Lessons From the Desert

-Some names have been changed in this story-

“So…. Tell me about your trip back to Indiana,” Jordan says as we walk back from Bender Springs.  She walks, I hobble.  The rock path is not kind to my knee.  I relate to her how I still haven’t managed to figure out how to cartwheel – the main source of my injury.  Jordan, who stands up to my shoulders (which means she is a normal height, for I totter at a precarious 6’5”) is my plucky coworker, just out of undergrad and technically my boss for this project.  Her good-natured snicker raises no hackles and we keep walking.  I have plenty of time to relate the rest of the weekend home, my escape to my native part of the world away from this blasted patch of earth, as we walk.  This is one of the longer hikes we have in our collection.  My knee and I are glad it should be the last time we do it.

I am also glad it is one of the prettier hikes, as well as being one of the longer.  It keeps the task of watching the ridges and washes for other people less tiresome.  Not that we would ever see them, or would want to see the drug smugglers that haunt this section of the desert.  We see the plastic and foil remnants of the litterbug ghosts; mostly plastic bottles and “El Pato” can remnants hidden under dead, desert foliage as we follow the path back from the only reliable water for miles.

It is late October and still the temperature reaches past the 100-degree F mark on my Kestrel (science slang for handheld weather meter).  The sky could not hold a cloud today if a life depended on it.  And it would if you were walking here without water.  Thinking about the men that drive stolen vehicles as far as they can and then carry the large loads in burlap sacks, on their backs, across the Sonora, in this weather, does the obvious.  I take a drink from the pack on my own back.

It makes me uneasy when we have been away from our truck for so long, like we have today.  Walking here makes one desire the pleasure of the knock-about ride of an air-conditioned vehicle much like a ghost desires a grave.  So forgive my being spooked by ghosts, when those ghosts wear camo, carry AK-47’s, and pose with their 45’s at our station game-cams like they are photo-booths.

We round a couple more corners on the trail down and get to the familiar landmark of two, one-ton boulders sitting in the path.  Then another corner and we can see the arch in the far distant ridgeline.  The valley below shimmers in the heat.  I pause to rest my leg and take a photo.  Ocotillos, the desert mix of a briar patch and a small tree, split the air.  Spider web cracks reaching into the sky, stretching across the desert.  Thirty seconds later we can make out the truck far below and all seems fine.

We reach the truck and drop our packs into the bed.  Almost like ritual, we grab a drink from the “food cooler”; deposit samples in the “other cooler”; and grab new vials, nets, chemicals, and bottles.  Then we move on to do all the same surveys and tests we have been doing for the past 4 months on the next set of water catchments (artificial water sites placed in the desert for wildlife use).  Always hike first.  Beat the heat and save the drive-up jobs for later in the day.

It has turned out to be one of “those days” on the Range.  Just small glitches and irritants.  We already had to switch out one of our tires, came to an “impassable” section of road, lost some expensive and important equipment to the elements, and had disappointing results from the hike up top.  Layer that with a callous sun, a forgotten lunch, several spiky desert plants to exposed flesh, and my already injured knee and we get tempted to turn rogue.  Only good humor and a love of the work keep us in line.

We get what we can with the remaining equipment and then reload it into the truck.  The truck rumbles and the radio mumbles static.  Jordan and I ready ourselves for the traverse of one of the rougher sections of the 1.7 million acres that makes up the Air Force’s Barry M. Goldwater Range eastern section.  After about an hour of rather rough and slow progress we should get to the border of Vekol Valley and the relatively easier drive out through the Sonora National Monument.  Vekol Valley Road is still a high clearance, 4-wheel drive only road if that is any indication of what the Range offers.  After all that, it is still 30 miles to the nearest gas station once you hit I-8.

This morning extra signage decorated the creosote and ocotillo flats as we had left the interstate.  In size 16 or so font, a paper sign had been hung on a post stating “HAZARD: Road Impassable 5 Miles Ahead.”  We had to stop and backup to read it after guessing it was probably important. It had such proximity to the other signs warning of the drug smuggling and illegal immigration that could be encountered on the road ahead it must have been important to someone.  The five miles came and went, and eventually we made it to the border of the Range territory, with its own special signage stacked upon what we already had behind us.

