Jay and I moved to Gold Canyon Arizona roughly 5 years ago now. Immediately, the surrounding nature and wildlife let us know that, not only were we not living ALONE out here in the desert but, they had ALL been here for a lot longer so THEIR regular habits were NOT going to change overnight. If we didn’t want javelina or rabbits in the planters, rooting up and eating everything, well, we shouldn’t plant green flowery things like its a buffet in them should we?! I knew from my time working for the Phoenix Zoo that this was no ordinary patch of desert we had landed on. This eco system was thriving! It wasn’t long before the entire cast of usual and unusual suspects made their appearance. Literally the first night we moved in there was a huge scorpion on the wall by the front door greeting us. It was a sign of what was to come.
The first time I saw a bobcat was by my living room window. All alone in the house that day, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what appeared to be a tiger casually strolling by! It was the stripes that threw me, stripes and the white dots on the ears. I froze, terrified a tiger was next to the house! Not sure why but I was relieved when I realized it was “only” a bobcat. I said to myself “uh wait…that bobcat just walked through here without a care in the world…” obviously this wasn’t this cat’s first stroll around “our” property. Sighting’s like this prompted us to buy trail cameras to hang around the property so we could see who, or what was coming by for a visit day or night! I have to admit, to this day it’s a mix of fear and excitement every time we grab the cameras to view the footage.
One morning a coyote walked up the steps and casually crossed over the patio after a failed attempt at catching a rabbit. It stood on our hilltop majestically scanning the area below as the sun glistened off its thick fur. Glorious moment indeed. I felt like I was in the presence of an Alpha male or female. So far the largest group of coyote we have seen together at one time on the property was 6 of them cruising through the lower acre in the back one early morning, most likely heading into the wash to go hide and sleep off a night’s worth of prowling. But on our trail cameras at night, at the water hole we provide, there has only been one coyote coming for a drink at a time. We cannot say for certain whether it’s the same coyote coming every time, however, the more footage we get, the better we will be able to recognize subtle differences. Coyote look like coyote. If I told you I saw a dog you would ask what kind, how big, color etc… If I told you I saw three coyote, what do you picture? Three of the same animal right? They aren’t that easy to identify if you don’t have them all in a line-up.
I had no idea what a Mule deer was until I moved out here to Gold Canyon. I thought deer in Arizona lived in the higher elevations. I was wrong. They seem to happily and safely live on the nearby golf courses where there is plenty of shade, water and grasses to munch and hunting is not allowed. They might get hit by a golf ball, but actually the real danger locally for the deer are coyote, bobcat and the Mountain Lions or a fast car. Mule deer are good sized deer and will easily feed a large predator or pack. We have watched a few of these deer travel through our property from time to time but we have not seen any during the day or night on camera near the water bowl. Nor have we seen a Mountain Lion either but we know they are in the local area from photos shared online.
Honestly most of my desert life growing up I hadn’t seen many animals at all, just lizards. Born in Las Vegas and raised in the high desert of Southern California, I would have been that person who would have said “the desert sucks, its boring, Baker has a huge thermometer… blah blah blah…” I hated it and openly told everyone “If I die and you bury me in the desert I will come back and haunt you!” I can honestly say even while working for the Phoenix Zoo I avoided the Arizona Trail like the plague, especially when we had to walk over for “Creature Features” where I was expected to talk about the animals for 15 minutes straight! I knew virtually nothing but the basics anyone could look up like how long they lived. Studying didn’t seem to help me at all. I would always try to include a Zoo guest by asking them questions about things they had experienced or knew first hand getting them to fil the time with a much better story than mine! All I wanted to do was get back over to the Giraffe deck and feed Giraffes! It took moving way out to the East side of the Valley, long after I had left working for the Zoo to travel the states a bit, to discover I would fall madly in love with… the desert! We just hadn’t officially met yet. Apparently I needed to live in THIS part of the desert, live with it ALL and by all I mean ALL OF IT before I would wake up to just how magical being “desert” really is. I was a part of it and had been all along. I was born in the desert. Try as I might through the years to live by the coast, I simply can’t be transplanted successfully for long. I need hot dry air, lots of space, rocks and things to hike over and climb under big open blue skies. I am desert.
We have a roadrunner that sleeps in our garden gazebo in the top left or right corner depending on it’s mood. I enjoy roadrunners and will watch intently whenever one is near. They make unique sounds and their quirks and their mannerisms are fun for a rather large bird. Roadrunners beat the hell out of their prey. I’ve filmed a lizard beating more than once while simultaneously fascinated and horrified. The other birds don’t seem to care for roadrunners period and will sit up in the tree tops screeching at it if it comes near. I had the same response when I zoomed in and found out how a scorpion eats! Watching their claws/pinchers is nothing short of terrifying and I’m beyond grateful neither are not much larger creatures!
