I got it on my way to Malibu for the Santa Monica Folk Club’s first camping trip. I was so excited about the forthcoming blend of mountains, music, friends, and campfires that I was walking on air when I stopped at the Safeway for instant coffee. That’s probably why I fell prey to an attractive marketing ploy – designer-colored mugs packaged with matching filter cones, coffee, and filters. “How silly,” I thought. “Why should they match?” But my hand was already reaching for the light green set, never dreaming that it would become the best of souvenirs.
I lugged my stuff into the group campground at Leo Carrillo State Park alongside other campers toting a promising array of musical instruments. I settled next to my birding buddy, Marcia, and her husband, Bill. I placed my cultural contribution proudly on our table next to Marcia’s guitar.
“How cute!” said Marcia.
“Some people will buy anything,” said Bill.
After dinner, we sang around a big campfire, accompanied by guitars, fiddles, autoharps, and banjos. Such bliss! When we were done, coyotes loped to the ridges and sang their songs.
Early next morning, Marcia started the coffee water and scanned the chaparral with her binoculars. Soon she began a low chant, audible only to another birder: “brown towhee, song sparrow, hummingbird, scrub jay, kinglet, raven. . .” beguiling me from my tent. We guzzled delicious designer coffee and checked off more birds: spotted towhee, American gold finch, wrentit, red-tailed hawk. We’d been quiet, we thought, but when Bill got up and saw my coffee ensemble, he mimicked us perfectly. “Look!” he said, “the Gaudy Coffee Dripper is back!”
The day was as rich and satisfying as I’d hoped. There were instruments and songbooks everywhere, with people jamming, singing, and getting to know each other outside the monthly song circle. We hiked and we prowled the tidepools. We feasted on potluck fare, lit the campfire and sang Carter Family, Altman, 1960s, traditional, and other songs, accompanied by the distant coyotes.
On Sunday morning, as we birded, Bill greeted us with, “I’m sure I see two Wide Eyed Babblers at our table.” Marcia excused herself. I felt the need to make conversation so, knowing that Bill had hiked every inch of the Santa Monica Mountains, I asked him about the Bee Tree Trail. Just as he started telling me, a black bird with bright orange patches landed on the ground seven feet away. I gasped and signaled Bill to stop. He didn’t; he began describing where the creek forked. While the bird displayed all his orange markings as flamboyantly as if I were a female bird, I leafed madly through my field guide. Then he, the bird, lifted his wings and flicked his tail to display his white belly. Birds are never this helpful. They skulk in bushes, hiding their bills, spots, and stripes behind branches. If they have diagnostic spots on any part of their bodies, they stand so you can’t see them. This guy was a blatant exhibitionist and I prayed for Marcia to get back in time to see him. But no, while Bill was describing bee habitat, she was jawing in the restroom with friends and I was yelling, “See the rare bird, Bill?” and “Look at it, dammit!” The bird stayed about ten minutes, another thing birds don’t do unless they’ve hidden themselves in dense foliage. The ones you see clearly depart while you’re still dazed, but not this one. He stayed till a few seconds before Marcia trotted back up the trail.
“An American Redstart just flew away,” I said.
“Oh rats,” moaned Marcia. “Did you see him, Bill?” she asked.
“How could I miss?” he replied amiably, “he was five feet away.”
After breakfast we sang gospel songs, jammed, hiked, and walked on the beach. Friends who’d loved singing together were now bonded in other ways. We lunched on leftover potluck food and exchanged phone numbers, then slowly drifted away, already planning the next trip.