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Desert Wash Parade

True Story

Written by Dave Taylor

Was someone burning a sacrifice that displeased their god? Was it the spirits of long-dead Indians forever doomed to wander this arid land?

   "David, stop!"

   I sat on the brakes and the Bronco slid a few inches on the skree of the Jeep trail.

   "What?"

   "Look!" my wife whispered.

   We were off-roading somewhere in the south-eastern corner of the Anza-Borrego desert state park, not too distant from the long abandoned Dos Cabezas railroad station. It was April, and the sun was already sliding toward the horizon, throwing long shadows from ocotilla and cholla. Down below in the wash, where the road crossed, something big writhed against the sand.

   Like a cloud of purplish burgandy smoke, the thing undulated and floated through shadows and sepia-tinted sunlight. Ripples of a pink-tinged luster glistened off the cloud like fingers caressing silk as the vapor squirmed upstream.

   We sat there, the engine idling, our heads together as I looked out across my wife through her open window, whispering as we watched. What could it be? Was it some optical illusion, a cloud passing over the sun too high in the perfectly blue sky for us to see? Was someone burning a sacrifice that displeased their god? Was it the spirits of long-dead Indians forever doomed to wander this arid land?

   The low crimson fog crossed the road in the wash, and I eased the truck down, now my wife looking out across me to see the apparition. When we realized what it was, we turned to each other and bellowed in unison, "Tarantulas!"

   There were hundreds of them, moving in unison. The sun was at just the right angle to glisten off the red hairs on their bodies and legs as they blended together into a single blanket, causing the rippling pinkish glow.

   I pulled the truck up onto the other side of the wash, killed the engine and started to get out.

   "Where you going?"

   "Don'cha wanna see?" I asked.

   "Hell no!"

   "Well, I wanna go and get a closer look."

   "Leave the keys, the wife commanded. (Can they jump?"

   I heard the electric windows slide up as I started back on foot the way we'd come.

   Desert USA.com assures me that Aphonopelma Chalcodes, the American Desert Tarantula, does not migrate. One expert became quite irate when I told him this story. The physical description I give matches the Mexican Red-Legged Tarantulas, which also casts doubt upon the verisimilitude of my story, I've been told.

   Okay, fine, they don't migrate, but back when Interstate 8 was completed through Flinn Springs, just east of the Olde Hiway 80 overpass, every April, tens of thousands of tarantulas would flow down from the sheer cliffs to the south and funnel across the new freeway. The CHPs would have to call a SIG alert, as thousands of tarantulas, crushed under the wheels of speeding cars, made the freeway as slick as ice.

   The tarantulas don't do that any more.

   Considering I don't care for spiders, I felt quite adventurous, following the road back to the wash, all the while looking around me for wayward tarantulas. There was one sitting on top of a boulder right next to the road. It turned its whole body as I passed, apparently watching me with all eight of its eyes. I slid down the surprisingly steep grade into the wash, then checked the road to see if I'd crushed any. Nope, no harm done, right guys? No reason for hard feelings.

   There they were, upstream from me, not that far at all. Slowly I approached the cloud.

   Most of them moved with dogged determination, rhythmically placing one of their eight delicate legs in front of them, then another, then another. Others would pause, then burst erratically off, generally staying with the pack, but firing away in some unpredictable direction, then freezing, as if deciding where to go next.

   I realized that I was a whole lot closer than I cared to be, the rear echelon of the tarantulas now a couple feet away, their bulbous butts round and full. I'd seen enough, and turned downstream to return to the road.

   What greeted my eyes chilled all my adventurous urges.

   Apparently we had not come after the tarantula herd had passed, but had crossed in a mere gap in the parade. There were thousands of tarantulas behind me, coming upstream, so many they burst over the sides of the wash, moving irresistibly towards me. I would not reach the road before them. They were looking at me now, not away. Most did their dogged rhythmic step, but others did that explosive unpredictable charge, towards me.

   I have acquaintances whose pet tarantulas sit on their shoulders as they watch television, sip out of their beer steins as they commiserate together over the fickleness of womenfolk. (The female tarantula will, under the right circumstances, chow down on the male after mating.) These acquaintances urge us all to take into our hearts such a worthy, faithful, loyal companion.

   Not me. My last experience with a tarantula had been on our honeymoon. We were cruising S-2 and stopped at the Mormon Battalian monument in Box Canyon. I said I wanted to cross over the wash there and check out the path the Battalion had hacked through this Canyon a hundred forty years before, stroll along this important piece of history. The wife declined to join me. It turned into quite an unexpected scramble. I made the lower road, built later by the Butterfield Stage Coach people, then took one big step up to the original Mormon Battalion Trail.

   My foot landed within inches of the biggest tarantula north of the Amazon. I mean this sucker was big. My wife could see it from the other side of the gully, especially when it and I started to tango. I screamed and jumped to my other foot that I'd already hefted up from the stagecoach road. The tarantula screamed and jumped into the air, coming down on its four left legs, half an inch from my foot. I continued to scream as I jumped three feet into the air, landing on my other foot. The tarantula also continued to scream as it jumped four feet in the air, landing on it's two front legs, its other six pumping up behind it like a bucking bronco, barely dodging the tread of my boot. After this two second jig, I came squealing like a little girl to the safety of my new wife, who'd watched this whole thing from the safety of the other side, and, quite unsympathetically, laughed at what she still calls my Tarantula Dance of Death.

   And now, with thousands of tarantulas, albeit smaller, coming straight at me, I did not hesitate, but started up the rocky escarpment, scrambling up the sharp boulders that barred my way back to the road and the safety of my Bronco. I made the road without looking back.

   Scratched, bruised and winded, I had to pass that boulder with the lone tarantula sentinel still sitting there, watching me.

As I passed, I think it winked at me with two of its eight eyes.

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