By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
On a moonless, June night, a purple light bobs and hovers along the barbed-wire fence marking the northern boundary of the Gila River Indian Reservation on the far side of South Mountain Park. Joe Bigelow is hunting for scorpions, scanning his ultraviolet lamp across the desert gravel until a scorpion pops out of the blackness, a slender three inches long and fluorescing green as a child's glow-in-the-dark toy.
"Smeringerus mesaensis," he calls out, identifying his prey. It's a fairly benign little scorpion, a sand burrower with a sting not much worse than an ant's. Bigelow snags it by the tail with a long pair of tweezers painted Day-Glo orange; he snaps on his headlamp and shines its beam on the squirming little critter, which is as bland and tan as the sand it lives in. Bigelow drops it into a plastic bag, shuts off the headlamp and trots up the ridge line looking for more. Bigelow, 52, is a ruggedly professorial-looking fellow with creases for eyes and a graying beard. He's on sabbatical from his day job as biology professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, living in Tempe to work on the dissertation he should have written 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student and Arizona State University was in its golden age of scorpiology.
Back then, the hills south of South Mountain Park were scorpion heaven, and Bigelow had somehow expected them to be unchanged. But driving down Chandler Boulevard, he was surprised to find seven miles of ersatz-Spanish housing developments, indistinguishable except for the nuances of red in their tile roofs. The scorpions are probably still there, burrowing in the backyards and the attics of the homes, where they are off-limits to scorpion hunters. At the end of the road, he had to four-wheel across a mile of bulldozed drainage and development to find this patch of virgin desert.
"Hadrurus arizonensis," he calls out when the black light scans across a giant hairy scorpion, a large but fairly impotent fellow. It scuttles under a rock before he can snag it with the tweezers. Bigelow marches on up the hill, stepping casually among the stones in the darkness, across the kind of terrain in which one expects at any moment to be startled by the shhrrr of a sidewinder. As if intuiting the thought, Bigelow launches into a story.
"I was down in Baja in 68," he begins, in the nothing-scares-me tone of the field biologist. He was on a collecting expedition made up of ASU and San Francisco State University students and professors. "This one guy was an entomologist doing research on thin-waisted wasps." He pronounces the name with such intentional daintiness that he almost lisps. "We tried to get everyone out at night collecting scorpions, and he wasn't too hep on it, but his major professor was, so he had to be out there."
You know what's coming next; the poor fool was walking along a ridge line when the first rattler sounded. "He jumped straight up in the air, and when he came down, a second rattler rattled. He jumped again, and a third snake struck at the leg of his jeans. That did it. He took off down that hill, and every place he stepped, he heard rattlers rattling. There must have been 25 of them." Bigelow pauses for drama: "He decided to stick with wasps after that--because he could collect them in the daytime."
It's an overture to other collecting stories. Bigelow was hiking after dark in the mountains near Quartzsite, where he'd identified a new scorpion species. He waved his black light in front of him and realized he wasn't getting any reflection back at all. "I stopped and turned on my headlight," he says, "and there was nothing in front of me but space. I slowly scanned the light towards my feet and saw I was standing on the edge of a cliff."
In 1970, Bigelow was on a week's trip, collecting woodland scorpions beneath the Mogollon Rim. Down near Sycamore Canyon, he was following a game trail through thick, thick brush after dark when, suddenly, a deer that had been cowering on the path broke cover beneath his feet. Before his heart even had time to stop, he was astride the animal, then launched toward the treetops by the adrenaline payload.
"I've listened to mountain lions tracking me down a ridge," he says. "I've run into black bears at night. Nothing's ever scared me like that brown, hairy beast coming up under my crotch and lifting me off the ground." He landed in a quivering heap on the trail, and when he got his wits about him, he hiked back to his car and drove straight home.
Tonight, there are no animals more startling than a deer mouse scampering underfoot, an owl fluttering past at head height, a sleek, well-fed coyote circling wide. The evening's take comprises about 25 scorpions representing five species. They writhe and tangle over each other inside the bag.
"If we found a nice, sandy wash, we'd have ten times this many," Bigelow says with a trace of disappointment in his voice.