A brown placard with white letters greets you at the border of the Range.  This sign delineates the BLM land from the Range property.  It sits on a weather beaten post with little tendrils of barbed wire spiraling for a few feet before cutting short of their original destination.  The sign speaks of permits and training and dangers to all who enter. “You are entering a former military bombing range.  Unexploded ordinance present.  Proceed at own risk of death or serious injury.”  And to serve as friendly reminder to bombs underfoot, F-16’s scream overhead.  While we work during the day, the pilots follow flight corridors releasing their payloads onto targets and sacrificial hills just beyond the arch topped ridge.

Each additional layer of clothes we had added on this morning was slowly peeling away as we made our way out.  We were already back in the truck and making good time out of the mountain outcrops that hid Bender Spring.  Crawling back down the rocky-sloped 2-track at an engine-braking 5 miles an hour was just the next step.  Too much more speed and we would bottom out on the rocks already tickling our skid plates.   Soon enough we could be making a 75 mph bee-line to a coke and bad gas station food.

Jordan and I have been talking about possible plans for after the end of this season of fieldwork.  We keep on talking for a bit, but she sees me white knuckle the wheel on a particularly worrisome section and lets me concentrate as she hopelessly tries to read Jane Eyre.  The silence continues, but it is not uncomfortable.  Spending 4 months in areas of the country where the only electronic signal you get is Mexican “El Norte” style on the AM dial gets you comfortable with someone else’s silence.

Another bad part of the road approaches and I try to thread the needle on a section washed out from the recent monsoons.  Instead the truck slides abruptly to the right as the sand and rock collapse under the tires.  As quickly as it had moved right the truck jerks instantly the other direction under no direction from the wheel.  From the air to the right of the truck comes the sight of rocks and soil blasting high.  As my brain slows down this half second, I hear a sharp intake of air registering as Jordan in the seat next to me.  Then, “FOOMP.”

This is the picture I took while resting my knee.

The first time I saw Bender Spring was from the backseat of a single engine Cessna flying over the early morning rays of a July desert.  Tim, this district’s wildlife manager, sat directly in front of me and the pilot, James, was opposite.  Tim has an ex-military air about him.  His athletic build is matched by his crew cut hair and standard issue 2-day beard stubble. His wrap-arounds sit on tanned cheekbones and hide the direction of his gaze.  He smiles constantly which helps disarm you from his impeccably rigid posture.

Tim had been kind enough to invite me on a recon flight of the water catchments he was charged with keeping operational.  This was the 2nd week I had been working in the area and his idea was to familiarize me with some of the more prominent landmarks. Halfway through our scheduled flight, we pointed the nose of the small prop plane toward the rising sun.  We started in the dark of the pre-dawn to beat the daily Range acivitiy.  We had to work around the military schedule of fighter jets, tank busters, and British royalty practicing potshots from helicopters.

After pointing out the “Dragon’s Tooth,” we corkscrewed down towards the desert floor to investigate the next catchment.  The plane wooden roller-coaster lurched and tilted in the early morning drafts, but James would hold his descent until Tim would call out the dimensions of the low water lines,  “3 feet!”  Then we would pull up, straighten out, and either dodge the inevitable rock spire ahead or continue down a narrow canyon like we were bulls-eying wamp-rats on Tatooine.  We finished one sector and on the way to the next Tim pointed out Squaw Tits Peak.  Here the Airforce had airlifted 55 gallon drums to the top of 2 suggestively shaped rock outcrops.  We could see the drums as we passed.  This is what happens when you mix practicing high precision cargo drop placement with a little creativity.

“What’s that flat named?”  I squeaked over the headset’s com.

“That’s Vekol Valley, and the silver glint along the road is the veal barn. Someone figured they could raise some cattle out here at one point.”  We stayed close to the Range border and as the plane swooped down and Tim said, “Catchment 499.  Looks low to me.”  With that we turned around, we had made the rounds and the Range was starting to wake up.  Time for us to leave the airspace before standard operations resumed for the day and before the Cessna turned into a tiny, flying oven.

