Tag Archives: hiking

Of silence and Sanity

On my way to Craters of the Moon National Monument, where I intend to view the only eclipse of the sun I’m likely to see, I stop in Carey for a cup of coffee, and see how things have changed there in the past three years. The grocery store that gathered a hustle and bustle of customers now collects only tumbleweeds, and the sprawling bar just east of town is out of business. Windows are broken in the front rooms of a slightly frumpy hotel of cabins, which resembles a hotel on Route 66 twenty years after the route was changed. But you’ve got to admire the pluck of Carey’s residents in planting an official sign at the edge of town advising,  “Carey On!” That, it seems, is the theme of my plan into this howling wilderness.

I’ve visited Craters at least eight times in the last twenty years and seldom has it been easy. Once was for a burial of the monument’s former superintendent. Twice on the way to Yellowstone I drove the seven-mile scenic route.  But most of my visits to Craters have led me into the black lava land, that pale green sagebrush landscape in a too-hot or too-cold atmosphere drier than a popcorn cooking pot, or to the back side of nowhere, walking this indescribable land for miles and miles and miles. At some point, when I realized that no place else had the bleakness and spare beauty of Craters of the Moon, it became my kind of place.

I don’t expect forgiveness for my mistakes out in this wilderness. Only people forgive  here: the place forgives no one and I’ve learned to be prepared for anything, as the Boy Scouts say. But if I go in spring, I expect the beauty of flowers and lighting. Blazing star flowers bloom an extravagant yellow under the 180-proof  sunlight. Hot-pink dwarf monkey flowers surprise me. I’m soothed by the flawless perfection of tiny Bitterroot flowers, the off-white buckwheat flowers that dribble across cinder fields like spilt milk, and the lovely white scablands penstemon that grow out of pure lava like a holy flame of promise. Each is out there if I search, and time my visit in May or early June rather than this mid-summer trip.

The blackness of Craters’ night skies has won the distinction of a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park from the International Dark Sky Association. In the crystalline air, the brilliance of the stars testifies to how the Milky Way was named. The air quality, designated Class 1, won’t be allowed by law to degrade. But this also can be a disorienting, deceptive location—for example, when your compass finds the north pole on a magnetic outcrop to the south, or when the seemingly flat, featureless land looks as if it stretches until the end of time but proves to provide rugged terrain fifty feet in front of you. Nights are frigid in winter and days are smacked with heat in the midst of summer, although animals such as bats, owls, snakes, coyotes, deer, antelope, sage grouse, pikas, and dwarf rabbits do just fine, having found favorable micro-habitats.

At the visitors’ center, I’m the first person of the day to fill out a permit to hike into the wilderness and camp at Echo Crater. For that matter, so far nobody else has sought a permit for all of the 43,243-acre Craters of the Moon Wilderness within the much larger national monument and preserve. I’m surprised, because of the hype about the Great American Eclipse happening tomorrow. So I fill my backpack with the stuff I’ll need to survive and drive the seven-mile route to the farthest end. The wilderness looks just the same as it did last year—it has changed very little since its designation in 1970.

I arrive at where the wilderness begins: beyond the modestly developed campsites, beyond the popular and interesting North Crater Trail, beyond the Devils Orchard Nature Trail, the Infernal Cone, all those curious spatter cones, the defined caves, and beyond the absolutely magical Blue Dragon flow to the trailhead. Most people don’t get this far, and a number of my Facebook friends criticized me for considering hiking here in August, when the temperatures are soaring, but I figured (correctly) it would mean few tourists. Even so, I’ve taken my friends’ warnings to heart, having brought along two gallons of water for a two-day trip, even if that seemed excessive.

Underfoot is the crackling crunch that makes walking over cinders sound like marching on cereal. I cross the easily walkable Little Prairie to the cirque of Echo Crater, where I can choose among seven fine campsites under the lava cliffs that loom five hundred feet high. This crater is not a circular hollow cut in stone by glaciers, the true definition of a cirque. It was created by a massive explosion that cast basalt sky-high, leaving a hole in the ground like a  bomb crater. To me, this powerful place embodies the beauty of solitude.

