Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things that go clackety-clackety-tok-tok-brrrrr-click in the night

[If Bill Bryson were writing this, it might be entitled "A Walk in the Sands."]

So I think I've mentioned that I didn't grow up camping. It's true. My friend Mike taught me how to pitch the tent I bought from him a few weeks before I left DC. I had a funny conversation with my mom a few months ago during which I explained how to pee in the woods. (Then I changed the subject before things got really personal.) Last night was my first time doing "backcountry camping." I had no choice: there were no campgrounds along the 120 miles I would need to traverse on my way East before the next town. What this means is I registered with the ranger station and told them roughly where I'd be and then, so long as I was a mile from the road, I was free to camp where I liked. Packing in my food and water, packing out my trash. And, yes, peeing in the...sand. Not a decent sized tree in sight to preserve my modesty.

Let me tell you, backcountry camping in Joshua Tree is amazingly peaceful. Nobody around for miles and miles. Which is good, because I could strip down and rinse off a bit with no worry of curious passers-by. It is also terrifying. Take the holes I kept seeing all over the sand as I dragged a fully loaded Ollie uphill (of course it was uphill...) for about half a mile (sorry Mr. Park Ranger, but I about died trying to slog through the sand with Ollie's tires sinking about 3 inches deep the whole trek, I couldn't make it a whole mile) before making camp. What the heck lives in them? From photos I'd glanced over at the visitors' center 40 miles back in civilization, there were many possibilities. Were they inhabited by:

a) kangaroo mice
b) rattlesnakes
c) hairy scorpions
d) tarantulas

Eep. I looked for a clearing without any of these mystery holes, but the best I could do was about a 6-foot radius of clearance. After pitching my tent and cooking up a hearty dinner on the beercan stove -- some artichoke hummus I'd picked up at the morning's Joshua Tree farmers' market mixed in with boiled quinoa, sprouted legumes, and broccoli (much better than tonight's cheese and cracker dinner) -- I crawled into my tent. I read for a bit, wrote a few postcards (including yours, Sean), and decided to hit the hay. I'd sit out and look at the stars, as it was a beautiful night, but you know, I was nervous about whatever was in those holes -- and they were everywhere! -- coming out of them. As I began to fall asleep, I was jerked back into acute alertness when the mystery clackety-clacking started.

It went on for quite some time and there were definitely multiple clackers. Were they plotting my imminent demise? Or were they simply trying to figure out a way into my tent to get to the food bag? Maybe they were discussing my masterful tent pitching skills. I hoped it was the latter. And I hoped it was option "a" on the multiple choice. I'd seen a few kangaroo mice at the Black Rock Canyon campground the previous night. They were actually pretty cute. But I don't recall any clackety-clacking then.

My only run-in to date with a scorpion was a couple years back when I was hiking through Nicaragua and decided to spring for a night at an Ecolodge. (For those unfamiliar, an "Ecolodge" in Latin America means "a place where hippie tourists pay more for a room" and the only difference I could discern, in retrospect, between this and a regular hostel was the lack of cutting the grass to a reasonable height, which led to more critters being around.) When I went into my little bathroom to use the loo, a giant grey scorpion as long as my forearm was scuttling about in the sink. I yelped and bolted back to the front desk, at which point the owner nonchalantly strolled back to my room (with me scurrying behind at a safe distance), picked the writhing monster up by the tail with a pair of scissors, and tossed it into the (tall) grass not 20 feet from my door. I don't think I slept that night.

Later on during the same backpacking trip, I had my first encounter with a tarantula. I was on a night hike through the Amazon jungle in Ecuador and my guide pointed it out, perched on a banana tree not 50 feet from my cabin. I should mention the door to the cabin had a good 2-inch gap at the bottom. I didn't sleep that night, either.

Last night, like an old school Sicilian grandmother, I slept with the chef's knife close at hand. By the time I awoke -- or, rather, emerged from my tent at sunrise, as I'm not sure I slept all that much -- there was no trace of the nocturnal marauders, whomever they were. All that remained were the mystery holes.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. The scorpions to watch out for are not the big ones... the ones with the tiniest pincers are actually the most deadly as their tails are their only real defense and thus much more venomous.

    And I learned this from my safari guide because my brother insisted on spotting scorpions with his ultra-violet flashlight in Kruger park until we found one of the "small" ones in our dining area. After that I made him put the bloody flashlight away...and stopped getting up to walk to the toilet during the night... ha.

    Love your posts - miss you!

  2. Somehow this probably was meant to make me feel *less* anxious. (Good to talk with you earlier today, though, Jen! I'll be on my most paranoid lookout when I make it out to visit you and the giant insects in SA....) ;)


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