This essay was taken from the book “A Desert Pilgrim’s Bestiary” written by Tucsonan Anthony Walent. This book is from 2019 and the essay is a chapter from that book. Walent has recently finished another book called “Dante in the Desert.” Both were designed and printed by Eberhardt Press. L&F chose this essay due to the way Walent ethically ruminates over the flora and fauna of the Southwest. All the while, staying close to the terrible question of asking and knowing what civilization done to us all. We hope to publish more of Walent’s work.
The name Gila monster elicits fantastic images of brute beasts such as werewolves, vampires, and mummies stalking, haunting, and preying on our fears of the night. In the remote span of blackness, you can hear howls and fits of sardonic laughter sailing through the belfry of an abandoned and decrepit church. Trailing off in the fog a group of mummies ascend from their crypts, mute and ready to wreak havoc on those who dare to block their way.
But the Gila monster itself is an odd beast that dwells in the Southwest desert, away from the nocturnal yearnings of fanged vampires and bandaged mummies. The Gila monster prefers to hide in remote mountains and canyons, holding itself aloof from the stirrings of these beasts. It is a solitary reptile that is content ignoring the grand stage of the world, quietly conducting its business unseen and unheard. Finding a vampire in the desert is easier than locating a scarce Gila monster is. To the contrary. Vampires have proliferated like diseased ticks in tall grass and woodlands, sucking the life out of unsuspecting victims. They control our economy and social and political reality. They transform the habitat of wild beasts and monsters such as the Gila monster into suburban tracts and malls, bearing their pointed and dripping red fangs at those who challenge or question their actions and agenda. I prefer the adventure of traveling the desert in search of the Gila monster over standard encounters with urban and suburban vampires.
Bold and daring European settlers and missionaries explored the Southwest and its animals and vegetation. Many came to the conclusion that the region is an alien space, a land of weird bugs, fantastic lizards, and hostile and prickly plants. One such individual was an eighteenth-century Jesuit priest and missionary named Ignaz Pfefferkorn. He travelled extensively in the New Spain province of Sonora for eleven years, jotting down his experiences with Native American tribes like the Tohono O’odham. He made note of how these people lived their everyday lives in a land filled with oppressive heat and utterly alien animals and plants. He was forced to leave the province due to Jesuit conflict and rivalry with the Spanish Crown, eventually returning to his homeland of Germany. Once there he composed a wonderful book called Sonora: A Description of the Province. In it he recounts what he had seen and experienced firsthand – the fantastic beasts that hide and warm themselves in the sun, the plants that thrive in the heat, the Native Americans that make do with what is available to them. Pfefferkorn tells his story with erudition and a touch of crankiness. The father had trouble fathoming the Gila monster, likening it to a wondrous beast straight-out of a medieval bestiary. But he was forced to admit that in his eleven years of living in that desert he never witnessed one strike a human being. Still the elusive lizard baffled and perhaps frightened Pfefferkorn.
The Gila monster can do that to you. I myself have never had the privilege of seeing a Gila monster in the flesh and blood. But the photographs and drawings that I gazed at confirm Pfefferkorn’s assessment of the creature’s mythological and fantastic appearance. Its flesh consists of beads from head to toe – and its forked tongue calls to mind odd beasts of the human imagination. Its claws are likewise as sharp as a razor – and its tail is not very well defined.
Its Latin name, heloderma suspectum, reflects the nature of its head and skin, and venomous potential. Heloderma is derived from Greek, helos meaning “the head of a stud or a nail.” Derma is translated as “skin.” And the term suspectum was utilized by Edward Drinker Cope, a nineteenth century American herpetologist who had his “suspicions” about the lizard. He believed that it was possibly venomous because of the shape of its teeth.
If we are brave enough to stare at the jagged teeth, skin beads, and odd facial countenance of the Gila monster, they strike us as being something produced by phantasms of the human mind, like space aliens or Sasquatch. But the beast is out there, hidden in the depths of the Southwest desert.
It gets a bit weirder, too. The Gila monster is one of the few venomous lizards that exist in the world; the beaded lizard, the iguana, and monitor lizards constitute the rest of the bizarre cast. The venom that the Gila monster spews out is poisonous, and the beast grips its prey with resounding force, giving its human victim a show of unbridled power. When it latches on it is tough to release the lizard from human flesh. Its venomous bite is very painful, though rarely fatal. For the most part the Gila monster will not foist itself upon a human unless it senses a threat. If you do happen to irritate or antagonize the monster, you will never forget its unforgiving bite. It primarily keeps to itself, hunting for food and lethargically prowling around.
The eating habits of the Gila monster are as unusual as its overall visage. It consumes food five to ten times a year out of captivity, in its wild range. The Gila monster will eat even less when shut in a house or a zoo. In the wild it feeds on frogs, carrion, lizards, small mammals. Using the lunging movement, it catches its prey with determination and confidence. It stores fat in its fat bloated tail, providing the monster with energy when the need arises. Virtually everything about the creature strikes us as being alien: its look and shape, its food consumption patterns, its poisonous venom.
Those very qualities are perhaps what drive people to catch and collect the beast. People who are bored are always in need of novelty and gimmicks. It may also be what drives people to murder the rare Gila monster – a fear of its otherness, its strangeness, its unfathomable eccentricity.
How odd it is to know that this peculiar monster resides in the Southwestern desert! This region has become home to other alien things like flying saucers, extraterrestrials, religious cults, land speculators, militias, survivalists holding out in bunkers, trailer park meth labs, military bases and laboratories, ticky-tacky condominiums, golf courses, shopping malls. The endangered Gila monster somehow fits into the landscape with its bizarre bearing and subterranean lifestyle, living between and under rocks, and digging burrows for itself.
As a person who delights in stringing disparate and similar things together into a sometimes incongruous and incomprehensible web, I can only say that the Gila monster has more in common with prickly pear and bug-eyed beings from outer space than it does with familiar green forests and our static notions of Count Dracula with his black cape and pasty-white complexion. This monster, with its beady flesh colored with blotches and spots of yellow, pink, red, or orange and topped with black areas, is living proof that this reality of ours can outdo our own imaginations.
Alien realities abound today. The American fixation on UFOs and extraterrestrials has shifted into a huge cottage industry, capitalizing on people’s fears and fascinations with the unknown.
Instead of searching for baldheaded aliens I would rather hedge my bets on discovering a monster in the desert that I know to be real: the Gila Monster. Your chances of stumbling upon a Gila monster are slim. Yet your odds of locating one are probably better than tripping over a flying saucer in the middle of the desert. You could say that my version of discovering the lost civilization of Atlantis with a healthy dose of realism.
Anthony Walent is a writer, offset printer, and backpacker living in Tucson, Arizona. The unusual and beautiful wonders of the Southwest desert never cease to stir his imagination. He has long been involved in underground publishing, producing and printing a literary journal called “Communicating Vessels.”