I discovered Echo Crater more than ten years ago, when I temporarily lost my Brittany spaniel, Camas. Searching for her, I climbed to the top of the crater and saw an Edenic green place far below. I called out my dog’s name and heard back, “Camas! Camas! Camas!” Naturally, I immediately liked the name Echo Crater.

Camas and I had hiked here after I had an ischemic stroke in 2000 in a trail-less place in Craters [see “Moonstruck,” IDAHO magazine, February 2013]. I was wounded and wanted silence to figure out what having a debilitating stroke could mean. When I felt recovered, I craved the solitude that Craters of the Moon offered—the wilderness was silent and sane.

I had never been a quiet person, but the stroke forced silence and humility upon me, and I went back to reclaim what I’d lost. That year—after I found Camas beside Echo Crater—we walked through a still and rugged ocean of lava. It was a foolish mission to prove that I still could endure the heat of summer as a stroke survivor.  Camas dragged and panted as we walked through seemingly endless lava in the hundred-degree-plus air temperature, the lava radiating heat in waves above the rock. The heat, surreal and intense, cooked both of us to well done. We came across the merciful shade of a lone and sprawling limber pine., and there we sat. Call it a miracle to find shade in this unforgiving desert or call it luck—we called it a cool place to sleep under a limber pine tree.

We scared a great horned owl from its roost in that pine and it flew out into the hellish day. I wished it luck finding another refuge. I couldn’t see one and prayed for its safety, and for ours. Camas drank water from my cup and I from the jug, and we slept in the shade until the temperature dropped. We woke refreshed–if sweating like a wrung towel can ever seem refreshed—and walked to the other side of the flow in the northern part of Laidlaw Park. There we found a tremendously fresh array of grasses and a few surviving flowers. Beyond, the aspens of Snowdrift Crater grew keen and vigorous in the deep green of the cool evening shade. We carried on from there to my car. I wondered what on earth we were doing in that oven. Camas slept as I drove, and didn’t hear my apology to her.

Now, on my latest visit to Echo Crater, the eclipse of the sun will come in the morning. I find the very best camping spot below soaring cliffs in the shade of a grove of tall limber pines. I shelter in a rock stadium that’s flat and cool in the midst of the harsh high desert. The quiet of the place seems eerie compared to my city life in Boise, until hornets come buzzing to my campsite. What are they doing here? Water, of course! They need water and my sweat must seem sweet to them, God forbid. They must have come from a source of water, I surmise, but the closest spring, Yellowjacket Waterhole, is a small seep that can serve little more than one of its namesake bugs. I’ve seen yellowjackets at that bit of water, but it’s more than a mile from here.

I put out a dish of water for them, far away from my sleeping spot, which works for a few minutes, until they find the sugar on my trail snacks and return. But all they really need is water and sugar, and they seem friendly enough. For hornets. I sleep and wake several times in Echo Crater as the day cools and the hornets investigate me.

A group of four sage thrashers swoop and land on a nearby rock outcrop. They hop-scotch in the air and land on another boulder. It goes on like that for a minute or so until they see me watching and stop their game. “Silly birds,” I call to them. They quickly fly to another set of perches, watch me for a moment or two and soon become oblivious. Above, a group of twelve or thirteen mourning doves fly in a military formation around the crater and land in an apparent nesting spot on the side of the cliff. They coo and oooh, circle again and again, and fly out of the crater in that same tight formation, as if flung from a sling.

Some years back, I was on the east side of the national monument, amid tall sagebrush and puffs of Great Basin wild rye grasses, when an eclipse of the moon occurred. As the moon appeared and then slowly was effaced by the earth’s shadow, the world came to a simple stop without the moon as its partner, and I held my breath without thinking. Then the moon glanced out beyond the shadow and slipped, sliver by sliver, back to its silvery self again. I wondered what the ancient philosophers would have said of the moon disappearing.

