Monsoon Season in Arizona, 2023

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Jefferson
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Joined: March 2nd, 2014, 6:50 am
Location: Southwest Missouri

Monsoon Season in Arizona, 2023

Post by Jefferson »

For those of you who also want to watch the accompanying YT video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdhEeDm ... e=youtu.be

In the classic 1964 apocalypse-comedy-thriller Dr. Strangelove (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), the Russian nuclear scientist tells Peter Sellers’ character, the titular former Nazi Dr. Strangelove, that he has “an astonishingly good idea” when Sellers nonchalantly states that nuclear war wouldn’t result in human extinction, since humans could merely live in caves for years on end until the Earth’s surface again became habitable, but that the ratio of women to men would be 10:1 to hasten the species’ population recovery. This past late winter/early spring, my friend Hayden had a similarly astonishingly good idea: a joint Arizona herping and Las Vegas trip.

A little about Hayden: he and I became friends in college largely over our shared interests in politics, history, economics, and philosophy. Hayden has been herping occasionally with me (perhaps ten or a dozen short salamander outings within 50 miles of campus in college, and a few Copperhead road cruises in the warmer months) but is not a herper per se. I did notice during college that he seemed more excited and engaged in the Copperhead cruises than when he went with me looking for salamanders. Looking for salamanders, I flipped rocks and he hit me with philosophical questions we’d debate while herping, but when we cruised for snakes, he’d scan the road. Also, he had never seen a wild rattlesnake up close. So, when Hayden asked me what a good trip would be where we could herp and do more normal guy-friend stuff this spring, I didn’t hesitate: Arizona. All snakes, almost no salamanders, and we could couple it with the annual few-day trip that Hayden takes to Las Vegas with his coworkers and some historical stuff like Tombstone. Within a few weeks, we were both enthusiastically onboard and booking flights months in advance.

So it was that on August 1st, I turned out the overhead reading lights, put my Benjamin Franklin biography with Arizona hunting license tucked inside the front cover back in the bag, and peered out the window of a 737, the bright lights of Tucson contrasting with the surrounding black desert as if they were suspended in nothingness. Knowing that in less than a half hour another monsoon season foray into Arizona would commence, and that it would be shared with a great friend, erased the memory of a snake hook confiscated earlier that day at a TSA checkpoint, melted my lingering apprehension over the price of the tickets and the rental car, and galvanized my spirits. Hello Arizona, I thought, it’s been a while.

Mike Tyson once said boxing is all fun and games until someone gets punched in the nose. Herping is the opposite. Once you have a Blacktail on the end of your snake hook, it’s all fun and games. But until then, it’s all worrying missed flights and budgets and weather…. especially weather, and especially when you’re going to Arizona, where the herping is more rain-dependent than anywhere else in America.

Indeed, all I heard or saw on the news for the two weeks before our trip in early August this year was how Arizona was ON FIRE. You could fry eggs on the asphalt in Phoenix at the right time of day, one news story informed me. Another dryly reported that it was unsafe to walk distances as short as a half mile in the heat even before sunrise, and until deep into the night. The devil considered retreating from Arizona on account of the excessive temperatures, et cetera. Well, road cruising it is, I told myself. But as we herpers know, 110 degrees every day makes for some poor herping (even road cruising) if there’s no rain, and Southeast Arizona had only had a few bands of rain until barely a week before our trip. In those seven days before the trip, though, some storms finally blew in and the temperatures moderated….to only 100 degrees.

But herping in Arizona, as anywhere, is 50% research, 30% grit, and 20% faith in the unexpected, in the vicissitudes of the trip, in the capacity of nature to throw a random lifer your way when the field guide says you should have seen bupkis. So it was that I landed in Tucson on a hot August 1st in exuberance, picked up my baggage, and found Hayden with the rental car (which would turn out to be the world’s worst rental car by trip’s end) ready to rock n’ roll a few hours after sunset. It was still 94 degrees at almost 10:30pm. As always, we picked up our political banter as if it had been only a week since we last saw each other, and we cruised in through metro Tucson toward a quadrangle of roads where I suspected we’d have a chance for at least four or five rattlesnake species. For the first hour of the cruise, there were no snakes, although we did see several Sonoran Desert Toads, the trip’s first herps, a coyote and several nighthawks, which flew off into the surrounding Saguaro cacti whenever the headlights hit them. Hayden wondered aloud, “what are the chances we see no rattlesnakes on this whole trip?” I put the odds of that somewhere between 2 and 5%, although I was losing confidence in tonight.

