I’ve seen them in Alaska, in Yellowstone, in Maine. Always alone–their singularity capturing so much of the spirit they epitomize. Usually they’re roosting on the uppermost branch of the tallest tree in the area. Occasionally I’ve spotted one swooping into a landing or launching powerfully, improbably into the air.
The sight is always thrilling–much the way that spotting a breaching whale is thrilling. But whereas whales belong to the sea, which belongs to no one, the bald eagle represents America. Even when I saw one in northern Canada–where they are plentiful–I thought to myself, “What’s he doing up here, far from home?”
When I was a child I was told the bald eagle was on the verge of extinction; we had all but destroyed our national symbol. Yet the species came back, and a decade ago it was removed from the endangered and threatened list.
Perhaps because I have only ever seen a bald eagle in wild and majestic places, my idea of them is linked with all that is so good in America. These sightings invariably fill me with a rush of awe, a swelling of gratitude, a sprig of hope.
Recently, my son and I were on a canoe trip down the Missouri River in Montana, chasing the ghosts of Lewis and Clark, when he saw his first bald eagle. His one-word reaction captured everything I have always felt, not only about the bald eagle but also about the wilder parts of our country.
“Whoa,” he said softly.
“I know,” I whispered back.
It felt good to pass something down.
McCarthy is an actor, director and writer. His YA novel Just Fly Away will be published in 2017
This appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of TIME.