On Little Prairie with Echo Crater as my backdrop, I prepare myself for the eclipse of the sun. Little Prairie is a kipuka (the Hawaiian word for “window,” I’ve been told) that runs from the end of the road out beyond Echo Crater. When the Craters of the Moon lava was molten about two thousand years ago, which is recent in geologic time, Little Prairie lay a bit higher than the flow and thus escaped it. But this prairie was covered in lava much older than that, and by now has weathered enough to support plants. It’s a window into the ecological past isolated from the severe livestock grazing impacts on the Snake River plain.

There are three hundred of various sizes in Craters of the Moon. In Little Prairie, I’ve seen gopher snakes, sagebrush lizards, ground squirrels, woodchuck, bats, deer, northern harriers, ravens, doves, and many other birds. Sage grouse sign is plentiful. Ecologists have documented an impressive number of species living in Craters: three hundred plants, two thousand insects, thirty mammals, fourteen birds, eight reptiles and one amphibian, the western toad. It’s good to know there are places in our world where animals still can live relatively undisturbed by surrounding human impacts.

The sun rises and casts a brilliant flame-red glow on the crater’s wall, highlighting the chartreuse and saffron colors in a large patch of lichens growing there. Sunlight pours down the lava wall and warms me when it falls to my level. I clutch my cup of coffee with both hands, sip the liquid joyously, and awaken to this quiet light show. Soon I climb to the top of the crater to watch the eclipse.

As I wait for the show to begin, I wander toward a group of trees in the distance. I cross three parallel cracks in the Great Rift, which are roughly twenty to eighty feet deep and about 100 feet wide. Each travels less than a mile, starting and stopping irregularly and continuing on. Together they form a portion of the Great Rift that travels 60 miles in a north-south direction. These cracks indicate a weakness in the earth’s crust and are the origin of many lava flows throughout the region, including several flows in Craters of the Moon. There are many parallel cracks, some of which hold water and ice tucked in their floors, which is critical information for a person hiking here in the middle of summer.  I think the doves must have found water in these cracks when they flew out of Echo Crater.

Reaching the trees, I notice that they stand in a slightly lower place on the land, in a kipuka that might hold a pool of water in rainy times or snow in the spring. In any case, the depression is deep enough for trees to have germinated. A Clark’s nutcracker flies from a tree and squawks at me. The bird looks stately in its mantle of gray and black, a white flash of excellence on its tail. These trees must be a summer home for the nutcracker.  I root around and find pretty shards of the Blue Dragon flow: the rich cobalt color is from titanium on the surface of the rock as it cooled thousands of years ago. How it shimmers! Magpie that am, I drop a piece into my pocket, but better person that I occasionally am, I pull it out and throw it back on the ground. The nutcracker watches. They are like that: so judgmental. This one crackles at me—khaa, khraa, kaaa—and flies to tell its story to some wizard of the rock.

When the eclipse is roughly ninety-eight percent complete, I walk back to the crater in the superb silence. A cool breeze blows and crickets have begun to chirp. The darkness deepens but my shadow remains sharp and I take several photos of burned trees to give the sense of the sunburst effect. In seconds, a sharp light comes from around the sun. The temperature rises and the chirping stops. The only lingering proof of the eclipse is polarized light on limber pines and a bat flying erratically, as bats do, confused at the leaving and coming of sunlight in such a short period.

“Erratic” is a good word for the protection of Craters of the Moon’s landscape. In 1924, it was proclaimed as a roughly 54,000-acre national monument by President Hoover, with the support of a wild raconteur named Robert Limbert and a well-spoken USGS geologist Harold Stearns. They coined the name Craters of the Moon, giving the area rhetorical pizazz and a look-to-the-sky sort of appeal. Limbert lobbied for the monument designation in Washington, D.C., and wrote a spirited article for National Geographic, which added strong public support for protection of the area.

The smaller wilderness area was designated in 1970, and then in 2000, a proclamation by President Clinton expanded the national monument to a seemingly endless sea of 750,000 acres of lava and kipukas. A few years later, the area was legislatively re-designated as a combined national monument and national preserve, which acknowledged the opinions of ranchers and motorized vehicle users. The bill was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President, giving it more full-bodied support than that of a presidential proclamation.

