For months, Devin Bergquist and I had been planning our annual herp trip. Last year had held some disappointments, it's true, but we vowed that wouldn't be the case this year. The goal was lofty and the stakes were high. The prize -- a gila monster! We wanted to track down the large, elusive, venomous lizard that makes the deserts of the American Southwest its home. So many have tried. A few have succeeded, but most have failed. Could we do it? Of course we could do it, what kind of a question is that? Any doubters certainly are ignorant of the dedication and capability of two herpers, especially Devin and me. Plus, Luke Burns would come along as comic relief and part-time videographer. A potent trio indeed!
We had the perfect crew, the necessary tools, and the dream. With a tank full of gas and a car full of music, we set out to whet our appetites around the deserts of Vegas -- not our destination, but a fine place to begin and get warmed up. The trip began well. Within a few short hours, we had captured a desert iguana (left), a western whiptail, a side-blotched lizard, a chuckwalla (right), a desert collared lizard (center), and a good-sized coachwhip.
Vegas was a morale-building day trip, but all these reptiles were expected. What we really wanted was something without a guarantee. We wanted something that spent 90% of its life underground, something that was endangered, and something that could not be found by the mere flipping of rocks or the hitting of bushes with sticks. To find the gila monster's pristine habitat, and to put our research to the test, we left Vegas and drove to Arizona. Our first stop would be the Phoenix area. Now, we would focus less on diurnal herping and focus more on the creatures of the night. Road cruising, as it is called, yielded surprises like a sidewinder (at left), a Mojave rattlesnake (larger snake, at right), and banded geckos. Gila monsters, however, would not be a likely catch at night, especially in the end of April when it's still cool at night.
We left Phoenix and drove southeast. Tucson sat in the distance, and we were thirsty for more success. If we were going to find that big black-and-pink gift from the gods, then the Sonora Desert around Tucson, Arizona, was not a bad place to go.
The next couple days would try our patience and our dedication. It's true that we caught more species, but we didn't come for a smorgasbord of critters. We came for a reason. Our searching would check herps off from our list such as canyon treefrogs, lesser earless lizards, regal horned lizards (below), night snakes, patch-nosed snakes, and many more. Although nice, they weren't what we came for.
Morale was lower than ever after a particularly depressing day. Pessimism became our camp's cholera. We made a plan to go to a place the next day that seemed promising. The habitat was great, the weather was ideal, and desperation drove us to greater persistence.
At first, it was just the same old stuff we had caught before. We walked farther in the heat. A narrow wash seemed suitable. It hadn't quite reached the heat of the day when I yelled out, "Devin, rattlesnake!" Ok, so it wasn't a gila monster, but a worthy find still. This one happened to be a very large tiger rattlesnake (below) tucked away in a crevice. Luck was with us, and this showed that herps were out and about. Further up the wash we would find a stretched out gopher snake. This is looking good, I thought. We pressed on.
Then, from out of nowhere, Devin stutters, "G-gila monster!" No way! I look to where he's pointing and see a large, black-and-pink lizard poised below a ledge in all its majesty. A hole nearby caught my attention. It made a move, as if it wanted to retreat below ground. Without thinking I sprinted over, afraid to grab it right away for fear of a painful, venomous bite. It hissed to display aggression, but I tentatively grabbed it by the tail and pulled it away from the hole and into the open.
We had it! It was unbelievable. The adrenaline flowed and the filming began. We could not believe our luck. Our dream had come true, and the herp trip was a success! We sowed the seed of desire -- the sweat, the splinters, and the hours of research preparation at a computer before the trip -- and now we could enjoy the harvest. We decided to keep it for a day for photographs and to retain the sweet feeling as long as possible.
The following day was our last. We headed back to the same area to let go of our beloved gila monster. As we walked down a parallel wash, I did a double take as a saw another gila monster crawling in front of us in the wash. This one was smaller than the first, but no less stunning. Devin and I looked at each other with a look of disbelief. One gila monster was brilliant, but finding a second was almost ridiculous! The gods of herpetology had applauded our efforts, and this second find was an encore. We agreed that this trip would be a difficult one to top in the future.