Reluctantly, I climbed out of my sleeping bag, secured the camp so that things could not get wet or blow away, tossed my sleeping bag in the Jeep and drove out on to a broad flat stretch of the desert floor where there was no danger of flash floods. I wiggled back into my sleeping bag, reclined the driver’s seat as far as it would go, and immediately went back to sleep - but not for long. Within a half hour the storm hit with a vengeance and was by far the most intense rain storm I have experienced in the desert. Lightening was all around and was very frequent. There was no time lapse between the lightning strikes and the clap of thunder; the storm was right on top of me. The rain fell thick and loud on the roof of the Jeep. I kept trying to remember all of the stories I had heard about what to do in lightening storms and whether or you were safe in your car because of being surrounded by metal and the non-conductive rubber tires. However, here I was in a cloth top Jeep Wrangler. All I had around me was a thin covering of canvas and a metal roll bar. I couldn’t help thinking about my CB antenna sticking up prominently from the rear tailgate, but I wasn’t about to go outside to disconnect what is probably a perfect lightening rod in the middle of an electrical storm! (I learned later that although a person is safe in an automobile, a canvas top affords no protection in an electrical storm.)
The storm continued for an hour or so and at some point I fell back asleep. Santa Fe woke me early the next morning as one of their locomotives lumbered past a few miles away. The air was crystal clear after the rainstorm and there was not a cloud in the sky. I squirmed out of my sleeping back and prepared to drive back up to the mine where I was camped to put on a pot of coffee when I noticed the tortoises. They were everywhere! I got out of the Jeep and walked around the area and saw literally hundreds of tortoises of all sizes. The rain must have flushed them out of their underground burrows, and here they were munching on fresh leaves and bumping into each other on the wet sand. The smallest ones probably measured 2 inches, and the larger ones were eight to ten inches. I was awestruck - literally. There were so many of them that I could not have driven without the risk of driving over some of them – there were that many! I left the Jeep where it was and hiked the quarter mile or so back up to the mine and had a leisurely breakfast and packed up my camp, giving the tortoises time to scatter. By 10 o’clock that morning they were gone. I walked a long circuitous route back to the Jeep, enjoying the clear morning air, and in the mile-long walk I saw only three or four of the tortoises still out among the creosote bushes. By the time I got to the Jeep and started the slow drive back up to the mine, they were entirely gone; I did not see a one.
The memory of this will stay with me for a long time. I witnessed a rare and unique event and I felt privileged to have seen it. I was in the right spot at exactly the right time. It occurred to me later that if I had spent the night in the mine instead of driving out on to the desert floor to wait out the rainstorm I would have missed this entirely. It is not uncommon to come across a desert tortoise when driving back roads in the desert, but I had never seen even two at the same time before this morning. So much for their endangered species status!