Within the monument and preserve are 495,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), which contain mostly pure lava with a few acres of grasslands that easily could be supported for their wilderness qualities by the state legislature and the U.S. Congress. A WSA is a Bureau of Land Management category of land management. Each WSA is being studied for wilderness designation and until that study is complete, no actions can be advanced to diminish its wilderness value. WSAs do not have a clear management purpose, which means until Congress acts on their behalf, they can only be managed as pseudo-wilderness.

When I think of wilderness, what comes to mind first is the wicked land in Craters of the Moon. I was gladdened and surprised by the Idaho Legislature’s support of a plan for the original 54,000-acre national monument to be turned into a national park. The land would get better funding for campgrounds, interpretation, road repairs, wilderness management, scientific studies, collaborative meetings, and outreach publicity. The closest communities, such as Carey and Arco, would get the benefits of increased visitation to a national park, which always draws more interest than a national monument. I hope it will give businesses in Carey and Arco a glimmering chance of survival, even while designating more wilderness in Idaho.

Craters of the Moon is a unique place on our planet. In its razor-sharp lava, in its infinite but broken blackness, in its solitude and the stark splendor of cinder cones, in the twilit caves and naturally formed rock bridges, in that mystical Blue Dragon flow, but most of all in the delicacy of the plants and in the animals that eke out their lives there, it is unique. In all of this, there is beauty—plus, wonderful stories endure of people who fought against the lava while coming to settle Idaho and Oregon. I believe that care for Craters demands we protect all of the existing species of plants and animals in that dry environment, even while we wisely interpret its weird volcanic history, invite tourists into the region, and help people around Craters to survive in a tough economy.

There are many odd tales to tell about Craters, some of them equal parts comical and wonderful, some of them akin to lies that have never been debunked. But what do you or I really know about the Bridge of Tears, Amphitheater Cave, Vermillion Chasm, the sad story of Kings Bowl, the Alice in Wonderland curiosity that might be found in a trip to Lasso Cave, or the almost comical Bridge of the Moon? All we can do is go, learn—and be careful in Craters of the Moon, where more than one person has died out in the elements. Nevertheless, as the nearby townsfolk would have it, we simply need to “Carey On!”


A Tale of Craters of the Moon          (short version)

The Land 

          Craters of the Moon is fabulous place for a heap of black rock.  It’s a big piece of land, make no mistake, with 3/4 of a million acres of this odd lava formation that exists by Ketchum in southeast Idaho.  Craters is a uniquely weird and seemingly impaired landscape.  You may want to speed up when your goal is to drive to Yellowstone National Park north of Craters, because it is hot, damned hot–roll up your windows and hit the air conditioning hot–and it looks like nothing more than a patch of gray vomit out there on the countryside.  However, if you stop, you’re in for a treat. 

            We went there—four of us all professional environmentalists Doug Schnitzspahn, Katie Fite, Miquel Fredes, and I—to support protection for the national monument.  It is a very dry, desolate place that is full of broken lava and walking over the land sounds like someone walking on a clattering batch of broken teacups and saucers.  We advocated protecting Craters as an enlarged national monument (from 50,000 to about 775,000 acres) to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and President Clinton.  Now the four of us were out there to look around and get to know the landscape better.  I had been there several times before and I had seen the beautiful Laidlaw Park Kipuka–it was 50 thousand acres of grassland surrounded by lava.  There were cinder cones and shield volcanoes, spindle bombs and the Blue Dragon lava, caves running through the landscape and the Crystal Ice Cave that once held vast stalactites, and natural arches formed of lava. 

            We were ambitious and wanted to protect Craters of the Moon for all time.  This was the seed we had planted with the aim that we could win everything if only we tried. These were the salad days, as Shakespeare said, when we were green in soul and cold at heart.  And what we wanted we deserved to get, by God!  In those days I was full of piss and vinegar, ego and good wine; I was one tough cookie, one tough cabajero, a don’t-mess-with-me kinda guy.

