On a certain day in the latter half of our calendar’s fifth month—that would be May 19, but don’t tell anyone—I receive a smattering of attention due to its coincidence with my birth. It is not something I generally look forward to, mostly because I find the date of middling importance in my own life, and so it bemuses me when some make a to-do of it in theirs. This particular birthday is shared by the likes of Malcolm X, Joey Ramone, Kevin Garnett, and André the Giant, and when people try to praise my iteration of it, I mention these luminaries and say, “Wish them a happy birthday, too, because they’re a lot cooler than I am.” Also born on this day were Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, the guy who killed Gandhi, and the actor who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, all famous in their own right. It was 27 years ago when this phenomenon first interwove itself with my existence—I vaguely remember cakes, ice cream, a toy saxophone that blew bubbles, and special pins, pencils, and buttons in grade school—and, despite my protestations, the observance continues unabated to this day.
I might be a birthday Grinch. I am not averse to this interpretation, apt as it may be. But this time around, I really had a fantastic go of it—thanks to the estimable Leah—and thus my desire to gloat.
In this year’s edition—Birthday XXVII, in Superbowl-speak—bivouacked in the Umptanum Creek Canyon outside of Yakima, I awoke to a four-part avian reveille: nighthawks, common poorwills, mourning doves, and a great horned owl. The poorwills started their eerie whooping before dawn, seguing into nighthawk shrieks and owl hoots as the sky lightened, and for two hours the birds took turns filling the becalmed air with song. Crickets chirped from the sun-splashed slopes. The nighttime chill was fast dissipating. By the time I made to exit the tent, as quietly as possible—Leah was miraculously still asleep—the red-winged blackbirds had raucously joined the fray and the sun had come unmoored from the eastward hills.
We were camped in a desert valley oasis, a strip of green surrounded on either side by steep, sienna-hued embankments covered with sagebrush. Growing in the vale were lush stands of alder, black cottonwood, and quaking aspen. Dense swaths of cattail and sedge flanked the trickles of water feeding into Umptanum Creek, and it was this cool, clear water that we collected and boiled for coffee and oats. We loaded our packs for a short day hike around the canyon. “Happy birthday,” Leah said, and she was right: I was happy, genuinely, effervescently so, and I’d be damned if it wasn’t my birthday, too.
The desert soil was cobbled and crusty, compacted here and there by trails of two-pronged tracks leading up the hills: bighorn sheep. We saw just four, but there was enough of their cocoa-puff poop scattered about to suggest a healthy population roaming the environs, out of sight. Clusters of dry-adapted plants such as lamb’s ear, lupine, camas, and balsamroot broke the sagebrush monotony, many bearing vivid blossoms. At the top of a ridge we took in the undulating, mostly treeless landscape, painted in muted greens and browns and reds. A low-growing patch of cactus nearly escaped our attention, until I stepped on it. I counted more than half a dozen butterfly species, most of them tiny and innervated, gathering in number around sheep urine-soaked soil to lap up exudates. We hiked until we ran out of water, which seemed just long enough.
Leah told me later that she was worried about not having done enough for my birthday. “I didn’t get you a card, for instance,” she said (with a trace of irony, I thought), as if such things were a requisite part of the aging experience. “Are you kidding me?” I replied. “I got to see birds, sheep, butterflies, and cactus—and best of all, I got to spend it with you. It was everything I could have possibly wanted.” It occurred to me, as I was saying it, how trite and insincere this may have sounded, so I added, “No, really.”
Some people like to throw big parties for their birthdays, invite all their friends, and really ring it in with style, sharing their special day with as many loved ones as they can muster. Call me selfish, but I prefer keeping my birthday jollies to a bare minimum—or at least, keeping them within some well-defined parameters. It’s not that I begrudge the kindly well-wishers their salutations. I very much appreciate it, in fact. But the minute someone tries to impose festivities on me, I’m gone.