Field Work, Installment 1

This begins with a perhaps unnecessary, rather long, somewhat boring intro that explains how and why I went out on these various escapades. Feel free to skip ahead to the escapades themselves.

Getting a PhD was not a childhood dream. In fact, I don’t think I even knew what one was until I was maybe 20 or so. Early on, however, I was interested in biology, particularly animals and evolution. We always had animals growing up, and I grew up near a national park, so these things probably foddered my interest. Additionally, my grandfather was an avid birder, and he and my grandmother would spend their winters birding in Texas. I remember him showing me pictures in bird books and telling me about the various birds they’d encountered on their trips. My sister, who used to be older than me but now turns 25 every year, wanted to be a paleontologist from birth and perhaps even conception, so I was introduced to dinosaurs and fossils early on.

This is me at age 2, mesmerized by birds (and probably by my grandfather’s swank jammies). Notice the “Woodsies” on the couch. Little chipmunk-like critters that lived in a little plush log. Pretty much my favorite toy at that time.

After graduating high school I pretty much did fuckall for a few years, trying to figure out what it is I wanted to do. I didn’t want to waste money in college if I didn’t have a goal (now I’ve learned that even though you have a goal, the goal might change, and you will still end up drowning in debt). I worked at a book store where I was allowed to borrow books and I read several popular science books. I also worked at a bar where I was allowed to borrow beer. One day when I was shelving in the science section, I shelved a book called the Biology of Spiders. Despite my love of “all animals,” arthropods were not really included in that group. In fact, I didn’t really like them at all. I took the book home to read, maybe an attempt to quell my fear, maybe just to learn new things. I spilled wine on it within a day (hour?) or two and, then, of course, had to purchase said book. So, whether I found it interesting or not, it was mine to keep.

I must have understood very little of what was in the book as I only had a high school education in biology at the time, but apparently I understood enough to decide that spiders and arthropods of all sorts were pretty awesome. How can you not like a group of organisms with over a million described species? I mean, really, you’re kind of an asshole if you don’t.

Arthropods are thought to account for 80% of all living things. This is what that looks like.

I applied to college and I received a BS. I didn’t really know what to do next, but was convinced to get a Master’s degree. That time of my life was probably one of the worst, and that probably should have informed any future decisions I made regarding academia. However, during this hellish period I learned that I loved field work and I loved the desert, and those things and my cats were my refuge from the utter misery that surrounded me. I struggled with classes, I struggled with grant writing, I struggled with gender discrimination, and with other pressures and horrible shit. Looking back I realize that much of shittiness that I felt stemmed from a lack of confidence that I brought upon myself (not to be confused with the lack of confidence brought upon me by others). I didn’t realize that it was okay to not know or understand certain things, and that very few people actually understood everything, and if they seemed to they might be faking it. I would constantly beat myself up over what seemed to me like an inability to learn everything when I should have perhaps focused on just a few things. I constantly felt like an idiot (only slightly different from now – where I only feel like an idiot 75-80% of the time). I didn’t feel like I’d be able to get a PhD, that I wasn’t smart enough, but I also felt like I needed to prove something to those that thought I couldn’t, or to those that said things like, “Well, if so-and-so has a PhD, I’m sure you can get one,” implying that the so-and-so wasn’t so bright, but look, she did it! So, you might say I decided to get a PhD because people, including myself, had doubts that I could. I’ve since learned that if you like working all the time and you have enough money, you can probably get a PhD, and that doing something just because you haven’t done it before perhaps isn’t the smartest thing.

I applied to PhD programs, not really considering what employment options would be waiting when I finished. There have always been more PhDs cranked out than there are jobs, and it’s really kind of like a pyramid scheme, but I also wasn’t counting on the global economy to shit the bed right around the time I finished up. I figured that I’d be able to get any job I wanted, because, you know, I’d have a friggin’ PhD. After a few years in the program I learned that likely my only option would be an academic job, sitting at a desk, writing grant proposals, having meetings – all of the things that I liked the least about academia. I realized I would rarely get to venture into the field. I thought about quitting, especially because I realized how much debt I was getting myself into. I was told not to worry, that I would get a job as soon as I was finished and I’d quickly be able to pay it all back. I stuck with it even though I hated the competitiveness, the underhandedness, the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism…I’m sure these things are true of most jobs, and I did meet some absolutely wonderful people during this time, but these things coupled with the knowledge that I’d be spending my life at a desk really bothered me.

