Tuesday, May 23, 2017

#64b - Tuesday, 23 May 2017 - Rodeo, NM

Here is the video mentioned in this morning's blog entry

#64a - Tuesday, 23 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

Yesterday I filmed a little video showing the outside of my home for the next thirty nights. The whole idea was to embed it into this blog. Unfortunately, due to slow wifi and some technical difficulties, I can't share that quite yet. It is hopefully uploading to YouTube right now and I will be able to share tomorrow. So here's a photograph of my campsite. I think this is the nicest in the park as it is still in the corner off away from everything and is adjacent to the duck pond. It also has the best patio. In the pic below you will see a wooden table (pallet on legs) for grilling on the left, a nice fire pit in the foreground and a picnic table, all of which are right outside my doors and partially covered by my awning. You'll also note Jesse's play stand outdoors and the hummingbird feeder hung in the tree at far right.

This morning I did some laundry and am having a relax day. Last night I drove 100 miles (2 hours) to the Antelope Wells border crossing and waited there for the sun to set. I had tried to time my drive so there wouldn't be much of a wait, but I left camp about 30 minutes too early. Each time I drive from my camp at Rusty's east to Animas (16 miles) for fuel or groceries I have been seeing horned lizards at the highway edge if it is somewhere around 8-10 a.m. They are more active when the sun isn't completely blazing and retreat from the midday and afternoon heat in burrows. Last night, as I drove toward the Mexico border and Antelope Wells I thought I saw one again. There are a few species in this area, but the largest and broadest is the Greater Short-horned Lizard, which is only five or six inches long but has a back almost as broad and flat as my hand. I hit the breaks, swung an off-road U-turn and slowly creeped back north in my truck. Sure enough this bucket list species was basking on the pavement at dusk. I jumped out of the truck and approached, stupidly not bothering to grab my camera. I wanted to catch first and photo second, positioning the lizard on a natural background and not photographing it on pavement. First mistake. I would love to have that photo now. As I reached down toward it, the horned lizard (aka horny toad) surprised me with its speed. What ensued fortunately wasn't captured on film. It was a comedy of errors as the lizard darted back and forth and headed toward the roadside. Big, clumsy me was no match for even this super stocky and robust lizard's moves. It paused and darted, again and again, each time evading me and taking advantage of my height and girth. I simply wasn't agile enough or quick enough to bend over. Along the road's shoulder I picked up ground and went in for the grab. Just as my hand touched its extraordinarily broad and flattened back it scurried further out of reach and darted down one of the many holes that led to its tunnel. Foiled. I sat on the side of the road and cursed myself for not taking an image while it was calmly on the pavement.

This all occurred about ten miles north of the border. I was getting very hungry and also cursed my ill-preparedness at not having a sandwich or snack in the vehicle. I had a little siesta before leaving the RV two hours earlier and hadn't eaten since breakfast. I had no idea what Antelope Wells was and expected at least a small village where perhaps I could purchase a snack. Foiled again. It may look like a village on the map, but it turns out that Antelope Wells is nothing but a border crossing. I was in the middle of nowhere with no food for two hours in each direction.

Antelope Wells. No food in sight.
I took a few social media snapshots of the crossing, which had been closed since 4 pm and then sat watching the sun set over the Animas Mountains. I am not patient and didn't wait for dark. I began to creep slowly north on Highway 81. My normal "snake road cruising" speed is 25-30 mph, but I tried to go 10 so I wouldn't get too far before nightfall. A few nights earlier I had found four Painted Desert Glossy Snakes between mile markers 16-20. I was hoping that this stretch would yield other species. 

Near mile marker 6 – just a handful of miles north of Mexico – I spotted a snake coiled in the road. It was still light enough that I could see its stockiness and reddish color. I knew immediately that it was a rattlesnake. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes in this area are very red as that is the color of the desert here. It was simply beautiful with its tightly wound coils an adobe red. I put my truck in park and quickly jumped out. I had learned my lesson with the horned lizard and grabbed my macro camera set-up. When I am road cruising I have my two camera bodies set up - one with a 100mm macro lens and ring flash, the other with a 70-200mm lens and an external flash with a softbox diffuser. Thankfully, I captured the beautiful image you see here. But before I did I had to open the passenger door to grab my snake hook. As I went around the side of the truck I was surprised by another rattlesnake, almost identical in appearance to the one in the road, but perhaps four feet long instead of three. I grabbed my other camera and tried to position the snake for a photo, leaving the road snake coiled as it was. Western Diamondbacks are noted for their irascibility and are quick to throw themselves into a defensive positive with their heads held high and their necks in an S-shape. This one did not disappoint and struck at me repeatedly as it rattled loudly and slithered in reverse. Each time my snake hook touched it the snake used serpentine motion to keep facing me and striking while it moved quickly away from the roadside shoulder. I decided to let it be and return to the snake in the road. With good images captured it was time to move it off the road if for its own safety and nothing else. It gave me the same performance as its friend had, agitated and refusing to balance on the snake hook as it thrust its body away from the road. I ended up with two beautiful red diamondbacks rattling and striking and moving quickly into the roadside brush. It was interesting how two snakes that were about fifteen feet apart at the start of this encounter and eventually were about 25 feet away from each other ended up in almost exactly the same place. They both retreated to some bushes surrounding a soaptree yucca and their rattling was deafening. By now it was too dark to see and I went back to my truck to put on my headlamp and sip some water. I spent a little time with a flashlight looking for the snakes hoping to get another photo or two, but decided I had stressed them out enough. I got back in my truck and started slowly north. About a mile along I realized that I had neglected to record GPS coordinates so I turned back and looked for that soaptree yucca. I could hear the rattling from the road so it was easy to find the spot again. I use an app called Gaia GPS that allows you to create photographic waypoints so I took a picture of the yucca and used my iPhone to record the sound of the rattling bush.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Hidalgo Co., New Mexico

I'd say that the rest of the drive was uneventful, because I didn't find anymore live snakes. I did find one more Western Diamondback, also in this reddish color, but sadly it was on the slightly busier Hwy. 9 after I made it back 50 miles north to Hachita where I took it west. However, road cruising is never uneventful as you have to contend with hundreds of jackrabbits and hundreds of cottontails that seem to think launching into the roadway is a good idea when they see two tons of bright lights humming their way. I return to camp totally exhausted from my efforts to swerve and brake and accelerate as needed to minimize the number of hares and rabbits I trample. I would estimate that in the course of last evening's drive down to Antelope Wells at dusk and then road cruising at dark and driving 100 miles back to Rodeo I saw several hundred black-tailed jackrabbits and almost the same number of cottontails (both species, common and desert). In addition, the road at night is filled with racing rodents like kangaroo rats that are like psychotic gerbils as their plump little bodies and thick long tails streak from one side of the road to the next, crossing the two lanes of pavement in the blink of an eye.

I mentioned that today I am just relaxing. By that I mean I am not in my truck, not hiking and not photographing. I am just hanging out in my RV. I did a load of laundry this morning and checked out the clubhouse here to see if I could watch hockey there tonight. I also have been doing some Internet stuff. Yesterday I joined a website called iNaturalist.org. It allows you to upload images for identification if you don't know what you've found, but in my case allows me to ID for others or upload my images just to share. Even if I didn't interact with others it is a great place to store the same low-resolution watermarked images I post on Instagram and record the GPS coordinates and other info about each observation. I've only played with it for two days, but I am really excited about fully utilizing its potential and becoming part of the community. It's also a great way to find other peoples observations from the areas I visit and get locality information for species I am seeking. Sharing exact locations by precise GPS coordinates does have a certain risk as it can be used by collectors (read: poachers), but the trend today in scientific papers is to share this precise locality data and I don't imagine that someone is going to eradicate a species of scorpion or snake just based on my information, or that my not sharing info is going to prevent people from doing as they choose. It's all out there now and I choose to embrace the positive aspects.

Another Internet thing I am finally getting around to is building a new personal website. For many years exoticfauna.com was my primary home. Today it has been reduced to a single page and I started mjacobi.com before I left on this road trip. The latter was intended to be more about living on the road and doing some freelance design work and such, but I now wish to have one website that really focuses on my naturalist and wildlife photography adventures. Some of you may know that my SmugMug site is my true photo gallery and it even offers you the chance to buy prints of my images, but I don't really think it sees much traffic and I haven't been uploading new images there. 90% of the photos there are images of tarantula species taken in captivity. So the new site will contain my images of animals in nature and allow a better platform for everyone to view them than social media does. I will keep you updated on the completion of this site. I will just plug away at it here and there and probably spend a good deal of time finishing it when I am spending a couple weeks in Chicagoland in early July.

Note: If you haven't seen the first RV video I made, which gives you a tour of my Wheelhouse and was filmed in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park back in March, click here to view. Hopefully tomorrow I will blog again with a link to the video I shot here.

Whirled peas, M

Monday, May 22, 2017

#63 - Monday, 22 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

Settled in Rodeo, New Mexico …?

