Letter From The Desert: Adventures in dog-walking

This morning, up far too late to take advantage of optimal pavement temperature, we went out briefly. Rabbits scattered needlessly. Unless a rabbit is under her nose, she won’t bother. For the first year of our partnership she enjoyed finding rabbits beneath cheesebush and creosote, flushing them out of cover and watching them run. Eventually, though, she moved on to other hobbies. This year it is desert iguanas. Their lives stoked by the “superbloom” of five months ago, they have grown prodigiously in both number and body mass. In addition, they rarely run farther than the next shrub, which makes for better sport, though I never allow her to actually make the catch. By contrast, cottontails will streak away for a dozen or twenty yards, and jackrabbits make it to the next county by the time she can even think about reacting. The jackrabbits make long, lazy parabolas across the desert, for all their deliberate haste seeming to float above the grass and chollas, like passenger airliners wafting slowly onto tarmac. The dog is interested in none of it.

By the time we got outside it was too late for the iguanas as well; they had retreated to holes or the depths of well-armed shade patches beneath cacti.

The huge shepherd mix up the street who roars upbarkiously at Heart, was likewise nowhere to be seen. She stared at his fenced yard, seemingly a bit miffed at his absence. The only thing doing in the neighborhood was cicada noise, and whatever full and hidden story of the landscape revealed itself to the dog through scents too dim for me to notice.

We walked slowly uphill toward the National Park. She slowed even further, and then stopped. Looked plaintively at me. I nodded, and wordlessly we turned, headed back toward the house a few hundred feet away.

A canine form drifted out of our front yard, crossed three quarters of the road, stopped and looked at us. Heart saw it after a moment. Her head lost its droop, her ears stood at attention, she began to pull at her harness.

Coyote.

Last night, we had just come in from our walk, standing in the front room with the door still open. when they started singing. We paused. Another wordless moment.

She has been a little cautious at night, and so have I. Last week, walking in bright moonlight a mile from the house and some distance away from any human habitations, we were brought up short by a harsh buzzing sound from the road ahead. As bright as it was, near full, the moon was nonetheless insufficient to identify the snake by sight, but to recount a conversation I had with a herpetologist friend two days later:

“Heart and I got rattled at the other night by what I’m pretty sure was a Mojave green.”
“Did it have a black and white tail?”
“Couldn’t see it. But it rattled at us when we were still like 30 feet away.”
“Ha. Yep. Sounds like a Mojave green all right.”

Technically speaking, the snake is properly called a Northern Mohave Rattlesnake, one of the few cases in which I will consent to using the “H” spelling of Mojave, which is otherwise an intolerable Arizonan barbarism. Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus. Unlike other local rattlesnakes, the northern Mohave’s venom contains a neurotoxin, making it the most deadly venom of any rattlesnake. Fatalities from snakebite are relatively rare among humans with access to immediate medical care. (For pitbulls a two-hour drive away from the nearest emergency vet, probably not so much.) The snakes are sometimes green — see for yourself — though not reliably so. But I like calling them Mojave greens, and look forward to joining the inevitable political party named after them as long as it’s as steadfast and combative as its namesake.

Reassuringly, Heart did a nice little leap backward when the snake started to rattle. She took almost no persuasion to give the critter a nice wide berth. It may be that the red racer she’d found in the living room a few hours earlier had primed her for being cautious about snakes.

Eleven years ago, during my first full summer in the Mojave, a Mohave green greeted me in the language of her people in the middle of a hot and disconsolate hike through the Joshua tree forests of southern Nevada. I was mourning the loss of a dog and a marriage, possibly in that order though I am not honestly sure. The rattler vibrated the self-absorption out of me for a time. Now, my life has healed and the world of people is coming further apart, and this snake did almost exactly the same thing.

There were two summers after that first one spent ill-advisedly in Los Angeles, and yet, even allowing for those, we are in the middle of my tenth full summer in the California desert. It is a milestone I would not have thought possible as I packed my things into that storage locker in Barstow in May of 2008. I was certain I would simply dissipate into the unblinking Mojave night. Now that night is home: scary monsters and pitbulls and all.