Read Spider Man, Part 1 here.
• My amigo Norb and I were ass deep in China’s remote Tiger’s Leaping Gorge in 1987. We were on assignment for Backpacker magazine to journalistically witness the first commercial rafting descent of the Class-5/Class-6/waterfalls-of-certain-death/no-rescue-possible Yangtze River through the gorge, an event that did not actually take place because, once the rafters saw what they would be up against, they pussied out and trucked their rafts downriver to calmer waters. Norb and I therefore had to scramble mightily to salvage a story we had traveled halfway around the world to cover.
Not only that, but, this was the autumn of the famed Tibetan uprising, which caused many parts of China that bordered Tibet to be closed down to foreign visitation. Ergo, we had to sneak the 90 kilometers from Lijiang into Tiger’s Leaping Gorge under cover of darkness via a variety of improvised (read: bribed) means — including riding for a while on the back of a two-stroke Chinese tractor — after receiving threats from the local constabulary that, if we were caught entering the area, we would be arrested, interrogated/thrashed with canes, sentenced to hard labor and deported to someplace truly awful.
Despite the overt pussiness of the rafters, we continued through the Gorge in hopes that we could still salvage the assignment situation by putting together a yarn about our hike, even if we had to fabricate stuff to make the tale saleable. At one point, Norb, the expedition photographer, decided to ascend a small side canyon so he could get a good downward angle that took in both yours truly in the foreground and the depths of the 11,000-foot-deep canyon in the background.
Good plan that, on the surface, was only slightly complicated by the fact that, a couple days prior, we had the good fortune of trading almost all of our food supply, several pieces of backpacking gear and a handful of nearly worthless Chinese Monopoly money for a half-ounce of opiated Kashgari hash, which was, shall we say, stunningly efficacious, at the same time that we had not exactly been judicious in our imbibing habits. Yes, we were two mighty stoned units as Norb made his way through the thickly brushed side canyon in praiseworthy search of photographic excellence.
He was concentrating so hard not getting caught up in the various species of thorny shrubbery that adorned the side canyon that he did not see the spiders until it was too late. I actually saw them before he did. I did not yell. I could not yell. It was like one of those bad drams where you freeze up right when shit’s hitting the fan big time. I told myself later that I did not yell because I thought Norb must have already noticed the fact that, scant feet above him, the side canyon traveled through a genuine house of eight-legged horrors. I do not know how many spiders there were, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, all staking out territory in massive webs that covered every bush, tree, twig and blade of grass over the entire hillside.
And these were not any ordinary spiders. First, they were all long and spindly, with legs several inches long. And they were psychedelically colored — like the unnatural yellows, greens and reds that are used on laundry detergent boxes. As soon as Norb nicked the first web, every psychedelic spider on that hillside went into protect-our-turf mode and they descended upon Norb’s suddenly shrieking (and did I mention, extremely stoned?) self like the orcs coming down those columns in the caverns where Gandalf lost his battle against the Balrog. Norb’s resultant body language, which was enhanced by boisterous invectives followed by large exclamation points, hovered somewhere between what you would expect of a human body if it were being electrocuted or set on fire. This situation was further enhanced because, at that time, Norb sported a fairly impressive ’fro, which, given the number of days we had been out, was fairly matted. So many spiders became entangled in Norb’s tresses — many of which got smooshed by Norb’s frantic flailings — that he might as well have been wearing arachnid mousse.
Within seconds, Norb was covered in spiders, many of which had made their way under his shirt and shorts. And there was only one thing for me to do, besides, of course, run screaming in the exact opposite direction: I had to assist my chum. Despite the fervent protestations of every strand of DNA coursing through my corpus delecti, I scampered up that side canyon and intercepted Norb, who was descending in an imprudent manner. At first, I tried brushing the spiders off my writhing muchacho. But there were too many, and they were holding onto Norb like bullriders at a rodeo. So I had to start picking them off with my fingers, one by one, and throwing them as far as I could. More often than not, I would go through the tossing motion, only to see that the spider was still in my hand, like one of those boogers that molecularly adheres to your nose-picking finger no matter how hard you try to flick it out the car window.