My stroke

            But then I had a stroke out in the wilderness of Craters of the Moon; it was as unexpected as a sneeze.  As we hiked over the teacups and saucers of lava we got a little separated—it was cold and the rain came mixed with snow and sleet and everyone had their hoods over their heads. I was wandering a bit and just like that, I stumbled and fell.  But it really wasn’t merely a stumble because immediately I couldn’t stand up, couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t think straight.  My friends had passed on ahead of me. So I lay there, going nowhere.  Thinking and not thinking.  For an hour, for two, for three, for awhile anyway; but after only a minute I knew I was in terrible, terrible trouble.   I cried and cried within an hour because I didn’t know what had happened to me.  I thought about dying, because who would find me in this trailless, wicked place?  I thought about my father who had died from brain cancer and the stroke that came from it, and I realized that maybe my father’s fate would also be mine as evening closed in on daylight.

            However, my friends found me in a few hours by walking in a line and going over and over the path where we had gone before.  Katie ran some miles back to the car and drove for an hour or more to find a home where some people were able to call and arrange for a helicopter to land in the rugged terrain of Craters of the Moon and get me flown to the hospital 80 miles away.  Miguel and Doug watched me while Katie left and talked with me until the group of rescuers came with flashlights to save my sorry ass as a helicopter landed in a grassy place nearby.  I was taken to the hospital in Pocatello.

Recovering the Land and myself

            When I woke up the next morning a doctor whispered in my face: “Mike, Mike can you hear me?”  I nodded, thinking, duh, of course I do.  “You’ve had a stroke and you’re paralyzed.”  No, I’m not; don’t be silly, doctor.  At least that was what I was thinking but I couldn’t respond in words.  I nodded, understood nothing.  And the doctor disappeared in a poof of smoke.

            Now I have to tell you that the most powerful thing in the world is laughter, the support of friends, and a place to go to find yourself when you’re lost.  So I would like to tell you a couple of funny and somewhat ironic stories.

            The first came when a therapist came to work with me; her beauty was a gift.  I was in a hospital room recovering and she set a bag of cosmetics on the bathroom sink and asked me to pick up an item and use it.  So I picked up one and began to brush my teeth with it.  It was a basic thing to do, you know I was in the bathroom and at the sink and it was a pretty mundane action. 

            “No,” she said, “that’s for your hair.  It’s a comb.”


            She motioned for me to scrape it across my head and I did.  “You were thinking about a toothbrush.  That’s this other item.”

            “Oh, yeh, a toot brush for my toots.”

            “Right, its for your teeth.”  I was very embarrassed and I had to learn all of life again, it seemed.

            Another time, after less than a month after I returned to Boise, I had a meeting with a neurologist and I went with a friend and my mother.  The neurologist asked me to tell me about myself and my family.  “How many siblings do you have?” he said.

            “I’ve got three kids and I’m married to a very nice woman.”  Keep in mind that I couldn’t speak quite as clearly as that—I spoke in broken words—but that is what I was trying to say. 

            “How about the rest of your family, your mother and father?” he said. 

            “They’re fine.”  I pointed to my mother.

            My mother broke in, agast.  “Mike, you have no children and no wife, unless you’re holding out on me.  And your father died many years ago.”

            “Oh yeh, that’s true isn’t it?”


            “I’ll remember dat.  No kids, no wife, and no father, got that.  Doctor, will I ever get better?”

            “Yes you will,” he said “but it will all be up to you.”

            A third time when a woman brought me cookies to my home in Boise.  There was a lull in our conversation.  “Mike,” she said.  “Can you, uhm. Can you get a stiffy?”

            I was stunned.  “Huh?”

            “You know, can you still get a, a uh, you know, a stiffy?”

            I coughed and tried to regain a little composure to tell her the truth.  But I really didn’t know what it was.  “Yeth, of course I can.” 

            “Oh, I was just, uhm, wondering a little bit,” she said.

