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One reader suggested that I publish some more personal experiences, so here are a few thoughts on traveling into back country - some near-wilderness and some partly inhabited either when I visited them or in the past.  These include mountains, desert, old mining towns, old trails, forests, beaches, decrepit abandoned ranches or farms, and old fields in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Florida, as well as Mexico, Puerto Rico and Trinidad.

In a past diary I talked about the "Spirit of Place" as a sort of spiritual experience. .  Here are some more experiences with the land and its inhabitants that, while not necessarily spiritual, were certainly interesting.

I grew up in southwestern Arizona and got to hike out into the desert often.  In part this was because my father liked to take a Sunday drive out into the surrounding back country, often to have a picnic or to do target practice with his rifle. After I was old enough I would often wander off on my own to explore.  I remember hiking into the Muggins Mountains, a wilderness of rock and canyons near Welton, Arizona, capped by the strange fortress-like peak called "Clothos' Temple." In a side canyon I discovered an abandoned hawk's nest on a ledge, a big find for a budding naturalist. Not far to the east was Texas Hill, a rocky outcrop covered with petroglyphs left by some earlier inhabitants.

In other times I hiked over the Algodones Sand Dunes in California before there were sand buggies to make the hiker cautious. Occasionally I would find the strange S-shaped tracks of the sidewinder rattlesnake and in pockets between dunes sometimes desert willows in bloom with pale lavender flowers.  At the old mining town of Tumco, also across the river in California, I discovered washed out graves and the remains of what was once a grand hotel.  

The natural water tanks of Tanajas Altas to the south in Yuma County were always a goal, but never reached. It was along the vast wilderness through which the Camino del Diablo passes. Many years later I would come within sight of the Tanajas Altas Mountains from the east side, but time constraints made me turn back and down the highway of the Devil and eventually to Ajo.  However I and several others camped overnight in the Cabeza Prieta Mountains and were treated to an absolutely silent desert night with stars strewn across the sky like dust. I have only seen such star-filled skies in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona, the Davis Mountains of Texas and Archbold Biological Station in Florida.  A rare treat indeed!

Fairly early on I developed a passion for insects and their relatives and was drawn in to their study.  I learned to catch, kill, and preserve specimens, although I never took great pleasure in the killing part. Still, I knew the necessity of examining these creatures at close hand and that eventually led me into museum work, first as assistant curator at the Invertebrate Museum at the University of Arizona. (Alas, this collection has fallen on hard times and was, last I heard, being curated by the ichthyology professor, more out of pity than anything else.) Later I was a full curator of the Arthropod Museum here in New Mexico. This interest led me while I was still a teenager to write to Alice Gray at the American Museum of Natural History, asking if there were other people with the same interests who might be interested in corresponding with me.  I mentioned to her that I would like to correspond with someone who was interested either in insects, or perhaps jumping spiders (I had earlier discovered one of these wonderful creatures in a silken sac on a desert shrub and had been enthralled by its large eyes, bright metallic green mouthparts and bright orange-red and black body.) As it turned out she had only one suggestion and it was of a young man who haunted the museum, constantly asking questions of the curator (Willis J. Gertsch), and who's overriding interest was the Salticidae.  We started corresponding and he introduced me to a friend of his, who later became my co-author on several publications when we both emerged as professional arachnologists. I am still in touch with both men after 53 years!

This really started me in venturing further into the back country.  I had no car but had acquired a bicycle.  Soon I was biking to Morellos Dam and up to Prison Hill. When my father went out on Sunday drives, my net went along and I slowly build up a collection. Identification was a problem and I soon found out that some of the specimens I had were of species that did not even have Latin names!

Then by some odd and nearly miraculous twists of fortune I found myself a zoology major at the new junior college in Yuma. A whole new world was suddenly opened up and my zoology professor, Dr. Anthony Ross, was the guide. I will always be grateful to him for that guidance into the biological wonders of our planet.

After I finished my stint at Arizona Western College I went on to the University of Arizona and soon found myself in a much more congenial venue.  There were other people interested in similar subjects!  As a grad student I got even further into the country, especially because my major professor was a consistent field-tripper and he often took his students along. I had also acquired a Rambler station wagon for $500 and now had a way to go myself to places like Willcox Playa, the Chiricahuas, the Tucson Mountains, Arivaca, the Santa Rita Mountains, as well as to Sycamore Canyon in the Pajarito Mountains.  With my German beetle-collecting buddy, Karl, I ventured into Reddington Pass, the San Rafael Valley, Willcox and the Santa Catalinas. At Pima Canyon we stalked large metallic wood-boring beetles roosting in the palo verde trees and at Arivaca Creek we hunted bombardier beetles and the tiny minute bog beetles (I mentioned these trips in my diary on beetle collecting.) However it was with my major professor and his crew that I got to visit some of the most interesting back country. Once he and a group of graduate students, including me, ventured to the freshwater Cretaceous beds in Adobe Canyon, deep into the heart of the Santa Rita Mountains. It was a very difficult spot to get to and we found the roads much less than passable in a few spots. Still we finally made it and looked for freshwater snail shells when giant Lymnea snails, similar to those found in the streams flowing currently into Hudson Bay, actually lived in Arizona.  Almost all of the grad students, except me, were malacologists (they studied mollusks) and the trips often involved sites where they could find snails or clams. I did not mind as it took me into country seldom frequented by arachnologists. We went on trips to the Chiricahua Mountains, the Pinaleno Mountains, the Mogollon Rim and Lake Mary near Flagstaff, the Little Harquahalla Mountains in what is now La Paz County, Arizona, the White Tank Mountains near Phoenix, and the Sierra Ancha Mountains, where we camped in Devil's Chasm overlooking Cherry Creek and had skunks invade the camp in the early morning hours.

