The Dog

I could hear the growling before I saw the dog.  My children and I were taking a walk in a grove of trees, the space between the thick, straight trunks choked with blackberry brambles and other undergrowth; a green island in a suburban sea.  My wife was preparing dinner and needed quiet time.  I had finished a day’s work and needed to be outside.  A perfect marriage.

The brown face of the dog appeared soon after I first heard him, a large brute as high as my youngest was tall, with curly hair, a throaty snarl and a mouthful of very large teeth.  It seemed as if I could count every one of them too, as he raced towards us.

I was never brave, and had run from fights when I was young.  When combat was unavoidable I would simply lose the experience of time and memory, and awaken at the end of it all either victorious or beaten.  Courageous was an adjective used to describe others.  But here there was nowhere to hide.  It was the dog against my children and me.

We were evenly matched; the dog with his teeth and claws and me with my own.  Pulling my children behind me I crouched, snarling and baring my own teeth, and prepared to meet the dog’s challenge.  A second before impact the dog’s owner appeared from behind the undergrowth, ashen-faced and breathing heavy.  She called her dog, which had been obviously confused by my dog-like response, and the beast stopped and returned to her.  The leash that should have been there all along was quickly applied to the dog and the two moved off down the path.

We returned home to dinner.  The kids quickly forgot the incident, as kids do.  I uttered a prayer of thanks that night that I wasn’t somebody else’s dinner that day.

Tarantula Run

I really hate spiders.  Or I guess it would be more correct to say that I fear spiders.  Either way, there is no way in the world that I want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in the company of spiders, and that amount of time could be calculated in nanoseconds.  Some people have great fear of snakes, others heights, and others a variety of creatures or experiences too multitudinous to relate.  For me it’s spiders.

I have a theory concerning the origin of spiders.  In the beginning God created just about all of the stuff that we know about and it was good.  We know that because He told us that.  One of the guys He made was named Lucifer and Lucifer was on of God’s favorite creations, and when Lucifer came to God and said “Please, please, can’t I create something?  Pretty please, pretty please, huh?  huh?” well, God just couldn’t help but say “OK”, but with grave misgivings.  So old Lucifer began snapping his fingers and Bam! There were ticks:  Bam! There were mosquitos:  Bam!  There were spiders.  God looked on in horror and the rest is chronicled in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.

This perfectly rational lack of enthusiasm for sharing space with spiders has nevertheless not prevented me from finding myself in many acutely uncomfortable situations.  In one case my father, who was a very good household craftsman, decided to re-plumb our house in San Diego in order to add a shower to our bathroom.  This project inevitably required that he gain access to the existing plumbing which was very old when we moved in and was in much need of being replaced.  As long as we were modifying the plumbing to accommodate the new shower Dad decided to make a complete job of it.  Access to the area where Dad would have to work was gained by crawling on one’s back through a tiny screened slot at ground level in the side of our house and wriggle on our backs for what seemed like a hundred miles, but which in fact was only eight feet or so, under the house.

Just in the way of background, San Diego is located in the arid Southwest which is the habitat of a body of unsavory critters, the least savory of which is the black widow spider.  Black widows are blind, I am told, and reclusive.  That is why I almost never ran into them.  But then I almost never went under the house, which is exactly where I WOULD go if I was a blind and reclusive poisonous spider.  I had no doubt that a legion of black widow spiders with fear-seeking direction finders waited there with no other purpose in mind than to put an end to my short and unhappy life.

” I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I thought could hurt you” said my father who was trying to reassure me.  The attempt fell far short of it’s mark.  It sounded a lot like a nurse coming at me with a three foot long syringe with a javelin for a point saying “this might pinch a little”, or Dad telling me “this hurts me more than it hurts you”.  I quickly called “B.S.” on the latter flaming lies and did so on this new lie as well.

I don’t remember how long the project took, but the hours I spent with my nose inches from the two-by-twelve floor cross members and whatever scrabbling horrors that lurked within their recesses seemed like an eternity.  I assume that my father was greatly annoyed by my fear and utter willingness to express it; in his generation letting on that you were afraid was definitely not cool, so I suspect that he dragged the project out for longer than was needed.  At any rate, the project finally came to an end and I escaped with no bites that I knew of, which probably means no bites at all.

