#119: 55th Birthday Celebration, with friends and more

Rumor has it that I used to blog.

For some time, my "Kiss My Big Hairy Spider" was my blog, but that was retired when I retired. When I started living as a nomad at the beginning of 2017, I launched a new blog called "PIKEY: Shunpiking and Boondocking; the Gypsy Life." The title has a bit of irony now as "shunpiking" means avoiding main roads like interstates and turnpikes, and "boondocking" refers to living off the grid on public land. And of course "Pikey" is British slang for gypsies who live in recreational vehicles, which the Brits like to call "caravans." It's a good thing that blog evolved into this one on my website because I am not much of a nomad/gyppo/pikey anymore, even if I do live in my Wheelhouse. And I am not really "shunpiking" as my Wheelhouse is stationary. My truck is the thing that avoids paved roads in preference of rugged, primitive four-wheel-drive trails. Finally, I am not boondocking and never have, save for one week at Big Bend National Park, where I was not connected to electricity or water. I have been living for most of two years now at the U.S. Forest Service's Corral Admin Site, just above the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Information Center (VIC) where I am caretaker. The Chiricahua Mountains have become my home.

Regardless of where my blog exists now, I have failed to keep it going. The year started well. I blogged about my third trip to Malaysia in January. There were ten entries about that adventure. Then, on March 4, I wrote about my February 23 return to the Portal, Arizona area. I became silent after that, just adding a May 17 entry that duplicated a "mini-blog" I posted to my Facebook page about it being "The Year of the Trogon." Since then, I have written nothing.

I'll make no promises about the frequency of my blogging moving forward, but I am inspired to write today to recount the fantastic time I had in celebration of my 55th birthday. With my best mate Mark Pennell visiting from Bristol, England and John Apple and Ashley Hesselink driving here from Michigan, I took eleven days off from my duties for Friends of Cave Creek Canyon. I type this now from my desk at the VIC, my first day back to "work."

When Mark planned his visit to Arizona, it became apparent that flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport would offer better flight selection and price than arriving at the much closer Tuscon Airport. Still, my original plan was that we would drive from Phoenix to Tucson and Mark's first day and night in the Southwest would be spent in Tucson. However, that plan changed when I realized that Brent Hendrixson would be completing the final field trip of his year-long sabbatical at the same time, and would be in the Phoenix area the same day Mark arrived. Therefore, I modified the plan so that the three of us would hunt for creatures together in the Phoenix area on Mark's first night. I booked a suite that all three of us would share and told Mark we would instead spend his last day and night in Arizona in Tucson.

On July 31, I left Cave Creek Canyon at dawn and drove the 4.5 hours or so to Phoenix. I made stops along the way, including visiting two Phoenix area liquor stores where I had special ordered some Tiger lager for Mark and I. I was waiting at Sky Harbor airport ahead of schedule, and Mark's plane arrived thirty minutes early. However, he had to sit on the plane until noon because his flight was the first international arrival of the day and U.S. Customs wasn't open yet. But soon he was coming through the doors, and we headed out towards the prominent eastern Phoenix suburb of Mesa where our hotel was located. It was selected because our evening plan with Brent was to visit the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area around Tortilla Flat.

Mark and I first stopped at a bar/restaurant for some lunch and beer. We talked about how he had always dreamed of visiting the American Southwest. Ever since he became interested in tarantulas more than thirty years ago, he had wished to one day see the home of Aphonopelma chalcodes, the "Desert Blonde Tarantula" that was one of his early "pets." He visited me a few times in Chicagoland, but this was his first visit to the wild west.

After lunch, we checked into our lovely suite at the Courtyard by Marriott in Mesa and waited on Brent, who was driving to Mesa from Borrego Springs in southern California. Not long after Mark and I were settled in, there came a knock at the door, and we were soon catching up with Brent and checking out his bag of scorpions and tarantulas. Later we headed out to the Superstitions and Lost Dutchman State Park.

Brent and I wanted to do some golden hour and sunset photography at Lost Dutchman, but the trails there were all closed due to a fire sometime before. Mark marveled at the desert fauna and flora, including all of the big spiny and whiptail lizards that were darting about. Then we headed up the Apache Trail towards Tortilla Flat. Mark's first American tarantula encounters were the ten or so male Aphonopelma chalcodes that crossed the road as we drove up the paved road and on to the dirt road until a barricade prevented us from proceeding farther. The drive is fabulously scenic, even to desert rats like Brent and me, so Mark was blown away by the Sonoran Desert and the Superstition Mountains.

