About 20 miles north of the center of Tucson lies a mountain range called the Tortolita Mountains. While the Tortolitas are rather vast in the area that they cover, they don’t exactly tower majestically above the flat landscape that surrounds them. At a distance, they are rather drab in appearance, mundane, not eye-catchers by any stretch of the imagination. I would venture that over half the people in Tucson, (the environmentally brain dead half), have never even noticed them, let alone know them by name.
Back in the early 1980s, this range was remote, and well outside the perimeter of civilization. When we wanted to get into the true wilds of Arizona, we’d drive down a two-track as far as we could along the southern edge, and then bushwhack in. We’d find lots of relics from the ancient ones. Arrow heads, pottery shards, petroglyphs. The Southern Tortolitas were a little known treasure, with steep, boulder infested hillsides that were in turn studded with dense Saguaro forests.
There is a road called Tangerine Road that flanks the southern edge of the range. This was a paved road even in the 80s, but traffic was near nil. It was a great road to cruise for herps. Back in 1983, I got my first glimpse of a wild Gila Monster on that road. Right where it makes the big bend, about a half kilometer from I-10. It was a DOR, but very fresh, with vibrant colors, and in pristine shape. I pried open its snappers, and marveled at the sharp, hooked teeth, and forked tongue. I was understandably excited with the find, and even picked it up off the road and put it in my vehicle. Off I drove with it lying on the floorboard on the passenger side of my Nissan. I was going to take it home to show my family and friends. But then, the laws being what they are, I freaked out, and took it back to where I found it. I lovingly placed it several paces off the road. I couldn’t bear to put it back on the road as found. It somehow seemed more dignified to have its final resting place under a creosote, than to leave it on the road as miniature speed bump.
In May of 1985, I was barreling down 1-10 with a buddy of mine. We were heading to the Chiricahua Mountains for a hike in the monument. About the time that we hit the Spanish Trail exit, I saw a Gila Monster traveling south across the freeway. It was just starting to cross the road. My poor hiking buddy will never understand what happened next, for John was not a herper. (In other words, he was “normal.” They’re all around us.)
I locked up the brakes, veered right, and managed to come to scorching stop about 100 meters past the point where the monster had been first spotted. Without a word, I swung open the door, (not bothering to close it), and wind-sprinted back through the smoldering black smoke that is synonymous with 20,000 miles of brake lining and tire rubber being erased from the respective life-expectancy of each.
These were the days when I could wind-sprint. I was lean, I was fast, I was strongand MAN was I ever jacked up to catch that Gila Monster! I’ll never forget the jostling view of that monster entering the left lane as the ground evaporated beneath the rapidly rhythmic thudding of feet. By the time I pulled within 20 meters of the monster, despite the speed of my approach, and despite the determination and adrenaline flow, I began to see that this was going to end badly. Now the monster was on the centerline, with an 18 wheeler bearing down on it like there was no tomorrow. I cut in front of the semi, head on, and tried to wave him over into the left lane while I closed the final distance between the monster and I. The plan in my mind was clear. The trucker would see me gunning for the Gila Monster, and then being the “knight of the road” that truckers are reputed to be, he would yield to the oncoming geek charge. But Mr. Trucker had other ideas. His remedy for the situation was to lay on his air horn, whilst staying his course. When I was a scant five meters from the monster, and perhaps 20 meters from the oncoming semi, I saw the hopelessness of it all. As I sprinted in front of the barreling semi to get to the left lane and out of his way, I tossed a “deer-in-the headlights” look his way. The burly, bearded sunovabitch was not attempting to slow down. If anything, he was speeding up! The last look I had of him was at very close range. And I swear to God he was laughing! And then came the dwindling Doppler effect of the air horn roaring past, lessening in intensity as distance overcame sound, and the swirling road dust sand-blasting my being. Far worse than that was the sight of my second-ever wild Gila Monster plastered to the pavement like a bloody road Frisbee. Ten years of my life were lost in the bellicose cussing that followed. What an asshole!
I moved to Tucson in 1981. In selecting a place to settle down, finding a wild Gila Monster weighed in as a heavy factor in the relocation process. In 1983, the dead one on Tangerine Road came my way. Then, in 1985, it was literally “east bound and down” with the second. It was not until April of 1989 that I saw my next wild Gila Monster. And FINALLY that one was alive. I went 7 years and 11 months to consummate my dream of seeing a living Gila Monster in the wild.