Years later I was in Viet Nam and on one particularly well moonlit night I was looking for a place to get out of sight.  It would sound a lot more impressive if I said that I was a forward observer that night or on guard duty, or under attack and hiding to avoid sniper fire or shrapnel from mortars and rockets, but the sad truth was that I was lighting up a joint and trying to keep a low profile to avoid the attention of superiors whom I later discovered didn’t really care one whit what I did with my spare time.  I was next to an old sandbag bunker that was not in use which was located across a dirt road from my company area and slipped back into the alcove which housed the entrance into that bunker.  Lighting up I puffed contentedly for a while until I felt something crawling on my neck.  My senses were pretty well numbed by that joint, which was the point of smoking the stuff over there.  I was well enough anesthetized against the idea of being a sitting duck in that arcade that the import of something crawling on me in the dark night in Viet Nam didn’t immediately strike me as noteworthy or worrisome.  The persistent sensation of creepy-crawly slowly worked it’s way through my numbed perception however and impelled me at last to step out into the relatively bright moonlight.  It was in that moonlight that I could see the gray bodies of the quarter-sized spiders that were crawling all over me.

I exploded out of that bunker and did a dance that probably looked a great deal like a cross between James Brown and Joe Cocker on meth.  I hollered and slapped at my head and body with my cap and ran gyrating and gesticulating across our company area until I came to a lighted area where I could look for spiders wherever they might be.  I took off my shirt and pants right then and there, one can do that in an all male environment, and shook everything out.  All of my multipedal fellow travelers were gone by then but my high was thoroughly shattered as well, and so I showered and went to bed, but felt things crawling on me all of the rest of the night.

When I got home from Viet Nam I found myself subject to nightmares the same as so many other soldiers did.  My nightmares were never about bullets and bombs however.  On one occasion I dreamed that the devil was right behind me, chasing me down a street near where I lived at the time.  No doubt he knew how effective his little eight legged creations were at freaking me out and had come to rub it in a little.  Later nightmares contained the usual fare that was normal for a connoisseur of “B” horror films of the 1950’s and early 60’s.  Werewolves and vampires teamed up to generate more than a few restless nights which might be interrupted by a sympathetic brother who would tell me later that “it just looked like you needed waking up.”

By far the worst however concerned an unfinished house on a hilltop in a forest somewhere.  For whatever reason I had to get from one side of this unfinished, open-walled house to the other, and as I began to traverse the bare wooden floor I became aware of spiders dangling from single strands of web, swinging like malevolent pendulums, growing thicker as I made my way across that floor.  All of a sudden I found myself running through the hellish house of horror holding a huge, thick wooden door and using it as a shield.  Any door of it’s size in real life would almost certainly weigh twice what I do and I couldn’t possibly even move it much less pick it up.  In my dream I was aware of its weight but the fact that I was carrying it made no impression.  In any case, at a moment when the terror caused me to lose my grip on any rational thought I threw my oaken shield through the path I wanted to go.  The spiders were so numerous by this time and the webs so thick that the massive door was suspended in the sticky matrix well off of the ground.  It was at that moment that a huge, hairy spider the size of my hand with the fingers extended landed on the side of my neck.

It was the left side.  I woke up with sweat pouring off of me and I am certain that I was uttering the strangled, muffled sounds that are the screams of one trying to escape their nightmare.  On this night my brother was not there to rescue me from my terrors and I lay there in my bed still as a statue, with part of me almost crying with relief that I was awake and part of me still feeling the hairy embrace of that fiendish spider.  The feeling subsided slowly but I slept no more that night, and forty four years later I can still feel echos of that visitation from the ninth circle of hell.

But all of that only brings me to the main point of my story, and that is the tale of my night hike over Tarantula Run.  This tale begins, as many of mine do, at the campground of Green Valley Falls in the mountains east of San Diego.  My father was very good about taking our family camping when I was young, and my friends and I camping when I was a little older.  On this particular trip my father took me and my best friend Mike for a couple of days and nights.  We did the usual things; fished in the Sweetwater River, went to the rangers’ nature talks at a big campfire in the evening, tried ineffectively to attract the attention of young female campers and so on.  One evening however Dad offered something new.  “Want to go on a night hike” he asked us?  “Sure” was our enthusiastic reply.  We were always up for a new adventure.

Now you must understand that since we were kids growing up in San Diego we ceased to wear shoes altogether from the moment that school was out in June until we returned to school in September.  Shoe wearing was engaged in a spotty manner all of the rest of the year.  Our feet, as a consequence of this, were tough and calloused.  Only a very strong splinter or a piece of glass could puncture or cut our feet, and the heat of an asphalt street in the midday sun was no great discomfort to us as the summer wore on.  It was with these bare but leathery feet that we began our hike as the sun started to sink towards the horizon to the west.