As darkness approached, we drove back down the road to park at Tortilla Flat. The weather was very unusual for Phoenix. The monsoon season had brought cooler temps and very muggy air. I'd never experienced humidity like this in Mesa, and my glasses kept fogging up. Brent wanted to walk the roadside rock cuts that I had searched with him and some of his students in the past two years. He was after the tailless whipscorpion (amblypigid), Paraphrynus carolynae, and the humidity made finding it likely. But our first find was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which was first spotted by a car that passed us. Unfortunately, I was ill-prepared to wrangle and photograph a snake just then, and when I ran back to my truck for proper gear, I had expected Mark to keep an eye on it. But I didn't verbalize that, and he got talking to the occupants of the car. By the time I returned, we had no idea where the snake had gone.

Brent walked up ahead and began to find his amblypigids and then spotted a Tiger Rattlesnake! Crotalus tigris is not found in my area and is one of my favorite buzztails, so it was a pleasant surprise. And for Mark seeing this elusive and beautiful rattlesnake was an unexpected thrill. It was his first night in Arizona, and he had already seen two rattlesnake species – the first wild rattlesnakes of his life! We also saw tarantulas on the rocks, scorpions, a big Sonoran Desert Toad, and more.

Crotalus tigris , Tiger Rattlesnake, Superstition Mountains, AZ - Mark’s second rattlesnake of his life was this beautiful and uncommon buzztail!

Crotalus tigris, Tiger Rattlesnake, Superstition Mountains, AZ - Mark’s second rattlesnake of his life was this beautiful and uncommon buzztail!

After we finished with the Tortilla Flat area, we drove back down the road a few miles to photograph the fading sun above Canyon Lake, a spectacular reservoir set in the Superstitions. Then we stopped to look for one small species of scorpion (unsuccessfully) before heading back into the Mesa area to visit a park where Mark would see the big Desert Hairy Scorpion (Hadrurus arizonensis). Then it was back to the hotel and some rest for the guy who flew from London, and two guys who had put some miles on the American roads that day.

Day two in America would be spent at my home in the Chiricahuas, and Brent joined us as he began his drive back home to Mississippi. We took the scenic route from Mesa, heading east through the southern Superstition Mountains on Highway 60 and then down Highway 70 through the San Carlos Reservation towards Safford. We planned to visit an area to look for two other tarantula species, Aphonopelma gabeli, and A. vorhiesi. Brent has visited this site often, as have I now, and we met up at the Walmart in Safford for provisions before again meeting Brent at the tarantula location. We had no luck with A. vorhiesi during our short search but did get to show Mark female A. gabeli coming out of their burrows. His trip was already off to a fantastic start!

Back at my homestead, we got Mark settled into the pikey lifestyle. Brent, Mark and I cracked a beer and talked for a bit, but then we decided to drive up the canyon to look for vinegaroons. We found some and next we drove about 20 miles south to the entrance to Rucker Canyon to search that area for tarantulas. We were successful there, and I collected a couple of centipedes as well for John Apple, who would be arriving Sunday with his girlfriend, Ashley. We found two different and unusual tarantulas in the area, as well as some other exciting things. Later that night we went up to Vista Point at dark to photograph the Milky Way, but Brent wanted to return later in the night when it was positioned better. So he headed to a campground and Mark and I enjoyed the rest of the evening with another beer or two before turning in.

The following morning Brent came back to my homestead and hung out for a bit before hitting the road.

Mark and I knew John and Ashley would arrive on Sunday, but we weren't sure when. And I am afraid that now I will lose the chronology of the trip. I don't have the memory anymore – hey, I just turned 55! – to recall each day without taking notes. I endeavored to show Mark as much as possible and, in reflection, it becomes a blur. I know Sunday night we were sitting at dinner at Portal Cafe and John and Ashley had arrived at the Air BnB they were staying in in the Arizona Sky Village just north of town. This area is out in the desert past what we call the Big Thicket and is a community of astronomers mostly, all with their observatories attached to their homes. Just after I messaged John where we were and gave him directions to join us, I got a message from a resident asking me to do a rattlesnake relocation. So, shortly after greeting John and Ashley, I interrupted my meal to drive two minutes down the road. I pulled up to the house to find out they hadn't kept an eye on the snake, and it had moved into the brush. I jumped back in my truck, not disappointed at all, and headed back to join the gang.


