A few weeks ago, my friend Devin and I drove six hours out of our way so Devin could meet the Grand Canyon and so I could see it for the sixth time. We walked up to the South Rim at Mather Point, stood for a moment, both speechless and slightly unsteady on that overwhelming edge and then sat with our feet dangling into the abyss, talking a bit about rocks, rivers and trails, but mostly marveling in silence.
Then, after consulting a park ranger about a potential dirt-road short cut (now washed out, good to know!) we took off again, heading south, then west then north again to Hualapai Hilltop, where we’d descend into Havasu Canyon, a side branch of the Grand, the following day.
On our way back south, driving through the deep ponderosa pine forest that shades much of the canyon rim, I spotted several dark, furry-textured masses off in the woods. Based on the size, shape and movement, I said to Devin, “Look- Elk!” and he caught a glimpse as we flashed past. Clearly impressed by my sharp eyes he paid me a lovely compliment: “I am amazed by what you see.”
A decade of traveling the world with a camera around my neck has strengthened my eagle eyes. I have 20/15 vision and I’m always on watch. Most days, I see opportunities everywhere. Visual acuity is a skill, something practiced, learned and honed and it’s not just good for drive-by’s; my eyes also serve me well in springtime in rattlesnake country.
Of course, the great thing about rattlesnakes is that they rattle. That sound, like the loudest buzz from the angriest bee, sends me leaping out of my skin. Rattlers don’t mean to menace; they just don’t want to get stepped on. Now it’s springtime in the desert, and as the rocks and the sand and the rattlesnake dens are warming to a reptile-waking temperature, I’m constantly on watch. Every step, handhold and sitting spot gets checked. The other day, exploring a dry backyard canyon – much smaller but no less enchanting than the Grand – I caught a glimpse of spindly octagonal texture: eight furry legs poking up out of the sand in the bottom of the arroyo. Tarantula!
At first I couldn’t tell whether it was old and dead or young and alive. All the other tarantula’s I’ve ever seen in New Mexico have been dark brown. Was this one sun-bleached or freshly-molted? Was it entombed, or emerging? Most importantly: Was it watching me too?
Tarantulas do hibernate underground (they also migrate, journeying incredible distances) but this one clearly wasn’t in a den. It looked washed up, but its guard-hairs were still fluffed; they didn’t look sand-abraded as they would if the dead, tumbling creature had been flushed here in a storm. Rain hasn’t come in months. Maybe it had been blown here and buried by the wind. I leaned down and blew on it. No movement except for a few loose sand grains. I was pretty sure it was dead. Still, I didn’t touch it and startled more than once when I leaned in for a closeup.
While studying the tarantula, I set my hat down on a nearby rock, thinking: I shouldn’t do this, this is how I lost the last one. But I did it and of course, I walked off without it. I got all the way home before I ran my hand through my hair and remembered. I rested for a minute, miles from my beloved hat, and watched the last light from the sunset and then I started back down the arroyo. Two Akubras lost to the desert is two too many. I found my hat right where I left it, next to the still unmoved tarantula and made it home under a rising nearly-full moon.