            “Yeth.  It’s natural question.” But now I was wondering whether I could get a stiffy.  And naturally, I went to the internet, after performing a little experiment on myself that went surprisingly well.  The internet suggested that just about all stroke victims can have sex as long as they aren’t terribly depressed about doing so.  So I learned not to be depressed….

            I found a need to go back to Craters of the Moon to understand the condition of the land that I had loved and to recover from my stroke.   I hiked on the route of Robert Limbert the man who, in 1924, had lobbied in Washington DC for the protection of the original 54,000 acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and that President Clinton had expanded to 737,000 acres.  I was speaking, thinking, walking, and thriving just as the larger national monument was beginning to recover.  Rare species were becoming more common and I found some of the secrets in Craters: the caves and arches and beautiful lava formations, animals and plant communities that are thriving there.  I’ve learned to love the silence of the land and to be a bit less egotistical in my endeavors.  But no less ardent for protecting the wildness of the land.  This is the tale of wilderness and the lesson of earning my own wellness from its absence.

In the Sesesh

The Wild Heart of Idaho!

The Secesh (pronounced Sea-sesh like a seashell), Buckhorn, and French Creek wild areas comprise the most scenic, most untamed, geologically and biologically diverse areas in the wild heart of Idaho, near McCall.  The U.S. Forest Service has recommended 225,000 acres of these areas as wilderness; that’s big, but it’s a pittance.  In my 25 years of working to protect Idaho’s 9 million acres of roadless areas as wilderness, it has been these three areas that have inspired the most enthusiasm to continue my advocacy to protect them.  They are stunningly beautiful but accessible, and are surrounded by more roving, wild lands, one mountain range after another.  If this appeals to you, well then, read on!

Each has significant opponents and threats to the wild nature of the land.  In French Creek it is logging projects and road construction, that are now on hold.  In the Buckhorn and Secesh areas there is a slowly renewing ardor for logging and the growth of both motorized and non-motorized vehicle use in this sublime landscape.  On the Payette National Forest, where these wilderness values exist, there is a growing indifference to the loss, as weak conservationists look elsewhere to find support for easier places to protect.

The Secesh Crest of unroaded lands, (including the Secesh, Buckhorn and French Creek wild areas) is surrounded by the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Caton Creek, Salmon River Breaks, Patrick Butte, and the Seven Devils Wilderness among others.  Taken as a group, all of these areas are the preeminent place in Idaho for providing migration of wildlife from Montana to Oregon along the Salmon River system in this warming world.  The intact landscape supports a remarkable number of animals: wolves, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, lynx, bears, martin, wolverine, fisher, salmon, trout, steelhead, migratory birds ospreys, eagles, bluebirds, and in lesser numbers, people.

The elevation runs from 3,400 feet to above 9,000 feet at Loon peak–from grasses at lower elevation to above treeline. This includes lodgepine pine, Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine, spruce, larch, aspen, and up to whitebark pine near the rocky summit.  This region is extremely rugged and includes Victor Peak, Loon Peaks, and Storm Peak where a number of spectacular lakes occur: Enos, Twenty mile, Storm, Victor, Burnside, Hum, Box, Buckhorn, Cly, Prince, Tsum, Maki lakes and many, many others.  Look at their names and you will learn: Hum is said to be named for the humming of mosquitoes; Storm peak for the violence of the winters in the peak’s vicinity.  The Secesh River and the South Fork Salmon River flow through the Secesh wild area, beside the Buckhorn Creek region, both of which protect critical salmon and steelhead habitat.  

The name “Secesh” comes some of the rich history of the region that was originally settled by secessionists at the end of the American Civil War.  The name recalls the way that the people in central Idaho would like to live and see themselves as being—independent, gun-toting, and free.  That is all illusionary, of course, as everyone living here depends on the largesse of federal subsidies for their very survival, but in nearby towns of Secesh Meadows, Warren, and Yellowpine the concerns of local citizens about access and fire threats have to be heard or a shootout, or more likely, a lawsuit, may ensue.

