By Eilene Lyon
Spring in southern Nevada brings out the hibernating desert tortoises, and the people who look for them. Transects, which are twelve-kilometer squares, three kilometers a side, were randomly scattered on the map for the 2008 crews. A crack GIS team produced individual maps for each transect, along with directions to the starting point.
Two-person teams started out in the coolness of dawn, walking the border lines as closely as possible. We were not to deviate from the coordinates given on our maps and GPS units. We stopped every 500 meters to record data, and whenever we spotted a tortoise, we tagged it and collected information about it.
Drawing squares on a map, and trying to follow that square in the real world, are very different things. And sometimes, the rule not to deviate could get one into trouble. I don’t think we had Google Earth back then, but if someone sends you out to walk a random line in the Nevada desert, by god, you better double check the aerial image! Closely.
One team ended up in the back of a military police car, because their transect took them to a top-secret government installation. They were even interrogated. At least with the U.S. military, you can feel fairly certain you aren’t about to get shot.
I should have been so lucky.
My partner and I were dutifully following our Mojave transect, heading west on the southern line of our square, when a concrete wall blocked our path. A large wall. Hmm. There was a berm that allowed us to see over the obstacle. It was out in the middle of nowhere and enclosed a bunch of courtyards and internal walls. And inside those courtyards appeared to be – what were we looking at??
Before we could even begin to decipher the scene, someone raced towards us on an ATV, dust billowing behind.
The man who got off the ATV, demanding to know what we were doing there, was dressed in camo pants, a black t-shirt, a semi-automatic rifle slung on his back…and a full-face black ski mask. I mean, it had to be in the 90s by that time, and this was no lightweight synthetic, high-tech ski mask – it looked more like something his mother might have knit. It looked hot, and I don’t mean that ironically.
Trying to remain nonchalant, heart slamming my ribs, I showed him our map and explained that we were looking for tortoises, and that we were supposed to follow our transect exactly – and this facility was clearly NOT marked on our map. I promised we weren’t spying or nothing. He didn’t give damn.
Get off the property. Now.
We deviated our transect. Seemed like the sensible thing to do.
It turned out that this secret fortress was a private facility designed for high-level corporate execs who want to spend a day playing “Commando” with real guns and everything. Freakin’ Rambo wanna-bees. (Someone in our organization had been aware of it, but didn’t bother to warn us!)
After that tense encounter, we went on looking for tortoises and gradually fell back into the rhythm of our day. I spotted a tortoise and started moving towards it, not paying much attention to whatever was between me and the reptile.
My high jump could have been an Olympic contender.
Just a few feet in front of me, a large bull snake, intent on having a lizard for lunch, lunged from under the sagebrush, scaring the bejeezus out of me!
My heart rate didn’t return to normal for hours.
And me without a bottle of wine.