Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Apache Trail: Watch For Wildlife

Wildlife was the very last thing on my mind when I thought of the Apache Trail. First was offering it up as a bribe/reward for Paul for finishing the wall of bookshelves in the den in time to do something more fun, rather than digging his nose into a set of books by an author he'd never encountered before, James Doss. (We offered him the opportunity to bring the set home with him to finish, and I could bring them back down to Arizona in the spring.) This trip was close enough to be doable, and still offer him a great desert experience.

Second was my memory of how harrowing a drive it had been for me years ago when I drove my folks over the trail. I remember little of that trip except extreme relief that I was eastbound, where my side of the road was the uphill one. Westbound was the one where any inattention, or encounters with foolish RVs, could send one in an extreme downhill direction. That spurred me to hustle Paul up enough to be able to finish the drive, at least as far as Lake Roosevelt, by the time it got dark. No way I'd want to be anywhere on that road after dark. Besides, if you can't see the scenery, what's the point?

And scenery there is to be seen! It starts modestly enough, low hills covered with saguaros, prickly pear, bushes and grasses. True Sonoran Desert habitat, unchanged for the most part by humans. It's nestled right in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, and as the terrain became more rugged, my appreciation for its history and the earlier inhabitants grew along with my awe at its beauty.

Late in the afternoon, the sun was hitting that golden light which photographers love. In the two hours it took us to drive the trail's 44 miles, half unpaved, light was the main feature. It was most noticeable when Paul pointed out some bright lime green rocky surfaces. We wondered whether this was a fluke from the sun angle or perhaps there were some lime-colored lichens covering the rocks. As we drove and climbed, eventually we got close enough to these rocky areas to determine lichens were responsible. It was tempting to think about bring a sample home for the garden, but nearly everything I saw was the size of the car. Too, there was the idea of not being stopped on the trail when the hypothetical next car behind us caught up around a tight curve.

Actually, that never happened, not once on the trek, though we did see perhaps 20 oncoming vehicles. Once was on the "one lane road" spot along a cliff face the signs kept warning us about. I hit a pull-off and waited for it to decide we were stopped and it could proceed around the two more curves to pass our position.

Every curve was a new view, more spectacular rocks and cacti, cliffs and valleys, lake views, and as the afternoon progressed, glimpses of salmon, rose, fuchsia, and finally grey clouds. So even with the signs telling us to watch for wildlife, it was the last thing on our minds.

There were birds, of course, mostly small unidentified ones startled out of bushes as the car came around  a corner. A pair of black squirrels and the occasional chipmunk or ground squirrel were what we thought completed the wildlife show. But Paul was the first one to spot what became the show-stopper - and the car stopper. A wild tarantula was crossing the road!

Neither of us had seen one other than TV and pet stores. Paul got out for a closer look. It didn't bother the spider. It just kept steadily on its way across the road. Once it cleared the way, we went on ours. Paul was close enough to tell by the pedipalps just what the gender was, had he remembered what that configuration meant. He also couldn't tell species,  just noted it was solid black except for a light brown/tan band across the top of the torso. He had thought about offering the critter a chance to walk across his hand, but decided not to risk the spider-hair itching powder phenomenon.

We commented on the irony of having not brought any camera. I had judged before leaving that there was too little time to complete the trail in good light for us to try to pack in any photography as well. I know me. It would have added at least an hour onto travel time. Having not done that what was what put us in place at the right time to see the tarantula, but again, nothing to record it.

Oh well.

About ten minutes later, or a mile along the road, it was my turn to spot a tarantula crossing the road. This one was far enough across that I pulled the car up next to it safely for the spider, where Paul could roll his window down and look straight down on it. This one decided the car was a threat, posturing as if ready to attack. Since we were upsetting it, I decided to just drive on.

Several minutes later, yet a 3rd tarantula was crossing. Paul again got out to observe closely. This one was slow, and in an effort to speed it on its way so we could drive on without harming it, he blew on it. It backfired. The spider completely stopped for a minute or so before finally continuing on its way.

All three were the same species, by their markings. He also reported (did I say I never left the car?) that the first and third were the same gender. The 2nd was posturing enough he didn't get a good view. And all three were crossing the road going uphill. Was it for the nearly-gone light? Temperature changes? Leaving or approaching shelter or prey? A combination? Coincidence? We may never know and they weren't telling.

We managed to reach Roosevelt Lake and Dam with enough light to appreciate the size of the lake and the shrinkage apparent from the rime left behind. Also the lack of facilities, aka bathrooms. It turned out to be 30 miles on good, paved highway to Miami, where after a brief stop we hooked up with Hwy. 60 and a (relatively) speedy drive home, with enough time left for a little packing for next morning's departure.

There was one more incident along that 30-mile stretch. It was a passing lane, and I'd moved over so a pickup with obnoxious lights could pass. Suddenly it braked and veered into the empty oncoming lane, and seeing no possibility for it making a left turn, I went on alert and slowed. That turned out to be a good choice. What was that? My first reaction was an armadillo, low, long snout and tail. Second reaction was it was furry, and as I finally braked to a stop, got a good view of the white stripe all along its back. It, like the tarantulas, passed our trail safely, for them and us.

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