George Orwell’s Rules on Writing

As I buckle down to several writing projects (including my thesis…GAAH!) its always helpful to go back and read some simple, but effective advice:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to
seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of
an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules come from George Orwell’s essay: Politics and the English Language. These hold true if you are writing political essays to scientific articles.  His suggestion for figuring out how to follow these rules:

“A scrupulous
writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

I know I have a hard time writing while following these rules; but to break a bad habit such as bad writing, one must practice.  I suggest reading the full article.  It’s floating around the internet.  Find it and read it to help save yourself and the English language from bad writing.  I know I am trying to save you from my bad writing. Thank me later


P.s.  IF you don’t know who George Orwell is or isn’t, then check out his info.  These writing rules actually come from an article that rails against misused language for political rhetoric.  As the political season starts to warm up, it might be a good read for a consumer of writing and political discourse as well as any writer.

P.s.s Here’s the link to an online version of his article. And then go and read 1984.


Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student.  Goodbye sweet field work.

Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student. Goodbye for now, sweet field work.

Now that you have your current position, its time for you to look for your next job!

So now you are graduated, or an intern at some park, or maybe you landed a coveted paid position, or dun dun dun…. your are finishing your graduate degree (like me).  Now what?  Unless you have a permanent position its time to start looking for a new position. Seriously.  Hopefully I will be able to help you out.  Below will be a list of some of my favorite resources.

But I just started you say? I have five months you say? I can find something later you say?

Too bad. So sad.  Start looking now. That awesome thing you got going now is gonna run out and you better know what happens next. There are only a couple options and I have tried most of them.  It’s either get more education, find a new job, or get out of the game.  I assume most of you don’t want to move on and get a desk job or flip burgers after all that hard work, so that leaves the options of jobs, internships, and more school.  And as you progress in your career some of these really don’t work either (but that is a subject for a later post).

I am going to break it down the resources into three categories: 1) My Favorites, 2) Gov’mnt, and 3) Other Good Stuff.  If I miss your favorite or great resource, I would love to know where you look for jobs.  Leave the links in the comments so everyone benefits!

My Favorites

  • First and foremost for me is: Texas A&M Job Board.  This place has it all, from unpaid internships to tenure professorships.  I got my first job from a listing here. And my third, and fourth. I assume my next position too.  I got the chance to work overseas and across the west.  It is updated frequently.
  • Ecolog: the best list-serv I know about.  It has a lot of stuff from internships, jobs, grad positions, and random other ecology related posts.  This is a great resource, just make sure that if you subscribe, sign up for a daily or weekly digest, otherwise your inbox will get bombarded.
  • The Society of Conservation Biology job board is another great place for every level of jobs in conservation biology.  It has had a facelift since the last time I used it and the interface looks great.
  • OSNA job board or the Ornithological Societies of North America job board.  Even if you aren’t into birds (yet) it is a great place to find opportunities. I originally started as a marine biologist but I got a lot more call backs (and offers) about jobs working with birds.


  • USAJOBS of course.
  • But for us mere mortals (myself included) that have a hard time navigating government applications there is: go government. It is a nonprofit that helps people navigate USAJOBS.  Worth looking at.  From my first impression it has great resources that help you create a federal resume, find agencies hiring students, veterans, and persons with disabilities. Caveat: I haven’t had to use it yet, but plan on using some of its tips in the very near future as I myself start applying for the next round of employment.
  • Many wildlife refuges, parks, national forests, and other agencies will post internship positions on their respective pages.  So if you have an area you are interested in troll the web for there individual job pages.  Its often worth the work since most people are lazy and won’t do the extra effort like you are going to do.  Because you are going to do the extra effort right? RIGHT

Other Good Stuff

I hope this helps someone out there and like I said, leave other job boards and links in the comments so everyone can benefit!  That way people can find there way to jobs and degrees they love.  And end up getting to play and work in a place that makes you happy.

Happiness is working and playing somewhere you love.

The author happy as a clam near 9000 ft. in elevation during an old field season.

New Grad Student Advice and Resources I wish I would have known about…

As a new school year starts up and rears its ugly head of opportunity, I wanted to put out some info for new students that I wish I would have found earlier (or that someone else had pointed out to me). For now it is going to be a small list of resources already available. I might get into more specific resources and articles later that others might have found as useful as I have. But today we stick to the short list. Although there are multitudes of lists and resources out there for new graduate students, I feel like it is necessary to create another list. It is a meta-list of such lists.