The crowning trip was to Baja California and that was an experience for a lifetime indeed! Baja was (and is) a biologist's dream. I had earlier been on several trips to the beach south of San Felipe, Baja California Norte, but this was total immersion. One of our goals was the trail to the old mission town of Guajademi in the Sierra above Mulegé. We took some interesting turns, passing through forests of cardon and copses of palo blanco trees, and in the process getting throughly lost, but finally arrived a a site we would use as a base camp for several days - a goat ranch at the base of the mountains that we were told was called Pie de la Quieta. After getting permission from the widow who owned the ranch and pitching camp, we hiked up toward Guajademi  stopping only when we reached the continental divide between the drainage of the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. The trail was lined with wild figs, tree ocotillo, palo blanco, and various cacti.  I could not have imagined a more alien landscape!

The view from the trail to Guademi

The view from the trail to Guajademi, Baja California Sur.

We checked out the rock slides, favorite haunts of arid land snails, and as night came on went back to camp.  As I maneuvered my way down the slide a quick look ahead reveled the rattle of a large rattlesnake sticking out from a boulder.  I beat a quick retreat and found a new path.  Our camp was visited by a slender yellow scorpion, probably Centruroides exilicauda and we were glad that we took mosquito netting to place over our cots because the place was swarming with the little vampires.  I woke up one morning to the sound of one of the graduate students snoring, which was answered by a similar sound about twenty feet to the west. I raised my head only to see, in the slowly brightening dawn light, a small group of domestic pigs that had somehow been called in because of the student's loud snores.  Needless to say he did not live that one down! Nor did he live down the sitting on a bench covered in fresh paint!  

My duties as a TA at Arizona also got me out on trips to Puerto Peñasco  in Sonora.  These were trips that I dearly loved. I have covered my explorations of the Gulf of California in another diary. Later in my career I also got a chance to see the Caribbean and the Atlantic shores, as well as the Pacific coasts of Chiapas and Baja California to Alaska. Trips to Seahorse Key in the Gulf of Mexico,  the Florida Keys down as far as Big Pine Key, the Everglades and Collier-Seminole State Park, the rain forest and lowland forest of Trinidad, Maturo Beach in Trinidad (where we got to see the egg-laying of a leatherback turtle.) But you get the picture.  I always had something to interest me whether it was on the trail at  the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, where I was introduced to the unbelievably gaudy honey creepers, a weird sounding bell bird, the elusive mot-mots, and feeding toucans, or the park along the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, where leaf-cutting ants (Atta texana) were busy even in February.

In Florida, as a graduate student at the University of Florida in Gainesville,  I once took a trip with a friend down to the north edge of the Everglades and into the Keys. We traveled down a back road off the old Tamiami Trail into an area mentioned in Florida guide books as not one in which tourists should venture.  A baby cottonmouth crossing the road seemed to emphasize the point.  We finally reach our destination and headed off into some tropical old field with palms and various other regrowth.  After collecting spiders for a while we returned to my old Rambler to find a few locals parked nearby. "How ya doin'" said one. "Fine" we said.  "We was justa' wondren where ya all was from" replied the other.  "We are from Alachua County" I said, not sure if I should mention the university. "Lachaway County!! Yep, I was right! I thout ya all was northerners!"  Such is life in back country Florida!

Cottonmouth on Pinecrest Loop

Cottonmouth on the road north of the Everglades in Florida.

Still it was wonderful, even if we were plagued by ticks, mosquitoes, no seeums, and deer flies, and I got to love that back country in Florida as much as my "native" desert. I have not mentioned the trips I took with Archie Carr, the turtle man, and with my spider hunting buddies to such places as the Big Scrub.  Some of them I briefly noted in an earlier diary. It seems to me that I had an advantage over the average visitor to Florida, or to any of the other places I have been fortunate enough to visit, in that I could always enter the secret world that surrounds us all, but is seldom noticed.  My reward was to never be bored if I even had a vacant city lot nearby!

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun Jul 13, 2014 at 10:21 AM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Baja Arizona Kossacks.

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