The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik; read by Oliver Wyman
I must admit, I have a weakness for stories about people who follow their dreams. One of my favorites is Winterdance, the tale of man ill-suited for extreme sports who decides to run the Iditarod anyway. The Big Year is an equally entrancing and inspiring audio book, something I find particularly amazing because I began listening knowing little about the protagonists' driving passion. The three men are bird watchers, or "birders" I should say, now that I've heard Mark Obmascik's riveting account of how they spent a year in their lives.
It wasn't just any year. It was 1998, a year that each of them, quite independently, decided would be a "Big Year," twelve months dedicated to sighting as many different kinds of birds as possible. The tradition of a "Big Year" traces its roots all the way back to Audubon, the Frenchman who evaded serving in Napoleon's army and made his way to fame as a bird watcher in the New World.
The three men, while they are all life-long birders, come from different backgrounds. Sandy Komito and Al Levantin have acquired enough personal wealth to finance a quest requiring pricey travel aboard chartered boats, helicopters, and planes, if that's what it takes to spot a yellow rail or a fork-tailed flycatcher. Greg Miller, in contrast, is a software engineer at a nuclear power plant in Maryland who decides to go for a Big Year without really knowing how he'll find the time or resources.
Author Mark Obmascik, a birder himself, tells the story of the three men, their quest, and how their paths cross before the year is out. It doesn't matter whether you share their single-minded devotion to seeing a snipe, a ptarmigan, or a ruby-throated hummingbird. What grabs, enthralls, and ultimately satisfies is their unflagging commitment to achieving their goals, even when family loyalty wears thin, money runs out, and health is threatened.
But don't get the idea that this is Pilgrim's Progress. Obmascik finds the humor in the birders' exploits wherever it lurks. Listening to Oliver Wyman's performance of the book is an exercise in laughing, crying, and exclaiming, "Oh, no!"
The Big Year is a perfect road trip accompaniment. Following the three intrepid birders on their quixotic year-long odyssey is an entertaining and important reminder that time is all we really have to spend, and experiences are the only thing truly worth collecting.