February 01,2015
MOTEL 4 - Part 2


“Tales From Outside The Underbrush” is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside “The Underbrush” of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This “outside world” is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month’s entry continues the tale.

MOTEL 4- Part 2

“If one really loves nature, one can find beauty everywhere.”

Vincent van Gogh

“Nature cannot be tricked or cheated. She will give up to you the object of your struggles only after you have paid her price.”

Napoleon Hill

“Nature is harmony in discord.”


“When a person is accustomed to one hundred and thirty-eight in the shade, his ideas about cold weather are not valuable.”

Mark Twain

Briefly the lad explained that common to the Sonoran desert is a large squirrel-like, rodent called the pack rat that amongst other locations such as holes in the ground where have lived snakes and squirrels, loves to nest on what is apparently, to a pack rat, the particular and sometimes warming comfort of a car engine block that offers a welcoming shelter from wind, inclement weather and light, all of which apparently negatively affect their lifestyle! In conjunction with this nesting habit is some sort of predilection for gnawing at the insulation that encompasses electrical wires. Perhaps it is to reveal the shiny wires, the like of which may reflect a pack rat’s habit of collecting bright, shiny objects and leaving other objects, such as nuts or pebbles, in their place. With soft, brown fur and reaching a length of up to eighteen inches, including its tail, the pack rat resembles a squirrel with large ears. Perhaps explaining another of its predilections for hooded car engine blocks is the pack rat’s preference for building nests in sheltered areas that can turn the nest into an impenetrable fortress.

“Charming” said I. “What can one do about this?”

“Well”, said our new found expert on the subject, and who introduced himself as Derek, “if you don’t have an indoor garage in which to park your car, try and park it in an open space away from the desert cover. Also, at night, prop the engine hood open a crack so that a breeze can pass through, which pack rats don’t like, and put a light on the ground under the engine block. Being nocturnal, pack rats don’t like light either so carrying out both these little rituals at sunset will tend to help keep the pack rats away. In the meantime I suggest you take the car to a garage to locate the exposed wires so that they can be re-insulated.”

And so we did. Our landlord had recommended the garage where he and his wife had their vehicles serviced and it was to that particular garage in Tucson we headed the next day, after of course heeding the advice of our young golf club advisor that evening by propping open the engine hood and planting some LED lights under the car’s chassis. After a diligent examination by the garage mechanic that had revealed no fundamental problem with the car’s operating system, it was acknowledged that the red light warning was most probably the result of a pack rat picnic on some of the electrical wires. But where? An hour’s fruitless search produced no results other than some head scratching. Finally, in a last ditch effort and with perhaps desperate inspiration, the inner coverings of the front wheel wells were removed and………voila! There laying on the passenger side against the wheel well was a series of wires leading to who knows where, at least by me, but displaying some significant nibbling of the insulation and exposure of the wires beneath. Repairs effected, and in addition to heightened defense procedures by our landlord involving the use of more rat traps, plus clearing away the desert near where the car was parked so as to create more open space that pack rats don’t like, we resolved to undertake the nightly anti-pack rat ritual to protect the car from future related problems.

A few nights on in this ritual, my curiosity got the better of me and in the pitch dark I noiselessly snuck out to the car, a flashlight in hand but not turned on. Arriving beside the car’s engine hood, propped up a couple of inches by a rock, I aimed the flashlight through the resultant aperture and switched it on. What I saw damn near made me soil my underwear. There perched on the engine was a pack rat, looking like a giant squirrel! Recoiling in shock I again played the light onto the engine block only to find it empty of occupation. Soundlessly and in a flash, the rodent had vacated his refuge and I was left to ponder the effectiveness of the process which was supposed to eradicate the problem.

More rat traps were set and the nightly ritual was amplified with additional and more powerful LED lights set under the car and the hood propped open to a greater degree using a larger building brick.

So it was that late one afternoon, while I was trying to create a painting, Mary drove the car up the dirt road from our Tucson home and thence another several miles along the highway to a Safeway store where she was to buy a newspaper of the day. Emerging from the car after her return home, the expression on her face remains indelibly on my mind to this day. Disbelief, amusement, irritation, accusation……………all in one look! Furthermore, that look was aimed at me like some sort of a laser device.

My reaction to the tale that followed was also a mixture of some of those same elements of disbelief and amusement, together with concern and relief but devoid of accusation for which I had no grounds.

What had happened was that Mary, while driving down the highway had come to sense something was amiss. Perhaps it was the strange look she got from pedestrians and oncoming car drivers along the way, some of the latter waving their arms in some sort of signal. Perhaps it was the somewhat narrowed view out the front windshield. In any event Mary came to realize that the engine hood of the car was not closed, remaining propped open in the manner that was ritually practiced every evening before nightfall. Part of the ongoing ritual was supposed to be that come morning, numb nuts………that’s me!………………was to remove the LED lights from beneath the car as well as the building brick that propped open the engine hood. The pack rat defense was not really required during the light of day, at least not with regard to a parked car. On this particular day, in the majesty of an aging mind, I had completely forgotten to enact the morning part of the ritual!

