before we got to the top I panted, clutched my chest and said, “You go on without me. I think I’m done.”

He paused, looked over a small ridge and said, “While you rest, I think I’ll see what’s over there.”

I wondered how long he would be. An hour? Until dark? Tomorrow morning? How many pioneer women had thought the same and were left waiting, not knowing when or if her man would return?

It occurs to me that I haven’t described Sam’s appearance. He leads with his handsome, artist’s hands. I say you can trust a man with hands like his. He is a writer, a draftsman, a scientist, a gentle soul. As he clambered back around the rock to the narrow path, he mentioned The Last of the Mohicans and said, “This looks like a cliff face where Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas just left camp.”

We daily quote movie lines to each other. I remembered the men leading the girls to the cave underneath the waterfall, and shouted Hawkeye’s line to Cora, “You stay alive! I will find you!”

Sam raised his voice and quoted back, “Submit, do you hear?” Then he said to me, “That’s what all women need to hear.”

I laughed and choked on my water bottle. Sam is a gentleman to the core, and he’s nothing if not sympathetic to a woman’s perspective. Telling me to submit would be the last thing out of his mouth. The comic relief made me ready to climb again, and we plodded on and upward.

We made it to the top and stood on the 65-foot wide limestone arch and viewed the valley below. The vista was breathtaking, a good climb worth the effort.

On the way down we heard a pileated, and talked again about the one in the front yard. “What do you suppose ‘pileated’ means,” I asked.

Sam got out his magic pocket computer and read — “having a crest covering the pileum (from the Latin meaning ‘felt cap’), the top of a bird’s head from the bill to the nape.”

Good for me to know, and for all my inquisitive readers.