While our families sleep off the previous night’s excesses, my friend and I wake before dawn, venture out into the bitter cold, and point the pickup truck toward Backbone State Park. Wispy swirls of snow blow across the lonely highway like desert sand. As the moon descends toward the horizon behind us, the sun peeks above the fields ahead. Red-tail hawks perched in the leafless trees look like footballs silhouetted against the pale blue sky. Before leaving the highway, we catch a glimpse of a coyote traversing a field with its head lowered against the icy wind.
We park the truck in the empty snowcovered lot near the entrance to the park and step out into the bracing morning chill. The silence is nearly as breathtaking as the cold, dry air. Trees creek, wind whistles, and snow crunches beneath our boots. With a general direction agreed upon, we enter the quiet forest and bound down the hill. A makeshift game of follow- the-leader begins as we catapult over fallen logs, slide down steep embankments and crawl through thorny brambles. At the bottom of the bluff lies a shallow creek that snakes around the base of the Backbone, a towering ridge of limestone cliffs that provide panoramic vistas of the valley below. Just as we reach the stone bridge to cross over into the heart of the park, my friend stops short, kneels and points. Instantly I see the bald eagle perched in the tree above the creek. But the bird is spooked by our presence and steps off the branch with outstretched wings, gliding swiftly and silently around a bend in the stream.
We quickly cross the bridge and find a narrow ravine to climb. The air is wet and heavy in the crevasse, but the ascent is invigorating. As we reach the top of the narrow Backbone, high-pitched cries of eagles in the distance beckon us. We stealthily make our way along the cliff’s edge to a rocky outcropping that pokes above the pines. A wide curve in the canyon snakes into the distance, and soon an eagle soars by at eye level, close enough that we hear the whoosh of wind over its wings. The magnificent bird climbs high in the sky and locks talons with another eagle. They briefly tumble and spin toward earth before releasing their grips and rolling away from each other. Being as high as the eagles with a front row seat to witness this natural air show is a sublime, spiritual experience. The leftovers can wait.