Sensing an urgency if not an emergency, Mary sought to bring the car to a halt beside the highway. Unfortunately, the narrow shoulder and other cars close behind her prevented this happening. Instead she continued driving to her destination, the hood of the car pried open with a building brick! As she proudly related to me, upon arriving at the mall parking lot, what happened next was an exercise in audacity. Getting out of the car, and in front of a group of astonished, gawking spectators, Mary calmly proceed to remove the brick from its position under the edge of the open hood, close the latter, then throw the brick onto the back floor of the car as though this procedure was the normal one she carried out every time the car was driven! Only Mary could pull off a stunt like that with aplomb! Needless to say, the story was subsequently related to friends and family with considerable mirth, and mostly at my (deserved) expense.

Postscript 1: It is several years later in January and having recently arrived at our Tucson retreat for another snow bird stay, we have invited our landlords down for a BBQ. In the six years we have been coming here, they have now become close personal friends, treating us as family as we do them. "Our" BBQ is a commercial grade Brinkmann with four burners, a hood and all the accoutrements. Not having yet used it since our arrival and with the renters who had preceded us not having used it even once during their August to December rental period, in the diminishing twilight of sunset I open the hood to ensure the burner shields are in place; also opening the propane tank to ensure we have fuel. A little later, Mary and Charlene having sipped wine and David and me a beer or so plus all of us some appetizers, I move to barbeque some meat and veggies. It is to be full slate of food so I quickly ignite all four burners and close the hood to warm up the BBQ for a short while before putting on the food.

Perhaps 10 minutes later, platters of fresh food on shelves flanking the BBQ and ready for cooking, I open the BBQ hood only to be nearly immolated with massive flames. The entire interior of the BBQ is on fire, flames reaching upward nearly to the roof of the portico! Quickly shutting of the gas and closing the hood, then re-opening it I now see a large bed of leaves, twigs and dead cactus bits smoking and merrily burning away unfed by the burner flames. David beat me to the punch when he exclaimed "pack rats!" How they had reached the tray underlying the BBQ burners and situated some four feet off the ground remains a mystery, but they did, comfortably establishing an ideal home over the five month period that the BBQ was not used. Even more interesting, is that access onto and from the BBQ tray would have been daily as the pack rats lived there during the day but exited to forage during the night. Another wonder of nature!

So, while David and I spent the next hour cleaning and scraping the tray of debris and feces and then restoring it to a hygienic condition, Mary and Charlene consumed more wine and appies. Eventually an enjoyable BBQ meal was produced and consumed, but not without some shaking of heads at the unnecessary preamble that had been forced upon us.

Postscript 2: Those who might think that the desert is a barren environment devoid of plant and wildlife have most probably never visited a desert for any length of time. Like the so-called barren lands of the Canadian Arctic, which are anything but barren, the Sonoran desert offers a mind-boggling diversity and beauty of plant and animal life, be the latter on foot or wing. The broad expanse of desert clearance that defines our Tucson home back yard sometimes feels like a zoo, given the diversity of resident and transient wildlife that make an appearance. The major problem in observing such stems from the fact that different species have different lifestyles, and with some the middle of their day is the middle of our night! For some other species, if you are not up at the crack of dawn, they will never be seen and during the mid-day heat, most wildlife, not being dumb, is usually under cover somewhere just like we might be, enjoying the refreshing coolness of a pub while sampling its wares!

An early riser therefore, unmoving on the patio with first cup of coffee in hand, can be treated to a herd of deer passing through to a desert wash where it might find more edible vegetation, shade, and seasonal water, or perhaps it is just retreating from a pack of coyotes seen skulking through the undergrowth. Despite the bare light of an early morning it may be too late to spot a pair of javelinas nosing about under the bird feeder, snorting down bird seed spilled by careless or just picky birds feeding above. Not strictly nocturnal but mainly so, these tusked peccaries, the size of and that look like dusky gray pigs bur are actually members of the rodent family, are not to be messed with if cornered or otherwise disturbed.

Be they pack rats, javelinas, gila monsters, geckos, hummingbirds and all manner of other feathered, flying vertebrates, coyotes, bob cats (known as lynx in Canada), mountain lions, deer, snakes, the Sonoran desert and its surroundings is a home for a multitude of life. And you might have thought road runners were a Disney invention for its comic films? Guess again!

“Nature’s habits are not always to our convenience.”

Ian Semple

Copyright © 2015 Ian de W. Semple. All rights reserved.

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