When I decided racing back to Texas to rejoin the Millsaps College Scorpion Searchers was not in my best interest, and that I would stay longer between the Chiricahua and Peloncilla Mountains, it gave me the opportunity to minimize RV towing and maximize exploration of the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains and the reptiles and arachnids of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. I have expressed my love-hate for birding, but this also is the best birding area in the U.S. for bucket list Mexican species that cross the border nowhere else. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the trails in the Chiricahuas or the spots in its foothills where people allow you onto their land to enjoy the birds at their feeders. My decision to extend my stay at Rusty’s RV Ranch for another week transformed into another month when I spoke with Rusty. Today is my checkout from my first week of stay and I will move to another site (this one is reserved by someone incoming) and, for the first time, become a temporarily sedentary gypsy/pikey/nomad. My stay here will now surpass five weeks and I’ll depart around June 20.

I’ve mentioned the need to return to Chicago to renew my driver’s license. I might be able to do so online, but I want to take a little break and visit family too. I need new eyeglasses and need to put 90% of the clothes I have in my RV into storage and grab a few stored items that I wish I had with me. For example, if I would have had my tent and sleeping bag it would have made it possible to spend a little more time in the field with Brent and his students. It would allow me to hit a few spots where my RV cannot go. So, my present plan is to leave my RV here at Rusty’s at the end of my stay and head back to Chicagoland. I’ll take a bit of a scenic route and perhaps take a week to drive what I could do in a couple days. After a visit to Chicagoland, where Jesse and I will stay with Joel and no doubt gorge on sushi a couple times, I will take an even more scenic route back to New Mexico with my sleeping bag and tent allowing me to camp in some national and state parks en route.

Here in Rodeo I look forward to continued road cruising at night for snakes, hiking in the Chiricahuas and maybe taking a few longer day trips to other areas in southern Arizona and New Mexico. I've now driven down to the Mexican border at Douglas, Arizona and that same road would allow me to visit the old mining town of Bisbee. Douglas is the closest city of size and has a Wal-Mart that I'll visit a few times over the next month to stock up on supplies. I'll probably do that in the evening so the drive back is after dark and may allow me to happen upon interesting snakes on the road. Yesterday I ran out of propane for the first time and drove to Valley Mercantile in Animas to find them closed on Sunday. Instead of back-tracking and heading down to the Wal-Mart again, I drove up to the interstate (I-10) and headed east to Lordsburg, New Mexico. It's actually a bit closer than Douglas and has a decent grocery store. I was able to find propane at a truck stop so Jesse and I would have heat last night (temps are currently in the low 90s by day and the low 50s at night). Today after I move to another campsite I'll get my two primary 20# cylinders filled in Animas. So here is an updated map that shows the added frequented stops of Douglas, Arizona (Agua Prieta, Mexico lies on the other side of the border) and Lordsburg, New Mexico. Note how State Hwy. 80 runs diagonally southwest from Rodeo. From my site it takes less than ten minutes before I cross the Arizona state line. 

     –   All the best, M

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#62 - Saturday, 20 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

Good morning and Happy Saturday.

I realized that I forgot to include the promised map in my last blog entry. I've corrected that, but I assume that most of my readers are seeing the posts within the first 24 hours so I will duplicate it here.

The red star above shows the location of Rusty's RV Ranch. It is on Hwy. 80 just north of Hwy. 9, which heads east to Animas, Hachita and beyond. As you can see, you could walk into Arizona from Rusty's. Animas to the east is 16 miles or so and there Valley Mercantile is my closest source for fuel and groceries and other sundries. West into Arizona, Portal is where the cafe I have had breakfast twice is and is the entrance to the Chiricahua Mountains.

The orange stars represent frequented destinations. In New Mexico the stars designate the Whitmire Canyon Wilderness in the Peloncillo Mountains where I have found the scorpion Diplocentrus peloncillensis, which is my new favorite U.S. species, and where I have unsuccessfully searched for the tarantula Aphonopelma peloncillo (in the green in the extreme southwest), and the road north of the Antelope Wells port-of-entry into Mexico where I have road cruised and found four Painted Desert Glossy Snakes so far.

The orange stars in Arizona are random spots (approximations) in the Chiricahuas, with the farthest northwest being the Chiricahua National Monument (CNM). The black pen lines show my frequent paths and shows the big loop I made when I drove to the top of the Chiricahuas, then visited the CNM and drove about two hours back to New Mexico and camp.

I had really wanted to meet back up with arachnologist Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his three students doing scorpion research. Yesterday I made plans to leave Rusty's one day early and drive 500 miles to Lajitas, Texas and Big Bend Ranch State Park to see them again. The plan was to then return to Big Bend National Park the following day and once again black light for scorpions in Boquillas Canyon. This morning I began to further make preparations, and yesterday I told Rusty that I would be shortening my stay here by one day and leaving tomorrow at dawn. This morning I called my sister Lisa (no cell signal here, but I drove 16 miles to Animas to make the call) and told her everything and hearing myself say it made me realize just how crazy an idea it was. My pace is more slug-like than that of my tent-camping friends who only have a few weeks for this field trip. I plan to revisit everywhere I've been, but I need to do it at my own speed, on my own terms. If I had my tent and sleeping bag I might have just left my RV here and camped with them (I will get them when I return to Chicago!). Without that option, I sent Brent an email explaining the situation. As much as I'd love to spend time in the field with him again, it will have to wait until another time. He's headed back west in July and that might be another opportunity.

Now that I am remaining in New Mexico I have done some more reconsidering. My original booking here at Rusty's RV Ranch was to leave Monday morning, and I was then going to head back to the Deming area and visit Rockhound State Park for a few nights. Instead I think I will stay at Rusty's for one more week. I love this area and want to enjoy it some more. I also want to just relax. Today I think I will just read and play guitar. Staying here for another week would require some more groceries and my next big decision is whether to be limited by the meager selection and expensive prices in nearby Animas, or to just drive 100 miles roundtrip to Lordsburg, New Mexico, which is the closest town of any size.

Take care, MJ

Friday, May 19, 2017

#61 - Friday, 19 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

Apologies for yesterday’s heaviness. I am a dark, introspective and philosophical man. I don’t often share my feelings (read: almost never), but yesterday was intensely reflective and meditative. I spent much of it driving and thinking, and listening to the powerful and haunting voice of Chris Cornell.

Before I move onto sunnier topics, I must admit that I am still shaken by Chris Cornell’s death. To learn that it has been ruled suicide is bewildering. From what I’ve read he performed, greeted fans afterword and spoke of the next night’s performance in Columbus and was from all reports behaving “normal”. How could anyone be in the state of mind to take their own life then? I did read that his wife (or other family) had called another friend to check on him so there must be something missing from the story.

My day of driving began when I headed back to Arizona for the day. I don’t know if I commented on it before, but when I arrived in Arizona initially, after spending some time in New Mexico, I was really confused by the time. It took me days to realize that Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time and that is why my automatically time updated devices didn’t jive with those requiring manual change. Both New Mexico and Arizona are in Mountain Time, but two different mountain times! Arizona is one hour behind New Mexico, sharing the clock at this time of the year with Pacific Time. That has become even more confusing now that I am right on the border. I’ll add a map below for those of you who might not know where I am. I have been in and out of both states so many times over the past four days and my iPhone keeps changing time. 

The red star represents Rusty's RV Ranch, just north of Rodeo, New Mexico. The orange stars represent areas I frequent. The black lines roughly show the roads I travel in the area.

Yesterday’s route took me back to Portal Cafe for breakfast and then deeper into the Chiricahuas. I drove up the mountain roads to the highest elevations of Barfoot Park (8300’) and Rustler Park (9000’). I am not a fan of heights and this very rough and narrow winding road had plenty of drop-offs that made me a bit queasy. I was so glad to have my amazing 4x4, and even more glad to encounter almost no other vehicles. I can’t imagine driving up these roads when there is any traffic at all. There is often no place to pass or pull over and certainly no guardrails to prevent you from falling a few thousand feet. I laughed when I would see a “one lane bridge” sign. The whole bloody thing is one lane … It was white knuckle at times, but the views were breathtaking. Presumably, I was headed up there to “bird”, but I have a real love-hate thing with “birding”. First of all, I am a reptile and arachnid guy. Birders are geriatrics in funny clothes (haha). The day before when I went to a few birding hotspots (among the best spots in the country), I encountered so many birders and it’s not a club I want to join. Secondly, birders carry binoculars not cameras. I don’t own binocs (yet!). Bird photographers have $20,000 lenses. I’ll never own one of those. I did enjoy the birds though and at Barfoot Park I once again encountered wild turkey. I saw them in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve S.P. in southern Florida, I saw them in Madera Canyon, Arizona and now have in the Chiricahuas. The two I encountered yesterday weren’t that bothered by my presence. I was truly alone in the woods and saw no people at these high elevation points.

After driving all the way to the top of the Chiricahuas I did question my sanity. I even began flipping rocks hoping for a cool scorpion or lizard. I had driven to these heights, and at times the drive was anything but relaxing, to photograph birds and found myself just watching. Then I wished I could find a mountain king snake or something much cooler than a winged annoyance. Just like butterflies and dragonflies, photographing birds requires patience that I can rarely summon. I decided I definitely didn’t want to descend the same way I had come so I took the road that leads you down the other side and toward Highway 118 and Chiricahua National Monument. It would have been easier to visit this park when I headed back east from Tucson toward Rodeo, but now I had a second chance. The park really is a “must see” with incredible rock formations (e.g. “hoodoos”). I even took a couple of bird photographs there. Afterward, I might have reversed my path back into the Chiricahuas and toward Portal, but I instead took the direct route on Hwy. 118 toward Willcox that led to me basically doing a large clockwise circle yesterday. I took a bit of a shortcut through the Ft. Bowie National Historic Site (Apache Pass), but I don’t do history or culture so I didn’t stop. This eventually led me north to Interstate 10 and then I headed east back to New Mexico and Rusty’s RV Ranch the same way I had earlier in the week.