Even as the spider-removal process was underway, we were gradually, inch by spidery inch, making our way down the side canyon back to the trail. It took us a solid hour to rid Norb of those spiders. It was like going through detox, except that these spiders were real. By the time the removal process was mostly physically completed (the psychic scars did not go away quite to easily; for days afterward, Norb would imagine spiders in his pants or in his sleeping bag), we were twitching and screaming and hyperventilating right there in the middle of what in those parts passes for a fairly busy thoroughfare. Just as we were starting to calm down ever so slightly, we looked over and an entire family of Chinese peasants straight out of a National Geographic spread was standing there, jaws agape, eyes wide open, huddling very close together. This was a time and place when and where Westerners were rare. Had we been standing decorously while nattily attired, we would have been viewed with extreme suspicion, maybe even contempt. But here we were, yelling, screaming, gesticulating and twitching like we had both just been Taser’d. I tried to reach deep down into my decorum recesses and mouth a calm-ish greeting that came out in bad-Chinese falsetto. The entire family screamed and fled, their hands raised high.
When our pulse rates finally reached non-lethal levels, and we were just getting to the point where we could chuckle a bit about the experience, Norb looked up Nightmare Gully and realized that, halfway up, on the ground, lay his camera bag, covered in spiders. He seriously considered leaving it right there, but, being a professional, he bit his lower lip and made his way back up into the land of spindly legs to retrieve his cherished photographic equipment. I stayed on the trail this time, guarding the hash.
• This time, Norb and I were down in the Dominican Republic, working on magazine stories for Backpacker and Adventure Travel. We had already visited Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest and hottest part of the Caribbean — and ascended Pico Duarte — at 10,164 feet, the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean. We were planning to paddle our inflatable one-person Sevylor kayaks down the Rio Yuna, which, as far as we could tell, had not been descended in full since Columbus times.
In between our various Dominican forays, we would hang out Santo Domingo, the capital, for a few days to rest up, re-supply and recreate. One of the places we would visit was called Maison de Mama, an outside restaurant/bar favored by Santo Domingo’s sizeable ex-pat community. One of the regulars was a giant American who boasted a hideous scar that had devoured most of one calf, which, judging from the other calf, had been the size of a watermelon before whatever unfortunate event transpired. Norb and I would sip lukewarm Presidente beers and speculate about the nature of the injury. My best guess was a shark attack. Norb’s best guess was that he had been in motorcycle mishap and had got his lower leg caught in the chain at like 100 mph. Finally we decided to just ask him, in the most delicate way we could. “Dude, what the fuck happened to your leg?” Norb queried.
The entire outside seating area, consisting of six or seven four-top tables that were fully occupied, went suddenly silent. Faces turned ashen as people started examining their cuticles in earnest detail.
“I got bit by a brown recluse,” the man said, dejectedly.
Turns out that, at first, the man had no idea what was wrong with his calf. He only knew that it was extremely painful and that sizeable acreage of erstwhile living tissue was starting to turn black, smell horrible and, well, fall off. Even though he had lived in the DR for many years, like many expats we met, he did not hold Dominicans in high esteem. Thus, he opted to fly back to his native Wisconsin to seek First-World medical care. The doctors in the decidedly non-tropical Badger State were nonplussed, and stayed that way for weeks, as this man’s calf was disintegrating. They thought it might maybe be some sort of flesh-eating virus, so they treated the injury as such. And so it went. For months and months. I don’t remember how the light eventually went on, but it was determined that he had been the victim of a negative brown recluse interaction — something that, had he sought medical treatment in the DR, would likely have been diagnosed and treated properly from the get-go, because, we then learned, that particular variety of poisonous spider dwelled in abundance throughout Hispaniola, and many people suffer from its bite. “It’s especially bad down in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline,” we were told. “Where did you say you were going paddling?”
We said were going paddling in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline.
Shit. The last time Norb and I looked at each other that way was over in Hong Kong, when we were hiking the famed MacLehose Trail and we learned, at the trailhead, of all places, that the entire area through which we were going to traverse was thick with some of the most poisonous species of snakes in the world, including, but not limited to, an especially aggressive variety of King Cobra, a reality that makes you wonder, as you’re lying there in your tent regretting mightily drinking those last seven beers, if you can hold your piss until morning, ’cause getting out of the tent in the middle of the night in a woods filled with aggressive King Cobras is totally out of the question.
