It is rare to camp in the Mojave without seeing some form of wildlife. However, it troubles me that in the seven years I have known that Preserve, the decline of many animal species has been swift and very apparent. From tiny lizards and tarantulas to tortoises and coyotes, from mice to burros to muledeer, I have enjoyed almost every living creature I have encountered there. But they are dwindling. One does not have to be an educated naturalist to see that our desert is in crisis. Except for 2005, the year of torrential rains that actually reshaped some of the Preserve topography due to flooding, there has been virtually no precipitation for years. Now when we step out of the car, the environment seems more monochromatic. All the plants are distressed and all are about as brown as the desert floor. No rain means no plants means no food for rabbits means no food for coyotes. And the impact is so serious, the Preserve looks a little more distressed each time one goes.
The Badger hikes in very upright form, surefooted. He is a veteran of many decades of camping and hiking. I've watched him misstep, do the ankle wobble and never miss a beat. He automatically corrects and moves on. He is the first to see anything up ahead or around the bend because his gaze is almost always forward. I am less certain of myself. I focus on the backs of his legs and the trail. This is not to say I am relegated to a following position. If I want to lead or hike alongside him, I am welcome and encouraged to do so. But if the trail is challenging, I prefer to have him lead. I am the first to spot the tarantulas and other items of interest on the ground because my gaze is almost always downward.
I do not love spiders or other insects. I admire and respect them, and fear them a little. I have no need to touch them. But a tarantula on the hoof is pretty interesting from a distance, provided it does not make sudden moves. We have seen them pale brown and moving very slow and sluggish in cool weather. We have seen them deep black and large enough to rumble the earth in the spring time. It is said that large groups of them migrate across the desert floor at certain times of year, but we've not witnessed that.
At Cow Cove, we stay in the same campsite every time. It is flat and smooth, convenient to the Jeep trail and offers some shade from Joshua trees. It is also exactly one mile from a bank of rock formations covered with petroglyphs and we enjoy walking there near sunset no matter how long and far we hiked during the day, no matter how hot or how cold. The path to the formation is relatively smooth and level, so it is easy to return to camp, even if the sun is completely down. We were making our way back from the 'glyphs, chatting about dinner and the great day we'd had. The Badger felt sure he'd got some pretty good photos. I walked pretty far behind him, as the tripod projected over his shoulder and I've been bopped in the head more than once. "Tarantula on the right, Badger, big enough for me to ride on!" We stopped to check the hairy thing out and learned he had some attitude. The Badger took up a little desert sand in his hand and sprinkled a few grains on the spider, like salting food. That bad boy reared up on his four hind legs, windmilling the four front legs in the air, as if to say, "Come on!"
Last fall we sat in camp quietly drinking coffee and reading after breakfast. I knew it would soon be time to hike when the Badger got up from his chair and starting rooting around. Suddenly, a noise I'd never heard him make, a kind of "Nnnnngggggghhhh!" brought me out of my chair. The noise was made not from fear, but from being startled, for as the Badger walked across the campsite, he nearly stepped on a huge tarantula lumbering along near our tent. I believe that spider may have caused him to take a spill, had he actually stepped on it. Quickly the cameras were brought out and we photographed our visitor. I e-mailed a picture to David who doesn't appreciate the finer points of tarantulas. On Monday he said, "Nice company you keep out there." "David, that bad boy was so big, he cast a mighty shadow."
In the earlier camping times, rabbits were everywhere. Pretty little bunnies and big flop-eared jack rabbits. While hiking, we'd invariably startle one or a pair and they'd bunny-hop off across the desert. Our favorite rabbit show would take place on the Friday night drive in the dark to the campsites we named Garden of the Gods I, II and III. As soon as we pulled off the highway onto the dirt road, they'd begin hopping in front of the XTerra. Lots and lots of rabbits. Now rabbits are not brilliant. Whereas they could have easily hopped to the side of the road and into the desert, they chose to hop in a parade running ahead of us, every single time. The Badger had to roll very slowly and carefully to avoid hitting any. He never did, as closely as we can tell.
Thinking of rabbits makes one think of coyotes. Their presence is everywhere, for the floor of the Mojave is heavily littered with coyote droppings. I learned quickly that the chalk white ones were old and sunbaked while the blackest ones with fur visible were fresh. It was a rare early trip that we did not waken to their howling in the dawn no matter which campsite we'd chosen, and once we watched a pack of them feeding in the rain - they were half a mile off and the words "feeding frenzy" comes to mind. They have no table manners and they snarl and yap while dining. Now, however, some of their prey has died off. I can't imagine where they find water to drink. And it's been a long time since I heard a coyote howl.
I've been fortunate to see two desert tortoises in the wild. This thrilled me, as I love them and once investigated fostering a pair of rescued tortoises if I could first landscape the back yard in the required configuration (burrows, etc.). The first we saw was in the Jeep trail as we headed home from Coyote Springs. [Sidebar: many animal species live in the Jeep trails and hiking paths as if they prefer those areas to undisturbed land. The trails are also often host to flowers and plants in unexpectedly large numbers.] Although we were in a reliable 4-wheel drive vehicle, the roadbanks were too high for us to circle around the creature. He wasn't moving at all and even if he started to move immediately, they're not known for speed. The Badger got out to investigate. Mr. Torty was alive and alert, just not interested in moseying anywhere. Finally the Badger decided he'd need to move the animal. He was large and heavy! The Badger knew that if he scared the tortoise badly enough to make it urinate, it could die. They take on so little water that a startled draining can remove their needed body fluids. He talked quietly to the animal for awhile, touched its carapace, and finally picked it up. The tortoise made no objection, no legs paddling in panic, and it did not urinate. The Badger set it in a soft, sandy spot in the desert and we rolled on home. We trusted, we prayed . . . that he or she moved on in life, assisted, not harmed by our presence.
I've not even scratched the surface of encounters with wildlife, but these seem a good start. I am open to constructive criticism, as I am not perfect. However, I feel it is fair to say that I do nothing in the desert without considering the effect on the place that I love. I work hard to "leave no trace" as the posters and banners say.
In my ears right now: America - A Horse with No Name. " . . . in the desert, you can remember your name . . ."
Something that charmed me: Camping discussion. Finally. It's been too long. I haven't gone yet, but it's coming, and soon.
Some photo credits: J. D. Morehouse