I was tired and sick of driving when I got back to camp. I also was hungry as I had brought no lunch with and the omelette I had for breakfast had exhausted its fuel. I made some pasta and had a Jameson’s and ginger. But one of the reasons I was in the “boot heel” of New Mexico was to road cruise for snakes. It may be a little early in the year still and the nights are still cool, but I headed east on Highway 9 through Animas and on to Hachita where I headed south on Hwy. 81 toward Mexico. As with many times in on this road trip, it was just me, Border Patrol and black-tailed jackrabbits. I watched the sun set over the Animas Mountains and the roadsides became increasingly populated with both jackrabbits (a hare, not a rabbit) and desert cottontails (a real rabbit). It is quite the trick to avoid running them over and it gets worse as darkness falls. There is a small port of entry at Antelope Wells and I headed that direction. I found four glossy snakes crossing the road in a short stretch about twenty miles north of the border. Two were adults and two were young. I photographed each and recorded GPS data and released them off the road. Not many others would be driving down here at night, but I doubt the Border Patrol officers care about hitting the jackrabbits and cottontails, much less snakes. In their defense it becomes almost impossible to not hit hares and bunnies.

I was exhausted and now more than a couple hours from camp so I turned around sixteen miles north of Mexico. When I passed one Border Patrol agent he turned on his truck lights and turned into the road behind me. He didn’t speed up to catch me, but just continued a distance behind me, which forced me to increase my speed past the 25-35 mph I road cruise at. In retrospect, I should have just pulled over and let any encounter happen sooner rather than later, but I drove for miles and miles and miles with him about a half mile behind me and me going about 15 mph below the speed limit. I passed another parked Border Patrol vehicle and hoped that my follower would stop to chat with his colleague, but my follow vehicle just continued behind me. I focused on the road looking for snakes and weaving or slamming on the breaks to avoid killing jackrabbit. It’s not easy and I know a few must have got beneath my wheels. When I got back to Hwy. 9 and turned west the BP truck was still in pursuit. I saw a snake in the road and pulled over as soon as I could. There was no shoulder so I had to pass it a bit. Sure enough the BP vehicle pulled behind me. And sat. I waited for him to turn on his flashing lights or do something and finally I just waived my arms in a disgusted “do something” gesture. Then he turned on his “cherries” and eventually got out. He was not what I expected. I wouldn’t give this guy a crossing guard job. He was this lazy-eyed, fat young very-Caucasian kid who could barely speak English much less Spanish. The way he approached me would get him killed if I was a violent felon. No flashlight. No guarded or defensive posture. No extreme awareness. I could have drawn my .45 and shot him a thousand times. He just waddled up and I finally just shouted “How ya doin’ man?!” He stammered and I launched into what I was doing without him asking. I told him he had forced me to go too fast and asked if he wanted to stop me why he didn’t FIFTY miles earlier. He apologized and was so “aw shucks” I felt sorry for him and wondered how long he’d last in his job. He told me that my behavior is exactly what the illegal immigrant runners do. They drive into the deserted area at night fall to the port of entry after it closes and then drive back out sooner than most drivers to the area would. They pick up people who have snuck across the border and take them into towns. There really aren’t any towns to speak of for many miles. I told him about the four glossy snakes I had photographed and asked if he even noticed the one not far behind us. He said, “well, it’s dead out here so why not turn around and look for it?” I did. It was dead-on-road (DOR). A Sonoran Gophersnake about four feet long. It was fairly fresh and I was forced to wonder if it was alive when I avoided it and passed, but was killed by Officer Clueless. I still had over an hour to drive back to camp and found one more DOR gopher snake. It remained very difficult to avoid killing jack-rabbits and it seemed like there were a million. I crashed hard after a long day of extra-attentive driving as soon as I made it to camp. 

– All the best, M

Thursday, May 18, 2017

#60 - Thursday, 18 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

Life is short. Fragile and fleeting. Tomorrow is not promised. Nor is next hour.

I learned this hard lesson in late January 2013. My bonus dad Joel and my mother had made a special trip to the Seattle area in November 2012 to visit me so that my pooch Taylor and I could do the return road trip with them. They would watch her while I spent three-plus weeks in Suriname. I would fly out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. My mom had bought a new car and Hound Dog Taylor and I would eventually return to Washington in her old Toyota. You never know when you are saying your goodbyes and thanks that it will be the last time you see someone. You never know when you’ll give your final hug to the woman who brought you into the world. Not two months later tragedy struck. My mom was gone.

My Suriname 2012 field trip was followed by Sri Lanka 2014. After my mother’s death I moved back to Chicagoland, and this time I’d be leaving Taylor and my parrot Jesse in my sister’s care. It was really tough to leave. My precious dog was elderly and she didn’t seem quite right. I had accepted an offer to travel with Andrew Smith again for Brazil 2015, but while in Sri Lanka I sent him an email declining the invitation. There were a number of reasons but first and foremost was the struggle I was having leaving Taylor. That dog was my rock. She got me through the end of my marriage and she got me through a couple of unhealthy relationships that followed. I told Andrew I wouldn’t travel again while Taylor was still alive.

When I got back to O’Hare Airport from Sri Lanka I had a taxi take me to to a funeral home. Death happens every second and is nothing special. It only is important to the comparative few that care. My brother-in-law Randy’s aunt had passed while I was in Sri Lanka and my family was at her wake. I arrived and found my dying dog in my sister’s car. Cancer had overcome her during my absence and my sister had been taking her to a vet for care and medication. A few days later, after Taylor had ceased eating anything, I was forced to say my goodbyes. My partner was gone.

Why is my blog filled with tales of loss today? I guess a huge part of this road trip is just doing what the fuck I want while I am able to do it. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. I remember Andrew, who has now reached 60, telling me how many field trips he had left in him and his plans to go where he still wanted or needed to go. He was thinking about his health, and maybe his desire, but I doubt he was thinking that he could get hit by a bus today. I had nothing else going and my depression over the losses of what honestly have been the two most important relationships of my life sparked the fire of this road trip, but the fact that who knows how many days I have fanned the flames. I have enjoyed my field trips and international travel over the past ten years or so, but the United States has so much more beauty and diversity to offer. I don’t need to cramp my large frame in an airplane or get special shots or deal with other cultures. It is all right here in my backyard.

But I should answer the question of “why today”… I woke to the news that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (also of Audioslave, Temple of the Dog and solo career) died last night. He was born 16 days before me. Like me, he was 52 years old and a couple months away from 53. He was on tour with Soundgarden and performed last night in Detroit. The cause of death has not been determined. I still remember when someone walked into the store I was working at in Wauconda in 1989 and handed me Soundgarden’s “Louder than Love”. It was more punk/alternative than the metal I favored, but it was so heavy and the powerful voice of Chris Cornell was mind-blowing. In more recent years, I have been into the jamband scene and recently one of its pioneers and innovators, Colonel Bruce Hampton, died right after performing his set at his own 70th birthday concert. I guess popping your clogs right after doing what you love, on your birthday, surrounded by most of your friends, family and peers is a good way to go, but F U C K.

I was a bit off my game yesterday, suffering from my battles with depression, and this morning I definitely am just in a “what the fuck” haze. For the most part this road trip has helped me with my demons, and has been what I have needed to stay sane. I guess when someone who was two weeks old when you were born dies it is a bit of a tailspin. Of course, yesterday and the day before that, loads of 52-year-olds died all over the world. So did children. An insignificant number of humans noticed and today the world is unchanged. We mean nothing. I'm not special and neither are you. Chris will be mourned by thousands and thousands and thousands. I might be mourned by dozens. Nobody is mourned by 7.5 billion, and I would argue that hominids are the least important organisms. 

The world goes on. Don’t wait until tomorrow.      

Love someone, M

Monday, May 15, 2017

#59 - Monday, 15 May 2017 - Rodeo, New Mexico

I am now at Rusty’s RV Ranch outside Rodeo, New Mexico. It doesn’t get much more western-sounding than that. Rodeo sits right along the border with southeast Arizona where the Chiricahua Mountains I’ll spend much of my week exploring lie. But I’ll also be visiting New Mexico’s Peloncillo Mountains south and southeast of here to look for a tarantula and a scorpion species that Brent gave me localities for.