A few minutes before midnight, we finally spotted a snake, and turned around to ID and photograph it. It was indeed a rattlesnake, but a dead one—a Northern Black-tailed, which was a decent find for this area close to Tucson. Unfortunately, Hayden’s first wild, up-close encounter with a rattler was a DOR.

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DOR Blacktail

We decided to give a road a few miles away that was rumored to have Sidewinders one more pass despite the late hour, as it was still 85 degrees just after midnight. After seeing several kangaroo mice (which were EVERYWHERE on night cruises for the entire trip), we happened upon a huge Western Diamondback, which I misidentified in the field as a Mojave (that distinction is to me what trying to tell Desmognathus apart in Appalachia would be for Southwestern herpers), and which was very content to sit still, soak up the heat of the pavement, and have its picture taken without moving a muscle. After moving him off the road, we cruised back toward our Airbnb to get some sleep, wrapping up the first night with two live rattlers and a host of toads, mice, and desert birds.

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First of many Western Diamondbacks

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Mojave Rattler

Day two, after an early morning visit to Walmart, we met up with an old herping friend that everyone on this forum will know to look for some montane rattlers in woodland canyon habitat: Smetlogik, aka Rob, and his son Nick.

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"All the Devils Are Here"

Although we spotted some monster wild turkeys, a Black-necked Garter eating a Canyon Treefrog by a stream and got a lifer Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard, the canyon visit that morning was otherwise uneventful, partly owing to lack of good monsoon rains.

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Yarrow's Spiny Lizard

But the up-side of herping with others, especially Smetlogik and his crew, is that it makes even getting skunked fun. The conversation was great and roving over those few hours, and we met a pair of herpers from Georgia in the parking lot on the way out. In my experience, Arizona is really the only place in the USA where you reliably run into other field herpers. I’ve run into another herper maybe twice on trails elsewhere in America, but in the three times I have now been to Arizona, it’s happened almost every hike or road cruise.

After a few hours, hungry, sweating, and still bushed from last night’s cruise until 1:30am, we decided today wasn’t the day we were going to get a pyro and a willardi. On the drive back to Tucson on I-19, Hayden posited that aliens are probably herpers, since their craft are sighted most frequently in Arizona/NM and rural Appalachia (“please, take us to your top-secret pyro spots!”). Looking up Mexican restaurants back in Tucson on that drive, one caught our attention: El Charro in downtown, the oldest continually-operating Mexican restaurant in the United States.

Goodness gracious……El Charro is sublime. It’s the best Mexican food you’ve ever had, for only $15 or $20, and it’s completely unlike the (already good) standardized Mexican food you get at restaurants in rural Missouri and Kansas. The food there could convince John C. Calhoun and the Southern Whigs of the 1840s that annexing Mexican territory was a good idea. By the end of our time in Tucson, we would eat at El Charro twice more, and my only regret is that we couldn’t pick the restaurant up and take it with me back to Missouri, or with Hayden back to Nashville. If you’re ever herping in Tucson and want Mexican food, this is the place—this monsoon season, we will be hitting it again EVERY DAY for lunch!

The middle of the day in Arizona monsoon herping season, there’s nothing to do. It’s too damn hot for anything to be out, so the default is to watch a movie (“Liar Liar” day one), read, hang out at the pool (always get and Airbnb with a pool) and nap. Ironically, even though Arizona is some of the most intense herping in the US, this middle-of-day break also makes it one of the best trips to introduce someone to herping, or to take a trip with a non-herper where the trip is half herping and half other stuff (what other hobbies take place mainly at 10pm?). After our afternoon kick-back, we again headed south at sunset to cruise a well-known road, and watched a wonderful sunset stretch out to the horizon as twilight settled in.

