Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I love the nightlife

A month or two ago I was out walking the main road in the park at night, headed to the Painted Desert Inn. This was not a new activity for me; I really like to walk after dark because the stars - oh, the stars are a blaze overhead. It's one of the most beautiful things ever. I carried a little flashlight, planning to use it on my way back to make sure I was staying more or less between the white lines. It's not very powerful but for that I didn't need power.

I hadn't gotten very far up the hill when I heard what could maybe be described as a cross between a growl, a whine, and a purr. Or it could just be described as vaguely threatening. I've logged many, many miles on that road and this was something new and not Not Good. My puny flashlight was no comfort. I turned it on and played it out in front of me, all the while walking but having the sense to at least slow down. Well, this magnificent flashlight illuminated the ground about as far as my arm could reach, which is to say not far. You know how when you're trying hard to see something but it's dark or too far away or you have geriatric eyes, so you use the muscles around your eyes to kind of push them out, like they're on stalks you can extend and retract, like it actually helps you see better? Well, that's what I was doing, trying very hard to see, and then I was rewarded with a dark shape on the white line on my side of the road. How I knew it was organic and not a rock or a break in the paint, I'll never know, but it made me stop. It moved. Ok, then. Whatever it was, it wasn't a cute puppy.

S-l-o-w-l-y I put one foot behind the other, backing away, keeping the stalks extended, watching the critter move slowly into the weeds on the side of the road. When it seemed safe, I turned around and headed for home, and I will swear till my dying day that the noise that animal made did not diminish even though I was moving away at a pretty good clip. I will swear it was following -- nay, stalking me. I've never had such a good excuse to light the afterburners and get a move on. I described what little I saw to my boss the next morning and she guessed it was a spotted skunk. I count my blessings.

So this brings me to a couple of nights ago when I was privileged to ride along on a night ride with the biotech, a young woman who monitors wildlife in the park. Every Monday night after the monsoons start she heads off through the park at dusk, driving around 20 mph the entire 27-mile length, and then turns around and comes back. She stops for every critter and if she can catch it she will, and then documents it - species, age, sex, condition, where found - and then puts it off on the side of the road in the direction it was headed when she caught it.

We'd gone a long dry distance, nothing on the road, and then started seeing frogs. She caught one and taught me how to hold it so it wouldn't leap out of my hand. Try as I might to get a decent photo of it, the darned thing would not stop breathing or moving.

When I managed to catch one a little farther down the road it promptly peed all over my hand. Frog pee. A first for everything. A baptism, if you will.

A while later we caught another frog, a different kind that's not as cute as the first one, but it managed to sit still a little better. 

We spotted a porcupine and decided it didn't need catching, a few really cute little pocket mice that we had no chance of catching, a lizard or two that eluded us, and then she spotted a snake and we piled out of the truck. She knew from a distance that it was a rattler, I think what she called a Hopi rattlesnake. It's a small variety, maybe 18 inches long, but we kept a respectful distance. It moved itself off the road and we continued but didn't see much else. We were gone about three hours and she said there are nights she's out five or six, there are so many animals to catalog.

After hearing, and I'm telling you being stalked by, the skunk and then seeing the porcupine and rattler, it makes me think a little harder about going out after dark but I went out at dusk last night anyway. There was nothing more threatening than this jack rabbit.

And maybe the risk was worth the sunset I saw from Pintado Point, where the expansive views of the painted desert are unmatched anywhere else. What do you think?

Thought of the day:
To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle. (Walt Whitman)