Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Burnt by the Sun

   I'd never seen a tarantula in the wild.
   Well, not a lone one.
   I had seen tens of thousands of them, waves of them, migrating to high ground in the annual spider "race" in Pinnacles California. 
  During the rainy season / the flash flood times, in the steep hills between the Central Valley and the Salinas, grandstands are set up in a state park where crowds gather to watch a tidal horde of arachnids move to escape the coming waters. 
   It's more you can imagine. 
   It's worse than you think. 
   It's truly stupendous. You get to see more spiders than anyone ever sees in a lifetime and you get to watch grown men scream. 
   But I'd never seen just one tarantula, on his or her own, in the California dust. 
   There's a park in south East County San Diego. Near Rancho something or other. It's a lot of desert acres sitting at the foot of a mountain the military uses for some purpose or another. Evidence that the only way to stop suburban development in California is with guns. 
   There's a willowed stream that runs aslant a gully, some riverine cliffs, some rare birds, a lot of coyotes, and an iron bridge that was built in Bethlehem PA and shipped to Southern California in the 20s. An early symbol of progress in this godforsaken land. 
   You can still see "Bethlehem Steel" embossed on the cross beams, arch rival of every Pittsburgh iron company. To reach the park from the nearby mega mall you pass right by them.
   I went for a walk at sunset. 
   Some would call it a hike. I think something called a hike should have the potential to kill you. 
    The drive from El Cajon to the park one could call a hike.
     This was a stroll. 
     I heard some birds. I avoided some beetles. I saw two uncut Pit Bulls and an asinine owner warding them away, I walked right up to the nose of a wild born Mustang, 15 plus years old on a late day walk with its kind equestrienne keeper. Sweet breath, soft eyes, along the trail he barely left a footprint.  
   Later, when the dark was falling as it does so quickly after a California sunset, I heard coyotes call to each other across the fields. Three different packs in the safety of the hills owned by the army, triangulating and wondering, I wondered, could they get to me before I recrossed that bridge and was I worth it, the meat vs the run and the fight?  
   Midway through the journey I came across a wasp the size of a hummingbird.
   A black fast attack demon of an insect, with bright orange wings. 
   An Apache helicopter of an arthropod. 
   A murderous exoskeleton with teeth and antennae and intent. 
   Dragging a dead tarantula three times its size across a cow path. 
   My first impulse was to run. My second was to stare. My third was, if that tarantula even twitches a limb, if it's got any life left at all, I'm gonna stomp that evil wasp and save me a spider. 
   But it was dead. And that wasp tugged it a full 15 feet. That wasp had to stop and regroup. It had to take a breather. Find purchase. 
   That's the fucking life force, I thought. 
   That's what things do to survive out here. Down here, in desert Alta California, in water free, Carl's Jr full San Diego. 
   I'm gonna remember that bug for a long freaking time. 
   And partly because it made me ask, What is it that drives people out into the desert? 
   Bugs, birds, tarantulas, even Coyotes, they don't have a choice. But why do we go? And more importantly, why do we stay? 
   In a place where we are guaranteed to die, if the AC, or the coolant, or the water runs out. 
   "Because it's clean." Said Lawrence of Arabia. 
    And I have to agree. 
    It's clean of us. 
    On the one hand, it's a place that denies kinship with our species. It tells us here is where you will fall. Here is where in a hundred years, they'll find your dried up carcass.
   And weirdly enough I think that's why a certain breed of people flock to it. It helps them vacuum pack their suburban dream- the home as an extension of the ego. The autonomous self made manifest by a three car garage, game room, studio and den, with a his and her master bathroom the size of a junior college. 
  All of it sealed and shut against a dangerous world. 
  For if that world is an actual desert, with no water, 110 degree days and killer avian bugs then how much more potent the home owner and his pioneer brood. 
   The home as the unabstract self. The brain and the soul and the human computer, in analog. Where one can sort and rearrange, sketch and legislate, doodle and dither for ever. 
   Where one can deny kinship with one's own species. 
   So it seemed when I was drunk. 
   On 112 degree sunlight. 
   I'd gone for a hike in the Mojave.
   And then it all switched over, and the denial of me, of "you", became a gift. 
   The heat shocks you into motionlessness, it encases you and you can feel the metal in the ground warming to receive your body, and somehow it's comforting. It's deliverance.
  The desert makes people glow. 
  Standing in a valley 10 miles across, flat as a seabed, with less foliate protein in its entire expanse than a back yard in Pittsburgh, you begin to entertain your own preciousness.
  You're a bag of fluid. A shining scarecrow in an oven made by the Gods. In all this dumb stone, dust, and wind, you speak. You sing. You sweat.
   It's humbling yes but at the same time, it elevates you. 
   I flex my hand in the sun and I want to cheer, My Christ will you look at that. What is this quintessence of dust? 
  The four major religions were born from the desert. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Christianity. All of them rose up out of the heat. 
  I wonder. Did we go out into those vast and beautiful wastes to find a God? Or get there and pretend we were one? 
  And if there is a God, or Godliness, maybe it exists only in the heat where our feet meet the sand, along that thin tissue between our selves and the glories of oblivion- air sun water-  right there all along as simpler people have known, in the dust itself among the lizards and the birds and the dogs and the bugs, all of whom sing and fight and sweat in their own ways, who all thrive where we can barely function. 
  In that hot and peaceable theater, can we still hear the faint rhythm of things as they should be? 
  Maybe that's why people go out to the desert, to the Mojave or the Sonora or the Chihuahua, to sit and listen, and wait. 