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The hunters prepare to pursue the quarry...

There had been no rain here for over a week, but I still had high hopes we could score a few rattlers regardless. True to Arizona form, we met two other sets of road-cruisers (one car from Georgia, the other from California) within 45 minutes, but no one had seen anything yet. Just after 8pm, as the temperature dipped below 85 degrees, I spotted a fat, striped snake in the headlights ahead. Could it be? As we came to a stop and I grabbed the snake hook, I am pretty sure I was saying aloud, “Please be a Tiger.” It was!!

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Tiger Rattlesnake

This burly beast, just shy of three feet, was the feistiest rattlesnake I have ever encountered, striking at the snake hook repeatedly and slithering quickly toward the shoulder, stopping at intervals to turn and strike the hook. Tiger Rattlesnakes, as most people on this forum know, have the most potent rattlesnake venom in North America per unit volume, although the larger-bodied rattlers like Eastern and Western Diamondbacks produce vastly larger quantities. I asked Hayden if he wanted to try to wrangle it for more pictures, and he understandably declined in favor of waiting for a less irascible specimen. I got the snake situated for the pictures above and some video, and just after the cameras stopped rolling, our California road cruiser rolled up to admire the snake, as did an ENTIRE RV of herpers with headlamps and hooks. First lifer snake of the trip, and the first Arizona endemic rattler for Hayden’s life list—what a snake!

On the way back down to the desert floor, we didn’t see anything of note, and a late-night effort to get Hayden a lifer Sidewinder turned up only another D-back and blared some Eagles music into the Sonoran night, musing on how “Blue Clear Sky” by George Strait might be re-done as a song about Arizona herping, how just when you “think you’ve had enough; you’re ready to give up,” you find a killer rattler! Interestingly, we saw not only barn owls on this cruise, but a very large badger crossing the sandy road where I had hoped we’d see Sidewinders. I never knew that badgers’ range extended that far southwest, as I always thought of them as more of an Upper Midwest and Northern Rockies critter. What a great night.

The next morning, we got up early to head up to Mt. Lemmon to a few locales rumored to harbor the Arizona Black Rattler, one of my most-wanted rattlers, and some of the most intimidating-looking snakes in North America. On the way up to Lemmon, a business name caught my eye: “Primarily Japanese Auto Care.” Direct enough! The first stop, a little lower down the mountain in scrubby, rocky habitat, yielded a few common lizards like whiptails and earless lizards, and this beautiful basking Regal Ringneck, which I am told is rather rare in Arizona. In my opinion, this subspecies is prettier than our Prairie Ring-necks in Missouri, and much more ornate than the two subspecies east of the Mississippi.

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Regal Ringneck Snake

As the temperature soared past 85 at the lower elevations, we headed higher up the mountain to a picturesque lake and its surrounding forests. The lake itself was infested with invasive American Bullfrogs, which had evidently out-competed all the native frogs and toads, as there was one nearly every two or three inches of the shoreline.

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Montane Lake, Mount Lemmon

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Invasive Bullfrogs

Poking around the woods bordering the lake for rattlers, I turned up a small juvenile Madrean Alligator Lizard in the pine straw and some tree lizards.

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Madrean Alligator Lizard

At about noon, we retreated from the cool, piney environs atop Mount Lemmon (80 degrees) back to the desert floor, where it was a simmering 99 and rising, and a DOR Gila Monster was found at roadside.

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DOR Gila

The next destination was a place I have wanted to see for years, and Hayden too: Tombstone, site of the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral, etched in the American imagination as the embodiment of the battle between anarchy and advancing law and order in the Wild West, and immortalized by the Val Kilmer/Sam Eliot film Tombstone. It did not disappoint. Lunch at Big Nose Cate’s Saloon (do not take anyone too young to have seen a Western with a brothel in it) was great, as was the live guitar player picking and singing “Pancho and Lefty” and other western-themed country music. The reenactment of the gunfight by look-alikes to the Hollywood actors from the famous film was well worth the money, although very hot, since the show is outdoors and without shade. The Crystal Palace still has the same bar that was there in the 1880s, which was an interesting bit of living history to see, especially (as is fitting in the West, that most individualistic region of America) still in private ownership. Overall, it was an afternoon herping interlude very well spent.

