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Desert nightsnake, Pajarito Mountains, Santa Cruz County, Arizona. Despite its name, this little
serpent feeds mainly on diurnal lizards. (Photo: H. W. Greene)
So Fitch was right: arid landscapes are fascinating, and maybe I'd imprinted on
them as a child, like the orphan goslings that followed ethologist Konrad Lorenz's every
move. I attended first grade in Tucson, where even today Sonoran Desert Gila monsters
tumble into backyard pools and coyotes take the occasional house cat. Kangaroo rats
kicking sand at a sidewinder rattlesnake in Disney's film The Living Desert also cap-
tivated my youthful psyche. And like Henry, as an army medic stationed in El Paso I
coped with wartime uncertainties by poking around Chihuahuan Desert bajadas. Then
in 1971, freshly discharged from the military, I returned with fellow grad student Jerry
Glidewell. We sought Texas alligator lizards in Laguna Meadow and marveled over a
butterscotch-colored Trans-Pecos ratsnake on the road near Terlingua. We braked hard
for a mountain lion in Panther Pass—“It's him, it's him!” Jerry exclaimed—and identified
chunks of glossy snake in a road-killed badger's stomach on the plains near Marfa.
The place was smacking me with priceless moments and I wanted more. Back then
Arlington was a suburb of Fort Worth, nicknamed “where the West begins,” and the poor
sister of glitzy Dallas, thirty miles to the east. What is now one sprawling metroplex
straddles a midcontinental ecotone stretching from Manitoba to Mexico, along which
forest remnants mix with what once was prairie all the way to the western cordiller-
as. The following spring Bill Pyburn's herpetology class visited the Eagle Mountains, an
outlier of the Sierra Madre Oriental one hundred miles southeast of El Paso. On the ten-
hour drive we'd first passed from lush Trinity River bottoms and oak-hickory savannas
into more open country, from trees and moisture surplus to grass and moisture deficit.
Next our van traversed a monotony of ranchlands speckled with oil derricks and the oc-
casional refinery, then finally crossed the Pecos River into Chihuahuan Desert proper. I
was daydreaming about reptiles when Pyburn squinted off to the left, noted the Davis
Mountains' dark jagged profile, and allowed we'd make camp in time for sunset over
the Eagles.
In a photo from that trip I'm smiling from under a straight-brimmed miner's hat
and Pancho Villa-style mustache. Crimson stains dominate one pant leg because that
first night in the Eagles, distracted by an enormous silver moon, I'd collided with a
lechuguilla agave and punctured my shin. For breakfast we washed down Wanda Py-
burn's huevos rancheros with cowboy coffee, then wandered about as worldly cares
faded with the morning shadows. Birds sang from bushes, lizards patrolled cobble piles,
and most other creatures were avoiding the sun. Six-inch centipedes coiled with their
eggs beneath rocky slabs, as if guarding precious jewels. Black-necked gartersnakes
hunkered under boards beside a drying pond, implying that the frogs they eat were
thereabouts too. Glidewell came in for lunch with a venomous Chihuahuan lyresnake
he'd extracted from a crevice and broke out grinning when Bill admitted never having
seen that secretive species. Around a campfire, after dark, we debated careers in scien-
ce and cursed the wildlife biologist we'd met driving in who bragged of killing rattlers.
West Texas got me thinking about how individual lives relate to species' distributions,
a problem that has long fascinated ecologists. Those forays, however, were followed by
a hiatus in which I earned two advanced degrees, landed an academic job, and not once
set foot in any desert. My master's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation were lab based; the
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