  1. I'm so jealous, I would love to go there. I have, however, seen a tarantula up close (and kinda personal). the bugger was coming towards me. I was so curious I stayed to watch it. I moved one direction, it followed me. I moved over again, and it turned my way again. I didn't freak out, I just said "oh no you don't", and I just left it there to continue on my 2 mile trek to the barn I worked in. This was south of Amarillo, a place called Canyon, Texas. I have also come across plenty of coyotes over the yrs. working nights as a foaling person here in Ky. Basically a midwife for baby racehorses...lol...I can say I'd rather face off with a coyote than a skunk any day...lol..at least around here, they don't bother the horses much.

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  3. I never been to California, but from what your talking about it does seem nice. Although I do not like any type of bug or insect, so if I see a wasp, I'm going in the opposite direction, lol. Don't recall ever seeing a tarantula, but I have seen a spider which I believe is called daddy long legs when I went camping in Lancaster , PA when I was younger. The area of Philadelphia I live in has some woods, so I did see a young fox at one time ,but mainly see ground hogs and smell skunk every once in awhile, Don't know if you ever visited Alaska but it's a beautiful place to visit, I went in 2005 and didn't want to leave, lol.

  4. Isn't it something when the desert consumes you, when you feel her vibrations and you really hear her song. There's something almost magical about the desert from sunset to sunrise.
    It's amazing when the warm, gentle winds pick up and dance across the dry planes. Especially at night. It's beautiful when the stars seem to be dancing with the wind, and for that moment everything seems a little clearer, and calmer.
    There's just something so spiritual, and sobering about realizing just how small you truly are, and just how great life truly is.
    If you are lucky enough to have that moment, and to truly be in that moment it's amazing.

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  7. Great blog thank you for sharing !

    From Bridgeville, PA

  8. Great blog thank you for sharing !

    From Bridgeville, PA

  9. what I always loved, being out in the middle of nowhere/somewhere, is at night, during a full moon. no flashlights needed. I LOVE IT. no city lights, just the moon and stars!

  10. Hello David!
    Hope you are fine.
    What a life experience you had, and I do agree with you and hope one day I will go to the desert too : the atmosphere must be so deep, that I cannot imagine.
    I wonder what the portuguese people that have gone to Ceuta, 600 years today, which marked the most extraordinary movement of knowing new countries, must have experienced, because they did not know the places, as we do today, but were brave enough to go.
    It makes me very proud, because we always had good relations with the countries we have gone and our history became richer with their knowledge, as theirs with our.
    Have a good weekend,

  11. I love the way you write. Such wonderful imagery. Humor. When you publish the book, I'll definitely buy it.

  12. It wasn't dead.

    It would have been useless dead. It was only a paralyzed, helpless shell about to shelter new life. Mama wasp dragged it to a den and laid her eggs inside to nourish them until they could face the world on their own. And then sealed it.

    It's not necessarily un-karmic, really. A lot of spiders paralyze their prey, wrap tightly, liquify the good parts and then dine. So not really unfair, if still highly undesirable from the spider's pov.

    Not really sure where the current research is on whether insects & arachnids have pain receptors. Or an awareness that would make the practice truly grisly. They have avoidant behaviors, but it's hard to tell how much of that is autonomic/reflexive and how much may be volitional.

    Deserts are very clean. Spare. Capable of reminding us that the more you are, the less you need.

  13. ha! i was a desert dweller for more than a decade (lived in ridgecrest. aka china lake naval air weapons station – or china mistake to the poor guys who hated being stationed there). living in the desert year round didn't agree with me. i can't take the weather extremes... and the wind!

    but i did find that there was a beauty to the desert that is not seen from a distance. death valley is a neat place to go in the winter. saline valley is a pain of a drive but an oasis awaits at the end of that road. i even made the bumpy drive out to barker ranch, out past badwater, where charles manson was captured. talk about a creepy vibe!

    i recently read about a place called "the slabs", out in the sonoran desert out by the salton sea. it used to attract artsy eccentric types but now it has been taken over by the tweeker element.

    the movie industry loves the desert. i did shoots in the trona pinnacles and the cuddeback dry lake bed. i recognize the backdrop in commercials they film at the inyokern airport, which are many.

    the desert. a nice place to visit but i wouldn't want to live there. :)

    luckily, i never came across a trantula on any of my california desert excursions. i came across them more when i was a kid living in texas. the grownups used to tell us that trantulas could jump! made me fear them big time! and wasps? bleh.

    LOL! i'd love to see grown men scream at the spider races. funny stuff. keep writing!

  14. New Blogger Alert: (more like "blahhh-ger") I was just reading some of your blogs, then your introduction and just had a question. You enjoy writing, so is what you're writing in real life, or are they thoughts and you have decided to write about them as if they were real? Either way, good stuff - but I was just curious. - Katie O.

    PS: NYE one was the best :o)

  15. The first and only tarantula I ever saw was in a banana tree next to my bedroom window/California.While everyone else freaked I retrieved the largest kitchen knife I could find and stabbed that thing almost in half , like it was one of my daily chores! It's twenty years later and my husband still laughs about how calmly it was done. He feels sad too because it was probably someones beloved pet. I know. Ew! Just discovered I like reading your blogs. Thumbs up!