After Tombstone, we headed east toward Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains straddling the Arizona/New Mexico border under fair skies, seeing border patrol apprehending migrants on the way near Douglas, marveling at the red rock canyons of Bisbee, and briefly stopped at the monument to Geronimo’s 1886 surrender to US forces before heading on to the iconic Portal Café for a pre-cruise dinner. Just after dinner, barely ten minutes into road cruising, we spotted a hulking Black-tail at the roadside. Now, here was the perfect snake for Hayden to take a shot at wrangling! It was sow-moving, well-patterned, rattling, but not overly aggressive. I had seen Black-tails before in 2021, but seeing my first live specimen in two years was a blast! On pure looks, I think the yellow-tinted Blacktails of Cochise County are the second-prettiest rattlers in Arizona, after Ridge-nose.

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Black-tail outside Portal

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Hayden with Blacktail

As temperatures within Portal Canyon fell into the 70s after sunset, we dropped back down into the surrounding desert along the New Mexico line after seeing some javelinas in the canyon. We had easily our most productive road cruise of the trip, turning up three each of Diamondback and Mojave, a juvenile Long-nosed Snake with some bright red banding, and, once again, fellow herpers that we briefly formed a cruising alliance with (native Arizonans who cruise here nearly every weekend, met while photographing a D-back), and a last D-back just south of I-10 in New Mexico on 80, the only New Mexican snake of the trip.

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Long-nosed Snake

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Portal-area Mojave

On this cruise, we also met a lost birder and his wife, who were looking for a particular lodge and stopped to ask us directions. We hadn’t a clue where the lodge was. When he asked if we were birders and I reported that we were herpers, his face dropped and his tone changed from hopeful cheeriness to condescension. Hayden picked up on it instantly, and a good hour of the drive back to Tucson was taken up discussing the rivalry between birders and herpers and its origins (herpers are noisy and scare away birds!), and we mused about remaking Romeo and Juliet to have the characters come from a family of birders and herpers rather than the Capulets and Montagues. (“Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” “Road cruising—it’s monsoon season!”) Also on the drive back to Tucson on I-10, we saw a Spotted Skunk crossing the interstate near the town of Benson.

The next day was rather uneventful, with a morning hike back in the canyon habitat from the first day where we worked up a good sweat and got a solid 2-3 hours of exercise but turned up nothing other than lizards, another lunch at El Charro (featuring the best taco I have ever consumed) where we tormented our respective moms by texting them pictures of the rattlesnakes we had seen so far, and an afternoon hanging out at the pool, watching the incredibly stupid (so stupid it’s good) Big Trouble in Little China, and trying a Sinaloan hot dog stand that Rob recommended, which was both wonderful and cheap.

Our evening/night hike in a well-known spot on the outskirts of Tucson saw us only find a gaggle of Sonoran Desert Toads huddled up in a small puddle of what is normally a huge pool during more normal monsoon seasons, although we also bumped into Rob at random (he had seen a Coral Snake an hour prior!!) on the trails and met an older couple who were also looking for Regal Horned Lizards (neither of us found any) and insisted that we had also just missed a Black-tailed rattler. We bumped into probably a dozen other herpers in several groups, saw a ton of bats, spotted a Hognose skunk at trailside, and saw a nice moonrise over the mountains with the panorama of Tucson’s lights as a backdrop. Overall, slow herping but good exercise and fun.

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Sonoran Desert Toads

Our final full day in Tucson, I had a wild idea to hit a spot in the Huachuca Range toward the Mexican border in the morning, a last-minute itinerary change I am glad I made. Since it’s a very well-known spot, I researched it myself, and species that live there are available by google search, I have no problems stating it was Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve. Although there are several snakes of note that live here (pyro, rocks and ridge-nose), seeing as it is nature preserve property, rock-flipping is off-limits, as is going off-trail, so poking with a walking stick at trailside hoping to rustle something up, or getting lucky enough to get a snake crossing the trail, is the best you can hope for.