Lunch, a post-flight ritual, was carried out in the truckstop town of Gila Bend at a truckstop Mexican diner named Sofia’s.  Tim mentioned that he was gonna be going out to the 499 area soon and would be happy to escort us out there.  Tim has the interesting job title of Wildlife Manager.  I asked about his peculiar title since I was sure I had never seen another wildlife biologist carry an AR-15 assault rifle as standard kit.

Turns out that Tim is part scientist, part manager, and part law enforcement officer.  He has many more responsibilities than is necessary to throw on someone with as much land as he has to cover for his job.  In his own paraphrased words though, he tells me that he loves what he does and is happy with his new position,  “Where else do I get to help with helicopter surveys of antelope one day and then bust drug smugglers the next?”

Tim said his “super,” Steve, was going to be joining us since he was in the area that day too.   Daniel, one of our contacts at the Range, also was to join us for the day (he has an indispensably cheery disposition and was always a welcome addition to our scientific gaggle).  Jordan and I arrived at the prearranged meeting place and found Steve waiting.

We checked our watches, hesitant to keep people waiting on us.  Turns out Steve, Jordan, and I were all about 5 minutes early and everyone else would be 10 minutes late.  We introduced ourselves and Steve returned the pleasantries.  He too was a good-humored senior Arizona Game and Fish staffer that had held the Wildlife Manager tag in a separate district earlier in his career.  His wispy, sun bleached sandy hair danced in the equally sandy wind of the Gila Bend morning.

We continued to talk to Steve between the roar of passing freight cars on the train line behind us, explaining our project.  The practiced ease of Steve attaching his side-arm, several spare magazines, and other tactical equipment to his bullet proof vest and waist belt was almost missed among the conversation.  Jokingly I quipped, “Will I be needing one of those, because I forgot to pick mine up from the dry cleaners?”

Steve said, “I sure hope not then.”

I squinted up my face doing a really poor job trying to shrug off the comment like it wasn’t said with a bit more earnestness than he had meant.  Before I could do much in matter of response, another train roared past, 4 engines tugging miles of cars.  By the time they where gone, the rest of the group had showed, piled into respective vehicles, and we where on our way.

This is taken from the back seat of the Cessna over a section of the Range

Daniel, Jordan, I, and Travis, Jordan’s boyfriend, who joined us sometimes, were piled into our pickup with a load of supplies and equipment.  Our coolers squeaked against doors and we moved as much up and down in the cab as the truck moved forward on the road.  Daniel is a RMO of the BMGR-E working for the LAFB, but often has to work from the AFAF in conjunction with the AZG&F LEO’s.  Which is to say he is a biologist stuck in a world of military acronyms.

Besides all of this (maybe because of – military lands actually house some of the best and largest unbroken tracts of wildlife habitat in the United States and Daniel is almost always certain to have funding), he is cheery just as he was the first several times I met him.  His stories this morning about volunteering with children at a summer camp and spending time with his son are typical of his good character.  He is another one of the people charged with monitoring and protecting the wildlife resources on the vastness of the desert range.  The wildlife is varied, the problems many, and the water little.  That is one of the reasons he is going with us today.  To check on wildlife usage of these very remote water sites built for large game like desert bighorn and mule deer.

We scuttle over washboard gravel until we have to slow for larger dips until we finally have to come to a complete stop.  Tim and Steve have to remove a large section of brush from the wash bottom we have to cross.  The dry pebble riverbed is filled with gnarled paloverde and twisted cat-claw acacias.  Long ago the settlers of the area called this region El Camino del Diablo, The Devil’s Road, and it is starting to register as to why.  Even today in our truck the desert feels hellish outside the window as brush squeals along the body.  Our desert pinstripe – the sign of a weathered desert rat – is already starting to appear after only 1 week of work in the field.

We come to a complete stop.  Again.  Only this time it is much different.  Tim’s truck lights slam on and both officers throw open the doors with their long guns already at their shoulders.  There is a broken down maroon SUV sticking its grill out of the brush to our right.  Tim already has signaled us to stop and get low; Steve is using his door as shield while he surveys the area for the threat I just don’t sense.

