I’ve known Tara since high school and we ended up in some of the same classes in college. When she finished she started teaching Biology at our high school and at age 22, she was often confused for a student herself! After several years and completing a Master’s degree, she decided jump back in for a Ph.D. Her research landed her at BYU’s Lytle Ranch in a quiet little southwestern corner of Utah near the Arizona and Nevada border. The ranch is near Mesquite, Nevada – in middle-of-nowhere desert terms. I’d spent several years as a graduate student and research technician with the United States Geological Survey and had fallen in love with the place. So naturally, when Tara loosely invited me to visit her research site, I jumped at the chance. I never need much prodding to ramble through the desert, and so when on a trip to pick Sunny from the Las Vegas airport, I made sure to spend a couple extra days to drive up I-15 to visit.
Late April showers turned to deafening thunderstorms on the way out. The storms gathered across the desert range and reached their crescendo atop lofty peaks far in the distance…torrents of rain from dozens of miles away, with lightning added for effect. Who needed the movies when you had this! I exited the freeway in Mesquite and passed along some old haunts before rejoining I-15 on the north end of town. The rain had thoroughly wetted things by now and I wasn’t moving too fast. Passing along the Virgin River overpass about ten miles from town, I looked for the old swimming hole we’d visit mid-summer for cooling off. There’s whole stories could be told from that spot tucked discreetly under the I-15 overpass. I kept going in the rain.
Shit. I said to myself as I passed the exit for old highway 91 in Littlefield, Arizona. As I scolded myself for missing the turn – I always thought I knew this place like the back of my hand – I passed the next exit too. Well, suppose I’ll just turn around at Cedar Pocket in the Gorge.
Eventually I ended up back in Littlefield and made the turn onto highway 91 and passed through the little village of Beaver Dam. I laughed as I passed the old Dam Deli and Dam Bar. A hole in the wall stop we used to go for cold drinks. A little Mexican woman used to sell homemade tamales out front in the summers out of a cooler. The highway heads north from the interstate and stays in that forgotten corner of Arizona for about ten miles until it passes into another forgotten corner of Utah.
“I guess I need to replace my windshield wipers,” I told myself as rain poured in sheets. Distant headlamps of cars glared off wet pavement.
The 10 miles or so from the highway to the ranch was bumpy from spring rains and occasional traffic. In an effort not to wake everyone, I stopped just before dropping down the switch back to the ranch and pulled in to a clearing protected by juniper trees. I settled in, sipped my cold drink and watched the storm clouds unfurl as stars began to shimmer and eventually the Milky Way too.
In the morning I boiled water for coffee and listened to Heriberto’s whistling ascend through the tree canopy below. As ranch caretaker, he and his wife spent all of there time there, even when just the two of them. He’d mastered the art of self entertainment. The birds had been long at it since 5 a.m. and his whistling added to the chorus. I poured coffee into my mug and drove down the hill to the ranch.
Not sure where to find them, I poked around a bit for Tara and her crew and eventually ran into Heriberto. He was a stocky built and tall Mexican. Rounded features accompanied his friendly face and his mustache was tightly trimmed over his mouth. His greying hair was just visible from the edges of his leather cowboy hat.
“They usually head into the field around 8 a.m. But they come back for lunch,” Heriberto said in his thick accent as he turned from his conversation with a couple birders.
I spent the morning hours ambling around the ranch and finding old spots I’d visited on previous trips years before. Looking at a map, I realized the Utah/Nevada state line was only a couple miles west of the ranch. I followed the dirt road from the ranch as it ducked into riparian woodland and crossed Beaver Dam wash a couple times. I continued on as it made a couple switchbacks to the top of the canyon rim where it opened onto upland desert scrub spotted with Joshua trees and sagebrush and the road trailed off into the distance somewhere in Nevada.
Sometime around 10:00 I wandered back down the canyon rim to the ranch. A Summer Tanager had my attention and I stood staring through my binoculars into the large cottonwood tree that kept the bunkhouses in shade for much of the day. Just then I heard a truck come down the lane and a loud RAT-A-TAT as it crossed the cattle guard. I looked down from the tree and saw Tara in a tie-die t-shirt and ball cap sitting in the passenger seat of the first of two trucks. Behind her in the back seat sat three younger looking girls – undergrads working on her research for the summer.
“Danny! I wondered if I’d see you here,” Tara smiled from the truck window.
“Well, I figured I’d find you. I left you a phone message a few days ago, but knew you’d likely not get it,” I sidled up to the window.
“Everyone. This is Danny, my old friend from high school…The one I was telling you about the other day,” Tara said to the others. “This is Bailey, Becca, and Ashley,” she gestured to the back seat. “And this is Josh,” she pointed to the driver.
“I suppose I just missed ya’ll this morning on your way out. How was the work this morning?” I smiled at everyone.
“It was great, sorry you missed us. We finished some transects up on the rim that we started yesterday. We bailed when the thunderstorms came in. Hey, we’re going to Mesquite for lunch, if you want to join?”
I decided to stay behind for more exploring while they took a couple hours in Mesquite for lunch and supplies. I found the pond where we removed bullfrogs once for a field trip in my herpetology class. It enjoyed a canopy of cottonwood and willow trees and the yellow warblers, like little golden balls, chased each other through the open air over the water. I found a picnic table and read my book as the birds began to settle in for the afternoon. Around 1 I ambled back to the bunkhouse in time to find them all piling gear into the 4-wheeler and side-by-side. Tara was loading her things on the back of the 4-wheeler with Josh to go collect some gear. The afternoon air stirred and was thickening and anvil topped thunderheads loomed high above the distant horizon.
