In the desert, my eyes are tricked in their search for familiar. I see creatures everywhere: the tall saguaro cacti are tall, thin men looming on hilltops, staring down at me; prickly pear fallen from the barrel cactus before ripe is a gila monster sleeping trailside, soaking in the hot sun of this record February; driftwood becomes pronghorn, javelina, or some other, otherworldly creature. Of course, there are real animals out there. When I’m having a slow day on the bike, working my way up a grueling climb, it’s bettered by the sight of a jack rabbit or cotton tale. When my dog walked off to explore and I had to go searching for him before the coyotes found him, lizards and spiders criss-crossed at my feet and the holes in the sand they crawled from looked suspiciously large for merely a small critter like them. And the coyotes! They are expert ventriloquists. These smart pups can throw their voices so it sounds like one is right outside your door while another is up on the hill, and they can yip in such rapid succession as to create a whole pack from just a dog or two. They are small and curious and deadly to other small animals, like my own dog. Something came up to our camp fire last night—maybe a coyote? Desert fox?— but when I turned around I was blinded by my own headlamp and could see only its eyes as we stared at each other for a moment, before it ran into the arroyo. For the rest of the night, we heard them (or maybe just the one) calling out into the darkness. The saguaro cactus outside our camper is home to a Gila Woodpecker, and midday the hawks and falcons can be seen soaring in search of food. This is a difficult season, typically, because some animals are hibernating, or at the very least are skinny from lack of nutrient. In the city, we saw the most beautiful raccoon we’ve ever set eyes on, so gigantic and majestic and outlandishly fluffy, like a Pomeranian given a fresh bath and blown dry with a hair dryer. There are desert skunks, too. Just like up north, they are more often smelled than seen.
We haven’t seen a bobcat, though at Tucson Mountain Park, we went mountain biking when I was almost delirious with a head cold, and Evan was just getting over one. We got mildly lost, and found ourselves in an alarmingly luscious ravine with a creek flowing through it. There was a mesquite tree with a lot of ground cover, and something behind it rustling. I waited for a while for it to show itself, but it stayed behind, in the shade and cool water. I imagine it was a bobcat, doing us the favor of not killing us.
Otherwise, there were some possibly wild horses wandering near Tohono O’odham Reservation, and some definitely wild horses at Tonto National Park, and a javelina or two that’s crossed our path or come close to it, the black cat of the desert (note: they are nothing like cats). In Honeybee Canyon, we crossed paths with a lone grazing cow with a tag in her ear, either a wild being being tagged for observation or else someone’s so-called property to later use for food. I tried to get close, but she took a step back and faced me with a woman’s fear and rage I know too well. We thought we saw mountain goats or pronghorn outside Biosphere 2, but they were just deer (bo-ring!).
With such an expansive landscape, with so much unbothered by humans, why would they come close to us, the number one predator on the planet? So it is understandable that the larger animals keep their distance, and miraculous that the smaller ones dare come close. Here at Gunsight, just outside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Evan plays guitar every night for a while, and then succumbs to the loud night of so many animals calling and cooing under the stars, like the elf owl and burrowing owl. Of course, we are at a campsite, and for a while were mesmerized by what had to have been a rare Saguaro Desert bull frog (which we did see at the Desert Museum), but turned out to be merely a common Mating Retiree.