Daniel jumps out of the cab yelling to both of them.  “It’s clear! That one’s been cleared.  Sorry I meant to mention that earlier.”  Tim and Steve visibly relax and everyone get back into the trucks.  Daniel, laughing, said, “Oops.  Oh-well, it’s good practice for them!”  He continued the train of thought he must have started as he was telling the other two about the details.  “We’ve had so many cars this year.  We like to get them out of here pretty quickly so the smugglers can’t use them for spare tires and other parts.”

Both Jordan and I had to take a training course about the obvious dangers of the Range.  It covered entry and exit procedures, poisonous animals, desert plants, the heat and sun and things that any good field biologist should understand.  Then it moved on to things like the Range’s unmaintained roads, radio protocol, history of unexploded ordinance, and its current role as the favorite drug and human trafficking corridor (along with the Native American reservation to the south).

This last bit of the training covered what to do in case of U.D.A. (undocumented alien) contact.  All of this was not quite sinking in as it should have been.  I grew up much closer to the Canadian border than the Mexican border and the immigration issue was still a completely abstract concept for me.  That was quickly changing with every new day I drove deeper in the desert and hiked farther into the mountains.  But today was still early on for me with this particular subject and the modest incident still seemed out of place.

That is until Daniel started telling us about the Vekol Valley.  Just a month before our arrival, five burned bodies had been found in the area inside of a charred vehicle.  Presumably this was cartel violence.  He told us numerous other anecdotes and illuminated us to how serious the problem was.  He alluded to a story about another bust approximately the summer before, and later, when I returned home, I looked into the details.  The casual reference had hidden the significance of the incident.  According to a report for ABC News by Olivia Katrandjian, 76 cartel members were arrested with 108 weapons, including machine guns.

The unofficial policy is to never be in this stretch of desert alone.  And not really just two folks, but two folks with guns.  Big guns that they know how to use.  This is why Tim wished to escort us.  To show us the route and to keep our heads attached.  This policy is based in good sense and is meant to keep more officers (and others) from getting shot and killed.

Organ Pipe National Monument, just south of our own stretch of desert, is commonly known as one of the most dangerous National Park properties.  It was even named the deadliest park in 2002 and 2003[i].  Here officer Kris Eggle was killed in 2002 pursuing cartel members.  In 2010 on Santa Cruz County soil just a little southwest of our then current position, an officer had been shot and killed by UDA’s.  And even since we had returned to the area for the latest round of surveys, two Border Patrol officers had been shot and one of them died from those wounds near the Mexican border[ii].

The job they do is inherently risky and I do not envy them of it. They are band-aids trying to cure a cancer.  This statement is not meant belittle their service, but rather a plain attempt to show a glaringly obvious national level problem that this diatribe could not possibly tackle[iii].  Tim, Steve, and Daniel are all exposed to border dangers even though their main objective is wildlife management.  The intensity of the border issue has just dragged them into the fray.

An hour or so more into the drive put us on the trailhead to Bender Spring.  We were all quiet as we started to hike.  Sagging steps and labored breathing was the soundtrack in the still air.  But as we all got acclimated to the spot, we relaxed, talked, and joked.  The saguaros were not hiding a drug smuggling militia and Tim and Steve joined Daniel in his typical cheery demeanor.   Pulling ahead of the pack, Daniel led us to a ring of old house sites from the original inhabitants of the area.  Natives’ square stone foundations and ceramic sherds were all that remained to invite us past the crumbled thresholds.

Turning off the trail we crossed another threshold into Bender Spring.  Today Bender Spring itself is a tiny little patch of mud with cattails in the desert heat.  Just downstream of this spot is the tinaja that the spring feeds.  The water is hidden just out of view by a short ravine only accessible by an off trail scramble down a water worn granite rock face.  The tinaja that faces you after the hands and knees descent is a shock.  “In the desert, water in any amount is a tincture, so holy that it will burn through your heart when you see it.[iv]”  It is hard to tell people that the desert is formed by rain and have them take you seriously.  But stand in between the pools below Bender Spring, or a place like Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell, and then tell me differently.

