Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Land of Katie

Yep, we spent the last week in Arizona, in and around the Tucson area. While I find the politics and lack of gun control more than a little whacky (things you don't see in Canada: men open-carrying semi-automatic pistols in the local pharmacy), the people were great and the landscapes exquisite! We rented a car for the week and found it very easy to get around. 

I spent several years, on and off, illustrating the kids' book Katie of the Sonoran Desert, which took place in this very area. I had to illustrate the whole thing using photos and other reference material. I also received a ton of help from Roger, one of the herpetologists depicted in the book. I sent him my drawings and he sent back critique. This allowed me to draw everything as realistically as possible, given that I had never been to Arizona! 

If you think drawing a snake is easy, I can assure you it isn't. They are surprisingly complex, as I soon found out.

When I stepped off the plane, I felt like I had already been to Tucson, even though it was my first visit. We had a great trip. How many photos can you stand? I've got LOTS.

The first night we were there, we checked out a trail near our guesthouse, on the way to dinner. (I don't usually hike with a purse!)  We heard a Great Horned Owl hooting, although I couldn't spot him!

The next day, Sunday, we had to get up early to meet Roger for a trek in the desert. The sunset was very beautiful...

Roger bundled us up into his Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck and drove us off the the very sections of desert featured in our book.

There are many prickly plants in the desert...

 Often at this time of year, there will be a beautiful display of wildflowers in the desert. Unfortunately, the area is in a bit of a drought and did not receive enough rain this winter for wildflower seeds to germinate. Thus flowers were few and far between! But this lovely cactus was in flower, and a honeybee was visiting for pollen:

And here is Roger, radio-tracking one of the many desert creatures with radio transmitters implanted in them...

And here is what Roger found...

 "It was good for me. Was it good for you? Cigarette?"

Two Western Diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus Atrox)  in the act of mating! Apparently they can stay tied together for up to 24 hours. I would have liked to get closer for the photo, but instead I used my zoom. I am not a fool.  Nonetheless, these snakes would rather slither away than strike you, but you shouldn't push your luck.

The lead character in our book, Katie, is in fact a Western Diamondback. I was THRILLED to see these beauties in the wild at long last. 

Of course a rattlesnake can bite you, and while the Western Diamondback can sometimes cause a fatal bite, usually it is not life-threatening. And despite the fact that the snakes just want to go about their lives, and do not seek out humans, they are routinely and cruelly persecuted. Just the other week, Roger went to a known rattlesnake burrow only to discover that some idiot had shot it and the resident snake to pieces. Wasteful, disrespectful, idiotic and offensive. I can MAYBE see killing a venomous snake that has you cornered in your bedroom (although I would just call a herpetologist myself), but to go out and kills snakes for thrills, as they do in disgusting rattlesnake round-ups, is beyond my comprehension. People have way too many neuroses about snakes. If you're scared of snakes, fine, but for God's sake just leave them alone. Don't vilify them, and don't wantonly destroy them.

Rant off. Next photo...

The intrepid Gordon and his trusty water bottle!

 And what do we have here?

It's a Desert Tortoise, another of the creatures I illustrated in our book. And here's an interesting fact from that Wikipedia entry:
"One defense mechanism the tortoise has when it is handled or molested is to empty its bladder. This can leave the tortoise in a very vulnerable condition in dry areas, and they should never be alarmed, handled or picked up in the wild unless they are in imminent danger (like in a road)."

Meanwhile, back in the desert, you'll find oodles of Prickly Pear cacti:

Not to mention the fantastic, majestic saguaro. This one has a huge bird's nest (hawk, perhaps?) nestled in its arms:

 And the insidious Jumping Cholla, which LOVES to attach itself to you in a painful fashion:

Fortunately I didn't get any on my bare skin, but it did have a fondness for my hiking boots:

Stems easily attach to passing humans and animals, thus spreading their prickly love all over the desert!

And here's a video of the sexy snakes. For obvious reasons, I didn't want to get too close. You can hear one of them rattling at the start...


  1. What a nice trek you had. I think I'd be more leery of the jumping cholla than I would the Diamondbacks!
    Thanks for sharing your photos. I learn something new almost every time I visit your blog.

  2. The sunset looks amazing as does the cactus flowers. I would have stood further away from the snakes than you did I'm sure but that tortoise... I like them. Great photos and what an exciting adventure.

  3. Awesome!! It looks like you had alot of fun! I bet your next children's book isn't going to be about Katie growing up and having sex for 24 hours!! Love the tortoise info - it's bad for it to empty it's bladder. Who knew? And what difference does it make, does it drink what's in the bladder when it gets thirsty? Umm, yuck! Love the cactus, too. They look like they could be very painful! Ouch!

  4. The vegetation and cacti reminded me when I toured the desert around Sedona a few years back.
    Love the desert critters!

  5. You did a fabulous job of taking me to the desert with you! We lived in Mesa for about four years in the eighties and went back once a few years ago to show our grown son where he was born. We've been looking at condos around Tucson on-line, wondering if that will be where we land when our house sells. Very helpful of you to act as tour guide.

    Oh, those sunsets!

  6. Awseome trip! I love all the creatures! Especially the snakes!

  7. Anonymous8:50 am

    What gorgeous photos! One of the things I love about you, Natalie, is your respect and appreciation for nature and animals. We are kindred spirits in that regard.

    I imagine a snake is not an easy thing to draw but you did a beautiful job. And those mating diamond backs -- how cool is that! So glad you had an enjoyable trip.

    Another cool excursion that Mike and I did a couple of years ago and want to do again -- we trekked a few miles through the Virgin River Gorge between St. George and Mesquite. It was early fall so the Virgin River was low and we wore water shoes/socks. What a beautiful place.

  8. Thank you for sharing.
    Arizona would be my choice for golfing.
    But the desert looks tempting, too.
    Glad you had such a wonderful trip.

  9. Paula, those cholla are nasty. Roger nicknamed me Hedgehog because of them (they liked to stick to me.) I had lots of cactus scratches on my legs by the end of the day.

    Deb, I actually stood behind ROger, who got a lot closer to snakes than I did. But then, he sometimes has to pick them up! (They go back to some lab to have transmitters implanted or removed.) The tortoises were great!

    Lynn, HILARIOUS! Although I suppose I could write an adult book on that subject. Hahaha!

    Elisabeth, I'd love to go to Sedona. We didn't have time on this trip.

    Nance, I think you'd like it there. And Tucson has a (to me) surprising enclave of liberal thinkers! ANd more photos to come.

  10. Wandering Cat, you are a good woman for liking snakes!!

    And thank you for the nice words, CogDis. Animals and nature are really important to me. :O)

    Willie, you guys should go to Arizona. You could stay at the guesthouse we did; it was beautiful and totally reasonable!!

  11. Looks like so much fun! My favorite part about the southwest is the sunsets. They are magnificent.

  12. Even better from a mountain top! Check out today's post. :) (Monday)


Thank you for all your comments, which I love to read!