“Danny, wanna go with the girls to collect the Shermans?” Tara asked. “We left the trap line out and just need to go pick them up.”
“Yeah, sounds fun,” I looked over to the girls as they were putting on rain ponchos.
I brushed a strand of hair that blew into my face and pulled myself into the back of the side-by-side with Ashley. Becca sat in front of me in the front passenger seat.
Bailey pulled herself into the driver seat. She was athletically built and had long brunette hair. And an infectious smile. She turned the ignition and with serious demeanor, as if a natural born racer, took off up the dirt track. The throttle lurched us forward as she steered around the gate and around the switchback toward the top of the canyon rim. All the while I attempted to hold myself, white-knuckled, upright in the backseat. After a few moments of this, I realized the thing probably only went 15 mph and eventually this settled my nerves. But between the wash-boarded dirt road and sound of the motor, one would only guess.
“So, you’ve been enjoying working out here with Tara?” I yelled over the motor to Ashley.
She looked over with questioning eyes. I leaned a little closer and repeated.
“Yeah, I love it out here,” she hollered with a smile.
We had now climbed out of the canyon and were perched on the upland desert with 360 degree views around of the desert. Mountains rose gently from the desert floor and into the sky where the afternoon thunderstorms still gathered. As we walked along the desert floor – plants verdant from spring rain – purple and yellow flowers of Krameria and Coleogyne blossomed from the lush green foliage. Then, the red berries of Lycium. And all along were the mascots of the Mojave Desert, the Joshua tree. Like a Dr. Seuss creation, their short bent forms rose from the desert floor and white fruits began to develop on their outstretched arms. Aside from the few most common of plants, I’d realized how much of the desert flora I’d forgotten so I stopped at nearly every plant and asked the others for the name. They’d been hard at it most of the year with plant ID, and so rattled off names almost unconsciously, and where they didn’t know the exact species of some of the less common forbs, told me their field name they’d devised. We continued this for a while as we collected the small metal traps along the way and all the while discussed botany, ecology, and science in general.
I was now walking with Ashley behind the others. She had blonde hair and fair skin. Her brown eyes revealed her deep thought and contemplation. She spoke with depth and clarity.
“What do you like most about science?” she asked.
A bit of a broad question, I thought for a moment.
“I suppose…What I like most is the never-ending nature of it. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know,” I smiled. “I suppose, we may never run out of questions to ask. So long as we keep an open mind.”
We reached the end of the trap line and each of us, arms full of traps, turned and walked back. They asked me about graduate school and how to prepare and what classes are best to take. I didn’t really feel that prepared to answer those kinds of questions. I suppose I didn’t think I had all the right answers but I answered with what I’d learned over the years as we loading back and rode off back toward the ranch. The clouds had started to break up and it almost seemed like whatever storm was brewing had begun to dissipate. But, being spring, and being the desert, we didn’t count on it. As we road, West Mountain rose out of the desert in the distance and with the clouds rolling over, it looked even larger and even more isolated.
Back at the bunkhouse, we reconvened with Tara and Josh and made one more trip to Tara’s experimental plots just above the ranch on canyon rim. From atop, the sandstone bluffs rising from below were now glowing red in the evening sun. The Beaver Dam wash was evident below in its green ribbon of riparian vegetation.
“So what’s your 30-second elevator pitch for your research?” I gave Tara a shit-eating grin.
“I hate that question, everyone always asks that.” She smiled while unloading gear. “I am studying competition of invasive species after abnormal fire events in a desert ecosystem.”
Wow, I thought. She’s got that down.
Specifically, she studies post-fire invasion and competition of non-native grasses; Red Brome (Bromus rubens), Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and Schismus. Her work employs a menagerie of fine-scale vegetation monitoring, precipitation experiments, and other ecological field techniques. All, very obviously time consuming and critical to her research. I looked out at the large experimental plots, their size quite breathtaking.
“So what exactly is going on in these?”
“Each of these experimental areas are split into quadrants, for a full factorial study on the effects of fire an small mammals on post fire completion of invaders.” Tara said as she pulled on a spool of wire.
I looked out across the huge installation, astounded by the amount of work it must have taken to just set up. Each large fenced area was split into four smaller segments. Two segments were burned, and two unburned. Likewise, two had been fully removed of small mammals while the other two hadn’t. This provided a simultaneous look at the influence of both presence or absence of fire, and presence or absence of small mammals. What seemed like on paper a simple design, stretched out before me into what looked like work for 10 full-time workers. Tara and the others were now busy mending holes in the fences that were meant to exclude small mammals from the plots within. I had been tasked with cutting lengths of wire for the repairs.
“What has been the most frustrating part of graduate school so far?” I asked Tara.
She looked over at me as I struggled to clip a piece of wire from the spool. “Ha!” She looked out at the others patching the fence, and beyond the desert fanned out almost endlessly. “There is so much work out here for the 5 of us. What’s frustrating is the lack of a sufficient number of field technicians to keep up with it all. We are up at dawn and work till sun down everyday.” And with that, she turned back to the fences and the others.
Beyond the bluffs of the ranch and to the west the sun began to approach the horizon, stretching our shadows along the desert floor. The mountains to the east glowed red boding us good evening as we finished mending the fences and stashing the equipment for the week.
And so there we were, working hard and knowing it was hard work. But that it was in a place so beautiful meant something. And what it meant was different for each of us, but we all knew we loved that place and so all the hard work and the years and lines on our faces from the sun were more than worth the price. As we road back down from the rim, rain clouds gathered again – portending another stormy night over the Mojave Desert.