I knew nothing about the tarantula hawk. I have seen them around the yard for years, and even though they make a fearsome showing with their blue-black body and bright red wings, they never seem aggressive, and we leave each other alone. Until yesterday. I was hiking with my pack along a county trail near my home, and noticed a tarantula hawk dragging a tarantula across the trail. I’ve seen video of this behavior a time or two before, but never in person. With no camera, I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get close enough for a pic. When I get within about 6-8 feet of the subject, the wasp left the tarantula prize and flew directly at me, very menacingly. It turned out to be a warning, or a bluff, and when I jumped back to the proper distance (according to the wasp), she returned to her quarry and continued on across the trail:
Back home, I did some quick research. Seems these are critters you don’t want to mess with. First, it’s the female that does the hunting, so that’s reason enough to leave it alone. Second, they don’t actually kill the tarantula, but merely paralyze it and drag it back live to their nest, where they lay an egg into the abdomen of the tarantula. When the egg hatches, the larvae has a ready and fresh food source. Very macabre.
Now, here’s the interesting note that concerns us all: the sting of the Tarantula Hawk is the most painful of any sting in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Bullet Ant anywhere in the world, according to the Schmidt Pain Index. It is not fatal, nor particularly dangerous, but it is excruciatingly painful for many minutes, described as “…simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”
Seems like a good reason to give them plenty of space and simply observe from a distance.
It’s April in the Chihuahuan Desert, and that means road trip. Jodie and I hooked up the Palomino Banshee popup camper to the Jeep and headed off into the backroads of Big Bend National Park, down one of our favorite, although less traveled roads, the Black Gap Road. This is the toughest road in the park from the standpoint of technical offroad travel, although it is very tame compared to many other routes we’ve navigated throughout the country in the past. So, we took off for three days of solitude, seeking the colorful variety of blooming plants found this time of the year in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Our first encounter was an old friend of the desert this time of the year, a snake called a red racer. They are a bright copper-red color, and this one was about 5 feet long:
Some of the cactus in bloom are the claret cup, cane cholla, and strawberry cactus:
Our campsite on the Glenn Springs primitive road, on the way to Black Gap:
One of the many small, unnamed side canyons along the road:
The Black Gap Road is barely a road in places, as it snakes across dry creekbeds and into and out of drainages that run from the Chisos Mountains to the Rio Grande River. Elephant Tusk peak and the Chisos Mountains are in the background:
The road gets its name from the “black gap,” a cut through the volcanic intrusion that separates two drainages. The old surface through the “gap” is crumbled away and users of the road keep the drop-off filled with loose rocks to form a ramp to keep your rig off high center. It’s a very easy route, but requires high clearance:
The remnants of the Mariscal Mine, an old mercury mine from the early 20th century, provided a nice backdrop for a break:
We join the River Road, and pull down a side road to an old fishing camp/campsite along the Rio Grande River…U.S. on the left bank and Mexico a stone’s throw across on the right:
Prickly Pear cactus blooming with the Chisos Mountains in the background:
When Jodie tells me to “go fly a kite,” I take her literally:
Nearly full moon over our camp, and Orion setting in the west with the last glow of sunset:
We awoke the third, and last morning, to a beautiful sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico:
After two years of drought, following severe freezes of 2010, the desert is finally recovering. This week, Jodie and I hopped on the motorcycles and covered 550 miles over two days to capture the Texas Bluebonnet, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, and myriad of wildflowers reaching peak bloom at the lower elevations near the Rio Grande River. Here are a few pictures reflecting on the changing of seasons, and also the recovery of the blooming wild after a dormant period of “sleeping.”
