For my ninth birthday, just weeks before my family left Bangkok, my best friend gave me a sheer pink sash screen-printed with cranes in flight.
This friend was Japanese, but, like me, she’d spent her entire childhood in Thailand. When you’re small, you understand too little of the world to comprehend cultural provenance. You simply absorb. You exist where you exist. You believe you belong until given reason to believe you do not.
The mind draws arrows, circles, lines. The mind makes maps out of memories.
I couldn’t keep Thailand, so instead I kept my pink crane sash. Sometimes in Louisiana I’d pull it out, smoothing my hands fretfully over the creases. I was a stranger in this new world and didn’t know how not to be. The printed cranes were unchanging, their slim white bodies and spread wings opaque against the translucent background, black legs and bills stretching in either direction.
I’d received the sash on the cusp of a thousand goodbyes. I associated the sash with Bangkok.
I associated cranes with home.
One summer morning twenty years later—and many migrations on—I sat in my Madison, Wisconsin cubicle, collating documents. Stretching my neck between packets, I gazed out the window and gasped. Across the parking lot, in a grassy field dominated by a single oak, stood the two largest birds I had ever seen outside of a zoo.
Each stood a foot taller than the hoods of the cars around them. Graceful necks flowed down into elegant sloping backs, slim legs emerging en pointe from feathered haunches. One of them took a thoughtful step and dipped grassward with a long, dark bill, neck curving, extending—tap—curving back, guiding the returning lift.
My cubicle neighbor followed my gaze across the parking lot. “Oh!” she said. “Look, guys—there’s a couple cranes out there.”
“Wow—so nice to see them every so often,” someone else said, looking up.
“It’s been a while,” a third coworker agreed.
I was dumbfounded. A live National Geographic phenomenon had appeared just beyond my office parking lot in the center of Madison’s business district. And my coworkers were charmed, but unruffled. Not an everyday occurrence—but nothing life-changing, either.
Work resumed, but I kept returning to the cranes. How could something so large be so intricate? How could something so ethereal inhabit a space so mundane? The cranes fluttered their folded wings, the motion suggesting a silken rustle. Creatures so otherworldly could not belong here. Not in real life. They must have crossed from some exquisite dreamland.
How could my coworkers not stare? How could this be normal?
I knew, of course. Had I not responded similarly to elephants walking down bustling Bangkok streets? But knowing and experiencing—knowing and knowing—are borderless distinctions that resist navigation. The cranes could not belong—and yet they did. They did belong. Wonder marked me—me, and not the cranes.
The cranes were not the strangers here.
I used my break to sneak across the parking lot, hoping to send a photo to my sister in Las Vegas. She loves birds and would surely understand my wonder. But as I exited the parking lot, I felt somehow underdressed. The cranes glanced at me, fluttered their wings, and turned away, dismissive. I paused on the periphery.
The cranes stood eye level with my heart—four feet tall; as tall as my nine-year-old self. I couldn’t get a clear photo, couldn’t capture their red-and-white faces, their dark bills and pale plumage.
Never had I felt so self-conscious without a human audience. What was I doing here?
Back in my cubicle, I realized all at once that I had never seen a crane before. Not in Thailand. Not in Japan. Not in Louisiana. Not anywhere. Simulacra, yes. But never the reality. How had I never realized this?
I texted my sister even without a photo. There are two sandhill cranes under this tree outside my work. They’re huge. Couldn’t get close enough for a photo.
Cool! she replied. Look what we’ve been up to.
Photos blossomed on my screen—my niece and nephew watching hummingbirds. The last time I’d held my niece, she’d been an infant. My nephew’d been two, calling me Cryl because the consonant cluster was too complex. These photos showed children engaged with their world, drawing connections, absorbing, changing. Minds making memories. Photos couldn’t get me close enough.
On the cusp of the following spring, I moved west, retracing my cross-country path from two and a half years before.
Halfway through Nebraska, as the I-80 vanished beneath my wheels, the cloudy horizon darkened with churning dark specks. Birds. I’d seen giant bats in such numbers once in my life, in southern Thailand, but that phenomenon was a dusk-and-dawn exclusive. Here in Nebraska, it was noon. These were birds.
Well, early March, I thought. Must be migration time.
I wondered what species they were. There must be thousands of them. The entire horizon churned, undulating and unfurling. The I-80 slipped placidly beneath the throng and vanished into the distant prairie.
Individual birds came into better focus. Sheer size ruled out ducks, corvids, pigeons, and gulls. Long, slim forms—and dangling feet—omitted geese, swans, vultures, and eagles.
“What are those?” I muttered to no one, craning my neck.
Moments later, the universe answered my question with a clear sign. Kearney, announced an imposing monument beside the I-80. Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.
I didn’t realize then, but these cranes numbered in the tens of thousands. Perhaps in excess of one hundred thousand. Each spring, between late February and early April, the Central Platte River Valley hosts around eighty percent of the world’s sandhill crane population. Over 600,000 individuals stop here in a given year. For a little over a month, the cranes rest midway through migration before scattering north. Sandhill cranes have been doing so for eons. It’s now among the last migrations of its kind.
So the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World is not their home. It’s a stopover. For one month each year they belong in Kearney, and then they belong elsewhere.
Impermanence is immaterial. Presence is everything.
Raucous above and around me now, the cranes crisscrossed the prairie sky. I flexed my fingers over the steering wheel, crossing beneath, passing through. I did not think to stop. My mind whirled with awe—wonder that I should live so long and travel so far only to find the cranes so distant from anyplace I’d called home. That I should find them in the passage between.
All this time, I’d linked cranes with home. With longing and belonging.
But most cranes are migratory birds. The ones in the United States and the ones in Japan. Almost always screen-printed in flight. Even origami cranes have wings outstretched. Cranes belong—belong—belong. Even crossing the horizon, they belong.
Have you ever realized something new about an animal you thought you understood? Have you ever seen the sandhill crane migration in Kearney, Nebraska, or witnessed another kind of migration? Let us know in the comments!