Life as a Desert Rat

Across the street from my childhood home was open desert, and when I was about 8 years old and was feeling the freedom of my first bicycle, my friends and I would go out and ride for miles down dirt roads that crisscrossed through the cactus and brush. We explored ruins of adobe buildings where we found old coins and bayonets, and played in arroyos where fossils were routinely sticking out of the sandstone walls. This is where I found my first clam shell, out in the middle of the desert. Of course, the clam shell was solid rock and hundreds of millions of years old.

The funny thing was, we didn’t care much about any of these wonders. We were looking for lizards.

Horny Toads where my favorites, but they were elusive and hard to come by. Spiny Lizards were nearly impossible to catch unless you climbed a telephone pole or a cactus to get to them. There were “whiptails,” which were really fast and had forked tongues like snakes. There was an occasional Chuckwalla or Desert Iguana (those were some big lizards, especially to an 8-year-old) but they were rarely seen, and probably would have bitten off our fingers had we tried to catch them. I never did see one of those poisonous Gila Monsters, though one time I caught a very colorful small lizard and later found it could have been a baby Gila Monster – but I’ll never know.

Every once in a while we would run across the most beautiful lizard I’d ever seen. You’d have to find it by turning over big boards or rocks, where you were more likely to find a nine-inch scorpion. But every once in a while there would be this brightly colored flash and we’d grab – and grab carefully – because the tail would easily come off and that would “ruin” the lizard. This amazing, beautiful little lizard was called the Tucson Banded Gecko, a subspecies of the Western Banded Gecko. We just called them geckos. They were yellow and brown, very soft, had large expressive eyes (the only gecko I know of that has eyelids), and a bulbous, fat tail. My other 8-year-old friends and I all agreed this was a “cool lizard.”

In addition to lizards, we ran across the occasional snake. Out there in the desert, half the snakes we ran into were poisonous, and I’d seen more than my share of sidewinders. Thankfully I had enough sense as a child to just leave them alone. But one time, when we were out riding in the early morning, there was this amazingly large snake stretched all the way across the dirt road. I mean, all the way across. We had an older kid with us (the brother of one of my friends) and he knew what it was. He called it a “bull snake” which is a big cousin of the harmless gopher snake. It looked like a rattler to us, but he picked it up and showed us the tail and the head. There was no rattle, and the head was narrow, proving it wasn’t poisonous. The darn thing was 8 feet long if not longer, and it just let us pick it up without even a struggle. We unanimously decided this snake must go home with us, and the big brother looped it around his neck and we rode back.

Well, his mother freaked out and he couldn’t keep it, so with great ceremony he gave it to me. It was so cool I just couldn’t believe it. Here was a snake that was bigger than I was tall, all looped around my neck and arms like a … well, a snake. It was just too groovy. [Remember, this was the 60’s. The words of the day were “groovy,” “boss,” and “far out.”] So I brought it in my house and, not knowing where to keep it, I put it in the guest bath which was the third bathroom Mom wouldn’t let us use because it was “for guests.”

I, uh … neglected to tell anyone about it, though. I knew if I told my mom, she wouldn’t let me keep it, just like the other guy’s mom wouldn’t let him keep it. I figured no one ever used that bathroom so no one would ever find it.

I was wrong. Less than an hour later I heard my mother’s hysterical voice calling out for my dad. “Jiiiiiimmmiiieeeee!” she was shouting, her voice quavering so that I knew she was jumping up and down. “Jimmmmiieeeeeee!!!!

I hid under my bed and prepared for the worst. I heard my father shout, “Oh my God!” And then, “How in the Hell did that get in there!” Only a few seconds later he called out my name. I still have no idea how they figured it out so fast.

Fortunately my father found it too funny to spank me for, but I had to go let the snake loose out where we’d found it. My big brother drove me out there in his sand buggy. He, too, thought it was pretty funny, but he didn’t tell me that until years later. It was the last snake I brought home until after we moved to California.

One thing I did bring home that the whole family did think was wonderful was a young roadrunner. I saw it down in an arroyo when we were playing with toy cars in the sand, and chased it into a section of the arroyo where it was trapped. It tried to hide behind a big piece of plywood, ducking down and pretending to be a weed. I grabbed it, and it bit me, but I wouldn’t let it go. This was a roadrunner, just like on the cartoon, and I had to show my family. So I carried it all the way home and let it go in the back yard.

My mom had a real way with birds, and it wasn’t more than a day before she had it eating out of her hands. The problem was, it liked bugs. So she was constantly sending me out to catch grasshoppers, and that silly roadrunner would squawk and flap its wings and hold its mouth wide open. My parents would laugh hysterically at it, and feed the thing, and then send me out to catch more bugs.

I quickly got tired of catching bugs for the silly bird, and the bird got hungry one day and decided to try and catch its own bugs. Unfortunately, the bug it was trying to catch was in the swimming pool, and the roadrunner was later found floating face down in the pool, drowned. My mother cried, and then scolded me for bringing it home in the first place.

It wasn’t long after that when a friend and I caught a jack rabbit. We were lifting over boards and rocks looking for geckos, and under one big board was the rabbit. My friend dived across the board, trapping it while I reached under and grabbed fur. It came out kicking, and the claws on its hind feet scratched the hell out of my arm. I quickly dropped it into the pillow case we’d brought along (it was the best thing for keeping lizards in out in the field) and it thrashed around inside but couldn’t get out. My friend and I looked at each other and shouted in pure glee. A jack rabbit! How cool was that? No one we knew had ever caught a jack rabbit before!

I promptly took it home and, once inside the house, called my mom and dad. “Mom! Dad! Look what I caught! Look at this!” And I dumped the jack rabbit out of the bag and onto the carpet. I don’t even think my parents got a chance to see it, it was a brown blur that launched itself toward the couch and dived underneath. Oh, but my dog Pepper saw it, though! Boy did he! The chase was on, all around the house at full speed, right over furniture and across tables and under anything and into every room. They knocked over lamps and crashed into doors and pulled curtains off their rods. My mom was yelling and my dad was laughing, and Pepper was barking. I didn’t know what to do.

Mom took matters into her own hands and opened the front door. The rabbit must have come close to breaking the sound barrier going through that doorway. Pepper tried to follow, but only got to the other side of the street before he stopped, panting like mad, knowing the fun was over. But he turned and looked at me, and I swear I could understand the look on his face. He was saying, “That was great! Can we do that again?”

Not long after that we moved to California, and my days of being a desert rat were over. I’ve been back there since, right in that very neighborhood, but the open desert I had explored as a child is now full of convenience stores, supermarkets, and ever-expanding neighborhoods. I wanted to show it all to my kids, but they just didn’t get it. After thirty years the neighborhood looked like a dump and the desert was full of trash.

And I couldn’t find a single horny toad.

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The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream...

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