By Laura Ulmer
When a script calls for Tumbleweeds, the bold must answer by braving the freezing desert, answering to territorial ranchers, and pausing to honor the birds of prey. Late Friday evening, partnered with our intrepid set designer Albie Clementi and covered in sheet rock plaster, tile mastic and gray paint, we left the theater intent on crossing the mountains in search of tumbleweeds at the height of tumbleweed season. Success would depend on the winds and not getting shot by people who don’t understand the strange demands of creative callings.
Friday, November 9th, 2012, 7:30pm. Albie and I are production lining faux timbers made of thin plywood, frosting them like cake and using an old paint brush to create wood grain texture. This is a slow messy job. We are both tired, sore, and feeling pressed for time; which is the very definition of a production schedule in theater. We wanted to be on the way over the Cascades headed for the desert by now. Instead we are covered in goo, working in concert, and looking for a stopping point so that we can clean up and leave.
By 8:30 we are in the car, and I’m driving. We are twittering on about an Oysterhead concert 10 years ago when we are shocked to silence by a tremendous amount of blood on I-90 passing through the city of Bellevue. We were humble and prayerful for nearly an hour. There was no way to know for sure if it had been a deer or a person. Its sunken position under an overpass in the city made it unlikely to be a deer, but the absence of emergency crews indicated it wasn’t human. The scene visited us with the strong impression of the impermanence and fragility of life.
We were blessed with snow near Thorp, and the delightful experience of driving “through hyperspace.” The clean white clearing our minds of the redness of miles past, and building excitement for the adventure come morning. Yes Sir, we was gonna get us some tumbleweeds or bust. We arrived in the sweet little town of Ellensburg at 10:00pm, rolling up to our dear friend Michael’s house with the balance sense of relief one feels when they are finally home after a long trip. Snow was falling in fat flakes through the cold dry air and landing on the trees and grass with a barely audible hiss. The first kiss of winter in the Valley sure was sweet on the cheeks with your face turned heavenward.
Saturday morning arrived in the low 30’s, accompanied by a delightful breakfast amongst loved ones at a restaurant in a converted church, aptly named The Yellow Church. Painted in the arch over the kitchen is the statement, “In an ordinary day, there are a thousand miracles.” We would discover a few along our way to a truck full of tumbleweeds, many of them would have wings and stalwart protectors. We collected ourselves and headed out armed with warm jackets, open minds, and sharp intuitions. Accompanying us was our friend Michael, a master of many things from bells to swords. He is also a master Audubon birder, and along with the tumbleweeds, some special kinds of hawks were rolling over the valley.
So how does one find a tumbleweed fit for the stage anyhow? Why stuck to the windward side of a fence of course! Now where there are fences, there are cows, and where there are cows there are ranchers, and where there are ranchers… well, there are risks. We city slickers have little appreciation for what it means to cattle ranch, nor what it means to keep trespassers off your property. (Usually, rock salt in a shotgun or mean dogs.) Turns out, as we later learned, cows aren’t the only creatures to get stolen off the land.
Our first country road yielded exactly what we were looking for, but not what we were after. Not 15 minutes into our driving Michael spotted a nearly eagle sized figure perched on the top of a power line pole. This was our first Rough Legged Hawk of the day. What a fearless treasure! Complete with brown and gold feathers and Egyptian eye makeup. We were parked not far from its pole; it watched us watching it before it lit into flight with a kind of spine tingling grace, its low flight parallel to the truck as we drove. This was our good omen.
We kept driving the direction of the bird’s flight and not a mile or two farther on was a fantastic collection of tumbleweed pinned on a fence just off the road. These were gigantic balls of seed spreading, fence stressing, ditch filling, theatrical perfection, force’n an unmistakable trespass to get’um. This is when you send the woman, because this Calamity Jane knows how to handle a misunderstanding over tumbleweed with a folksy grace. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. We grabbed our score and loaded up before the dogs ever got out of the yard. The caper complete with no rock salt!
We kept on our loop up into the dry cold hills in search of yet more tumbleweeds and birds of prey. Fifteen Red Tailed Hawks, dozens of falcons, and three Rough Leggeds later we pulled over for a fourth. Moments into staring through our binoculars at another fine proud gold bird, when a large white GMC flatbed arrived with a scowling suspicious rough handed plaid shirt behind the wheel.
“I sure hope your just look’n at that bird.” He stated with a tough not too unfriendly voice. Looking us over with a suspicion about his observation. I gave him the biggest set of innocent kind blue eyes I could, while Albie and Michael chatted him up about all the birds we had seen. He wasn’t sold. I interrupted the conversation, coming forward with my hand out.
“Hi, I’m Laura. I’ve never seen birds like this before. Michael here is an expert Audubon birder; he’s taken us out to see the Rough Leggeds that just came in, they’re incredible!” I said pulling the full dose of mid-west country girl out from under the layers of city slicker I’ve accumulated from 12 years in Seattle. The guys in turn each shook hands and introduced themselves.
“Ma-name’s Ross. The family’s lived right here for 40 years. We’ve been keep’n watch for the bird stealers. See those Rough Leggeds, they aren’t afraid of people. That’s their undoing. The bird thieves come, set up traps and steal them for selling. Caught a couple women out here the other day. They keep coming back they’ll get a nasty surprise. Thought ya could’a been some of them, so I came out to take a look.” Ross explained, much relaxed and very friendly.
It occurred to me to tell him that we were only interested in stealing tumbleweeds, but thought better of it. We thanked him and his family for being good keepers of the birds and wished him a very fine day. As he pulled away the bird we were watching lit up and cruised away. We reached a count of 30 birds of prey and three gigantic tumbleweeds by the end of the day. We successfully avoided getting shot with rock salt and learned about bird theft. Albie and I laughed and snapped pictures as we shoved those big ol’ tumbleweeds into the back of my Volvo S60 for the drive back. This is how Burien Little Theater came by it’s tumbleweeds for A Tuna Christmas.
Peace on earth, and good will to everybody.