Photo by Jose Sepulveda on Unsplash

Introduction to the Desert

(Another November trip down memory lane; a duck hunter abroad in alien territory. From a new hunter’s log I opened that year…)

November 12, 1976 — There were certain ironies in the purchase. I had an ID card showing me to be a bonafide member of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. I had keys in my possession to open department headquarters and shut off the security squealer. But I ponied up $30 for a non-resident hunting license because you have to be here six months to be a resident. I have begun settling in. I still have no assignment…R., a secretary in one of the divisions rented me a mother-in-law apartment out back of her adobe home downtown, almost to the tenderloin.

I’ve been looking at houses and talking to real estate agents. One of them is a sexy little brunette, a friend of R.’s, who has already taken me to dinner. R. thinks she likes me as more than a prospective customer. Jesus Christ! But it would be foolish to scorn the flirtation — never scorn a woman’s advances, imagined or otherwise — so I just let the little touches and long smoldering looks go by as if I don’t get it.

Today I spent a little better than three dollars for some twenty-gauge shot shells because I left my twelve-gauge Lefever locked in my office when I left work. The sporting goods dealer called some agency that lists everybody in the world, evidently, by driver’s license number, and guaranteed my check on my new Phoenix bank account. Then I went hunting with Jeane Floyd (male, hence the “e” on the end) another real estate agent showing me houses, who was going to introduce me to desert quail-hunting. Out in the high desert, he warned me to steer clear of cholla and pointed out sluggish tarantulas in the dusty roads of the National Forest without Trees, which is what I dubbed the Tonto. He skidded to a halt to tenderly move a comatose tarantula out of harm’s way, explaining 70-degree temps were too cold for it.

The Tonto desert is not entirely without trees. There’s the ubiquitous mesquite and an occasional intruding juniper on the higher ridges, plus willows and cottonwoods in the river bottoms. But it certainly took no effort to know I was in a desert, particularly with majestic saguaro standing everywhere like alien monuments. All the land’s thorny low-lying ground cover and cactus are spaced widely, as if laid out by a careful gardener. Jeane says it is natural selection, to avoid sharing moisture when it rains. The hills were round-shouldered and all the shrubs tough and thorny. I managed to avoid the cholla, but Fritz, Jeane’s German Shorthair pointer, did not. He would stand patiently, a huge lovely dog, while Jeane wielded the pliers when a cholla got him. The barbs go in, hook, and stay in. Pliers are required equipment.

It was about 75 degrees. Sweat dried evaporatively, to use a redundancy, making hikes up the side hills almost pleasant. But the solid carpeting of jagged rocks, rolling and turning, made real ankle-breaking terrain. Jeane said a man he hunted with, about my size, fell and broke his leg out here, and they had hell retrieving him. I could easily believe that. Canteen water, even indifferent agua from Phoenix, tasted like sweet nectar after a drying jaunt. You could sell Pacific Northwest water for two dollars a quart.

The Gambel’s quail were an education. They flushed 200 yards ahead in 50-bird coveys, luring us deeper into the desert, answering Jeane’s quail call in their peculiar three-note whistle that has no resemblance to Florida bobwhites. Those dark-masked, top-knotted cocks looked rakish sprinting through the brush. I had one — one — sit and flush. I missed, of course, with the .222/20 gauge; I never tried wing-shooting with a scope before. Jeane got two tries at quail and missed. A rabbit jumped and flagged up a steep slope but never stayed visible long enough for me to trigger a 50-grain Hornady off through the dry air.

Jeane shot a little desert cottontail, then discarded it when slug-like parasites crawled out of its neck fur. I felt my skin crawl, reminded again I was in a truly alien environment. The Game and Fish guys tell me parasites don’t harm the edibility; just clean them off. But! But again, as Mama said, and you’ll but your brains out. In other words, no thank you very much. We must have seen 500 birds in big coveys trotting smartly away. We would vault out of Jeane’s little Datsun pickup and chase them. Every time, they outdistanced us. Fritz seemed doubtful there was cholla in the country that gave his breed birth. I never saw cholla over there, Fritz.

The desert scenery was admittedly spectacular. The cooling effect of evaporating sweat was a pleasant surprise. I wore barbed-wire shredded Levis and denim cowboy shirt with my faded canvas vest, plus that olive-drab straw cowboy hat from Amarillo I bought for dove-hunting. My Vibram-soled hiking shoes are right as to traction, but too loose with one pair of socks. My feet almost blistered by the end of the footsore day. The desert winter sun slanted right in my eyes; sunglasses weren’t enough to block it. Jeane said people who hunt Gambel’s quail are seldom overweight. I can see why. We saw several nice flocks of ducks above Bartlett Lake, almost a mud puddle this time of year. And we watched high cirrus outriders of a predicted cold front move in from the far Pacific, pale banners in the sun.

My first day hunting in the desert was pleasant, and there is a pleasant soreness in leg muscles from those mad dashes up dry washes in and out of the mesquite and prickly pear and saguaro after those handsome, elusive birds. I told Jeane whatever happens next, that’s one more day afield nobody can take away from me.

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.