And by no means is this list comprehensive, but it should be a good start for students looking for answers to common questions or just looking to fall through the rabbit hole and lose some time procrastinating while feeling like they are getting something done. This might get broken up into a couple posts where I will end up discussing not just these resources but more specific articles and books that students might benefit from reading. I am hoping this might end up a separate permanent page on my blog for easy update and reference.

Hope it helps some folks out there. I know the resources I present here have really helped me.

Part 1:

Here are some great resources from people that have already accumulated a wealth of resources:

Dr. Hall of Indiana University (where I attended undergrad) has a wonderful (and it’s pretty) lab webpage [] with resources on the following:

  • Advice on Being a graduate student
  • The transition to becoming a professional
  • Grant writing
  • Getting a job
  • Advice on writing
  • Poster and presentation advice
  • Thoughts on reviewing
  • Teaching advice
  • And lists of other websites of resources including:

The webpage of Dr. Baskett of U.C. Davis [] has an incredible amount of resources that you should check out, including stuff on:

  • Science writing
  • Authorship
  • Peer Review
  • Grant writing
  • Science careers
  • Presenting and assembling talks and posters
  • Teaching

There are a couple blogs with compilations of “How-To” or “Advice” posts that should be consulted for loads of info too:

Dynamic Ecology’s compilation – a project of Dr. Fox of the University of Calgary

eco-evolutionary dynamics – a collaborative blog about ecology and evolution and this is the latest (as of writing this) post in the their “How to” series:

Previous “How to” posts on this blog:
How to pick a study system
How to do statistics
How to write/present your science
How to choose a journal (+ part 2)
How to be a reviewer/editor
How to get into graduate school
How to succeed in graduate school (+ part 2)
How to respond to reviews

One of My PI’s, Dr. McIntyre of TTU has a good page [] with many resources on more specific subjects she is teaching, like:

Landscape ecology:
Community ecology:

But more importantly across these pages they have career link websites, citizen science info, and, other info that could be useful.

Like I said, I hope this helps some folks out there as school starts up and new students are wondering around looking for guidance. There are some great resources listed above. Just don’t go too far down the rabbit hole or you might end up being the one saying, “I’m late for a very important date!” (cheesy but it couldn’t be helped).

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.

I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.

New scientific article published!

I just published my first scientific paper, titled Testing a model for the prediction of isolated waters in the Sonoran Desert, in the Journal of Arid Environments!  I am super excited to have worked on this project with great coauthors and researchers.  It covers a new modeling technique for predicting isolated water site locations for arid landscapes.  Check it out!  It also has valuable information about the Sonoran Desert’s abiotic and biotic systems for reference.

Presentations and awards!

I recently did my first podium presentation at the 48th Annual AZ/NM JAM in Las Cruces, NM.  This is a regional meeting of The Wildlife Society.  I presented a talk about connectivity in the Sonoran Desert based on wildlife movement capabilities.  It was titled:

Connectivity and Isolation in the Management of Aquatic Resources in the Sonoran Desert: Nested Frameworks for Maintaining Biodiversity

It seemed to be well received and I enjoyed the experience.  Not only are these conferences important for scientific discussion and discourse, but they are a fun time and a good way to get to know people.  It is also a good time to show off a little.  There are photo contests at many of these.  I managed to snag an award for the Human Dimensions category.  The picture was one I took in Buckskin Gulch near the AZ and UT border a couple years ago.  I was hiking with a good friend and scientist Quentin (featured in the photograph).  Just thought I would share it!

Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch – Copyright Joseph Drake – 2013

Thanks! Hope you like it!

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks…

This is an essay I submitted to the 2014 Sowell Collection Essay Contest held by the Southwest Collection at TTU ( I was selected for first place.  It covers some of my fieldwork and an author that has been a great inspiration for me.  I hope you enjoy.  