Nature is brutal there is no denying that. From my perspective here on the hilltop, it seems animal code is still more fair than humans. I can’t say that I’ve witnessed violence simply for violence sake when it comes to all of the animals I’ve seen and videoed out here. Killing is a result of hunger or protecting a territory, not personal anger or jealousy and overall ends quickly. It all appears pretty straight forward. I have watched as the javelina herd protected and successfully fended off the coyote pack who had circled them and were getting too close to their babies. It was a face off ending with no animal hurt and the coyote giving up and trotting off figuring there was no need to fight to the death. Physical power with sharp teeth and numbers versus slick, fast moving, semi vicious gangsters. It became too much effort for not enough pay off leaving the gangsters to go find a meal elsewhere. Done. Everyone back to normal. It is was it is. The food chain. Where you are in it matters and effects daily life. How you behave in it matters. How well you see and hear and smell all matters. How well you can run or fight. You don’t have to be big in size in the desert or in nature in general to be able to ward off an attack. Some creatures send that serious signal of “you don’t want to play with me” simply by what color they are. Rarely can a creature in the desert get away with bright colors unless it has no need to camouflage. Prime example is a Tarantula Hawk. Bright orange wings, blue black body, immobilizes a tarantula and drags it off to use as a host. Comes with one of the worst stings known.
There is extreme beauty and harmony in the deserts natural rhythm as well. The Saguaro bloom flowers for roughly the entire month of May. Those flowers bloom feeding countless birds and bees. In the arms of the Saguaro we have filmed baby Great Horned Owls, Screech Owls, Cactus Wren, Gila Woodpeckers and more all creating homes while creating babies safely up high. The Saguaro’s flowers, very much like the fruits and flowers from the prickly pear, wither and die leaving a fruit that again multiple animals including humans consume. Those seeds get spread allowing more Saguaro to grow. Saguaro only grow in a very limited area of the desert, known to live for a good hundred years withstanding extreme heat, high winds and drought. It takes a lot to not only live in the desert but to thrive in it. The sunrises and sunsets are pure art. The shadows over the mountain, the clouds rolling through, the smell after it rains, the chorus of birds, Gold Canyon is beautiful.
Day after day we were either seeing animals, hearing animals or finding parts or bones of animals. My collection of parts, pieces, and now even full animals grew rapidly. A jaw here, a bone there, lots of cottontails tail only. Signs the eco system was at work. But I also knew that though there were other nature lovers around me, this area had no center, museum, anything that would help a new comer to life in the desert. Subconsciously I knew I was collecting to become something much bigger but time would need to play out longer.
One day I went outside to contemplate building a raised bed for a garden out of wood pallets I had found. I had left them in the back yard by my bedroom in the hopes my garden could be close to my windows. It was roughly 8 in the morning. I had on the usual shorts and no shoes. I walked over to the pallet and decided I should flip it over and use it from the other side. I lifted it up and flipped it to the other side of the walkway. That’s when I saw it. Some sort of tube like thing was sticking out of the edge of the pallet. Confused I took a closer look. The patterns… I grabbed my phone. Taking pictures so I could zoom in…sure enough I had flipped a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake up over my head inside that pallet and now it was under it like the Wicked Witch under Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz! I had flipped it in the air and dropped a pallet on it! Is it dead? Stunned? or now seriously pissed off? I cannot say I handled this situation well. It scared the living daylights out of me! Once the rattler came to, it started wiggling itself from under the pallet! I ran and jumped over our side fence and called 911. The operator tried to give me a non emergency number but there was no way I was going to agree with her that THIS was not an emergency! I just hurled a Rattlesnake over my head! At bare minimum send some oxygen I can’t breathe!! I’m having an out of body experience and so is that snake!
The fire department came, patted me on the head and told me I would be fine, scooped up this poor confused snake and relocated it down the road safely.
I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares.
Two days later I drove over to the fire station and spoke with them. Was I supposed to be able to handle this myself? I live on 3 acres of desert. Snakes do too. Assured that help is always available at multiple sources and it was a normal reaction for a lot of people around snakes, I went home not confident at all. Jay wasn’t any more equipped than myself at removing a rattlesnake from an unwanted spot. I wasn’t sure he had even seen a live one in his life that wasn’t at a Zoo. Reality check had happened.
Living in any beautiful area, with wildlife, in a healthy ecosystem, you have predators. Period. You cannot remove one for your comfort. It doesn’t work that way. You mess with the chain and it becomes weak. Balance and respect are how you cohabitate. You create boundaries that keep everyone safe. You wear protection. You educate yourself.
And if you are me and Jay, you realize you should share this much good with as many people as you can. You recognize the abundance the Superstition Mountain is providing. You simply can’t take and take and take.