Monday, August 5, was my 55th birthday. When my bonus dad Joel visited me last year, we visited Bisbee and Tombstone, Arizona, and I decided that tradition would continue this year. We met John and Ashley at the Portal Cafe for breakfast and then all piled into my truck for the journey down to the border town of Douglas where I showed them the wall (not Trumps). From there it was on through Bisbee and to Tombstone. As with each of my visits, the first stop there was Doc Holliday's Saloon. After a beer there we toured the shops before having lunch at Big Nose Kate's Saloon. It was just like last year with Joel, except for the company. Food and beer were delicious, and the ambiance is what you expect from an Old West tourist trap. In other words, pretty damn cool.

After Tombstone, we stopped in Bisbee, which is the funkiest town in Arizona. A massive copper mine is what gave rise to Bisbee, and Old Bisbee is where the freaks of the desert congregate. It is Arizona's counter-culture, hipster, funky old hippie, LGBTQ XYZ place to be. My destination was Old Bisbee Brewing Company. John and Ashley don't drink so they wandered off to see the amazing street art and other curiosities of Old Bisbee, while Mark and I sidled up to a table to enjoy an Arizona pilsner straight from the horse's mouth, as it were. Then Mark and I walked around a bit and went to a Bisbee Coffee Company for an Americano. Later we met back up with John and Ashley and headed back to Douglas and up to Portal. My birthday dinner was hot & spicy brats and Italian sausage cooked on my little grill at my homestead: friends and beer.

Our evenings were spent road cruising for snakes and our days were spent touring the area or searching for the daytime-active Banded Rock Rattlesnake. On Friday before John and Ashley arrived, Mark and I met up with Dr. Chuck Smith, a herpetologist, and Ian McColl, an Australian who is volunteering at the Southwestern Research Station on a six-month visa. We planned to look for rock rattlesnakes together, and we found two that day – one that quickly disappeared into the rock slide and another that we all were able to spend time photographing. Mark and I would return a couple of days later by ourselves, and once again found two. And again the first one slithered away deep into the vast pile of lichen-covered large rocks, whereas the second one buzzed me from beneath a rock and was easy to photograph.

Crotalus lepidus klauberi , Banded Rock Rattlesnake, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

Crotalus lepidus klauberi, Banded Rock Rattlesnake, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains

During his stay, Mark would see seven species of rattlesnake (and a handful of tarantula species). Sadly, his first encounter with my favorite snake – the Black-tailed Rattlesnake – was on our initial return to Portal. It was dead on the road, a large beautiful greenish specimen from the foothills north of my area. The next Black-tail he would see was right at the entrance to the canyon and, although still very alive, it had been struck by a car, and we had to watch it crawl into the desert scrub where it surely died that night. I took Mark to one of my favorite boulder outcroppings of the Peloncillo Mountains in New Mexico to search for Black-tails one evening, but incoming storms made our visit shorter than I had planned and we had no luck. But he would eventually see a very large and extremely beautiful Black-tail up the Trans-Mountain Forest Road at just above 6000 ft. elevation.

We were taking a sunset cruise before picking up John and Ashley for a planned night of road-cruising. I wanted to make my standard loop up the mountain road (FR42) to its junction with East Turkey Creek Road (FR42B) and back down 42B through Paradise and then via Portal-Paradise Road back to Portal. As we climbed over 6000 ft. I saw a Black-tail crossing the dirt road ahead. We were about to have an extraordinary encounter for several reasons. First, it is a gorgeous snake, and this was a prime example. Second, Mark would soon be amazed by its beauty. Third, although Black-tailed Rattlesnakes usually are very calm and even placid, this one turned out to be the most irascible Black-tail I have ever encountered. It did its best Diamondback imitation as I caught it and tried to put it in my snake bucket so we could move it to photograph it in a better location. I told Mark to capture some video, and he did both of me wrangling it and then releasing it. The release video was shot in the wrong orientation so I’ll just share the wrangling here.

Another thing that made this encounter enjoyable was that one reason I rushed to contain it in the bucket is that a truck approached coming down the mountain. I don't like spectators and quickly tried to secure the snake and hoped the vehicle would pass without pausing. Then I noticed it was a Border Patrol truck. As it approached, the agent rolled down the window, and we realized that it was a female agent we had encountered in New Mexico, south of Animas halfway to the Mexico border. And that story will follow here, out of chronological order but an amusing tale to tell. Small world. She was covering a lot of areas. She said, "This is the fourth time I've seen you guys!" and then asked what we had caught. We began chatting, and she started showing all of the photos she had been taking in the area, including some of rattlesnakes. It turned out that she is from Minnesota and is just here on a 30-day rotation. She usually works the Canadian border near Lake of the Woods, and I began telling her how I used to muskie fish up there. We shared more stories and photos before she drove on. Mark convinced me to photograph the snake there rather than driving somewhere else and then having to return to release it in the same spot (as I always do). We were pressed for time as I had told John we probably would be earlier than the agreed-upon time and it was now evident that we would be much later. So we found a little spot off the road in the woods, and I again struggled to wrangle the very agitated Black-tail into a pose for photography.