Walls of water worn, smooth rock open up to a small basin that holds the main tinaja.  The only flat spot large enough to place yourself and a backpack is the pinch point between the main pools.  Here, Jordan and I unload our equipment as a hot desert wind descends on us.  It pushes past us to ripple the pool’s surface and we all stand silent for a moment, letting our sweat cool our stressed bodies.  In that moment, my body sighs with pleasure.  I take in the surroundings and then the work routine starts.

As soon as my brain had released enough steam to stop running in the red, I made mental checklists of the animal life around me.  I pulled out my notepad and started jotting the natural history notes before we got to the quantitative analyses.  The main pond was approximately 8 meters by 8 meters with three steep smooth sides.  The last side, low and built up by the game wardens to help hold more water in periods of drought, opened up to the drainage below.  Filled in with paloverde, cholla cactus, mesquite, and other prickly brush, we would not have made a single mile in an hour that direction.  In the uphill confluence, we sat just above the main body of water watching a trickle flow between the two pools.  The spring was just barely keeping up with the rapid evaporation.

We pulled out our scientific doodads and gizmos to start checking the environmental parameters and water quality.  A vital survey tool, an audio recording device known as an audio-logger, has been broken in transit.  Travis takes off into the heat to return to the truck, where our spare waits.  While he is braving the heat of midday, I use a densitometer, a small wooden box with a concave mirror inside, to check the amount of shade and canopy cover.  We use this information and much of the other data gathered for evaporation modeling used in an economic study of the waters.  I inch along the edges using only handholds until I can find a good site for my feet.  I have to hold on with one hand at all times or tumble into that muddy tub.  I wrench the thing out of my back pocket, flip it open like a 60’s sci-fi communicator prop and commence the survey, once for each cardinal direction around the pool.

While I was bouldering around the edges, our escort has released an unending cavalcade of good-natured jokes, mostly aimed at one of our crew spending the rest of the trip soggy with tinaja soaked clothes.  Jordan and I disappoint them on this trip but later in the season, Jordan would make up for it with a spectacularly flourished entry into the pool off of the steep banks.  After taking wind, temperature, vegetative data, and chemical analyses, we took a drink before moving onto surveys of the various animals that frequent the area.  All this work might seem like a fools errand, but there is a practical reason for this appropriation of taxpayer funds.

Beyond the more philosophical reasons of inherent rights to exist and our moral responsibility to help off set our damages to such existence, big game animals bring in a huge amount of money to state governments.  Water sites in this area are few and natural ones like Bender Spring even more so.  The Arizona Game and Fish Department and various federal agencies have worked together to place more artificial catchments throughout this parched land to help establish a network of places for big game animals to find a drink.  Many hunting seasons, this helps create a slightly artificially heightened population that then can be culled by the American sportsman.

Beyond the taxes sportsman pay on the guns and ammo, there are the other auxiliary incomes for people supporting this industry that could be analyzed.  However, what might be most interesting are the prices commanded for auction tags that the state sells to the highest bidder.  In 2008, someone paid $67,500 just for the chance to shoot one pronghorn antelope (another western desert denizen).  The record for this type of tag sales is held in Montana for a bighorn tag that reached $310,000 dollars.  These mountainous water holes are favorites of the desert subspecies of bighorn that calls the Range its home.  In Arizona alone the total revenue of these special tags has been $19.5 million dollars between 1984 and 2011[v], for an average $720,000 annually; enough to fund the salary of over 10 senior wildlife managers a year[vi].  This money is usually used to fund more conservation projects like the water catchments.   Every one we have visited has had a faded, bullet riddled sign that reads, “SPORTSMEN this development was constructed for your game with your money.  Help protect your investment.”

We keep checking the ridges in hopes of seeing one of the big game that would use this water hole: none today.  Jordan starts the dip net sweeps for aquatic invertebrates.  A good indicator of environmental health is the collection of invertebrates that call the water their home.  Different species can tolerate different conditions and the lack of specific animals can be telling.  In a remote and isolated desert spring this becomes much less clear-cut, but then again, everything is that way in this desert landscape.  We will spend hours peering through a dissecting microscope looking at the differences between minute body features to determine who exactly we are sweeping out of their desert paradise in exchange for a sterile alcohol filled vial.