I did a post-doc in Australia, but when it ended, I decided I didn’t want to be a professor or have a job that required me to obtain external funds if I wanted to keep said job. Sure, there were jobs at smaller universities, but mostly I wanted to take everything I’d been working on for the last ten years and burn it in a metal drum in some alleyway. I applied for job after job when I got home, thinking it would be a cinch to land something – especially something where I could go outside. After all, I’d been doing field work for ten years.

Now it’s three years on and I can go outside anytime I want, day or night, because I still don’t have a friggin’ job. If only I’d have stuck with just a Master’s, or if I’d taken more practical classes. I even tried to go back to school, but I couldn’t handle it mentally or financially.

I’ll continue with the depressing business and discuss my unemployment in another post, and will now get on with what I set out to write about – the one thing I truly enjoyed during my academic career – field work. During the five years it took to get my PhD, I was on over 120 airplanes – some gigantic, some so small I had to be weighed so they could decide the best place for me to sit, some even smaller where I sat behind the pilot, some that flew through horrible storms, and even one that had to emergency land. I was in a small hurricane, shot at or threatened to be shot at on more than one occasion, in one car wreck, was stung or bitten by anything that could sting or bite, and much more. While some things were truly horrifying, many things were, or at least are now, hilarious. This isn’t a comprehensive recount of my days in the field. Anything I still find terrifying or overtly disgusting has been omitted, but anything I look back on now and find moderately humorous or ridiculously funny, even at, especially at, my own expense will be mentioned in future posts. All names have been changed or omitted to avoid any legal business. These are not in chronological or geographical order, just chosen at random.

Finally, I’m not trying to engage anyone in a pissing contest; the point of this isn’t to gloat or brag about anything. I realize my field stories pale in comparison to those of others. For instance, I’ve never been chased by an angry, enormous male sea lion, I’ve never had a gun pointed at my face, and I am not dead. Mostly it’s to convince myself that my schooling and career choices were not a complete waste of time and money, and while laughing about these things doesn’t make the aforementioned choices “worth it,” it does make it somewhat better. Also, if anyone needs a hand in the field, I’m keen to go just about anywhere.


Around ten years ago I began identifying spiders from the Grand Canyon and vicinity for an ecologist working on various surveys in the region. At one point I was invited to tag along with him and his significant other on backpacking trip through the canyon.

I had never really been on a backpacking trip longer than a single night. I had never been to the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t necessarily in shape, or one might say, prepared in the slightest way. I was to drive to Flagstaff, about fifteen hours. I hadn’t ever driven that far by myself, but I didn’t see how it could possibly be a problem. Until it got dark and I had trouble reading the signs and became very, very sleepy. I tried drinking coffee and water and opening the windows. I was so close to Flagstaff, yet I was equally close to Sleepyland. I decided to pour cold water on myself, not really thinking ahead (a common theme) to  what it would be like to pull up to someone’s house that I’ve never met before, dripping with water when it hasn’t rained in weeks. My shirt and hair were mostly dry. My pants were another story. I tried to keep my front toward everyone so they wouldn’t think I peed my pants in the car. I slowly backed into the room where I was to stay and changed my pants. No one seemed to notice, but maybe they were just being polite.

We drove toward the canyon the next day and camped along the way, getting up before dawn to reach Monument Point before sunrise. I was awestruck by how beautiful it was, and awestruck in a more different way by how far down it was. I am afraid of heights, so much so that even when people look over the edges of buildings in movies, I feel sick (I almost cried the other day while watching Skyfall). My acrophobia wasn’t as bad then as it is now, but still, it was a loooong way down.

Dawn at Monument Point.

Because this was a collecting trip, and I had no clue how much I would be collecting, and it’s always better to have too much than not enough when you are far from civilization, I brought a lot of equipment. A lot of vials and alcohol, a sweep net, a beat sheet. These all were very useful to me and greatly increased the number of species that had been hand collected previously. Additionally, the sticks used to keep the beat sheet open acted as a hiking stick (something I didn’t know existed at the time), and I’m pretty sure I would have died without it. There was also food and water, though we didn’t have to carry too much water as there were spots where we would be able to fill up along the way.

We started down Monument Trail and I realized very quickly that if I fell, my 40 lb pack would decide where I was going and I would have little say in the matter, as it would be carrying me rather than the other way around. I have no idea if the people I was with noticed that I’d never done this or that I wasn’t prepared to carry a third of my weight, or if they were going very slow to accommodate me. No one ever said anything.

