Yes, I am here in Las Vegas and let me tell you, I am loving it. I am soaking – no, drinking -in all the wild life this place has to offer. When a hometown Monroe boy hits Sin City things are going to happen! Why, I was on the strip and cruising for action as soon as my bags were unpacked. I had used up my quota of “gollie gees” and “I ain’t seen that befores” by the time my first half day was over.
My trip up the strip was a necessary part of getting out of this town as fast as I possibly could. I wanted to visit the natural desert country surrounding the city. Apparently, there are people who actually come to Vegas just to gamble and “take in the shows?” These folks are never far from a flashing façade or a slot machine and never close to anything approaching reality. In a town where dead performers can still perform and electricity is apparently free, life is fast, fake, and fleeting. Out in the wild desert country surrounding Vegas, however, life is timeless and very real.
Consider this blog as a letter to the folks back home. The reason people say “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is because nothing really important happens in this town. What happens in the country, well, that’s a different story and I feel compelled to tell you some of what happens there. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to write here because of all the wild places I have to visit (and the necessity of attending at least a few sessions of the naturalist conference I am here for – yes, you heard right). So, I will regale you with just a few impressions – none of which are ranked in any order of importance.
Just north and east of town lay the Sunrise Mountains – a desolate rocky tumble of ancient granite and red rock bluffs. Just a few feet off the road I was introduced to my first unique desert plant in the form of a gassy hydra. This plant, called a Desert Trumpet, is a member of the buckwheat family although it bears no resemblance to Spanky or Alfalfa. Because I am including pictures here, there is no need to imagine what this thing looks like, but picture a foot tall hydra (those microscopic multi-tentacled beasts). Trumpet Plants have stems which are inflated just below the point where all the branches come together. This swelling, which is hollow on the interior, is caused by a build up of Carbon Dioxide gas. I suppose plants injected with Beano would not display this trait.
In days gone by, the native Paiute would occasionally cut the stems and make temporary pipes and drinking straws. Gold prospectors sought out this plant as an indication of possible gold locations, although it turned out all the gold was in town! When these plants die, the tops fall off and leave the open-ended stems with flared tops looking like little upward pointing trumpets – thus the name.
O.K., so a gassy plant is not what you were expecting in Vegas so how about a critter with a glitzy billboard advertising it as “The World’s Smallest.” That is Vegas style. This critter is a tiny butterfly called the Western Pigmy Blue. This must be a good time for these little guys because I saw a half dozen of them in the past few days in the Sonoran desert. With a wingspan of only ½ inch, this colorful insect is certainly the smallest butterfly in North America and believed to be the smallest in the world. I took it for a fly fly (as opposed to a butter fly) the first time I spotted it flitting about the saltbrush. The pictures are very close up, so you’ll have to back up about fifteen feet to get a sense of real size.
The ghostly white clusters of Desert Holly stood out in stark contrast against the desert pavement. They made up for their small stature by their unusual appearance. The most salt tolerant of the salt plants in North America, this plant has highly reflective silvery leaves to reflect harsh sunlight. They are not really hollys but are instead members of the Goosefoot clan (a group represented by a common weed in our eastern gardens and byways).
I will introduce you to some of the cactii and a very unusual bird in another blog, but I should conclude with a particular beetle I met while wandering the open flats directly east of town. Hugging the shade of a tortured saltbush, a large black beetle caught my eye as I was bending down to photograph a Cholla Cactus. Unfortunately part of the spiny Cholla had inserted itself into my shin so I had to divert my attentions momentarily towards extraction before I could re-direct them towards the beetle. Called a Darkling or, in local terms, Pinacate Beetles, these fellows are endemic to the Sonoran Desert. Their common name derives from the Aztec name “pinacatl” which meant “black beetle.”
When the beetle detected me, it froze and locked its legs into a head stand. This behavior has also earned it the name of Clown Bug. I however, was the clown because I picked it up with a stick to get a closer look. After the fact, I learned that these beetles are also known as Stink Bugs because they squirt a noxious liquid spray when disturbed. I will not reveal whether I was sprayed or not because, well, in this case what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.