I am a changed woman. I changed when I picked up the tent sack to put away our tent and found, sheltering underneath, a tarantula. It wasn’t any small tarantula, either. It was, with its legs, only a bit smaller than the palm of my hand, and I have big hands.
We had been under the trees for two nights at Davis Mountains State Park in Fort Davis, Texas. With the McDonald Observatory right up the road set upon the highest point in the state, we were at an elevation where the air was breezy and the nights were cool enough to sleep well. The park was full of amateur astronomers and birders, since the bird population at the park is enormous and varied. The birders, most of them of a certain age, in shorts and floppy hats, their binoculars on harnesses around their necks and shoulders, looked supremely happy. Likewise the astronomers, with clear skies and a possible meteor shower on its way.
My beloved had left the campsite around dusk to get some more wood for the fire. I was reading happily on my phone when I heard what sounded like a large dog coming toward me through the dry grass at my back. I stood up and turned to see who was rude enough to walk a dog right through our campsite. What I saw was larger than a dog, a rounded, gray animal with a snout. It looked more like a thickening of the dusk in that shape, and I could hear a deep-chested grunting. Why I tried to activate the flashlight app on my phone so I could see it better rather than getting into the car is a mystery to me. By the time I had the flashlight on, it had moved off behind a bush, headed across a wash into a small arroyo separating our site from those one row over. I couldn’t see it at all, but I could hear it grunting and walking slowly away. It was a javelina, an animal native to west Texas, a member of the peccary family. It occurred to me that I might not want to be standing there in case there were others in its group, so I stood by the car with the door open. I wanted to be safe, but I also wanted to get a closer look at it. Finally it was too dark. My heart stopped hammering, and when my beloved returned, we sat by the fire in relative peace.
The next day we left those mountains and headed south toward Mexico, to the Big Bend National Park, which sits on our southern border. Stark and evocative rock formations, blue mountains, and hundreds of different kinds of cacti challenged me to broaden my idea of beauty. The temperature had been 103 degrees at the Rio Grande Village Campground, so we headed instead for the Chisos Basin Campground, where the night would be cool and we could stargaze to our hearts’ content. We set up camp in one of the last spaces available, next to a big, white fifth-wheel camper, which was occupied by a large Mennonite family. The boys took turns riding a bike around, and the girls bustled up and down the steep path to the washrooms in their plain dresses and white aprons, their hair covered with white kerchiefs. As dusk fell, another large family joined them for worship in the picnic shelter. The families began to sing: “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun / doth his successive journeys run” followed by “All hail the power of Jesus’s name! / Let angels prostrate fall.” I sat trying to read in the gathering dusk, listening to the sweet harmonies, climbing sopranos, and countermelodies booming in the bass. I spent some energy trying not to start arguing in my head with the man who was leading worship.
I am always torn, when I hear sincere Protestant singing, between feeling affection for the familiar songs of my childhood and the bone deep weariness of remembering a path I followed all the way to its end without finding the fulfilment of any of its promises. I wish them better from that path than I found. They sang for an hour, gathered around a picnic table with bright lights turned on to illumine their gathering. Meanwhile, next door, we were trying to see stars, which felt close to worship for us. We couldn’t see much for the bright glare from their worship. We all gave up and went to bed at the same time.
In the morning, the girls were in different colored dresses: from deep blue to robin’s egg blue, dark green to celery, beige to gray. Again, the cheery parade up and down the steep path by our site began. We all told each other good morning. We started breaking down camp. I had misplaced my phone, and the only place I could think that I hadn’t yet looked was in the tent sack. I picked it up, trying to feel for the weight of my phone when I saw the tarantula. Feeling exposed, it scooted a few inches forward until its head was under the tent. I’ve had cats that did that, too. If they can’t see you, you can’t see them. I stood and stared at the tarantula. The last ones I’d seen were in the first Indiana Jones movie. It looked so heavy, not at all squishable. How was one supposed to deal with a tarantula? I was in its home, really. It wasn’t doing anything to me. Maybe I was projecting, but it looked somehow apologetic.
Just then one of the friendliest Mennonite daughters came by down the path. “Have you ever seen a tarantula?” I asked, pointing to the spider. She came over to look, and called excitedly to the rest of the family, which gathered around the spider.
“Cool!” said the kids.
“What a good specimen!” said the dad.
One of the girls borrowed a lid from one of our storage tubs to take the tarantula to the homeschooling family down the hill. The spider fell off the lid, so another girl picked it up in her hand, and, cradling it on her arm, took it down the hill. The other family could be heard exclaiming over it, too. Poor, shy spider. It almost looked like it was hanging onto her arm in a game way, trying to make sense out of what was happening. No one was bitten. (It turns out they’re not that poisonous after all.) The Mennonites let it go into the grass when the mom told them they could under no circumstances keep it in the camper.
Seeing the tarantula riding expectantly down the path on the arm of the girl in the blue dress and the white kerchief did something for me. I won’t be scared of tarantulas anymore. I’m not going to hang out with them, but it’s one thing I don’t have to worry about. I’m all for that, as I worry about lots of things.
As for the javelina, I found out they can hardly see, so all of my arm waving and light shining had little effect on it at all. I’m telling the story of our encounter, but I doubt it is even aware that we met. I’m glad for my new courage. I faced my fears and they faced me. And it was not that big a deal. May they all be so.