We saw our first tarantula only a few yards up Monument Trail, a three or four foot wide dirt track which led generally uphill towards the top of Monument Peak.  At the top of that peak is a lookout post for those who watch for forest fires and a monument to the fire fighters who fought a monster blaze in those hills in the early 1950’s.  Mike and I marveled at this creature which was far enough away that it inspired more curiosity than dread.  After a few moments of registering the spider’s presence and novelty we walked on.  We had never seen one of these things here before, and it was worth a look

Maybe a third of a mile up the path we saw the second spider.  Mike and I were quite taken with the coincidence of seeing two of these things when we had previously been unaware that any lived here.  We did not see any need for concern however until we had walked a couple hundred yards up the trail and saw two more, with one of them being right in the middle of the trail.  Mike and I were carrying our long snake sticks, or “snake sniks” as we called them, which we used as walking sticks and to rattle brush in order to alert rattlers to our presence so that they could alert us to theirs.  Mike poked at the obstructionist arachnid with his stick to speed it out of our way.  Speed was exactly we we got; the thing jumped about two feet to a spot just off the trail and glowered at us with its several dozen eyes.  Mike and I looked at each other first in amazement which was slowly but certainly replaced with fear.  The damned things jump.

It was at this time deepening into dusk and we were well along a trail which we now knew was lousy with tarantulas behind us.  My dad, who was well shod and not overly afraid of spiders anyway, reasoned that the only option was to go forward and perhaps find less crawly terrain ahead.  It seemed like our best choice so on we went, but the carpet of tarantulas which covered the area only thickened.

By the time we were a couple of miles up the trail it had become completely dark but for the light of a full moon, and Dad led the way as Mike and I followed, trying to place our feet exactly in the print of the person who was walking in front of us.  The bright moonlight made it easy to discern the path as it wound it’s way through the waist high chaparral on either side of us, but it was too dim to illuminate the spiders which we knew were crawling on our path and everywhere to either side of it.  I was expecting at any moment to put my bare foot down on a furry, wriggling, biting horror and I know that Mike expected the same.  We walked on untouched however, hoping that we could finish the rest of this five mile trek unscathed.

We at last reached the end of the hiking trail halfway up the mountain where it joined the Forest Service road that led up to the peak.  That made the road easier to see but our low-crawling friends were not visible in the gloom that cast shadows across the irregular road surface, shadows which I was certain provided cover for a hoard of hairy denizens that were biding their time before they jumped and began to feast on my legs and feet.

A few hundred yards down the road from the junction with the trail was the beginning of a path which zig zagged down the side of the hill to join the road below, cutting off a good two miles of this walk.  The path was little more than a game trail however and it would be hard to see in the dark.  More to the point, the path crossed several times a small rill of water which began at a spring on the side of the mountain and trickled down the hillside for a short distance before it was reabsorbed into the dry, thirsty earth of that arid corner of the country.  Dad knew that the creatures of that area came to drink at that tiny waterway or nibble at the vegetation.  Other creatures came to nibble on them, including rattlesnakes which were more than happy to partake in that moveable feast.  Dad knew that our fears of those tarantulas were pretty nearly groundless, but his fear of snakes was very well founded indeed.  Mike and I begged to descend on the shorter route snakes or no snakes, but Dad held firm.  So on down the mountain we continued to hike.

By the time we descended off of the mountain and began to walk the last level mile and a half of the road we began to relax just a little.  We had not stepped on any tarantulas yet and we were starting to like our odds that we would not do so at any time in the near future.  We turned out to be prophets, as we finally entered a grove of oak and pine which signified that we were at the picnic space and only a few yards from entering the overnight camping space of the campground.  The lights from the Coleman lanterns and the activity of families returning from the nature talk and climbing into tents or onto cots outside allowed us to breathe easily for the first time in the past couple of hours.

We soon were getting ready to wrap up in our blankets to get some well-earned sleep after a day of joyful fishing and climbing and poking around the rocks and slides of the falls at the south end of the campground, and a night of fearful pressure and tension as we walked barefoot through hell.  Dad assured us that tarantulas were shy and avoided areas which humans occupied.  I was not at all certain that the tarantulas had read the same books as my father however, so I dragged the thin cotton mattress off of my cot and slept on it inside of Dad’s big canvas umbrella tent, with Mike sleeping on his mattress right next to me.