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks. It did not intend to let me have them back either. I had just slid out of my hammock and was trying to slip on my socks from yesterday. I had left them on the guy-rope of the hammock to try and air the socks out overnight. There was no chance of drying them out here. The shoes you put on over them were soaked anyway; why waste them? I was preparing to pull them over my pruned feet when I noticed that something was on the inside of the cuff of the sock. It was a small egg case. I figured a fly had laid it there that night. And I was right. I just didn’t know how right. On further inspection, the socks had been taken over. Someone was already wearing my socks. Squirming egg cases were attached to each and every stitch of pile on the inside of my socks. Another pair lost to this job. Nature was having a good one on me and I wasn’t appreciating it this early in the day.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro.  These are my feet.  After the socks had come off.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro. These are my feet. After the socks had come off.

I had just woken up from a series of light naps strung together. I had not made much headway in the way of sleep that night and the dawn light filtering through the canopy was unwelcome. Its warmth, however, was. The jungle gets surprisingly cold at night when your camp is situated in a wind-blown saddle set high in the volcanic ridges of interior Pohnpei. I had been laying in a hammock with a cheap blue-plastic tarp slung over to keep the rain from falling onto me. The wind just carried it under the awning and onto me from other directions instead. Throughout the night the wind, rain, and shivering kept me awake enough to read from the book I had packed up there.

It was a collection of coyote trickster stories, Barry Lopez’s first book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter. Appropriate topics considering the laughs the jungle was having at my expense. I had brought it along to the island as part of a small collection of reading material designed to entertain myself for 5 months. I was out there on a project collecting data on birds and vegetation – trying to get the only in depth survey of avifauna for this area completed. This was to serve as a baseline of information before the effects of raising sea levels changed the islands of the Pacific and their plants and animals forever. One in a series of field biology jobs I have had.

And that was all that came from the first experience with Mr. Lopez’s work. I was entertained, the book was finished, and then it was put back into my bag. It flew back across the Pacific in an airplane and was placed on a shelf at my parents’ house back in the Midwest. I traveled some more until I got another temporary field biology job in Northern California. Near the end of that season, I found myself at a small bookstore in a coastal California town. I picked up a couple books to read when we weren’t working 14 hour days. I picked up Arctic Dreams in that pile. The cover had fallen off and the pages were yellowed but the price was right: $1. I recognized the name of the author from somewhere I could not quite remember. I figured I knew nothing about the Arctic so I would give it a try. I tossed it into my truck but again, that is where the book sat. I tore off on another cockamamie road trip to southern Arizona where my next field job was waiting. Across the Sierra Nevada, through Death Valley and into the Grand Canyon I saw vistas too big to describe, trees named after Presidents, and saw so much of nature’s bounty Ansel Adams would have run out of film. All that the book saw was the underside of my driver’s seat.

When I finally reached Ajo, Arizona, I immediately got sucked into the unique wilderness. I worked almost half a year on the job, chasing desert rains and the ephemeral waters that follow. I was working in the middle of the Sonoran Desert on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which was managed by the United States Air Force. Some of the largest tracts of open land available for animals are housed on military property. I was recording information about new ways to find isolated waters, determining water quality, and recording information about the animals that use these rare waters. This work would eventually (unknowingly) lead to my pursuing my Master’s Degree at Texas Tech University.

A day would start at 0400 and end whenever we lost light or access to the Range. Our working group had a security code name and was required to sign forms removing the Government from responsibility in the event we accidently blew ourselves up with the old unexploded ordinance that litters the range. We had to travel through dunes fields and desert mountain ranges. The landscape was austere, beautiful, and often painful. But to those that were willing to look, there were things to find.

Part of the range.

Part of the range.

This was not my first work in the desert, but it was this time working in the Sonora which made me fall in love. The desert was setting up shop in my head. It laid down bedrock, aquifer, and roots. From the fissures of unknown cracks in my logic sprung forth the plants, animals, and waters of my enchantment. I had no reason to love the punishing environment I was working in but I did. I would go out at night just to watch the stars and scorpions crawl across their respective sides of up and down.

Besides late night animal tracking, evening entertainment at our field housing consisted mostly of siestas in the hammocks we had rigged up on the back porch. It was the only way to cope with late afternoon highs that reached into the 120’s. Besides it was hard to beat those seats for watching the sunset, especially when you had a beer to help wash it down with. I found the book on one such afternoon, looking for anything in my truck I had not already read. I plucked the copy of Arctic Dreams from its hermitage and plopped down in the hammock. 3 hours later I woke back up having never actually started it.

The next day I picked it back up and started reading the book. Before I had finished the preface, I was able to find passages that still loom in my conscience, because I was trying to find a place for myself in the desert just as the desert had found a place in me.

