It pays to go off trail sometimes. Lexi wasn’t interested in climbing around in the smaller trail off to our right in the slot canyon, being slightly uneasy in close spaces. I walked over to it anyhow, sharing the story of how Debby and I had clambered up into it the week before. That’s when it happened.
There was a loud rustling sound from a dry scrub patch just above my head to my left and as I turned quickly to see what the noise was about, we both saw a large gray backed bird fly down the canyon in the direction we were headed. We stopped and looked at one another briefly. We had actually seen that, right? I watched the curve ahead to see if the bird was following the canyon, but it didn’t reappear, which meant that it had either exited the canyon overhead or it was in the rocks around the next bend.
We quietly moved up the path and as I came around the curve I looked up, coming face to face with a great horned owl. It was seated in an alcove not thirty feet away from me, about twenty up the rock face. In the desert it isn’t unusual to find owls out during the day, and great horneds do quite well for themselves in canyons full of rabbits, ground squirrels, lizards and smaller birds. This one was big, clearly eating well and enjoying good health.
We looked at each other for quite a long time. The golden eyes were enormous, and it was humbling to look into them. There is such a huge difference between encountering animals in aviaries and zoos and having such an encounter spontaneously in the wild. It completely stops you. It forces you to be present and aware at that precise moment in time. It makes a memory that will be crystal clear for decades to come.
Lexi joined me around the bend and the three of us spent several minutes together before we moved up the path to complete our hike to the end of the canyon. I poured out a bit of our water as an offering with thanks as we started on our way once again. The canyon comes to a dead end and the hike back is simply the same path in reverse. I knew the owl would be gone when we came back down the canyon.
But it wasn’t. It had shifted position a bit, to a spot with a better vantage point. It was well aware of us as we came back down the path. I have a hard time describing what makes me want to stay in the presence of an animal people rarely see. It’s almost as if some sort of understanding will occur if enough time in structured silence is shared, and I actively seek that out when I’m able. It’s the unexpected encounters that are fleeting and completely unplanned that end up making deep impressions and they gift us with moments that we can stretch, as long as we are willing to simply be still and experience them.
In the midst of the extreme beauty of the canyon, having already had a stressful year a few weeks into it, this encounter was one of those perfect and untarnished moments where I could clearly hear the Voice of the World, gentle and soft, saying “hey, it’s gonna be fine … Here, hang out with an owl for a little while and enjoy the view in the slots … ”
It is a reminder we all can use, really. Take a moment every now and then and listen. Really tune in. And trust that when you need it, the World will send you an owl, or something similar, just to make sure you stop, breathe, experience the wonder that is there and truly pay attention.