The Chiricahuas are also part of the Coronado National Forest that includes the Santa Catalinas and Santa Ritas where I spent a good deal of time while in the Tucson area. Chiricahua Peak rises even higher than the Catalina’s Mt. Lemmon and the region is comprised of numerous sky islands. I introduced this concept (Madrean Sky Islands) in an earlier blog when I described the strata of habitat found at increasing elevation in Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains. The "islands" are sanctuaries between the hot "sea" of the Sonoran Desert. The Chiricahuas have a base elevation of 3600’, and are perhaps even more biodiverse than the Catalinas. Five of the nine lives zones are found within the mountain range’s 6000’ of elevation. More than 375 bird species are known and many are Mexican species found nowhere else in the United States. This is a hugely popular birding area and I seek the fifteen or so species of hummingbirds and the Elegant Trogon. Cats found in the area include ocelots, jaguars and mountain lions, and the mountains also are home to black bears and white-tailed deer.

The past two days I mostly relaxed at an RV Park in Amado, Arizona, halfway between Tucson and Nogales, Mexico. Yesterday morning I brought my coffee to the picnic areas of Madera Canyon, hiking and birdwatching on trails near Bog Springs Campground and sitting with lunch at Santa Rita Lodge’s bird-watching area surrounded by black-chinned and broad-billed hummingbirds, acorn woodpeckers, Stellar’s jays, black-headed grosbeaks, white-breasted nuthatches and wild turkey.

     –   All the best, M

Friday, May 12, 2017

#58 - Friday, 12 May 2017 - Picacho Peak State Park, near Eloy, Arizona

Last night was the last of six consecutive nights “black lighting” – searching for scorpions when they are active at night using a UV flashlight to cast a beam that makes the scorpion’s exoskeleton fluoresce and gives their locations away. The first four nights were in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson. The initial two nights I was alone doing some preliminary collecting for the Millsaps College team that I would meet up with for the third and fourth. On each of the days once Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his students joined me, we also did daytime hiking and hunting, flipping rocks. Initially we were all going to camp in the Catalinas and I had an RV site reserved. However, my rig is too large for Coronado National Forest campsites and I ended up in the seediest little dump I have yet overnighted in. It was a 34 space lot in Tucson about 20 minutes from the entrance to the forest and another 30 minutes up to Palisades Visitor Center, which at about 8000’ was the highest elevation site we worked. Brent, Ashley and Aaron ended up staying in a hotel near the airport because of the cold temperatures and possibility for rain that were forecast. 

"Desert Hairy Scorpion" at night under the beam of a UV flashlight

On Saturday and Sunday I searched the Catalinas alone at three sites between 6500-8000’ where the temperature at dark was 41-44ºF. I was surprised to find scorpions active on rock faces and in scattered pine needles on crushed rock and rubble road embankments at 44ºF. On Monday I picked up Brent & Co. at their hotel and we made our first ascent as a foursome. The following day we had a little diversion down to the Santa Rita Mountains and Madera Canyon and found yet another scorpion species, saw many deer and turkey and began a hike that became quickly abandoned due to threatening skies and a minor pelting of hail once we decided turning around was best. That night we headed back up toward Mt. Lemmon (9100’+) and our highest elevation site of Palisades knowing that there were reports of snow. Sure enough, as we climbed up higher I noticed someone driving down with a small snowman of sorts on the hood of his car. Palisades had light snow cover on the rocky slopes I had visited three nights in a row. At a temperature of 37-38ºF we flipped snow blanketed rocks and found scorpions. I certainly had never collected arachnids in the snow and Brent has extensive experience in the field and never had either. I imagine Aaron and Ashley might have thought we were a bit crazy. From Florida and Arkansas and living & studying in Mississippi, they had the added fun of throwing snowballs at each other. In southern Arizona. Who’d have thunk it? 

On Wednesday Brent picked up a third student, Miranda, at the Tucson airport and we all met up at Picacho Peak State Park. I had a campsite reserved for two nights and was all set up when they arrived. Since most of our scorpion hunting is at night with black lights the days are a bit looser, and we all decided to hike through the Sonoran desert up towards the peak in the afternoon. We covered most of the Sunset Ridge Trail, which ironically closes at sunset so it makes it a bit difficult to enjoy its namesake. We stopped just short of where cables are necessary to reach the summit. Once night fell we searched a rocky hill on the other side of the campground and found three species of scorpion. The flats were teeming with one popularly known as the devil stripe-tail and the rocks we searched held a large population of America’s “medically significant” scorpion, Centruroides sculpturatus. It is known as the Arizona bark scorpion, but it really inhabits rocks and, yes, it’s sting packs a punch. It is the only “life-threatening” scorpion in America. But our target species was a small fast lithophile (rock-dweller) and it was much more secretive/uncommon. Only a few were found.

Yesterday (Thursday) morning I cooked us all a breakfast feast. It was the first night of the trip that Brent and his crew were able to camp and the night before the girls occupied one tent, Aaron his own and Brent slept under the stars on his cot. I figured they’d want coffee and grub in the morning and had shopped for groceries before I left Tucson. The Millsaps crew broke camp as they were headed up to Lost Dutchman State Park in the Superstition Mountains/Wilderness east of Phoenix. I had decided I would stay camped at Picacho and just drive the 90 minutes each way to join them in the Superstitions/Tonto National Forest. When we met up at Lost Dutchman at midday we hung about their campsite and then drove west to Tempe to eat an early dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Los Reyes de la Torta. Once we were all stuffed, and after a quick stop for Starbucks, we headed back to Lost Dutchman and then drove up into the Tonto Forest to Tortilla Flat. There was a target species in this area that eluded us, but Brent was also nice enough to bring me there because there would be a few photographic subjects of interest for me. Sure enough, we found Aphonopelma chalcodes, Arizona’s prettiest and iconic tarantula living in crevices and holes among the rock faces of the roadside embankments. The other subject of interest in this habitat was the amblypigid or whip spider. We found them as well and while Brent and I used regular flashlights to find the tarantulas and amblypigi, the students collected scorpions using their black lights. We stopped where Brent had hoped to find another speedy lithophilic scorpion species, but had no luck, and then finished the night at Tonto Park in northeast Mesa where Brent took me to find the large American "desert hairy scorpion" Hadrurus arizonensis. We only found one and she was an ornery model, but I got my hoped photos and we headed back to their campsite. The young’n’s headed straight into their tents, but Brent and I had a couple of beers before I said my goodbyes. This morning they headed west to Joshua Tree National Park and other sites in California. 

Brent, Ash, Aaron & Miranda

Today I basically recovered from exhaustion. I fell asleep very late last night (actually not long before dawn this morning), and today has been a lazy day of napping and a short evening hike. I had hoped to search this park a bit more for the little rock scorpion Brent sought here, but I haven’t been able to work up the energy. I’ve been doing some computer stuff, watching some TV and just relaxing. Tomorrow I will head back toward Tucson and farther south to a RV park near Madera Canyon where Brent, Ashley, Aaron and I had spent Tuesday afternoon. I saw some amazing birds there and want to return to do some bird photography. There is even a hummingbird feeder station. I’ll be staying in Amado, AZ, which is about 30 miles north of Nogales, Mexico and forty miles south of Tucson for two nights before heading to Rodeo, NM on the AZ border for a week on Monday.

     –  All the best, M

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#57 - Tuesday, 9 May 2017 - Tucson, Arizona

I am now camped at the worst place I’ve stayed yet, but am having a blast! I was disappointed that I had to cancel my campsite reservation in the Santa Catalina Mountains / Coronado National Forest above Tucson due to rig size. I drove past the site and it would be a beautiful, albeit very alpine and chilly place to camp. But it is too small for the Wheelhouse. I’ll end with more about the freaky place I’m staying.

The drive to Tucson was amazing and I loved my little detour down to Tombstone. I’d have stayed there a bit longer, but was worried about my truck getting too warm for Jesse. If I’d had my thinking cap on I may have considered moving her travel cage from truck to RV to give her more air space and give me a little longer without worry. But I don’t really do tourist things so I would have quickly tired of Tombstone. Some pix, a purchase of a Stetson hat and a fine local ale from Old Bisbee Brewing at Doc Holliday’s Saloon was plenty for me.

I had two nights to do some scorpion hunting in the Catalinas before Brent and his students arrived. A quick overview: sky islands refer to high elevation oases, the mountainous forests being the islands and the desert below being the sea. The Coronado National Forest northeast of Tucson climbs to Mt. Lemmon at 9100’+ and beyond. With every thousand feet or so of elevation you change habitats. The Sonoran desert surrounding Tucson, which itself lies at about 2500 feet, rises to about 3500’ and then gives way first to semi-desert grasslands (4000’) and then Chaparral & Oak Woodland (5000’), Pine-Oak Woodland (6000’), Ponderosa Pine Forest (7000’) and Mixed Conifer Forest (8000’+) before things get really montane. On my first day it was 93ºF in Tucson, but it was 55º at dark when I began black-lighting for scorpions at Palisades, which is 7500-8000’. A cold front has moved through so on the second night I was bundled up after dark when it was 41ºF. Still, I found scorpions active at a site at 7000’ where the temperature was 44ºF.