Travis, finally returned with the working equipment, and I run around like mad men.  We are trying to capture and/or count the number of dragonflies frequenting these waters too.  Travis has devised a clever slingshot method and I jump back and forth with a butterfly net.  I feel like a frustrated 6 year old chasing these annoyingly perceptive organic ornithopters.  Blue-green darners, flame skimmers, and spot-winged gliders hover just out of reach in a jeering taunt of, “Oh, whatcha doin’ down there hun? Looks interesting for sure, but I gotta go.  Bye!” and then they tear away to hover over the center of the pools scooping up insects like little hawks.

As we pack up the gear from the surveys and put away the samples I look again at the trickle coming between the pools.  Little black bodies are working their way up against the current trying to get to the source.  Stratiomyidae writhe, flexing tissues to meet the demands of a behavior instilled in them from millennia upon millennia of sunrises and sunsets out on the desert horizons.  Hundreds of tiny dancers flaying back in forth in life.  A flow of water 2 inches wide keeps them protected from the dry desert as they move.   These little black larva will grow up to be the soldier flies that buzz around our head and bite our necks, endearing themselves to no one but the predators that feast upon them.

They create an integral part of the ecosystem here.  And an integral part of the image of the desert for myself.  We pack up and hike out back to the truck.  As our group drove and hiked between pools and water sites in our own spastic style, it was a subtle hint that we are just working on a different scale from the little stratiomyidae.  A different scale but the end result is the same.  As desert dwellers we share the common problems of water and predator.  As the truck bumped along on the way out, all of us silent from the heat, I wondered when the spring would stop flowing enough to keep that trickle alive.  It would be soon.  And when it happened, the whole place would change until the next rains.  Either you made it or you did not.

This endangered species is adapted to areas known to be especially dry. The escarpments in the background are part of the range that help hide Bender Spring.

A return to real time and my brain starts to catch up.  Rock grates on metal. Even with my boot pushing the brake through the floor, the truck reels a little more.  But instead of the screech of hot metal tearing away our truck and the silence of post-apocalyptia that should follow, there is neither.  The truck stops on the downward slope in a muted rumble of the diesel hidden (thankfully, still) beneath the hood.  We both sit at an awkward tilt and my momentary pang of fear is followed by the brief relief of breathing. This is quickly edged out by a feeling best described as, “pissed-off.”

The desert had just chewed through another tire in what was the most dramatic 5 mile-per-hour blowout I have ever seen.  Thankfully we were advised and had followed the advice of picking up an extra spare for just such an occasion.  This wasn’t the first time we have had to use both spares in one day during our field season either.  This would mark the 8th tire we had sacrificed to the desert rock and air force shrapnel during our short 4 month stay here.

About halfway through switching the tire in the least precarious spot we could get our truck to hobble to, there was that back of the mind realization that that the last three miles of road had eaten two of our heavy duty tires and now we had at least 20 more to go. If we got stuck again, we would have to make the decision to sit and wait with the truck or hike out the remainder of the way until we hit a spot of cell phone or radio coverage (both highly unlikely until a close proximity to the interstate).  If we waited, we had extra water for at least a day without being uncomfortably dehydrated.  But that would be on the assumption that someone would come looking for us and that would be on another assumption that the radio operator actually had registered our entry to the Range on some sheet of paper that sits there next to the com-station and that another someone on the next shift would notice we had not called out by the end of the day.  And if we choose to walk out, that same water and series of assumptions would help keep us moving as we hiked through the Vekol Valley.

Either way we would have had to spend a lot of time in Vekol Valley by ourselves.  Not the most desired outcome.  Since our original visit to Bender Spring through the valley, we had gone back several times by ourselves.  Each time we went we had interesting incidents (like Jordan falling into the tinaja during another survey), but we had had no sight of another person anywhere along the way.  We became more familiar and our respect started to drift with the sand, and so the boogey man status of Vekol Valley had slowly drifted away with time and repetition.

