Short installments from the desert

I first visited the desert as a teenager, but I have little memory of it other than OHVs and hallucinating that I had made up my entire life.


I cringe at the thought…I hate OHVs. They are so destructive. I hate living in a world in which the only way some people can appreciate it is if they can alter it/destroy it. So you can build houses or golf courses on it, or drive OHVs on it, but you definitely just can’t leave it alone and appreciate it as it is. Luckily there are some places out there that many people don’t go to and that haven’t been paved over…yet.

As a Master’s student I began working on desert spiders, Homalonychus. They have special hairs on their bodies that allow them to attach bits of fine sand and soil to themselves, aiding in camouflage. They also have really weird feet.

Juvenile Homalonychus theologus, covered in fine soil particles, Anza Borrego State Park, California.

Juvenile Homalonychus theologus, covered in fine soil particles, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California.

The claws are pretty standard for dionychan (two-clawed) spiders, as is the little brush (scopulae) (one has been removed to show things better), but those weird hockey stick shaped things...those are weird. And I belive they have some other weird structures on the bottom, a few very thick setae, that aren't visible here.

The claws are pretty standard for dionychan (two-clawed) spiders, as is the little brush (scopulae) (one has been removed to show things better), but those weird hockey stick shaped things…those are weird. And I beleive they have some other weird structures on the bottom that aren’t visible in this micrograph.

I pretty much fell in love with the desert upon first meeting it (which would technically be the second time, when I hadn’t hallucinated my entire life). I’ve spent most of my time in the desert southwest of North America and a little bit of time in the desert in Australia. I’d like to spend any amount of time in any desert (though I’m not superfond of high elevation cold deserts…or cold anywheres).

A lot of people look at deserts as wastelands, but they are full of neat critters and plants and geological formations. Also in my travels, I have found an unsettling number of old underwear and porn, though not together. I guess people like to drive out to the desert and look at porn. I have not seen anyone do that. I guess people also either forget their underwear or shit their pants in the desert. I don’t think I have done the former, but I have come close to the latter. But I’m such a cheapskate and hate litter, so there is no way I’d leave my underwear out there.

Underwear at Koehn Lake. Do they look familiar? Maybe you forgot them.

Underwear at Koehn Lake. Do they look familiar? Maybe you forgot them.

I have two short tales from desert fieldwork that were not at all funny at the time, though now I think they are. The first was field trip with several lab members. I believe it was springtime and we headed east from San Diego toward the Colorado River and found what appeared to be an amazing camp site. We ate and wandered around after dark looking for critters. Finally, it was time to go to sleep.

I didn’t own a tent and don’t always use one when camping. It’s easy enough to just throw down a tarp and a sleeping bag or blanket, especially in the desert. So, that’s what we all did. It was really hot that night so I was just laying on top of by bag. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. (That’s the sound a mosquito makes). Oh, a mosquito. Swat. Swat. No problem. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Ok. This was kind of annoying. I reluctantly crawled in my bag, but was very uncomfortable because of the heat. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Flap flap flap. Smack. That is the sound of a bat flying into my face to eat the mosquitoes flying into my face. I pulled the bag over my head, but it was just too much, a million degrees. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sleep. I thought that eventually the mosquitoes would go to sleep, so then the bats would stop crashing into my head, but that didn’t happen. Eventually I noticed another lab member was up and we decided to just keep walking around because it was already 4 am and there wasn’t anything else to do. We didn’t understand why the mosquitos/bats were just after us. I mean, obviously if they were bothering everyone, someone would decide we should move camp, or sleep in the vehicles or something, right?

We walked along the wash until sunrise and headed back to the campsite where everyone was angrily stumbling around. Apparently no one had gotten any sleep the night before because of mosquitoes and bats, but no one wanted to say anything or sleep in the cars because of pride or fear of being made fun of. Needless to say, the next day was rough. You’d think that would have taught me to speak up, but it didn’t, and I’ve “suffered,” which will be revealed in later tales.

Another time we headed out to the San Bernardino Mountains to find one of the rarest spiders in the United States, Hypochilus bernardino. We set off up the side of the mountain, not on any sort of trail, looking for moist overhangs or waterfalls. We got up pretty high and I’m pretty scared of heights, but I was doing my best to stay away from edges. We looked for a few hours and no one found anything.

The next thing I know I hear, “Oh, look out!” I look up just in time to see a rock about twice the size of a football (American football) making a beeline for me. I looked over my left shoulder and there was a canyon and I wasn’t gonna jump down there. I looked to my right and couldn’t find any place to put my foot. Crunch. The rock hit my right shin. I was afraid to look. Eventually I did and I could see a little blood coming through my jeans, but not too bad. It hurt a bit, but not as bad as I expected. Everyone kept asking me why I didn’t move, which seemed a stupid question at this point, and clearly if I’d had somewhere to go to, I would have.

We continued to look for the spider for a few more hours, but I was having trouble getting around and we were coming up empty handed. I was also annoyed with people telling me what I should have done to avoid the rock hitting my leg. Apparently I’m an idiot and had a million options and had like one whole second to figure it out and blah blah blah.

My leg swelled up and when I got home I was afraid to look at it, which wasn’t much of a problem because I was unable to get my pants off when I got home. It was too swollen and hurt too much. I put some ice on it and finally managed to yank it out. It actually didn’t look too bad. A small cut, some swelling. But, as with all good bruises, the best is yet to come.

It changed colors all the time, from green to purple to black. And the coolest thing was that because it was on my leg and I’m a hominid and usually walk upright, it sort of ran down my leg. The weather is pretty much always skirt weather in San Diego, so I got a lot of stares because it looked like I’d been in a horrible accident, though it definitely looked worse than it felt. Sadly, I don’t think anyone took any pictures of it. I still have a place on my shin where I have no feeling, but there is no scar.

You’re probably wondering what the funny part of this story is. Well, when we got back to the car, someone found H. bernardino, about 100′ from the car, in the parking area.

1 Response to “Short installments from the desert”

  1. May 8, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    Love the blog. Read your profile on iNaturalist.org. <- This is how I found it. I am geminimind on iNat. Same very much like you. I my grandpa had huge influence on me as a child. I only wish I could get a job doing what I love(aka Naturalist, nature photographer etc). I am about to move to Surprise, Arizona. I am excited to study the Sonoran desert region. I am sure I will be relying on your experiences to help me id and study the flora and fauna. My site http://www.mantaraysystems.com is current a work in progress. I intend to do the same as you on my site. Keep up the interesting content!

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