The cold front is why I was searching for scorpions before Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his crew arrived. With chillier weather and rain forecast, I wanted to help them out by collecting some material prior to their arrival. Oddly enough, the student who is working on this project elected not to come due to the poor weather, but yesterday afternoon I picked up Brent, Ashley and Aaron at their hotel. They had originally planned to camp, as they normally will during their field trip, but the temperatures and, especially, the rain had them elect for indoor sleeping quarters. After I picked them up at the hotel we headed to “the hill”, stopping for snacks at a grocery store on the way. Brent has spent a great deal of time in this country, but it was the first time in Arizona for Ashley and Aaron. There are few drives more beautiful than the thirty miles ascending into the Catalinas and I am sure they loved it. We began our field work up at Palisades, which is the highest elevation site and one that I hadn’t found any scorpions by black-lighting the two previous nights. We wanted to do some daytime flipping of rocks and we had success finding the scorpions and I also discovered a Madrean Alligator Lizard and saw a wild turkey hen. Later we descended to another site where I did have luck black-lighting the previous two evenings and found more scorpions by flipping rocks and a Striped Plateau Lizard. Our next stop was the third of the three locations Brent had provided me. I had found three scorpions by black-lighting (using a UV flashlight to make the scorpions fluoresce [“glow in the dark”) on my first night, but hadn’t returned on the second much colder night. It was still light when we arrived so we began with “flipping”, but didn’t have much success and then the four of us had a nice cold Imperial Costa Rican beer from my cooler while we waited for dusk. We had great success after nightfall. I found 27 scorpions in the dry stream bed where I had collected three on the first night and the others had a bounty as well. The whole mission was to collect a large sample size for research into whether this scorpion (Vaejovis deboerae) and another found near Seven Cataracts vista that had been described as a different species (Vaejovis brysoni) are different or the same. Our next stop was the type locality for “brysoni” and we finished our day’s field work there by collecting some of them off the rock faces across from the scenic vista parking lot. Brent also found a nice Centruroides sculpturatus, which is America’s only medically significant scorpion (read: dangerous). I didn’t have my camera with so I collected it and walked back to my truck to get camera gear. Unfortunately, re-posing it on the rock face for a photograph allowed it to quickly make its way into a crevice before I could get an image. No worries, there will be plenty at our next destination (Picacho Peak State Park, between here and Phoenix).

Anyway, I’ll write more soon. I have to jump in shower and head to pickup Brent and crew, hopefully stopping at a Starbucks along the way. I look forward to today and then heading out tomorrow for another adventure. I promised I’d close with a comment on this dive RV park. It isn’t for travelers. It is for the almost homeless. The 30-year old beater motor home next to me is straight out of Breaking Bad. But instead of cooking meth they just seem to smoke cigarettes and tinker with garbage-picked bicycles. There are only 34 spaces in this tiny urban park and only two are vacant for travelers like me to use. These people must look at my shiny new truck and RV and wonder why I’m here, not the other way around. It is a freak show of people who seem to have nowhere to go and can’t be bothered to pick up their trash. But we all have our stories … I'll leave you with a pic of the crew from Milsaps College ... 

Ashley, Aaron & Dr. Brent Hendrixson

– All the best, M

Friday, May 5, 2017

#56 - Friday, 5 May 2017 - Deming, New Mexico


We all have our fantasies. Don’t worry, I won’t share most and zero depravity. What I am getting at is that I’m sure some readers will think I am “living the dream”, whereas I am dreaming within the dream. The dream is traveling, of course, and specifically blowing in the wind. But as much as I daydreamed about this road trip before it started, I now find myself daydreaming of experiencing the adventures in a different way. Grass is always greener?

I just was forced to cancel my reservation at the high elevation Rose Canyon Campground in the Coronado National Forest where I am to meet Brent and his students on Monday. I was to arrive there on Sunday and I made the reservation some time ago. What I just discovered is that the maximum RV length is 22’, which is almost ten feet shorter than my rig. Now I have cancelled and must address a Plan B. The funny thing is that instead of coveting the larger and fancier RVs I see at every stop, I envy those with smaller rigs. I have been shocked with the paltry fuel economy I get towing my Wheelhouse. I keep thinking about how I had originally wanted something smaller. I keep thinking how things might be different if I didn’t have a parrot with me. She’s small, but her mess takes up a lot of space. At my last stop in Alpine a guy pulled in with an R-Pod, which is a compact RV I really like. I talked to him about it and looked at them again online that night. I found the same thing that I did during my pre-purchase research. That is, much smaller RVs are too close in price to bigger nicer ones like mine. The price scale doesn’t seem relative. I also see plenty of teardrop mini camper trailers that are basically tent-size and saw a few really nice modern pop-up tent style campers in Big Bend. My fuel bill would be so much less and I could go anywhere. But then, there’s the bird that I need space for and, in hotter areas, need good air conditioning for. She’s obviously going to outlive me so I am stuck.

I try not to fantasize about life without my precious old bird. To be honest, if I didn’t have her perhaps I’d be looking at something even smaller. My other road fantasy is being on a nice touring motorcycle and just camping in a one-man tent. My whole plan was for a simpler life and I seem to have made even that less simple and more convoluted than it might be.

Fantasy is probably a bad word as it suggests something that exists outside of reality. My realities are that I am limited to where I can go with this 32’ travel trailer. It’s no behemoth. I can just look outside at this RV Park now and see those with gargantuan homes on wheels. But those travelers look for RV parks and need 50-amp hookups, satellite TV and constant air con … My intention from the start was to boondock and shunpike and live off the grid. I confess I am tempted to re-evaluate and consider trading my Wheelhouse in on something smaller. Jesse is the limiting factor though, and as I already stated, these little 18’ R-Pods would perhaps be ideal for my lifestyle, but it would be tough to downsize to something that isn’t significantly less expensive and would give me a return of a nice chunk of money. I was shocked when I was shopping for a rig how close the price was between a little teardrop and my 30-foot-plus travel trailer. Food for thought…

Anyway, I am in Deming in a park that is little more than a big gravel parking lot with full hookups and limited shade. It’s cheap though and having cable allowed me to watch playoff hockey last night. Two games are on tonight! But I now have to spend the morning looking for other campsites near the Santa Catalina Mountains where we will be scorpion hunting. I had no place booked for Saturday night anyway, so I best get to looking.

     &emdash;   All the best, M

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#55 - Wednesday, 3 May 2017 - Alpine, Texas

Here's a mission for ya, before I begin ... why not copy and paste your browser's URL into an email send a link for this blog to two or three friends who might find it interesting. I happy to type for myself diary-style, but the more readers the more time I will invest here. Thanks! 

With the BTS Journal done and dusted, edited and designed, I had a few bonus days here in Alpine, but other than my drive down to Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management area I have ventured too far.

Yesterday was my first dedicated maintenance day. It was deep clean, hyper organize and fix day. I got my oil changed, which in these parts isn’t as easy as finding the nearest Jiffy Lube, and also got it washed. I then cleaned the glass and gave it a bit of a polish. There’s a True Value just a couple miles down the road where I picked up RV wash supplies. Tomorrow after I am hooked up and pulling out I am going to be using the RV Park’s very nice RV wash area to give the Wheelhouse a scrub. Unfortunately, I needed to repair a hole in my RV awning that occurred during gusty winds one night in Big Bend N.P. Lesson learned; always retract awning before bed. I was so proud of how I had shoehorned by RV into a secluded and shaded spot where I could only extend the awning 25%. That 1/4 of an awning was enough when middle of night power winds got it flapping and the shady desert willow drove a stake through it’s heart. I bought a roll of black and a roll of white vinyl tape and a double thickness of 4” of each repaired the whitish underside and dark top.  I changed my guitar strings, I filled all of my water jugs and did all sorts of little fine-tunes to my gypsy life.

Today I continued my organizing and stocked up the fridge and pantry. I returned to the True Value to buy a hummingbird feeder as I had seen a little hummer whizzing around my door this morning. My neighbor when I first arrived here at Lost Alaskan RV Park had a seed feeder and I’ve seen many others. Many of these people in huge motor coaches build an entire patio set when they arrive. I figured a naturalist/wildlife photographer needs a hummingbird feeder to attract photo subjects. It took all of five minutes before I had my first visitor.

I was stoked to find one of my top three beers in the grocery store here. I don’t know how I missed it on my first visit. Imperial is the pride of Costa Rica and a delicious, easy drinking lager. I already had a case of Lone Star and miscellaneous craft beers in the fridge, but had to add a twelve of Imperial. I’ll have guest starting Monday. I’ve got loads of electrolyte drinks, teas and other stuff and somewhere beneath the varied and plentiful drinks and condiments I think there is something to actually toss on the grill tonight. I even have stuff for a salad!

Tomorrow morning I will break camp, scrub the Wheelhouse and head out of Alpine. Hopefully driving through El Paso won’t suck too much because I am not sure I feel like shunpiking around it. If I hit the road early enough I may do a scenic detour. See map below: 

I blogged previously about a man named Mick that I met in Seminole Canyon. One of the things he shared with me, which he explained he had learned from some Canadian RV trekkers, was the 3x3 rule, or something like that. It is setting the goal of never driving more than 300 miles each day, always arriving at next destination by 3 pm, and always staying in each spot at least three days. I'm down with that mantra. Tomorrow, though, I will travel a bit more than 300 miles and arrive somewhere I am only staying two days. But I have no doubt I'll make it by 3.

In an upcoming blog I will give an overview of my road traveled thus far. But until then here is the macro view of Road Trip 2017 through Sunday's arrival in the Catalina Mountains east of Tucson.