Vekol Valley was now reasserting itself.  Every rock in the road became a possible traitor and every bump a new nemesis.  It was slow going. Driving at half the normal speed just increased our anxiousness to drive faster and get out of there.  5 mph…10 mph…5 mph again…an exultant 15 mph….STOP! Once we hit a good stretch the speedometer would race wildly back and forth as we tried to run but had to crawl to get through the washes that appeared from nowhere.  After many miles of this repetition, we sight the abandoned veal barn used as the unofficial landmark.  It reveals itself in disrepair; graffiti and trash adorn the building’s remnants.  Rafters stick into the air like the cattle bones of the surrounding dry water holes.  Its silver glint from the air was a mirage, and I like it even more knowing the truth of its rubble.  The road improves from here and we were getting closer to the interstate.

A convertible abandoned near an active Range. How they managed to get it this far before leaving it is beyond me.

When we finally did hit the blacktop, it was without further incident.  That is how it goes here.  Mostly dull with a 10% chance of terrifying.  And just like a weather forecast, the desert is entirely and utterly unpredictable even if we say we know what will happen.  And this is where I made the most of my summer residence during the last four months of survey work.  I have little claim to know what is actually going on out in the desert, but would like to count myself better off than most.  The people I have worked with and who helped initiate me to heat and sand make their livelihood out there, day in and day out.   Tim, Daniel, Border Patrol agents, park rangers, and many other people are out there crawling around.  “This is a cruel world,” the saying goes and these people work in a particularly cruel part of it.

They love it though.  Everyone I worked with absolutely enjoys the work they are doing.  And they are doing work.  Good work from what I can tell.  The area is going to get less rain than normal in the coming years.  It will also get warmer.  Climate scientists are doing their best to predict how it will impact this already harsh area but no one can be sure until it happens.  These guys have their work cut out for them.  Besides trying to manage some of the more unmanageable and particularly vulnerable landscape, they are trying to keep it from killing themselves and others.  The desert will rip out your throat just as soon as you stop watching it.  Respect it and it will let you leave.  Don’t and you probably won’t ever get a second chance.

The field season is over now and already I am making my way eastward looking for my next position.  I already miss the magic of the desert.  When the sun sets the world stops for a moment.  A transition period from survival to living occurs.  Animals and people alike come out from their dens to mingle amongst the sky’s changing fabric.  Eventually the fabric lays over you completely but is well worn enough for the stars to shine through.  The heat can start to be forgotten as a light breeze slips underneath the blanket from some far distant corner.  The wind carries itself beyond your own little spot and moves on to comfort others sharing the night somewhere else.

The desert does not care about national boundaries or about your skin color or what you are doing in it.  It only cares if you respect it, and even then, only sometimes does it give a damn.   Being ready for delays, surprises, and the other few people that try to traverse it is the only sane option.  By doing this we can keep returning to the desert to uncover its secrets, its magic.  Then we can try to convince others to try to fall in love and let the desert cast its spell.  I fell in love with my little patch of sun, sand, saguaro, and stones.  The last trip to Bender Spring was a reminder to me that that was not enough though, for either of us.

A evening descends into sun set near White Tanks

All images and text Copyright 2012 Joseph Drake

[i] “Fighting drugs and border violence at Organ Pie Cactus National Monument.” Goodwin, Liz. Yahoo News! – The Ticket Feb 28, 2012

[ii] “Naco, Arizona Shooting: Border Patrol Agent Killed; At Least 1 Injured.” Associated Press.  Huffington Post Oct 2, 2012

[iii] The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea is a good introduction to the problem and surprisingly intimate when you work in the area; I read the book during my stay in the desert town of Ajo and passed the landmarks of his book on a daily basis.

[iv] The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert. Childs, Craig. Back Bay Books 2001

[v] “Big game tag auctions raise big bucks for western states.” Kirst, Marian Lyman.  High Country News April 16, 2012

[vi] Calculated from Arizona Game & Fish Wildlife Manager III upper-end salary range. Found on: http://www.azgfd.gov/inside_azgfd/wm/compensation.shtml on Nov 27, 2012.


2 thoughts on “Lessons From the Desert

  1. Travis finally arrived? I worked my ass off at great speed to get that audio logger back to the top in a timely manner LOL “just like Beggers canyon back home!” haha well done man!

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