Tangerine Road is no longer a quaint little paved road suitable for road cruising. It is now mostly a 15 mile stretch of four lane super highway. There are still a few patches of wild Sonoran Desert flanking it, but that ain’t much. And that is surely going to fall soon. Many developments such as Dove Mountain, Stone Canyon, and too many others to enumerate here have engulfed the best of what the southern Tortolitas used to be. Tiger Woods swings his driver where we used to herp.
But the north side of the range is still good. And it was here, in a vast canyon that some of us know as April Canyon, that I saw my first wild Gila Monster. The story of this find is a long one, so I will save it. Said story has already been documented. It can be found on the Tucson Herpetological Society website. Go for “Publications,” “Collected Papers,” and find page 163.
The experience of seeing that first wild Gila Monster was one of reverence for this herper. It is only natural that I would hold the ground on which it was found with the same regard. Once a year, I go back to April Canyon. Twenty-four years later, it still remains largely unchanged from the day I saw my first Gila.
This year, it was on 6 April 2013 that I revisited my Heloderma Alma Mata. Marty Feldner, Karla Moeller, Megan Morgan and I met at 0805 that morning. We were supposed to meet at 0800, but Marty was late by 5 minutes. As there was no sense whatsoever in being prompt if Marty was going to be late, I arrived just after he did. There was more than the usual flandickery in preparing to drive to our final destination. Marty had scooped a young male DOR Mojave Rattlesnake off the road enroute in, and no small amount of time was spent fondling and admiring that. Then, in order to make room for everybody, I had to unload 20 tons of camping gear into Karla’s war wagon. But all that was eventually behind us. Chivalry died back in the 90s, when women started to demand equal rights. Hence, we put the women in the back of the bus, Marty promptly settled into the shotgun seat, and I took the wheel of my White Knight. Bap! We were heading eastward to April Canyon.
There was a brief moment of excitement when Marty spotted an average-sized male diamondback rattlesnake on the right side of the quad trail that we were negotiating. The White Night regurgitated its vehicular contents, and we all encircled the snake to commune with him for a few minutes. We left him none the worse for the wear, and he was no doubt happy to see us go.
We arrived at April Canyon at precisely 0900. The air temp was 22C, it was cloudless. My trusty Kestrel indicated there was 20% humidity, and a 0-3 mile-per-hour breeze. We were at 3400 feet in elevation. I’m the only one of the group who knows these things, as I was the only one to take the time to document it all. The other three left me behind like a soiled hanky while I did so.
I showed Karla this place because she needs to fully process ten different adult Gila Monsters in April, and ten again in June. April Canyon is a place where that is possible. To reveal any more of the purpose for being there is not ethical. Karla’s work needs to be done in a quiet manner. It is hoped that we will learn something about the physiological effects of drought on Gila Monsters. If in the process, we free Tibet, we won’t complain. And my purpose for being there was to see herps. Any Gila Monsters would be a bonus.
By the time I had finished all the documentation, my three companions were out of sight. At this point, April Canyon is a wide open sandy wash that narrows as one ascends up canyon. Both sides of the canyon are flanked with lush desert vegetation. The mesquites grow tall and mighty here, and dense thickets of hackberry and nasty catclaw abound. I was able to see where the group did not walk, and started my route up in that direction. I immediately found an adult female diamondback stretched out in the sand, heading across the wash in westerly fashion. I tried snapping some undisturbed images, but she drew into a semi-defensive posture, and began pedaling away from me, with head held high and rattles singing. About the time this one was found, Marty found another. His was a male.
At 0925, I caught up with the group. They were all huddled together in wash center. They had found their first Gila Monster. It was an adult female that Marty had found in the center of the wash. She was found with snout in the sand, and had been digging. She was processed and released to get on with her life. Shortly after this experience, Megan was pointing to something chest high in the trees and murmuring in her soft voice. This eventually brought us all to her side.
Thrust upon a horizontal branch of a mesquite tree was the head and neck of a diamondback rattlesnake. A CRAT-sickle! It was fairly fresh, as the eyes were still in the sockets, and the black tongue still dangled out of its gaping mouth. It served as grotesque reminder that all who enter April Canyon are not nature lovers. It is this kind of crap that causes us to hate so many people who abuse the sanctity of our wild places. We grow ever-tired of the ignorance of those who invade nature under the guise of appreciating her, only to be offended when she comes calling. (Or, in this case, “comes crawling”). It is impossible to fathom the blatant and consistent lack of respect for living organisms that is shown for some of our wildlife. What assholes!