– All the best, M

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

#54 - Tuesday, 2 May 2017 - Alpine, Texas

The issue of the Journal of the BTS that led to holing up in Alpine and working is done and dusted. It is at the printer and with this morning’s coffee I am finishing the Interactive PDF version that online-only subscribers receive in lieu of the print Journal. Yesterday I was able to start exploring the area and took a scenic drive through the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area about 40 miles south of here on Hwy. 118. It is a restoration stronghold for the Desert Bighorn Sheep, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. I was lucky enough to get the timing right though, as yesterday’s first day of May was the opening of the driving tour season in the park. A permit is required for hiking, hunting and primitive camping access.

Alpine has surprised me and I wish I would have been able to enjoy it more. Catching some live weekend music at the Railroad Blues would likely be a fun experience. So far the only thing I dislike about Alpine is all of the maddening one-way streets and four-way stops. But I do have two more days here before I head west through El Paso and into New Mexico for two nights in Deming, just north of the boot heel of the "Land of Enchantment". Below is my itinerary for this leg of my road trip.


21-26    Big Bend National Park, Texas
27->    Lost Alaskan RV Park, Alpine, Texas


<-3    Lost Alaskan RV Park, Alpine, Texas
4-5    Roadrunner RV Park, Deming, New Mexico
6    Tombstone RV Park, Tombstone, New Mexico
7-9    Rose Canyon, Coronado National Forest, Tucson, Arizona
10-11    Pichaco Peak State Park, Eloy, Arizona
12-    ?

On Sunday, May 7, I will arrive in the Coronado National Forest where I have a primitive campsite (no hookups) for two nights in the Willow Edge Loop of Rose Canyon Campground. The next afternoon Dr. Brent Hendrixson and his three students will meet me there and we will begin three-four nights of scorpion research collecting. On the 10th, we all will break camp and move to Pichaco Peak State Park near Eloy where I’ll be staying for two nights with electricity. Brent and his crew will be moving on to camp at Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction closer to Phoenix on Thursday, May 11, but I’ll stay camped at Pichaco for my second night and probably just truck up to join them for the evening’s scorpion hunt and then say my goodbyes and head back to my site at Pichaco. They are moving at a quick pace farther to the west to work three sites in southern California next. I can’t travel at that speed and don’t want to pass through areas so quickly. In fact, on the 12th I will visit Tucson’s Saguaro National Park and find someplace nearby to stay in the area for a couple more days, and then will backtrack to New Mexico and likely stay at the park in Deming again. I have a friend in Albuquerque who works at the Rattlesnake Museum (I plan to visit) and hopefully she will be able to join me for some snake hunting in the boot heel. Rather than tow my rig all the way north to ABQ, if the park in Deming that I’ll see this Thursday is adequate, I’ll probably just stay there for the week and make all trips to ABQ and other farther north New Mexico destinations by truck alone. Next on the agenda will be returning to Texas to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park and New Mexico’s adjacent Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

When I hit the road I had no plans to return to the Midwest anytime soon, but my driver’s license is expiring on my August 5 birthday so I am forced to return to Chicagoland for a visit. That works out perfect as I have far too many clothes on the road with me. I will find someplace to store my RV starting July 1 and between then and now will pack up everything unneeded and haul it back to storage. I know I will be restless there and not want to stay long, plus I have new adventures to get ready for come late July and early August.

I had been hoping since this adventure started that sooner rather than later my mate Mark would be able to take a trip over from England and join me. Being here for my birthday sounds like perfect timing and he is currently shopping air fare for a two-week trip with my August 5 birthday in the middle. So, after my quick return to Chicagoland in early July, I will be coming up with a plan for his visit, which will likely begin by me picking up at Phoenix airport. I’ve also extended open invites to other friends to join me at any points along the road, and I am hoping that Chad is going to be able to meet us in the southwest and that maybe, just maybe, Apple will as well.

     &emdash;   All the best, M

Friday, April 28, 2017

#53 - Friday, 28 April 2017 - Alpine, Texas


SCENE FROM ALPINE … The old cowboy at the gas station counter asks for a tin of smokeless tobacco. He has that sixty year old body and 100 year old skin look of a man who doesn’t spend much time indoors on the couch. He was about 6’4”, but probably didn’t weigh more than 175 and he seemed twisted and bow-legged. His wavy salt & pepper hair was windblown below the white Laredo cowboy hat. Wrangler jeans, big belt buckle. Weathered cowboy boots, faded bandanna. I walked up with my tacos and drink and noticed the young man serving him. It was a striking contrast. The chaw-dipping, tall drink of ranch water was handed his can of Skoal by a pretty boy with pink finger nail polish. The boy wore impossibly long false eyelashes and spoke with a flamboyant swish quite dissimilar to the cowboy’s Far West Texas drawl. I looked around the store and saw a half-dozen other cowboys in white wide-brimmed hats, belt buckles and boots, but no other glamorous gender-fluid clerks. But the young girl who said hi to the effeminate clerk looked like she was from Manhattan. Welcome to Alpine.

Alpine sits at about 4500 feet and is surrounded by 6000 foot plus peaks of desert scrub and rock. It is a far west Texas town of 7000 people and the county seat of Brewster, which also includes Big Bend National Park 100 miles south. It is definitely cowboy country, but the town is full of food trucks, art galleries, book stores, coffee shops, artsy craft shops, and other trendy establishments. The grocery store I visited yesterday had a huge selection of craft and imported beers and many of my fellow customers looked like they’d just stepped out of a jamband festival or alternative performance art cafe instead of a cattle ranch. Two businesses in town I want to visit are Big Bend Brewing Company and Transpecos Guitars.

I had always thought I might spend a night in the Alpine area and it was most likely occur between Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountain and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks north of here. But I never planned on spending a week here with air conditioning and cable TV. Yesterday afternoon I arrived at Lost Alaskan RV Park at the north edge of town and booked a week anyway. My primary stressor during my 2017 travel has been my work as Editor of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. The next issue needs to be printed like yesterday. I’ve plugged away at it as I could at various locations, but the only way I can fulfill my commitment is to hunker down and sequester myself and get the job done. So Guadalupe and Carlsbad may have to wait until some time after my scorpion chasing in southern Arizona beginning on May 6. I confess that after a week without electricity in Big Bend National Park, where the thermometer hit 106ºF and days get warmer every hour until dark, and then see temps in the 90s two hours after dark and I slept in my own sweat each night, it isn’t bad to have full hookup, wifi and cable TV. It’s just want I need to finish editing and designing the new Journal, and a week’s stay in civilization affords me the ability to receive mail and packages, restock provisions, do some maintenance, and get my truck’s oil changed.

I thought seclusion in civilization (how’s that for an oxymoron?) would enable me to set aside my cameras and not chase creepy crawlies and the occasional bird or other charismatic megafauna, but fifteen minutes before I reached town I caught a six-foot red racer. I had taken the park road west across Big Bend and then took 118 north to Alpine. Ten miles south of town the big western coachwhip (a large, fast, diurnal snake that is red to pink here and called the red racer) was coiled in the southbound side of the two-laneroad. It was midday and about 82ºF. I pulled over as soon as I could and on the walk back a few hundred yards told myself how foolish I was for walking back for a piece of hose or rubber. Road cruising is an effective dusk or nighttime snake hunting method, but midday doesn’t normally yield many snakes because daytime active species like this red racer move quickly across. If it was a snake I decided it must be dead. As I approached I saw no blood or injury. That is a miracle as most people are wastes of carbon and will veer at a snake and intentionally reduce it to roadkill. The next miracle was that when I picked it up I didn’t get covered in snake shit and my own blood. Coachwhips are feisty and usually bite repeatedly and evacuate their bowels all over you at the same time. This one just hissed and made a few closed-mouth bluff strikes. The bigger miracle was that I picked it up at all. These are are faster snakes and this six and a half-footer could speed slither away pretty quickly. Then again, it wasn’t my first rodeo and I would have grabbed it even if it was a biter. Photos taken, snake released, I had to resign myself that I wasn’t snake hunting for the next week.

Big Bend National Park is amazing and vast. I will return soon and probably will overwinter there. The April heat was already sweltering and the warmth was stifling at night, but the terrain and wildlife are all that I care about. The night before I had found a very uncommon Mojave rattlesnake and couldn’t have been happier. It was in Boquillas Canyon where I had spent the day crossing into México, and the previous night black-lighting for scorpions. I had returned to release a tarantula and scorpion that I had found the night before after my flash batteries had died. [BTW, I guess this is a good spot to announce once again, that I am not posting pix in the blog because I do so via Instagram and Snapchat. If you don’t choose to use you are shit out of luck and I am not bothered. But, for those of you savvy readers who are following my images, I posted 14 new Insta pix last night and they include rattlesnake, coachwhip, scorpions, tarantula, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, jackrabbit [American Desert Hare] and more].