“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as the turns of the mind and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind full of curiosity and analysis disassembles a landscape and then reassembles the pieces – the nod of a flower, the color of the night sky, the murmur of an animal – trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.”

He compared the Arctic to a desert. In many ways they are very similar, but it wasn’t the environmental cues that were sticking out in my head when I read the book. There were too many human elements that could be strung together by a long thread from the far north to the desert.

I had traveled by foot and by truck and by airplane across this landscape. Each level of technological removal also encouraged a psychological removal. Going across this landscape can be daunting. And the emotional comfort that is afforded by the technological and psychological removal is alluring. Removing the human from the landscape does neither landscape nor human any good. It is something that often eludes conservation discourse and the subsequent management decisions it brings about. This insight was surely something I lacked. The presence of modern humans in the Arctic was readily observed and seemed very out of place, according to Mr. Lopez. It is a sentiment I can readily vouch for in the Sonoran. 2-track crisscross the saguaro fields and human trash stands out among the tans, rusts, and greens.

A bit out of place?

A bit out of place?

During field work, when it was not my time to drive, I would read as we bounced along in the truck through desert arroyos and old access roads. I would stop every couple of paragraphs just to stare out the window and take in the scenery. I would mix it with the words I had just read. Passages full of broken schooners sprawled out across the ice, hull crumpled and holds empty. Wooden ribs standing out against the landscape. I would remember descriptions of overland travel across the desert and of the great Conestoga wagons left in the empty wastes. The imagery was the same. As I walked through the desert I saw the human remains of this day and age, cars with engine blocks rusted together and the doors torn off the body and tumbled across the desert. And old military equipment, forgotten and useless, dotted the landscape we moved through.

The farther into Arctic Dreams I read, the more I felt I understood the desert environment I was actually in. Lopez’s descriptions of physical phenomena, like mirages, would have still been enlightening if that is where it stopped. The human history of the Arctic was deeply linked to the physical phenomena and Lopez is a master at communicating this connection. We know that the arctic region experiences drastic seasonal shifts in light. It was his detail of a cultural response to experience the depressive loneliness of darkness, the perlerorneq – a word with no English equivalent, which stuck with me. It illustrates how the human and landscape are products of each other. Mr. Lopez quotes an anthropologist that the word means, “to feel ‘the weight of life.’” But he continues and expands so that we can truly understand the darkness of the depression, and how much it resembles the sunless days of arctic winter.

I have yet to find an equivalent for the desert to this last notion, except maybe in regards to water. But that would be a reach and I would have to try. This in itself is another reason Lopez has provided an invaluable addition to my understanding. Not everything translates but if I keep looking and trying to understand, I might just catch a glimpse of understanding. Anything that helps spark curiosity and a drive to sate that curiosity is a gift. I have given away my copy of the book to a friend to try and share that feeling, that gift.

This book deepened my love for the natural world, humans included. It provided insight into a region I knew very little about. Not just the arctic, but also the desert. The book moved across its designated landscape and the messages that emerged helped the desert communicate with me. The desert got into me. It wrinkled my skin, and cut my knees. The desert air parched my throat and the desert water quenched my thirst. Words for unique features in the Sonora invaded my speech, and changed how I looked at the world around me. Tinajas and charcos are my new water sources, and the rains that fill them are also the rains that bring flash floods. Now, I cannot hear rain without considering my traveling route. Maybe I would not have had as strong a reaction if I had Arctic Dreams in the jungle with me instead of in the desert, but I do not think that is the case. Arctic Dreams also tempered my passion so that it gave me a more useful and deeper understanding of the sense in which humanity is not and should not be removed from the natural systems. Without knowledge of place, we have no sense of place. We become lost. We are icebergs drifting slowly, melting in a sea foreign to us until we disappear and no longer resemble what we once were.


If you are interested in reading more about or by Barry Lopez, please consider visiting: and check out his work.  

All images and text © 2014 Joseph Drake

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: on Nov 27, 2012.


I am posting some new writings here shortly.  I want to develop my writing skills and take you some cool places you might not have known about along the way.  If anyone knows of a site, mag, or agency that would be interested in any pieces of mine please toss the name my way.  Any constructive criticism is utterly welcome too!  Thanks and enjoy!