One month of preseason work had warmed us all to the desert. Now, a long weekend in Vegas, celebrating birthdays and other nonsenses. It came at the end of such a marathon run of bike travel, late nights, and bird-maniac rowdiness that it seemed near impossible to survive a weekend in that town. Pajaro and I rode at top speed into town, shouting to music and buzzing with the energy of the neon paradise.
We were settled in our room and out on the town by six. Pajaro's friend, Shrimp, was sharing the room with us. He met us in the casino, already half-drunk. Shrimp ran the Mexican Gray Wolf project in the Apache Wilderness northeast Flagstaff. He hadn't been out of the wilderness in months and the energy of his anxiousness poured from him. Pine woods to palm trees in twelve hours. It proved a bit much for him, and we chased him down the street as he ran full speed along the strip. He was red-faced and cradling a three-foot-long jack & coke when we caught up to him in front of the Bellagio. We watched the casino's world famous water show and helped him finish off the cocktail. Jesus freaks shouted into megaphones on the corner and Japanese tourists clicked cameras. Water cannons shot towers of white foaming spray, making arcs and whirls as the casino speakers pumped Sinatra.
Pajaro's crew from his days guiding in the rainforest was due in. We met with Jaytown and his crew, a cluster of twenty characters that took turns appearing and disappearing in the haze of the night. Later in the night we found ourselves tipsy and blessed with the serendipity of a stretch limo. The driver pulled us around to the Rhine Club, where we roared and reeled till 3 am.
The next day followed suit. Memories of hotel pools, pulsing nightclubs, and bewilderment. Four of us awoke Sunday morning in a seven-hundred-dollar suite at the Venetian, depleted of life and thirty minutes shy of checkout time. I felt deeply unbalanced as I waited in the valet line for the vehicle, clutching my ticket and sweating in the hot sun. The ride home was rough, but we drove fast and made Searchlight by one. I'd left the bike at home, knowing I wouldn't be in well-enough shape to ride back. It was a good decision. I met Pajaro in Searchlight at Terrible's gas station & casino. We drank vitamin waters and threw down six or seven Tums apiece in the gas station parking lot, shaking out heads at the weekend.
The rest of the crew was waiting for us at the house. A note had been scrawled on the door, "Welcome Back You Drunken Hobos!" The crew was inside, half-buzzed on Bud Light Cheladas. Shrike was sloppy and stumbling around the house, the rest were smiling and slightly red with sun. Snowflake came out shyly, bearing sweet bread she'd made for my birthday. I was exhausted and laid out on my king size bed. I put on some hazy, summertime music and stretched out. The guitars filled the space in the air and I lay watching the ceiling fan spin. It seemed the climax of the long road out here, and I was glad to have made it through.
We work sometimes on the fringe of civilization. Territory mapping birds as they move along the Colorado River, taking our plots as they come. More often than not this finds us in remote river washes, down rock-strewn jeep tracks, and in impossible jungles of salt cedar and mesquite.
The Bill Williams river runs down from the empty desert east of highway 95, filling the Colorado with cold, silty waters. It meets the river in a beautiful delta, decorated with scenic overlooks, interpretive signage, and a cozy visitor's center.
Things change quickly, tracing the tributary east to its source. The dirt road turns rough, and ends in a sandy wash two miles up. Here, the wash fills with water, and walking is a waist-deep affair. As the river snakes and bows east, the mountains surrounding it become tall, jagged, and red. Lion tracks pepper the soft earth.
Five miles more brings one to the abandoned mining claims of Mineral Wash, old shafts barred and boarded. Rusting equipment dies in the sun on the side of the road. The slag piles thin out and the river finds its way through Planet Ranch. The ranch is perhaps the last standing settlement this far out, though it is only a shade of its original form. A few buildings remain, including a small bunkhouse used only by government biologists (and crazy bird-chasers like us).
Pat and Jerry, the caretakers, are peculiar but friendly folks, granted you arrive armed with Bud Lite and a few hours of conversation. Past this tiny bastion, the land spreads and is ever wilder. A handful of dune riders and dirt bikers venture past the old ranch, but it is mostly raw and empty.
It is in these places, and the pockets of wilderness leading to it, that one can find the things more dangerous than rattlesnakes and killer bees. There are rumors of meth labs, squatters, and strange outlaw camps. No one is willing or able to clear these areas, and so the wild inhabitants live untouched.
Such is the nature of the following email, sent to our crew by the biologist at the Bill Williams Refuge:
[Sent: Fri, April 2, 2010 3:28:03 PM
Subject: Heads up
Just got a briefing from Tim, our Law Enforcement range that a guy has been documented back in the area of the refuge that you should be aware of. He is 6'4, 190lbs, 61, in good shape, long graying hair and beard, and is a survivalist type. He may have a horse or burro.
He has been in and out of jail and the refuge (including cultivating marihuana and poaching) in the 1980s and 1990s and is prone to living out in the rough. Various researchers in the past have bumped into him and he has never been hostile before to anyone but law enforcement but still, you should be aware when you are out there and report anything that makes you uncomfortable or is out of the ordinary. Maybe you should work in pairs if at all possible and be sure someone always knows where you are and when to expect you back. Tim has a photo here at the office if any of you want to see what he looks like.
Not trying to scare anyone but just keep your ears pricked. Pass along to any of the crews you know working here for the duration.
Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge]
Such are the strange places we find our birds and our livelihood.