But let me tell you the tale of my border crossing. The village of Boquillas del Carmen sits on the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon. Hiking the canyon trails leads you to many hop, skip and jumps into another country. But there is one legal port of entry and it is pedestrian only. Closed for 13 years after 9/11, the 250 villagers are again earning their livings exclusively by serving the Big Bend National Park visitors who choose to visit their home. A passport is all that’s required. That, and the $5 round trip fare for the fifteen second flat bottom row boat trip to México. After showing the park ranger your passport and listening to rules regarding conduct and what you cannot return with, you walk down a little path to the river and your boatman paddles you into México. You then have the option of a very hot and dusty 3/4 mile walk to the village down a road of deep sand, with or without a “guide”, or you can opt for a truck, horse or donkey ride into town with someone who will show you around the small village. For $8 I rented a horse. My guide led it by the reins as it was not pleased with the large gringo cowboy on its back. As we approached town I tried my best steering it with my heels, but I was wearing sandals not boots. The horse was not amused with my faux cowboy skills. I guess that is one photo that I will share here. Miguel, el caballero. 

My guide tied off the horse beneath a wisp of a desert willow sapling that provided pretty much no shade (see left side of above image) and led me into the village and to the immigration office. I was surprised the town had such bureaucracy, but it took both sides of the border to work out the post-9/11 reopening of the crossing three years ago. A pretty Latina in a white and blue uniform scanned my passport and filled out the necessary document. I would have to return again upon departure. My amigo (I don't recall his unique name) led me to a restaurant where I enjoyed a plate of tacos and a couple of Carta Blanca beers. During the ride/walk into town I had impressed him with my Spanish and he had impressed me with his English. Speaking English allowed him the work of dealing directly with the tourists and it was why he learned. He told me that when tourism ended he was forced to leave his family in Boquillas and make his way into the U.S. and then east to Alabama where he worked as a house painter. I told him that I chased scorpions, spiders and snakes, and he told me he made special wire scorpions for souvenirs. Him and everyone else in the village. It was remarkable how every house displayed exactly the same small variety of handmade souvenirs. Everyone had wire scorpions and other animals. But after I finished my lunch he led me to his house, which was located at the edge of the village next to the solar farm. The only electricity they have is solar-powered and the government had built a nice solar farm and installed meters on their homes. The people of Boquillas were proud of their green energy and happy about American tourists like me. I asked what they had the most difficulty getting and they said gasoline. You wouldn't think they'd use much, but there were about a dozen old trucks in the town. The nearest town is 160 miles over bad road. The village had a little health clinic and a shiny new ambulance, but the drive to the town's hospital takes four hours. Once a week trucks come selling meats, produce, dairy products and other essentials. Prior to 9/11 they could shop at the National Park camp store. Now the crossing is mostly one way. Very few people can visit the American side. I bought a couple of the wire creatures and then paid my guide "what is in your heart". That turned out to be $25 for hanging out with me for two hours. I returned my ornery horse friend and three or four strokes of the boat oars later I was back in America and walking back to the Boquillas Crossing building where I spoke to a Customs Officer via camera and telephone.

The previous night I had hiked into Boquillas Canyon to search for scorpions. My friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson, who I will meet along with three students near Tucson in two weeks, told me about almost a dozen species that inhabit the canyon. The most interesting is found nowhere else. It is a psammophile – or sand lover/liver – and specialized to living in the sand dunes that sit from the mountain base to the river at the end of the canyon trail. I hiked to the dunes as the sun set, using a new GPS app I have on my iPhone to set waypoints that I could use to navigate back out of the canyon after dark. I am still a bit unfamiliar with the app and it's built-in maps failed a bit right at the river, so before darkness fell I hung four neon glow sticks from trees to lead myself from the dunes back to recognizable path points. Then I waited on the shore of the river and laughed at the idea of building a wall here. Once it was dark I turned on my UV flashlight. For those who do not know, scorpions fluoresce under "black light". They glow greenish and with the power of the flashlight I use I can see them as much as fifty feet away. The dune scorpions (<i>Paruroctonus boquillas</i>) sometimes would be just a speck of yellow-green as only a bit of their bodies broke the surface of the sand. Often you'd just see the claws sticking out of the dunes. They were wary and even if fully on the sand's surface a disturbance would make them vanish instantly. I used my forceps to flick them back out of the sand for photographs. I ended up only finding three species, but it was good fun. Brent and his students and I will be looking for specific scorpions in Arizona starting May 7.

My worst adventure was yesterday morning as I was to leave. During the night I woke and went into the bathroom. I flicked the light switch and the light lasted only a half second. My two batteries were drained after living without electricity for over a week. After I fell back asleep I was awakened by a periodic beep. It was my carbon monoxide detector/alarm. It wasn't wailing to tell me that I was at risk of death, but only chirping to let me know there was a fault. It needs electricity. The problem is that without power I can't break camp. I need electricity to move my slide-outs back in, lift the stabilizer jacks, and operate the power tongue jack on the trailer. I fell back asleep thinking I would just have to use my battery charger in the morning. That's why one feature for my new truck that I knew would be essential was an inverter-powered AC power outlet. Long story short ... I had problems with the brand new battery charger (only used once before so ...). It would only stay on charge for a few minutes and then would indicate that my batteries were fully charged and on a maintenance trickle. Um, no. It did it enough times that I became convinced that there was another problem and did some investigating. I even pulled out my manuals and tried to see if I could retract the slide outs manually. I gave up and walked to the camp store for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I came back and still dead batteries. It took maybe 20 unpluggings, frustrated slaps and random expletives before the charger finally worked. I gave it fifteen minutes, saw that my batteries were at 40% and then broke camp. The batteries would be completely charged by my truck via the smart connection during my trip north.

This must be the longest blog entry yet! If you got this far thank you. I'm here until the third and then have a few days to get to Tucson. I'll post again when I am farther on down the road. All the best, M

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#52 - Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It Part II
Instant Coffee. The horror. I feel like I am in the U.K. or an Asian hotel room. The tea kettle went on my propane stove and I emptied a packet of Starbucks Via freeze-dried instant into the cup. At least it is Starbucks. There would be no fresh brewed coffee this morning and I’m likely to drink more tea this week.

Yesterday’s heat was stifling. Even as the sun fell below the Chisos Mountains in the distance, the thermometer read 104ºF/40ºC. There was little breeze and despite the weather being beautiful at dark the inside of the Wheelhouse was the warmest it has ever been when I hit the sheets. My bed felt like it was heated. I went to sleep with both Wheelhouse doors open hoping the predicted winds that would bring atypically cool weekend temperatures would hurry up.

This morning it is indeed windy. The sun is rising on a day that is expected to be 35ºF cooler than yesterday. Crazy. 104 followed by a forecasted 67ºF. Tomorrow should be in the upper 70’s and then next week low 90s are anticipated.

Last night I went for a sunset drive and then waited at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center 20 miles west of camp for it to become dark. I walked the grounds looking at the desert plants and their identification placards. In my truck my laptop was connected to the center’s wifi downloading some television episodes to watch on my laptop since I have no AC power for the week. That’s OK as I just began a David Baldacci novel. Once it was completely dark, I drove back toward camp very slowly hoping for snakes on the road. I encountered mule deer and jackrabbits, and some sort of desert rodent ran across the road. But nothing reptilian.

Today might be a good day for cool weather hiking, but it also is Saturday and the park is more crowded than it will be on Monday. When I returned from last night’s drive many of the vacant campsites in my little out of the way loop had filled up. I’m likely to spend more time editing and writing while more people are on the trails, and then begin hiking in earnest first thing Monday morning. I expect Saturday is a bit of chaos at the Boquillas Crossing, but if I don’t go this weekend I will have to wait until Wednesday as the border crossing is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and I don’t want to be stuck en México. It also is probably a good day to use the park village’s laundry and do some RV chores. One of the reasons I like staying in a place for an extended period is selecting the best days for activities based on weather and less people.

This park is so big and so remote that it actually has its own zip code and a post office at the Panther Junction Visitor's Center. "Big Bend National Park" is actually a town name as well. I discovered this last night when I walked through the desert plant exhibit outside the visitor's center. A note on the name "Panther Junction". The park has about 130 reported mountain lion sightings per year. Over half of these lions are seen from the road by visitors. There are believed to be about two dozen adult mountain lions in Big Bend National Park and they say that no matter where you are within the park you are always within the home range of one of them. Occasionally one is sighted in a campground and then the campground is closed down. Other mammalian wildlife includes black bears and javelinas. I enjoyed my javelina encounter in Laredo, but have yet to see any here. Bears completely disappeared from Big Bend years ago, but now have returned by way of Mexico. There are supposed to be about two dozen in the park now, most of which are on the other side of the park where it is more mountainous and a bit cooler.

All the best, M

Friday, April 21, 2017

#51 - Friday, 21 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It
Jesse and I are finally without demon electricity and pressurized potable water. We arrived at Big Bend National Park to find the RV hookup area fully occupied, but I never intended to stay there. It is just a sun-exposed paved lot with a bunch of close together parking slots for those who wish to be tethered to electricity and water. I’m sure they’re enjoying their air conditioning as it is 3 pm and close to 100ºF, but I shoehorned my Wheelhouse into some decent shade in a quiet area off the main campground. It is a “no generator zone” so most RV campers don’t venture back here. In much of the campground generators may be run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for those who need to recharge or cool down during the heat of the day. I don’t have a generator (at least not yet) and I planned to start going without electricity as much as possible. My site is $14 per night whereas the full hookups are $32. That difference adds up and savings can be had if you don’t mind sweating and smelling your own stink. I mentioned Mick in my last blog. He had his RV parked at a site without electricity and hadn’t even bothered to look where the water hookup was. I sort of felt guilty that I have umbilically attached to power during this entire trip. The only place I didn’t have a water hookup was Everglades National Park. It’s only April and the temperatures are still tolerable so I may as well save money when I can. Tonight it is supposed to become very windy and cooler temperatures are expected for the next several days. My timing is spot on.