Crotalus molossus ‘molossus’ , Western (or Northern) Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

Crotalus molossus ‘molossus’, Western (or Northern) Black-tailed Rattlesnake, Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

OK, so the story of our first encounter with this woman who is a Border Patrol agent based in Minnesota – It was Wednesday night, and John and Ashley were doing their own thing. The monsoon rains were threatening all around. Mark and I had just searched the rock formations for Black-tails without success. The threat of rain had us leave that area early, and I looked around and pointed my truck toward the clearest skies for road-cruising. We headed east to Animas and then south toward Cloverdale. We stopped to escort a Desert Box Turtle off the road. Then we continued marveling at the spectacular lightning show all around us. Mark had never seen skies like this. As it got darker, we were always in awe of the blinding light show, and then a drizzle began to fall.

I saw a snake up ahead in the road and accelerated. The humidity was high due to the weather, and as I got out of the truck, my glasses fogged up and became covered with rain droplets. My vision was obscured, but I saw approaching headlights as I quickly identified the snake. I just needed to ensure it wasn't a rattlesnake, and then I would scoop it up and wait for the oncoming vehicle to pass. It was about four-feet-long and dark, and I knew it was a Desert Kingsnake. They are most frequently seen when there is higher humidity and even light rain or after rains have fallen. I grabbed it, and it rewarded me by musking me in defense, as kingsnakes always do. I climbed into my truck out of the rain, and its scent quickly permeated my vehicle. My truck was in the middle of the road, so I grasped the stinky snake in my left hand while using my right to put the truck in gear and steer to the side of the road.

As I pulled over, the snake crawled between my knees and under my driver's seat. Its muscles prevented me from pulling it back as it found something to push against. I had no choice but to relax my grip and let it loose beneath me. As the headlights approached, I realized it was Border Patrol, which is usually the only other vehicles I see. The agent rolled down the window, and we saw that it was a woman by herself. We told her we were looking for snakes and had, in fact, just scooped a kingsnake off the road that was now somewhere inside the truck. That got an odd look and a laugh! She told us that she had just passed a young rattlesnake about two miles south that was off to one side of the road. So we quickly said our goodbyes, decided to leave the kingsnake as is and rushed ahead to look for the snake she had seen.

Sure enough, the young Western Diamondback Rattlesnake was still on the side of the road. In the dark drizzle, we photographed it and set it on its way. Then we searched my truck for the kingsnake to no avail. I could not figure out where it had gone. My back seat area was full of camera and snake catching gear and our packs, and we dug through everything, and the four-foot snake had vanished. I thought it had found its way inside my seat, but they are all sealed below. So we gave up and eventually turned around and headed north. Fifteen minutes later, Mark was startled when the snake cruised over his lap and up the door. I snatched it before it became too tightly wrapped in the door handle and we stopped to photograph and release it right where we were.

Lampropeltis splendida , Desert Kingsnake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Lampropeltis splendida, Desert Kingsnake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

In between the monsoon rains, we had some excellent nights of road-cruising either just the two of us or with John and Ashley. The night all four of us cruised we found both a baby Mohave and baby Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, so that was a special treat for them. Unfortunately, that night we also found many dead snakes, including two beautiful adult Prairie Rattlesnakes. That was Mark's sixth species (of seven), but we never found him a live one as they are only found on the east side of the Peloncillos and this night we were unlucky and didn't find them before some oblivious or mean driver did.

Crotalus scutulatus , Mohave Rattlesnake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Crotalus scutulatus, Mohave Rattlesnake, Hidalgo County, New Mexico

Mark's last night here in the Portal area he and I cruised two beautiful adult Mohave Rattlesnakes and some others, and that made for a wonderful finale to his stay here. But one of the most special moments and biggest surprises occurred on Saturday, the day before my birthday. Mark and I were taking a scenic drive, and at 4:30 pm stumbled upon a baby Gila Monster. These beautiful beaded venomous lizards are elusive – actual needle in a haystack finds. And finding a baby is even rarer, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, it was very unusual. I had no expectations of Mark seeing a Gila, but I have been very lucky with them this year, already seeing more than I had in the previous two years in Arizona combined. It was a thrill neither of us would forget.