We both felt a purpose. It was too obvious to ignore. How did we even land on such a good deal on property surrounded by mansions when we are simple working class people? Our friends and family had never seen anything like this either. Jay was finding his share of things when he would go out looking for golf balls or even simply driving home. More often then not he would alert me to go see what he had thrown in the bucket in the back of the truck this time. But somehow dealing with all the dead animals and parts didn’t seem like the same calling for him as it was for me. He was my support. He is already a teacher, Math. I was the one who was the desert kid, the former Zoo employee. I asked myself “how and where do you share?” When we moved here in 2016, I still was not on social media. I liked to write and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself career wise. I heard about WordPress and it was easy for me to sign up so I began writing about the things around me, but on a personal level. I wasn’t getting much interaction and felt like I was simply writing my diary for public consumption, so after more than 200 posts, I wandered away from WordPress.
Videos and photos were filling my storage and WordPress was now not their home so I went to over Facebook. Wrong place again. FB format is for your friends and family to say “happy birthday!” or “I got a puppy!” and keep you in a loop of the same four friends you had in elementary school. I’m truly not a FB fan but still go to see all my people who refuse to hear what I’m doing anywhere else. Instagram is more of my home. It welcomed me and my desert view with open arms! The format screams “post all of your photos here!” Immediately I made friends who loved where I lived and all the nature surrounding me. With my computer skill level still painfully low, I would make one minute videos and just ask viewers to scroll to the next. Someone suggested I develop a Youtube Channel. I figured why not. Its just as easy to load videos there also.
After my encounter with the rattler I had challenged myself to collect the dead snakes off the road and keep track of what I had found. Could I even pick a dead one up? What would I do with it? No one I knew encouraged this effort and pretty much thought I had lost my mind. I was now bringing home dead rattlesnakes to identify and measure and skin and do anything scientific I could think of to add value to this poor dead creatures life. Having absolutely no background in any form of taxidermy or skinning anything, my first attempts were slow and rough with finishes not necessarily worthy of the amount of effort I had put in. I looked up tips and tricks online but then also questioned what and why I was doing any of this for.. Not to create hat bands that was for sure. Simple. I had that answer. There was/is too much education surrounding me not to figure out a way to do something bigger and positive with it.
Real desert education like this; observations, identifications of species, behaviors, anatomy, the sciences, the math, the art, the botany, all of it, shouldn’t have to come at a huge financial cost to those who seek it or be found in a typical classroom. Not when we have so much readily available with no end in sight. I grew up middle to lower income in the middle of the desert. No one told me when you grow up you could work at a Zoo. I grew up believing Zoo employees were special magical people and I wasn’t one of them. Had I been offered different career paths earlier on would it have changed me? Or would I have still needed to go through all that I did in life to appreciate what was in front of me in order for me to truly make a difference. All I did know was I had been called to do something and it was definitely on behalf of the nature around me.
With love and support, Jay fully encouraged me to take over as much of our house, garage, property, whatever I needed to create what was obviously coming, I needed to create a non profit with a small museum dedicated as a permanent home, a final resting place where they could be honored and we could learn from the animals we had found. A study zone, a work zone, whatever it needed to be. Funding wasn’t and still isn’t the primary focus. There is so much money out there to support real honest quests that financial support will, and has come, as its been needed. Not in an abundance sort of way but in a measured, natural way which only solidifies our belief that this idea, this venture, this goal is being watched over by the Superstition Mountain.
The official paper work came, appropriately on Jay’s 55th birthday, on that special number day that added up to 555. The Desert Nature Alliance had the things the IRS said it needed. They hadn’t rejected the paperwork I had cried over. With a puffy face and smile, Jay took a photo of me holding my legitimacy in my hands. Friends and family poured love at the post. They had watched from the sidelines. They had viewed the weird photos and videos. They feared for my safety as photo after photo I posted was me carrying another dead rattler home. They watched and continue to watch me fumble through my own videos where I teach and explain and share my relentless enthusiasm. And now they know none of it was a show or fake or made up internet photoshopped trickery. It was simply Jay and Stacy all along, falling in love with each other again and the desert for the first time.
Yesterday we went for a much needed walk, get away from the constant grind of working from home. Half way across the golf course I told Jay I wanted to go and look around an area I hadn’t been to in awhile. When the weather gets hot the rattlers come out. It’s no longer safe for me to hunt for bones so I don’t! Plenty of other work to keep me busy. Usually he will just stay around the course and putt or whatever while I wander off into the bushes but yesterday he came along figuring I would be quick then we could go on walking. I don’t think I was more than a few yards down the wash when I spotted something large out of the corner of my eye. I am always terrified I might find a human. It was a full, completely intact coyote that, for whatever reason, had laid down there and died. Its remains were dried and withered. This coyotes death happened awhile ago but the smell still lingered. Sad. Recently there was a coyote in the golf course lake. I doubt this was the same one because it wouldn’t have been so dried out and so far along in the decomposing. I record and document this type of thing around here for the dNa’s records. There may not be studies now or even a need, but if there were to become one we, the Desert Nature Alliance, are ready with the observations to help.
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