A Field Guide to Southwesterners

Alexa Fritzsche ventures to Portal, Arizona to study lizards, but also discovers the wild diversity of Southwestern folk, whose habitat is the middle of nowhere.

Last spring, I was granted funding to spend six weeks of the summer in Arizona researching lizards (totally awesome, I know). I’m here at the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS), located in the bottom-left corner of Arizona, approximately ten minutes from the border of New Mexico and approximately a lightyear away from any city of interest.

While places diagnosed as “the middle of nowhere” often convey something negative to those accustomed to city or suburban life, such locations are meccas for those who crave wide-open spaces, distance from light pollution, and close proximity to local wildlife. Both locals and out-of-towners are drawn to the area for the hiking, camping, birdwatching, or, in my case, research opportunities. During my time here, I have not only gained the ability to recognize and identify species of birds, insects, and reptiles, but I’ve also borne witness to a diversity of American sub-species.

Here at SWRS, I belong to the sub-population of Researchers. While this group is internally diverse, representing universities around the world, it’s tied together by several unifying characteristics. The most important of these is the unwavering loyalty towards the individual Researcher’s system of specialization. This allegiance to an organism of interest surpasses the normal biases one might expect when dealing with specialists. For example, fiercely competitive interactions (such as ping pong, volleyball, or Cranium) between teams of the “Lizard People” and the “Bird People” are common. Additionally, the “Lizard People” and the “Bird (or Ant, or Snake, etc.) People” often heatedly debate whose species allows them the best schedule, the best working habitat, the most opportunities for publications, and so on. It can get ugly.

Another interesting breed of American found in this area is the Birdwatcher. Affectionately referred to as “bird brains” by Researchers, Birdwatchers are usually found after narrowly avoiding them while driving along windy dirt roads. They tend to travel in herds, which end up obliviously parked in the middle of street like cattle with their necks craned and heavy-duty binoculars covering their eyes.

To accompany their binoculars, their pockets and fanny packs are saddled with field guides, notebooks, and cameras with massive lenses that (excuse the cliché) must be compensating for something. Naïve road etiquette aside, Birdwatchers who visit the research station frequently use a phrase which nauseates any non-Birdwatcher.

“Today I got the [insert rare bird species name].”

With such a cocky air of possessiveness, it makes the process of birdwatching sound more like baseball card collecting than appreciating nature.

Researchers here who actually study bird populations enjoy plotting schemes to drive Birdwatchers out of the area, escalating from giving wrong directions to planting bird decoys labeled with tiny expletives that can only be read with binoculars to simply knocking over the birding groups in the middle of the roads like bowling pins.

A subset of the Birdwatchers is a group I like to call the Oddball Retirees. Within my first few days at SWRS, I was surprised to find homes nestled in the valleys nearby. Sure, this area is beautiful, but who would choose to live so damn far from civilization for longer than a few weeks?

The answer, of course, is the type of person who is reclusive, resourceful, and (let’s face it) crazy enough to desire a permanently secluded lifestyle. A prime example of the Oddball Retiree is a man named Ray Mendez, who lives just a few minutes down the road from the research station. Ray is a trained entomologist-turned-professional advertiser-turned-retired naturalist, whose long list of credits includes being the official moth specialist on the set of The Silence of the Lambs, masterminding the character of Ronald McDonald, designing the recognizable Absolut Vodka advertisements, and featuring as one of four subjects in Errol Morris’s 1997 documentary, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control.

With Ray, I use the term retiree loosely, as he continues to work from home on two endeavors. One of Ray’s current passions is for naked mole rats, and he is the proud caretaker of three colonies of the hairless biological anomalies (seriously, these things shouldn’t exist), and of a single member of the incredibly rare species of non-naked mole rat (which is bigger and slightly less ugly). Ray also continues to work occasionally as a designer of exhibits and enclosures for zoos nationwide (including several now located at Point Defiance Zoo, for you Tacoma area readers).

One specimen in the area who bridges the gap between Oddballs and another group, the Burned-out Hippies, is a man known by people around the station as “the crazy naked guy,” an identification which stands as a fairly apt description. While I have not personally interacted with the crazy naked guy, a fellow researcher once encountered him at, apparently, his favorite swimmin’ hole in one of the few non-bone-dry creeks in the area. Once the two made eye contact, the crazy naked guy began to growl and shake his lanky arms and, well, other appendages around, much as I imagine a rabid ape would act when confronted. Nobody knows the full story about this man, but some wild combination of drug-use and reclusive character traits must have developed the creature that exists currently.

A Burned-out Hippie I’ve become more familiar with is Robert, one of the two chefs at the research station. Robert conforms to a variety of boomer-generation hippie stereotypes, like his appearance and manner of speaking that feels nostalgically ‘60s. While Robert is a talented chef, it has become quite evident that a lifetime of ganja has done some damage to his short-term memory; there have been a few close calls when specific food allergies or dietary concerns of station guests slipped through the cracks. (For the record, this man can make some mean tofu.)

My personal favorite group of Southwesterners is the Cowboys (also known as Townies). As a sheltered suburbanite who grew up in fairly well-educated areas, I haven’t encountered much rural culture in my time. To celebrate my 21st birthday in mid-June, some friends from the station and I ventured to the infamous Tavern, located in Rodeo, New Mexico, the “town” closest to the research station.

Rodeo is almost as exciting as it sounds, and the Tavern is the best habitat to encounter the Townies. Given that the population of Rodeo is depressingly small, the sudden presence of ten new twentysomethings at the Tavern was like Christmas for the Cowboys. Within a few minutes of our entrance to the bar, five Cowboys had already introduced themselves, tipped their hats, ordered a couple rounds of drinks, and yelped a few oh-so-stereotypical “yee-haws.” With the booze flowing, it’s not surprising that there were quite a few intriguing conversations during the night. At one point, a fine gent named Clay kindly explained to me the proper method of catching a snake, which is apparently to “strike ‘em ‘round the neck, whip its body back between yer legs, then wrassle its head between yer thighs, grabbin’ tight so it cuddn’t bite ya.”

Despite the fact that this sounds enticing in a scandalous way, the actions he described are something I would absolutely never do with a snake.

Unfortunately, I’ll be returning to Tacoma in four days. At least if I ever return to the Southwest, I’ll know where to go to hang out with naked mole rats, snake wrestlers, and crazy naked guys.

Alexa Fritzsche can often be found with her head buried in a biology textbook or a Times crossword.