Flickr photo courtesy of Troy Bell

Flickr photo courtesy of Troy Bell

I’m chilling, minding my own business, sitting cross-legged on my sleeping bag and writing in my journal. The kids are asleep, or nearly so. Josh, one of my co-staff in this wilderness therapy group, is finishing reading a chapter of Cosmos to the kids. Peaceful. Calm. All is well in the desert tonight.

And at the edge of my pool of light, a dark shape darts toward me. Too big to be a bug. I jump, draw back, snap my hand out for a rock. The thing stops about a foot away from me.

I’ve never seen a scorpion before, but there is no mistaking the cockroach-like body, the pinchers, and of course, the curved stinger.

It sits there, not moving.

I sit there, not moving.

Jolted out of my peaceful, idyllic evening of writing and star-gazing, I find that I’m afraid. It’s not the first time I’ve felt that fear out here. Last shift, a kid was reaching into a sage bush, and stopped just inches away from a rattlesnake. It was only a few feet away from me, and I could see the rattle sticking out from under the bush, lifted and poised, as we all backed slowly away.

Then there was the recent car wreck out here, which nearly killed 4 of my coworkers. They miraculously—I really don’t have any other word for it—crawled out of a completely crushed car. With no working communication devices, they could have been stranded for a long time, if another car hadn’t been not too far behind them. As it was, it was nearly 4 hours before medical help reached them.

And I can’t count how many times I’ve wandered off from camp for one reason or another, and realized that everything around me looked the same. If I was out of earshot, if I couldn’t find a trail of footprints to follow back to camp, I could be wandering around for a while before someone found me.

I wanted to go somewhere wild and untamed. Now that I’m here, it’s clear that wild and untamed also means dangerous and unpredictable. Not the sort of place to be off in your head daydreaming like I often am.  It demands more respect than that.

I’ve got a rock in my hand. I don’t want to use it, but I’m ashamed to admit that if the scorpion starts crawling toward me, I will scream like the little girl that I am and start bashing at the thing.

Before I have a chance to call someone over for help, another scorpion comes beelining in from below. My fear and squeamishness wars with fascination as they start duking it out for this little hole. Stingers reared up, pinchers locked.

This little patch of desert clearly belongs to them. If I kill them, the smell of dead scorpion will bring more scorpions. If I try to move them…well, I’m not about to try to move two scorpions. And how do I know they won’t just make their way back to the same territory? They’ve probably marked it in some way.

No. Reluctantly, I admit I’m the one that has to give way here. The scorpions win. The desert wins. Eyes on the little buggars, I pack up my stuff and move down by kids’ shelter, 30 feet or so away from them.

When I get up to pee later that night, I find myself examining every step before I take it. I’ve seen rattlesnakes and scorpions; I know how far we are from any help whatsoever. The vastness of the desert makes all of our technology–our GPS and radio and sat phone,the support network we’ve got, seem like a thin safety net.