Without an electrical hookup my Wheelhouse is powered by the dual deep cycle batteries I have, which are currently recharged when I am towing and eventually will also be recharged by solar panels. They will run the LED interior lights, the USB charging ports and radio, plus other DC appliances like water pump and jacks. However, DC power only means no coffee maker (or anything I plug into normal outlets) and no microwave. I’ll heat water for coffee or tea on my range, which always runs on propane. I have two water heaters so instead of the usual electric one I will switch on the secondary gas heater. My refrigerator runs off of electricity when I am hooked up, but now is being powered by propane. I have yet to purchase propane. The two 20 lb. tanks that came with the rig have lasted this long. I am sure I’ll need to exchange them during this stay though. Setting up the RV my tongue jack, stabilizers and slide outs all operated by battery, and since I was still connected to my running truck the batteries were being simultaneously recharged. When this laptop begins need charging I can use my backup USB power pack and, once that is spent, use the A/C outlet in my truck that runs off an inverter. Sadly, I have found that outlet doesn’t give enough juice to run a coffee maker. As far as not having a water hookup, I just use bottled water for drinking and cooking and have a 49 gallon tank that I filled when I arrived at the park that will supply water for showering, toilet and washing dishes when I switch on the DC-powered water pump. You don’t need electricity to hike or read or photograph wildlife, and the only water you need is drinking and that is 88 cents a gallon at War-Mart (I have a dozen gallons in the back of my truck) or only about 20-25 cents a gallon at the water filling stations that are common in store parking lots in the southwest.

I left Seminole Canyon State Park just after 8 a.m. and arrived at Big Bend National Park at about 12:30. It was a 215 mile drive. This park is expansive and it takes some time on Hwy. 385 South before you reach the entrance gate and then it’s 30+ miles to the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center and then another 20 miles east to Rio Grande Village where I am camped. Big Bends refers to the great southwest Texas U-turn the Rio Grande makes here–defining the park boundary for 118 miles. On the other side of the river are the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. — I must interrupt this typing to report that a roadrunner has just invaded my outdoor office. I am typing this from just outside the Rio Grande Village store, which is my oasis for wifi, laundry and various provisions if needed. I am sipping a Tejas lager–“the beer from out here”–which is made in nearby Alpine, Texas by Big Bend Brewery.

I am here for six nights. My next destination will probably be north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. We’ll see which way the wind blows. Tomorrow I will probably visit Boquillas, Mexico. You hike down a trail near the campground for a couple miles and then there is a tiny pedestrian only port of entry. They call it "pedestrian only", but really you pay a Mexican to row you across the river and you can opt to be carried into town on the back of a donkey. I pity the donkey that would have to carry me. They'd need to supply a destria or a draft horse methinks. I'll walk it. From what I've read, about 43 families live in the village now. They make most of their money on tourists (ferry, donkey ride, cantina, souvenirs), but after 9/11 the border was shut down (2002) and many were forced to move elsewhere to survive. Both the Mexican and American authorities arranged for the crossing to re-open in 2012, but a book I read said that in 2013 it was still closed. So, it is good news to know this is happening again. I have my passport ready to make the little journey into Mexico for a taco and margarita.

All the best, M

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

#50 - Tuesday, 18 April 2017 - Seminole Canyon S.P.H.S. - near Comstock, Texas

A fascinating aspect of this life on the road is the people. It will surprise few of my readers that I far prefer wildlife, but I am intrigued by my fellow travelers and their stories. I enjoy the brief and random encounters I have with people. The very transience of these interactions is part of their charm. “Where ya from?” is a common beginning, but there are plenty of conversation starters. A tall, heavily tattooed guy with a parrot on his shoulder or a couple of big cameras slung over one is something that people notice. Yesterday I sat with Jesse perched on me underneath the ramada that shades my picnic table and I saw a familiar expression approach. It was the female half of the husband and wife campground host team. I had spoke several times with man when I first visited Seminole Canyon State Park last week, but she and I had not met. I noticed her making the grounds on the park provided golf cart checking camping permits. She parked and walked up to me and asked about Jesse. “Is that your bird?” seemed like a rhetorical question, but many of us are awkward when strolling up to a stranger, and I’m a bit intimidating I imagine.

I had just finished setting up camp when Jesse’s visitor arrived, and afterward I sat at a table beside the public restrooms and showers, which is the most reliable location to attempt to acquire the park’s weak wifi signal. Verizon has no service here and it is my only tether to the outside world. A woman approached me to ask if she could share the table. She looked weary of the afternoon sun and said she needed a shady place to have lunch. I saw a bicyclist approaching and then noticed the orange flag of the child trailer being pulled behind the mountain bike. Then I realized that the blue trailer’s occupant was a golden retriever. You meet all sorts when you travel. And, as John Muir said, travel far enough and you meet yourself.

The bike’s rider and dog’s friend had the “business up front, party in the rear” look of a mullet, but it was the most outrageous mullet ever. From the front his hair looked short beneath his baseball cap, but in the back was a dreadlock ponytail that reached below his waist. He set his bike down to use the restroom and his golden pooch obediently sat in its trailer berth looking adorable. I later found that their tent was pitched two sites away from mine. Rasta ponytail wasn’t much of a friendly sort. I’ve rarely had someone come within fifty feet of me without a greeting, but he briefly stared at me as he lit a cigarette and then looked away.

I was tired from little sleep the last night at the RV Park in Del Rio so I mostly hung around the campsite watching birds and cleaning my Wheelhouse. The vacant site between me and Mr. Rasta Mullet was soon occupied by two Harley riders. I didn’t see this many tent campers last week, but it is pretty much a 50/50 mix now. Whereas many parks have water and electric hookups for RVs in designated loops, this park intersperses sites with electricity with those without, and all but the largest pull through sites for big motorhomes have tent pads. The two gentlemen on the hogs were sixtyish and set up two tents side by side on the pad. The older looking of the two had a Harley trike that towed a matching trailer. For motorcyclists they had a lot of gear.

That’s another intriguing aspect of this life on the road … the different ways people camp and the different rigs. You see half a million dollar motor coaches. You see hippie dudes pulling golden retrievers behind their bikes. In between are a myriad of campers and I enjoy checking out license plates to see who has traveled farther than me, and bumper stickers to see who or what my fellow travelers represent. The only other RV that was set up in this campground loop when I arrived midday yesterday was also from Illinois. The spare tire on the back of his rig is covered by the Chicago Blackhawks logo. I haven’t met the lone gentleman occupying the campsite yet, but I am dying to commiserate about the fact that after last night’s poor performance the Hawks are down three games to nil in the first playoff round. He’s a silver-bearded man who has a smaller Casita RV and has been reading beneath his ramada. His camper is as small as you can go and still have a nice privy and galley inside. Two other campsites were occupied by one couple and one lone woman who were traveling together. They had camper trailers that are basically small bedrooms on wheels with an airplane style toilet. They made their morning coffee outdoors on a propane stove and showered in the public area. Others have only a small bunk inside and the rear opens to an outdoor grill and dorm room refrigerator.

I am reminded of the scene in Fight Club (in my top 5 movies and from the book from my favorite author of transgressive fiction Chuck Palahniuk and adapted perfectly to film by my favorite director David Fincher) where Edward Norton uses the term “single serving friends” talking to the unknown man sitting beside him. Brad Pitt isn’t impressed with the clever comparison of the single serving packages of condiments and liquor bottles to the one time fleeting interactions strangers during travel.

I now return to writing this after a nice little break. As if he knew what I was blogging about, my neighboring Blackhawks fan came over to my picnic table. Mick saw me sitting outside and had noticed yesterday that I also have Illinois license plates. As he approached I asked where in Illinois he was from and he replied that he was just coming over to ask the same. We then both expressed our disgust with the Blackhawks’ dismal playoff performance. Like me, Mick was listening to last night’s game via the NHL app and WGN broadcast. By some miracle I had intermittent wifi reception and was able to listen to the game with interruption from my Wheelhouse. Mick had been walking to the restroom area to pick up signal to follow the disappointing game. He joined me at my picnic table for a cup of coffee and told me some stories from his almost two years on the road and gave me his card. This wasn’t the first time I realized that I’ve always carried business cards, but don’t have an up to date one. I’m going to change that ASAP.

Mick headed off to do some hiking and invited me to tag along, but I needed lunch and to take care of a few other things first. When we chatted it was overcast, but now the sun is out and the temperature is climbing. I’ll be hitting the trail before long…

Well, my power is now out. It may just be that my surge protector has tripped, but I’m not going outside in this downpour to check. I have A/C power in my truck and can sit in there and charge my laptop if need be. Even without electricity I still have my battery powered lights, USB chargers, water pump and backup water heater, and propane powered stove and refrigerator.

All the best, M