Sunday, June 7, 2009

Reticulate Gila Monster

I've always been fascinated by Gila monsters and it has been one of my dreams to see one in the wild. That dream was fulfilled in March 2008 when I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona with our young men.

I drove with Jeff, Josh and Scott Zollinger the night before the rest of our group so that we could reserve some campsites in Alamo Canyon. At the visitor's center I asked them if there were any Gila monster sightings, and was told some had been seen in the mornings in Estes Wash. So we took the Ajo Mountain drive to Estes Canyon and decided to hike to Bull Pasture, above Estes Canyon. The Zollingers stayed on the trail and I walked up the wash.

Some distance up the wash, as I was walking by some rock, I heard a hiss to my right. The thought, "Gila monster," immediately jumped into my mind and my eyes darted over to the rock to confirm my sense. THERE ONE WAS! The picture below shows the Gila monster as I first saw it, snuggled against the base of a rock.
I called out to the Zollingers that I'd found a Gila monster and with a little bit of back and forth yelling, they were able to find me.
Edward Abbey, when writing of "paradise," said he meant "not only apple trees and golden women, but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanos and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes - disease and death and the rotting of the flesh." (Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, pp. 166-167) Well, in that context, I'd found paradise. Here I was with a real live Gila monster, near cactus, yucca, ocotillo, mesquite, rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas.

The term "gnarley" comes to mind when thinking of Gila monsters. They are kind of clumsy, awkward, ugly, brutish, big, and eccentric, in a very beautiful sort of way.

The thought occurs to me that I'm privileged to see something that most people don't get to see. I've known others that have seen them in the wild, even in Calfifornia. Jim Coffin saw one at Corn Springs years ago (according to the maps, they're not supposed to live there). I've known others that have seen them in the rocks above the river (the Colorado River) near Needles.

I went back and read my favorite account of an encounter with a Gila monster. From Edward Abbey, in the Southern Arizona desert not all that far from Organ Pipe:

"In the evening, near sundown, after an early supper, I go for a stroll up a mountain path. My destination is the Mohawk Mine (abandoned), about two miles off, according to my map. As I walk, gazing at the jagged peak a thousand feet above, I am startled by a hissing noise at my feet. I halt with the quick reflex of fear. Looking down I see a fat lizard, eighteen inches long, encased in a beaded yellow-black hide, gaping up at me with drooling, moist, purple mouth. A Gila monster, poisonous but scared. Two feet from my right foot, it backs toward the loose rocks beside the trail, hissing defensively. I cannot resist the temptation to squat down and tease the little fellow with a stick. I poke it gently in the side, hoping the lizard will bite on the tip of the stick and give me a tug-of-war. But the Gila monster is more intelligent than it looks. Ignoring my prodding, it keeps its bright beady eyes fixed on me as it backs beneath the shelter of the rocks. I leave it in peace and walk on up the path to the mine." (Edward Abbey, Beyond the Wall, p.36)

We coaxed the Gila monster out into the open with my hiking pole and discovered they are faster than they look. They are not fast, but they can move pretty quickly when motivated.

We got our few pictures and let the Gila monster disappear into the bushes near the rock.

I was on cloud nine. The whole trip was worth those few moments. What a thrill. I hope to someday experience that thrill again. Organ Pipe was cemented as one of my favorite places on earth.

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