The headlights cutting through the dense dark of the New Mexico outback suddenly veer off the road, sending a beacon across a vast grassland. Andy Holycross jumps out of his Jeep, trots down the well-worn asphalt surface and scoops up a little toad that is invisible to all but those who know to look for its reflection.
"These guys stay underground most of the year and surface for a couple of weeks in the summer to mate," Holycross says, holding a squirming critter that finally wrestles free and leaps to the pavement.
Spotting toads on moonless nights while driving 40 miles per hour down country roads is one of Holycross' sidelines. His main line of work is rattlesnakes. Specifically, one snake. The threatened New Mexico ridgenose rattlesnake.
A 31-year-old graduate biology student at Arizona State University, Holycross is two years into a three-year field study of the snake in the isolated Animas Mountains of southwestern New Mexico. He is not alone in his fascination with Crotalus willardi obscurus.
Others have been willing to chuck everything they own and travel across the world to volunteer as field assistants in Holycross' project. They come despite the harsh conditions and lack of amenities Holycross emphasizes in advertisements placed in biology and herpetology journals and on the Internet.
The volunteers sleep in dirt on a waterless mountain for weeks and sometimes months. They forgo showers and baths. They are isolated from society for weeks on end. They eat oatmeal each morning, licking their plates after every meal to conserve water that is hauled up the mountain by a mule train. They risk the horrible pain that can be inflicted in a split second by the animal that has caught their fancy. The pay, if any, is negligible compared to the hours worked.
And even the most devoted ridgenose chasers have a hard time explaining the allure of these snakes, why they are worth this much sacrifice.
"They are a little like dragons without heads," Holycross says. "They are almost mythological."
Holycross turns his Jeep--adorned with a "Kill Your Television" bumper sticker--eastward, toward the peaks of Animas, and flashes his headlights at the mountains. Moments later, a light flashes back, 1,500 feet above the horizon, where four field workers at the base camp eagerly await the steaks and mail in Holycross' backpack.
Holycross heads down a four-wheel-drive ranch road toward the Animas Mountains, once the sacred grounds of the Casas Grandes and later the Apache Indians and now a mecca for those fascinated by rattlesnakes.
These mountains form the heart of one of America's last great open spaces--the Gray Ranch, which occupies one third of New Mexico's extreme southwest corner, an area called the "boot heel" for obvious geographic reasons. The 502-square-mile, privately owned ranch, ordinarily closed to the public, is a treasure-trove of biological diversity. Major ecosystems converge at the ranch--elements of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains and the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico--creating an explosion of wildlife supported by grasslands and mountain forests.
Mention the Gray Ranch to a herpetologist, and eyes light up as if you acquired the key to the Forbidden City. The ranch once provided habitat for the Mexican gray wolf, Mexican grizzlies and black-footed ferrets, all of which have been eliminated. But it remains home to at least four rattlesnake species--and the New Mexico ridgenose rattlesnake is the most mysterious of the lot.
Twenty jarring minutes down the ranch road, Holycross stops his Jeep at a dead end. With no time to waste, Holycross and greenhorn volunteer Steve Kolvek prepare their backpacks in darkness, except for light broadcast by lamps they wear on their heads.
A 21-year-old biology student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Kolvek has never been on a mountain. He mumbles about that last cigarette he smoked hours earlier, knowing that there will be no more for a month and that soon he will pay dearly for the habit. The men top off their packs with groceries, grab a couple cans of stove fuel, adjust their head lamps and start into a narrow, artificial tunnel of light that jags up a rocky riverbed and soon leads to a steep canyon that cuts into the heart of the mountain.
"What's this, Grasshopper?" Holycross asks the newest student to come to the mountain while pointing to a tree overhanging the trail. Kolvek's a quick study and correctly identifies the alligator juniper.