What is the future of this splendid western land?  I can’t tell you, after 25 years of trying to divine its fate, but these things I can tell you: all of your outspoken opinions will count in both the short and long run.   Your silence will count on the other side.  And by-and-by, it will be decided somewhere in the middle, in due time.  How much time is “due time” will depend upon how much noise we can make in the short time.  If you would like to join us at the Secesh Wildlands Coalition contact me at mikecmedberry@msn.com  There is a poster that I will send you if you ask and we are considering publishing a book on the wild Secesh country within a year.


The Gila Monster Arrives

The Gila Monster Arrives
I went to the Gila River in Southwest New Mexico on a search for a Gila Monster on Earth Day. Gila Monsters are pretty rare so I figured that I wouldn’t see one but what the heck, I might. I talked to everyone I could find, well, in the bars around Santa Fe and Silver City New Mexico and asked if they knew where a Gila Monster could be found. A biologist working at REI (go figure…) suggested a place outside Silver City, Turkey Creek, where she saw one last year. An amazing piece of luck!
Santa Fe was kinda boring and a bit high-brow for me to hang out looking for a single woman to dance with or drinking the $10 beer, so I took off to Silver City and found a drunk or two to ask about Gila Monsters. I found a drunk in Silver City who said “Sure, I know where you can find a Gila Monster because I’ve seen many of them.”
“Yeh, right,” I said.
“No, seriously, you go down to the Gila River and walk into the Gila Wilderness and along the river you will see Gila Monsters laying on the rocks beside the river, practically littering the river banks.”
That sounded like a tall tale, like the guy had changed the story from one with bikinis on the beach at Santa Monica to one that fit the thing I wanted to see, but you know, whatever, I had nothin’ better to do. However, the wilderness was up the Gila River from the point that he put his finger on, not downstream, where I was headed.
Another person said she hadn’t seen one and suggested going to search in Arizona. Another guy thought that they should be in New Mexico, probably around the Gila Wilderness but he was more interested in making a pathetic pool table shot and made one that flew off the table. (I told him that in my bar, in Idaho, that move wouldda cost him five bucks.) Arizona is a big place so I just thanked him, took his free beer, and headed out to the Gila River after sleeping in my car on the edge of a vast arroyo. It was a crap shoot to head out for the river, but I got a cup of coffee and drove through a uhm, slight hangover.

I walked along the river and combed the rocky banks for the elusive Gila Monster, feeling like I was on a goddamm snipe hunt. Then I crossed a water diversion and went up an arroyo that was full of big boulders and channels that water had built. It looked, well, kind of monsterish with enormous rocks cast about. About half an hour upstream I looked before me and there was a Gila Monster lollygagging accross the gravel bar. I almost stepped on it! I was incredulous and very excited to see this foot-and-a-half, poisonous lizzard that my father had told me about 35 years ago, crawling right before me! That’s a Gila Monster: it’s body was about as svelte as a sausage, its color was orange-and-pepto-bismo pink with stark black bands across its bee-bee studded body. Its tail was thick and its thick, black tongue slipped in and out of its wide mouth to sense the world like a rattlesnakes. The Gila Monster seemed a prehistoric character out of a comic book or a portrait from the artists in Santa Fe on Canyon Road, it just didn’t seem real.

I watched it for two hours during which he or she ate a birds egg under a bush that I’d scared it to. It swallowed the whole egg after chewing on it for a couple bites and found it impossible to break. What the hell, go for it Lizzie. I figured that my bothering it had resulted in its getting the egg, so I figured that we each had a good experience. My quest weekend was cut short by finding the prize of the quest, the lizzard that I would never have dreamed to find. But the weekend had its other high points: pronghorn antelope along the road, a rattlesnake in my trail, and a stunningly gorgeous mountain kingsnake along a road with red, white, and yellow bands on it. However, the Gila Monster was the best thing that Earth Day could provide me with: a seemingly mythic animal that was out on the earth and very much alive. We left in peace, the sweet little monster one way and me the other.