The Big Bend bluebonnet, Lupinus havardii, is a much taller and showier cousin of the more familiar bluebonnet that was designated as the Texas state flower in 1901, although all lupinus in Texas are now recognized as the official state flower. The Big Bend bluebonnet grows to a height of 3-4 feet. The tallest of these were over 3 feet in height:
In one spot we found a white mutation mixed in with the traditional brilliant blue groups:
On the way to the “ghost town” of Terlingua, TX, famous for the Wick Fowler International Chili Cookoff, we began seeing large groups of prickly pear cactus flashing their brilliant yellow/orange blossoms:
Also, the brilliant red seed pods of the ocotillo, not a cactus, but common to the Chihuahua desert of the Big Bend, wave like flags in the wind:
As we travel beyond the last parcel of civilization, and the last gas station, in Lajitas, TX, we follow the Rio Grande River, the international boundary between Texas and Mexico (assuming as most Texans do, that Texas is a nation unto itself), and stop for lunch along the river near a pool formed by the narrow constrictions in the river, and are treated to more bluebonnets:
This belies the actual volume of water flowing down this mighty river, because just around the corner it is obvious that our borders are separated in many places by a mere trickle of water. If you look closely at the narrowest constriction of the river in this photo, you will see that an adult can easily step across the Rio Grande here without getting feet wet. Here, the U.S. is on the left bank and Mexico is on the right. The flow on this day was only 24 cfs, whereas normal flow on this river used to be around 400-500 cfs, and sometimes approaches 20,000 cfs after periods of hard rain:
Bluebonnets abound everywhere, another group along the roadside, some of these nearly 4 feet tall:
Here, from a hill overlooking the Rio Grande, you see more bluebonnets in the foreground, with the Rio Grande separating Texas on the left and Mexico on the right bank:
From a similar vantage point, more prickly pear cactus “just showin’ off” along the border:
In most other parts of Texas, the wildflowers reach peak in early to mid April, but down here the growing season starts early, and early March to late March is the time to catch the desert in all its splendor.
Today, it was time to ride! I just didn’t expect it to be 90 degrees in this part of Big Bend National Park, out on the “Old Ore Road.” This is one of the least-traveled, most secluded, and most often hottest parts of this huge desert environment. In a new book, “Death in Big Bend,” several fatalities due to heat stroke are chronicled when unfortunate, and unprepared people, find themselves stranded on this 26-mile-long 4-wheel-drive dirt, rock and boulder-infested historic road. It’s not unusual for temperatures to reach 90+ degrees in January and February out here, but today was a departure from recent trends this winter. With that, I set out on a “shake-down” ride after a tune-up to my old Trek 7000 aluminum mountain bike, which included new shift-grips, new tubes and tires, and a new trip computer.
After about 4 miles of technical sand, rock, and rutted off-camber climbs and descents, I turned around and headed back to Jodie and the waiting Jeep. I had not figured in the 30-40 mph headwind that I would be fighting all the way back, and on a technical rock-infested climb, I stalled out. Usually not a problem, but I had not switched out my pedals to my mountain bike pedals, which I had cannibalized onto my recumbent last fall, so my shoes did not release from the clips and I planted myself and bike into a thorny mesquite tree, complete with a lechugilla cactus at its base. Nothing unusual out here, but it’s not only painful, but dangerous. Lucky this time, I came away with only a small loss of blood, and a larger hurt pride.
The trip home included a stop at the Stillwell Ranch, where I found that Jasamine, the girl I met on the bicycle two days ago riding from Florida to California, had stopped there for 2 days and had a great time. As the dust storm increased in direct proportion to the increasing speed of the wind, we rode the tailwind home, taking time to photograph a dust-filtered sunset over Santiago Peak. Another —— day in Paradise!
Out on my bike this morning for my daily ride, I came upon a girl just leaning her bicycle against a highway sign. Suspecting possible bike trouble, I stopped to offer help. She was talking on the phone…bluetooth earbuds. She politely signed off and greeted me. Her name…Jasamine. She informed me she was from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, cycling coast-to-coast from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Jose, California. She works for a bike shop in Minneapolis, and had pedaled about 1700 miles so far. Just had to spend a week in Austin to wait out the snow, and after two days in Marathon, was headed through Big Bend NP, then on to Terlingua, TX. I told her she should stop at Stillwell’s Ranch, RV Park, and General Store for the night and catch the free concert of cowboy music put on by the Whitfords in the Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame Museum every night until March. She said she would head that way, and with that, she was off. What a great adventure.