Spotting people as you approach a mountaintop is easy, just look for their brightly colored gear. Parading by Baden Powell once, I scanned as usual and saw no one, until we turned away and something down there moved. Glancing close before it slid behind the wing, negative. Yet afterward a phantom image lingered, oddly colorless. We swung back to fly by again slower, and concealed by the shade of the tallest pine stood seven nuns in full habit, waving like regular tourists.
When I think of them schlepping all the way up there in black robe and coif one question persists. Do nuns hike in shiny black boots, or sneakers? St. Andrew would know.
Another time, arriving at Baldy some hundreds of feet below the peak we could see heads silhouetted against the sky. “You watch,” I said. “They’ll all be waving as we climb by.”
A minute later we rose past them and not a single one waved – because none had arms. They were eight bighorn sheep, stalwart namesake of our local wilderness (and the one-time St. Louis Rams), grazing on whatever grows between the naked rocks of that wind scoured 10-K summit. Bighorn are bold creatures for sure, but ours here are reclusive. In all my years soaring close around these mountains this was the only time I’ve seen them from the air, and they would never have been so exposed if they knew humans were within a mile of the place.
So what can we learn? Always look and then look closer, whether you’re a soaring pilot or a bighorn (nuns get a pass). And never assume that what you think you see is really what you’re looking at. It could be something more interesting than you expected.