The real attraction here (beside the lush riparian forest, which is more reminiscent of the East than Arizona) is the Chiricahuan Leopard Frog, which has been extirpated from much of its range but has been re-established by breeding efforts in several canyons and oases, including here at Ramsey, where the frog ponds are labelled at trail-side and contain a healthy population of these striking critters. We saw probably 20 or so in mid-morning, and I showed a few kids passing by whose parents were curious what I was taking pictures of with my long lens, having them look through the lens at the frogs and explaining how rare they were, what caused their decline, etc.

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Chiricahuan Leopard Frogs

A hike up the preserve’s steep mountain trail (the map is not to scale on where the lookout is!) gave us the “47th Alabama at Little Round Top” treatment—we did not reach the top, and were, in fact, embarrassingly out-hiked by some older ladies who took it slower and steadier than we did. Note to self: greater time on elliptical required before my next trip to Arizona! Heading back to Tucson, we went through a border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Vista, speculated on what an odd blimp over the Huachucas might be, and held our hunger until Tucson…for El Charro. After midday break (pool, The Network), we headed back to the spot from the night prior to give Rob his borrowed snake hook back and take one last shot at night-hiking some snakes with him and Nick. Again, it was a fun night, replete with tarantulas and scorpions crossing the paths and good conversation, but due to the dry conditions, we saw only one banded gecko (a very cool find, and only my 2nd specimen, the first was last year in the same place).

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Western Banded Gecko

So ended our Tucson stint, but the next day would be our transition from the desert to within striking distance of Las Vegas, via the lush coniferous mountains of northern Arizona, where I hoped some amphibians might happen.

The next morning, we started out cruising I-10 north toward Phoenix along the desert floor as the sun came up, and then headed northeast into the mountains along Arizona 87 toward Payson, which was some of the most rugged terrain of the trip, with deep canyons and craggy, rocky mountains as far as one could see in any direction. Curiously, we saw a domestic cat more than 50 miles from any home or side road between Phoenix and Payson, and trees began appearing as we slowly ascended past ravines with funny names like “Kitty Joe Creek” toward the Mogollon Rim, which divides Arizona’s arid southern and central portions from its colder, more forested northern section.

The first stop was a gorgeous, forested stream ravine that looked like it belonged in the Smoky Mountains rather than the Southwestern states. Unfortunately, lack of rain meant that we did not find our quarry, the Large-blotched Ensatina, which was introduced here in the 1970s and has thrived in the cool stream ravine, but instead turned up a lone gartersnake and a whole host of ants and other bugs under rocks and logs. Higher up, just above the Mogollon Rim, a wet montane meadow yielded what I thought at the time was a brown-phase Arizona Treefrog but which was actually a Boreal Chorus Frog.

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Boreal Chorus Frog

After a long drive down forest service dirt roads out of the pines and into the high prairies, the next stop was another iconic town: Winslow, of “Take It Easy” fame. Though not as glamorous or famous as Tombstone, this stop gave northern Arizona a cultural counterweight to our Tombstone stop in the south, and lunch at a biker joint was just the right way to experience the town (along with seeing the “standing on a corner” statue in downtown and playing the song as we drove by). But I must say: the terrain around Winslow, in that northeast quarter of Arizona where there are neither trees nor cactus, just endless shortgrass prairie, is some of the ugliest in North America. It’s not tough to see how a Midwestern settler in the 1800s, forced to stop in this sort of terrain (or somewhere similar like eastern Wyoming/eastern Montana) rather than risk making it all the way to Oregon or California on the wagon roads would quickly develop “prairie madness.”