After the first day of descending several miles into the canyon, it was very difficult for me to crouch down to collect anything on the ground because my hips were so sore, and I was sure I’d shrunk at least two inches from the weight of the pack. I would see something scurrying along the ground and by the time I got down there, whatever it was, was long gone and probably laughing at me. Then there was the ordeal of trying to get back up. Cue beat sheet sticks. I felt like the Tin Man…”Oil can!” So, on the second day I probably missed several specimens, but by third day I was much more mobile.

The Desert Banded Gecko, Coleonyx variegatus, along the Monument Point Trail. My joints were still working at this point.

There were several times when we were hiking along the precipice of a large drop off, that ended way down in a tributary of the Colorado. At times I remember being slightly scared and thinking, “Eh, if it was really that dangerous they wouldn’t just let people run around out here,” and just as I finished such a  thought, one of the people would say something along the lines of, “Geez, isn’t this where so-and-so fell off and died last week?!” I remember kind of thinking, “Ha ha,” and then, “Oh, they aren’t joking.” Good thing I hadn’t yet read Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon by Ghiglieri and Myers. It chronicles all of the known deaths that have occurred in the park up to when the book was written in the ‘90s. Good thing I also didn’t make it into subsequent editions.

Tapeats Canyon

The first place we were to fill up on water was Thunder River Springs near Tapeats Canyon, a huge oasis of cottonwood trees with water thundering (hence the name) out from a hole high up on the cliff face. To get to Thunder River, one has to cross Surprise Valley. We were pretty low on water at this time as we were nearing a “fill station.” We were to cross the valley early, when it was cooler, and if we were lucky the sun would stay behind the clouds as I was told that this valley can be extremely hot. I am not sure why whoever named it decided to call it Surprise Valley, but I have some ideas. You are nearly halfway across the valley and, surprise, the sun comes out from behind the clouds. Surprise! You and another person in your party succumb to heat exhaustion. We were so close to the spring I could have heard it if it wasn’t for the blood pounding in my head. Surprise! As you are trying to fit into the millimeter of shade under a bush made entirely of thorns, red harvester ants begin to crawl into your navel and bite it. Why?! I understand that harvester ants are diurnal and attracted to vibrations on the ground; however, I feel that the bellybutton biting was really unnecessary and added insult to injury. I took my shoes off to help with cooling. One person had made it to the water and brought it back to us. After an hour or so of resting, I was feeling ok and ready to go see the spring that saved my life and to escape the valley of surprises.

Surprise Valley

I put my socks and shoes back on, struggled to get my massive pack on, and began walking. I can only imagine how insane the following scene must have looked to those present. Maybe if I were with people I knew, they would have found it as funny then as I do now. But I had only just met these people two days ago and I was literally working for one of them. I wanted him to think that I was doing a good job, not that I was batshit crazy. I took a few steps and suddenly it felt like I was walking on blackberry brambles dipped in gasoline. I immediately jumped up and fell onto my back, and with my 40 lb pack on, it was like being body slammed by my own self (incidentally, this would not be the last time I was beat up by a backpack). Perhaps they thought I was doing my best turtle impersonation when I stuck my legs up in the air, but soon realized it was something else when I began screaming, “Get my fucking shoes off! Take them off! Now! Fucking fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!” or something very similar to that. I can only be sure of the cursing. I try to imagine what it must have been like for them, to see this person that they’ve only just met, who hasn’t really said much in the past few days that suddenly demanded that they get her “goddamned shoes off now!”

Thunder River Spring

At the time I was in severe pain. I have what I think is a pretty high pain tolerance. And this was the kind of pain where you don’t remember all of the events that happen, or what exactly you say. It’s kind of like a brief blackout. It seems while I had been laying in my millimeter of shade, suffering, trying to cool down so, you know, I didn’t die, the harvester ants that were nibbling my navel decided to check out my shoes. When I was finally feeling better and able to continue on to Thunder River Springs, in my stupor I had forgotten to check/empty out my boots.

Red harvester ant stings 12 hours later. In so much pain I couldn’t focus!

I have what medical types might describe as “quite a reaction” to ant venom. I was maybe stung three to six times per foot, which isn’t really too much. But the stings, and subsequently, my feet, swelled. They really swelled. And they itched. They really itched. (Note – I actually don’t mind, and might even enjoy, getting stung or bitten on my feet because I think there are few things that feel better than scratching those bites). They also burned. The reaction wasn’t restricted to my feet, however. My lymphatic system also had quite a reaction. The lymph nodes in my groin swelled. A lot. So, finishing out the trip down to the Colorado was now even more of a challenge. Luckily we were leaving by boat rather than climbing out.

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