The next round of excitement occurred when Marty spotted a mid-sized gophersnake sprawled lengthwise at the west edge of the wash. At first, the snake remained motionless, and we tried to move in for some pictures. Then, it began slithering slowly eastward across the wash in front of us. Megan had fallen behind us in the search effort, so we called her up for a look. Karla was on the slope above us, to the east of the action. She asked of us if it was worth her coming down to view the snake, and we replied that it was nothing spectacular. It was just shy of a meter long, just a scrawny “nuthin’ special” sort of gophersnake. (How dare I say that a gophersnake is “nothin’ special!” They’re all special, but not when the focus is on other things. Were it a five-foot long hefty beauty, Karla would have been severely berated if she even hesitated to come down for a look). Moments later, the nuthin’ special snake slid into some overhanging roots of a mesquite on the east berm of the wash. It was at this point that nuthin’ special morphed into “sumthin’ special,” for within the framework of those mesquite roots was a Gila Monster!
“NOW you need to come down, Karla!”
We waited patiently before moving in to process this second monster, in hopes that maybe the gophersnake would attempt to interact with it. But by this time, both animals were aware of our presence, spooked to the max, and there was to be no excitement save for that of having two cool species of herp occupy the same patch of ground. The gophersnake was left to get on with its life. The Gila Monster did not get off quite that easily, but the processing went smoothly. This one was a dandy of a male. His mass was 591 grams, and he was 553mm (21.77 inches) in total length. Certainly not a record length or mass by any means, but he was a healthy monster by Sonoran Desert standards.
Earlier in this narrative, the first glimmers of Gila Monsters in my life were mentioned. By the time that first April Canyon Gila Monster was discovered, I had a friendly association with one of the early monster masters in our region. We speak of Brent Martin. By the late 1980s, Brent claimed that he had found over 200 of them. He was also quick to point out that this impressive total was accumulated through decades of seeking them. While I believed Brent, that number of 200 seemed astronomical. It was a record that I could never even approach. A careful search of my records indicates that our nuthin’ special gophersnake led us to wild Gila Monster number 305. The simple number of 305 just doesn’t look right when spelled out numerically. That ain’t saying it proper. Let’s put that number in writing. THREE HUNDRED FIVE Gila Monsters! Yeah, baby! And there wasn’t even a ticker-tape parade to honor the event……..
We left number 3-oh-5 to get on with his life. And the search for number 306 was on. It was ascertained that it was time to head back down the canyon. A short while later, Marty sounded off, “Monster!” This one was found sprawled in a dense thicket of catclaw, on the east berm of the wash. It was a vividly-colored juvenile, which unfortunately was of no use to Karla. However, as a DNA sample, it was useful to those who Marty and I serve. Mother Repp never raised a child so foolish as to plunge into a catclaw thicket after a monster that he didn’t even find. Marty found the darn thing, let him be the hero! Yeah! Let Marty do it! Go get her, boy! By the time Marty had her, the harsh shrubbery was gaily festooned with strips of Marty bacon. Let that be a lesson to the lad about finding things among pernicious plant parts……….
This monster turned out to be a female, we would estimate entering the fourth year of her sweet young life. We all took turns taking pictures, and Karla drew a little blood for the DeNardo lab. Once we were done having our way with her, we simply let her go to see what she would do. What she did proved to be the highlight of the day. At the point where we turned her loose, she was roughly 20 meters up wash from her capture spot. Rather than heading in that direction, she bolted for the cover on the east berm. She approached a burly, vertical scaly trunk of a massive mesquite, and began deftly crawling up it. She stopped her ascent when she was about two meters above the ground. She was a sitting duck for the photographs that followed.
This is only the second time that I have witnessed a monster go arboreal. This puny N of 2 not only takes into consideration the 306 different wild Gila Monsters observed over the past 25 years, but also includes well over a thousand observations on telemetered animals as well. The first time we witnessed this happening was with our telemetered Gila Monster #15. He earned the name “Tarzan” as a result of his climb. In both cases, there is evidence that escape from human interlopers was the possible motive. And just recently, Marty has sent along an image of a third monster that he saw start up a mesquite, again possibly to avoid capture. Unlike their cousins the Beaded Lizards, which are avid tree climbers, it appears that this behavior is only rarely encountered with Gila Monsters.