Heloderma suspectum , Gila Monster, baby, Portal, AZ

Heloderma suspectum, Gila Monster, baby, Portal, AZ

On Friday morning, the day before Mark would fly home, we were up early as usual and headed straight to Tucson. We would spend Mark's last full day and night in the Southwest, exploring Tucson. I knew I wanted to drive up the Santa Catalina Mountains and show him how spectacular that Sky Island range is. And, although he had seen many wandering male Aphonopelma chalcodes – the classic "Arizona Blonde" tarantula – and had also seen females on the rock faces at Tortilla Flat, I wanted to find him a female in its burrow that we could flood or tickle out. So as we drove up the paved highway that takes you over 30 miles up to the top of the mountain, we stopped at a trail where Brent Hendrixson and I had found Aphonopelma catalina last December, and Brent had said also was good for A. chalcodes. The best part was that only ten minutes up the trail it was Mark that spotted a burrow. It wasn't perfectly round, and the silk covering its entrance was sparser than I would have expected, but I poured some water into the hole, and I soon spotted the forelegs of the spider we were after. I drained both small water bottles without fully getting it out into the open, so I had to return to my truck for a gallon jug. Then, as photos and videos were taken, I flushed the spider out of its hole.

Aphonopelma chalcodes , Desert Blonde Tarantula, Catalina Mountains, AZ

Aphonopelma chalcodes, Desert Blonde Tarantula, Catalina Mountains, AZ

Our adventure was not over though. First, we needed a late lunch/early dinner, so I took Mark to Texas Roadhouse for some American over-eating excess. Our appetizers and steaks were delicious, as was the Dos Equis on tap. Then we checked into a lovely hotel room and talked about our evening's goal. When I visit Tucson overnight I look for Sidewinder Rattlesnakes northwest of the city, which does not occur anywhere near me. It is a unique snake, with horn-like scales above its eyes and an amazing form of locomotion where only two points of its body are ever in touch with the substrate. And I knew Mark wanted to see this snake perhaps more than any other. So before dark, we set out from our hotel in Marana to head up toward Red Rock, just before Picacho Peak State Park. There are two roads I search for sidewinders there, one that is paved and has traffic, the other that is a very rugged primitive road where I knew we would see nobody else. It took some time to get back into the desert, and we saw nothing but tarantulas for some time. Some areas of the road were very wet from recent rain. We continued, at times working our way across very rough terrain, and then finally I stopped when I had an adult sidewinder 25 yards ahead in the beams of my headlamps. This was something to celebrate! It was our only snake of the night, but it was a beautiful adult that Mark was able to capture video of and posed for numerous photographs before we let it slither into the darkness.

Crotalus cerastes , Sonoran Desert Sidewinder

Crotalus cerastes, Sonoran Desert Sidewinder

Mark and Saguaro

Mark and Saguaro

Mark and a big Texas Roadhouse beer!

Mark and a big Texas Roadhouse beer!

Saturday morning we had a few hours before Mark needed to be back at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and I suggested we visit Saguaro National Park (West) so he could get photos with the giant iconic Sonoran Desert cactus. Then it was off to the airport, and our amazing adventure and fabulous ten days together came to an end. I had 4.5 hours back home, and responsibilities to attend to.

It would be impossible for me to cover the other time here since I last blogged. Hopefully, many of you follow my @jacobipix Instagram or are friends on Facebook and have seen my photos of the snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, and more that I spend my time chasing. Other than that, I keep busy with my volunteer host and paid caretaker duties for Friends of Cave Creek Canyon here at the Visitor Information Center and beyond. I love my homestead at the corral and plan to overwinter here this year. I have no trips scheduled that require a return to Chicago. I did ask for a little break and will be joining Brent and perhaps his friend and colleague Chris Hamilton for some tarantula fieldwork at the end of October and the beginning of November. We will start here in the Chiricahuas with a special project, but then I plan to hook up the Wheelhouse and live on the road for four weeks or so. It has been a long time since I was a proper Pikey. When Brent and Chris go back home, I will find a place to boondock and just read and play my guitar.

My next adventure is a trip to Las Vegas September 3-7, where I will meet my bonus dad Joel, my sister Lisa, and my brother-in-law Randy. They had a trip planned in June that I wanted to surprise them by joining, but due to Joel's health scare, things changed very much. That trip was canceled, and I ended up flying back to Chicago for a few days for Joel's surgery (thankfully, successful). So the trip was rescheduled, and I'm looking forward to seeing them there, playing poker, eating like a king, and seeing a couple of shows.

That's it for now. Until I blog again … MJ

Mark at Granite Gap, Peloncillo Mountains, with Highway 80 heading south and the Chiricahua Mountains in the background.

Mark at Granite Gap, Peloncillo Mountains, with Highway 80 heading south and the Chiricahua Mountains in the background.