But things change as one approaches Flagstaff on I-40. The prairies give way to pine trees and the land takes on a more welcoming character. Our first backup spot for Arizona Tiger Salamanders (I had hoped to find this species at the wet meadow where we saw the chorus frog) was blocked off for a road closure, although we did sight a prairie dog from this detour, but I had one more park up my sleeve before we called it quits: an urban park within Flagstaff that had a study of its salamander population years ago, though the chances of seeing anything on the surface were low. Upon arrival, we circled the pond, seeing a lifer Plateau Fence Lizard, a garter at water’s edge, and a few Red-eared sliders, but as I walked the banks of the pond, almost completing the circle and giving up, I noticed a fat garter with an ARIZONA TIGER SALAMANDER in its mouth, and captured it, whereupon it gave up the large larval salamander for photos, and I slipped in the mud trying to position it for photos. Never have I ever found a salamander at an unlikelier location, in such an unlikely fashion!

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Arizona Tiger Salamander

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Wandering Gartersnake

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Lifer Plateau Fence Lizard

On toward Kingman’s Airbnb for the night (which held the promise of dogs to pet), we were both surprised by how nice the stretch of terrain between Flagstaff and Williams is, with all meadows, pine trees, and well-kept cabins along I-40. The last herping of the trip was our final road cruise outside of Kingman, into the Hualapai Mountains. We saw no snakes, but did see a DOR Desert Horned Lizard, the trip’s final lifer for both me and Hayden, and I discovered, thanks to Hayden, my new absolute favorite road-cruising song: “Long White Line” by Sturgill Simpson. Plus, the sunset from high in the Hualapai Mountains was fantastic!

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DOR Desert Horned Lizard

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Mountain Sunset in the Hualapais

It had been a long and fun herping part of the trip, but by 9pm, it was time to turn in and pet a dog instead of spending another hour cruising. Leaving Kingman the next morning under sunny skies and bidding the Airbnb dog farewell, we turned in the rental car in Las Vegas after seeing Hoover Dam, and the trip transitioned from herping and road-tripping to standard Vegas stuff.

About that rental car, which I earlier claimed was the worst rental car ever: it had no GPS system, no compass telling you if you were headed north or south, the charging port didn’t work, had a loose tire rim that, by trip’s end, had to be kicked back into place every hundred or so miles, had a loose floor board, a removable cupholder that sat crooked in the center counsel, a random dent, a loose backing panel for the side mirror, and a sticky gas cap from a faulty spring. We didn’t get charged anything extra for all these foibles, as we had proof it was like that early on in our trip, but my goodness….definitely getting at least the mid-size next time.

Las Vegas was not exactly my cup of tea, but fun for 24-48 hours at a time, and a good exercise for me to intentionally break out of my comfort zone. I won a few dollars playing blackjack and lost them, saw the strip and gawked at wares, played a street panhandler’s guitar, saw Hoover Dam and filmed an episode for my environmental economics series, evangelized to an Uber drive, etc. ‘Twas a fun 36-hour whirlwind to wind out the trip. Perhaps this same trip, or a similar iteration of herping with friends somewhere near Vegas and then ending there, will happen again soon.

Thank you all for reading, I wish you a Happy New Year, and be on the lookout for my other two big trip posts from 2023 (my mega-trip with my brother in May, and my 5-day weekend in Texas in November)!!
User avatar
Jefferson
Posts: 184
Joined: March 2nd, 2014, 6:50 am
Location: Southwest Missouri

Re: Monsoon Season in Arizona, 2023

Post by Jefferson »

Upon re-reading this, let me make it clear that by "standard Vegas stuff," I don't mean that the Vegas leg of the trip was uneventful or just the normal touristy experience--Hayden and his associates made it a blast, and we ventured into the real Vegas off the popular touristy joints on the strip proper. Just wanted to clear that up!!
Kfen
Posts: 413
Joined: June 17th, 2010, 5:51 am
Location: CT

Re: Monsoon Season in Arizona, 2023

Post by Kfen »

Thanks so much for taking the time post this. It was very enjoyable read. The kind of info and story telling you can't get on FB.
emmawilson
Posts: 1
Joined: March 4th, 2024, 3:15 am

Re: Monsoon Season in Arizona, 2023

Post by emmawilson »

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