Getting back to 6 April, whilst going off on a paragraph of bygone days, we left our juvy Gila clinging tenaciously two meters above ground on the trunk of a mesquite tree. There was some discussion amongst the fab four about leaving her there like so much painted fruit. But our desire to feed the local raptors was minimal, and she was snatched from her moorings and released into the briar patch from whence she came. It is hoped that she was able to snack on some of the Marty bacon that was so generously hung for her.
It was 12:30 when we got back to the White Knight. I was a half hour late for my first beer of the day. Those who bottle Dos Equis were on high alert, and the workers were fearful of lengthy furloughs. The world’s most interesting man grew boring, developed a stutter, and began picking his nose in public. On a more personal note, by the time I got the cap off the bottle, little pink elephants were swirling about, and closing in on me in a most menacing manner. Disaster was narrowly avoided here.
Speaking of disasters, lunch came next. Marty and I are not accustomed to the field fare that the folk in DeNardo’s lab subsist upon. Instead of steak and lobster, these kids serve blobs of brown and red sticky substances slathered on wonder bread. And they think they are walking in tall cotton by doing so. The temptation to hike back for some strips of Marty bacon was strong, and we began eyeing the maggots in the abundant drying cowpies as potential side dishes. This is what you get when you let KIDS lead the charge! When left to our own devices, every meal is a banquet. The next time we are in Rome, we will not do as the Romans do!
By 2 PM, we were just sitting around looking at each other. Marty began to talk about eating people. Cannibalism is a favored topic of his, especially when he is feeling malnourished. I expect Marty to talk about eating people when he is hungry, so there was no problem thus far. When the ladies wholeheartedly joined in Marty’s conversation, things got a little scary. Talk of cannibalism often results when the troops in the field are underfed and bored. The idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and it was time to think of something to do. (Lest one of us wind up in the cooking pot). My suggestion that we take a road cruise to 96 Hills in order to just keep moving was met with universal acceptance. Marty and I are old hands at counting lizards, and there were plenty to count on this hot spring afternoon. Soon, the boredom overtook the ladies, and they joined right in there to help.
“There are 2, no 3, no 4, 5-6-7, 9! 12! 14!” We were all singing out from all sides of the White Knight. Every 50 feet or so, we would jump the Zebra-tailed Lizards. When all was said and done with our otherwise pointless road cruise, we had racked up 237 of them! We also scored 10 Side-blotched Lizards, 4 Clark’s Spiny Lizards, 5 Desert Spiny Lizards, 18 Greater Earless Lizards, 6 Whiptails, 3 Tree Lizards, and 2 Leopard Lizards. The capper of the drive occurred at 1610 in the afternoon. I saw a smallish lizard waddle off to the side of the road into some tall grass. I stopped the vehicle, and was all sorts of insistent that we had just seen a Regal Horned Lizard. Others protested this not to be true. I resisted the urge to get aggressive in my assertions, as I really wasn’t that sure. But we kept looking anyhow, and sure enough, Karla fished the horny toad out of the shrubbery. The crowd went wild! By the time that dusk rolled around, and the lizard activity stopped, we had racked up 289 lizards, with ten different species represented. That ought to help with my lizard count for the year of 2013. The numbers of Zebra-tailed lizards have been rather lackluster of late. It was one hell of a lizard day!
Just after the horned lizard, there was some universal lamenting about the lack of snakes on this road cruise. Just as soon as the grousing started, as if on queue, a meter long all black Coachwhip was observed in the center of the dusty road. It was one very jacked up snake. The ground-hugging greased lightning zipped to the side of the road, and evaporated, leaving a little black vapor trail in its wake. Despite further effort, that was to be the last good find of the day.
In closing this epic journey about a good herping day, perhaps a reminder to those of us who are blessed to live in Arizona is in order. We live in a place that epitomizes freedom. We can roam at will through a variety of habitats that range from sand dunes to above timberline. We should never take our public lands for granted, for it is these places that allow escape from the rat race of daily living. We can travel dirt roads, find a hill to climb, stand alone, and take back something worth remembering. And best of all, we live in a place where at any given moment, a gaudy orange and black hefty lizard can lumber across our path, and make our day.
This here is Roger Repp, signing off from Southern Arizona, where the turtles are strong, the snakes are handsome, and the lizards are all above average.
Images: The images that fall below were carefully arranged to follow the flow of this fabulous day. See text above for explanations. Images by Roger Repp and Marty Feldner.