Our first night on the Rio Yuna, we ended up camping in the middle of a diminutive riverside mud pit. We had been looking for a more desirable place to bunk down for several hours, but, given the steepness of the bluffs and the thickness of the tropical vegetation, there were simply no other options. The mud pit/campsite was so small that we only had room to pitch one tent. As darkness rapidly descended — as it does in the lower latitudes — we leaned our packs against a tree and entered the tent. I awoke first and, before donning my glasses — a physiological requirement if I stand any chance whatsoever of making visual sense out of the world — I went over to the packs to pull out the cook kit and food bags. When my hand was scant inches from the pack, I saw something large move, but, give my unfortunate spectaclelessness, I could not make out what it was. At first, I thought it was a monkey laying claim to my Lowe Expedition. I dashed back to the tent to retrieve my eyewear, telling Norb excitedly that a simian of some sort was perched atop our gear. Norb then reminded me that there are no monkeys in the wilds of the DR. I put my glasses on a returned to the packs, and only then did I realize that what was perched atop my pack was not a monkey, nor even a mammal, nor even a warm-blooded creature, but, rather, the single largest spider ever to tromp the earth. And it was brown. And territorial in the extreme. Whenever I inched toward my pack, it inched toward me, snarling.
When we were having the brown recluse conversation back in Santo Domingo, Norb and I took it upon ourselves right then and there to become the world’s foremost brown recluse experts. We asked everyone we could find what brown recluses looked like, and, par for our course, everyone we asked had a completely different story. Sometimes brown. But not necessarily. As the name indicates, reclusive and shy. No! Their nomenclature notwithstanding, aggressive. Large. Small. Diurnal. Nocturnal. Spindly. Stout. The only characteristic that everyone seemed to agree on was that brown recluses have a violin-shaped marking on their back, though some said it was only the female that sported such cultured decoration, while others said it was only the male, while others said the violin was only visible at certain ages/times/conditions. Exasperatedly, Norb and I decided that, anything we ran into with more legs than a snake was to be considered a brown recluse until proven otherwise.
In the early morning dim light, which was made even dimmer by the verdancy of the jungle, we could not tell if the mammoth creature staking a claim atop my pack had a visible violin on its back.
“You’ve got better eyes then I do, you get closer and look,” I said to Norb.
“It’s your pack,” he responded.
“Yeah, but we need to move my pack to get to your pack.”
In the end, I knew it was my task to deal with the spider. I picked up a long stick and tried to brush it aside. It knocked the stick away. I poked at it. It grabbed the end of the stick and poked back. Finally, I raised the stick with the full intent of dispatching the creature, but every time I struck, it dodged my blow, seemingly sneering at me the entire time. It finally dawned on me to crush it with the bottom of my Teva. I stomped down, and the next thing I knew, I had been tossed back onto the ground three feet away. We were fast running out of ideas. Then, of all fortuitous things, a ray of sunshine broke through the canopy and struck the spider like a magnifying glass. The spider raised its legs across its face, shrieked, jumped off my pack and dashed into the jungle.
Whew, we said simultaneously, just as that one ray of light disappeared.
I reached over and grabbed my pack, exposing Norb’s bright red Mountainsmith. At that moment, a second giant simian spider jumped out and staked out its turf atop Norb’s pack. As I prepared breakfast, Norb sharpened a stick and, before long, he returned with a skewered spider impaled on the point. His victory was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the top of his pack, right where the second spider had made its last stand, was a large hole, made by the sharpened stick Norb has used to dispatch his eight-legged foe.
• It had been a hot, 10-hour, 4,500-vertical-foot descent into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. While my wife, Gay, and photographer Mark Fox chilled on the side of the Urique River, I decided to slide into the tent for some late-afternoon shut-eye.
When I arose, I was groggy and, instead of joining Gay and Mark down by the cooling water, I sat in the sand and leaned back against a rock. What happened next was exacerbated by the fact that, at dawn, up on the rim, I had moved a rock to create a hole for my morning deposit, and from under that rock emerged a tarantula that seemed mighty displeased at having been disturbed.
OK, I’ve seen plenty of tarantulas and, once I got over the initial reaction of having an arachnid the size of my hand appearing from the bowels of the earth while I’m looking for a comfortable place to make dookie, all was well. After all, everyone knows tarantulas are mellow creatures. Harmless.
But there I am, leaning against that rock down at the very bottom of one of North America’s deepest abysses, trying to wake up. I saw it out of my peripheral vision, and, at first, it flat out did not compute. Then it landed on the right side of my neck, just above the jugular. A monster-sized tarantula. Mellow creatures or not, having one jump out of the blue onto one’s neck is an adrenaline-producing experience, let me tell you.
I jumped up, swatting the spider, but I did not see what had become of it. From what Gay and Mark told me later, I was rather excited. Matter of fact, the two of them, unaware that there was a giant tarantula on my neck, looked up to see me a couple dozen yards away break dancing, using expletives and asking over and over in an agitated tone of voice, “Where is it? Where is it?” Gay thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack.
They both ran over, half expecting to perform CPR. By the time they arrived, I had located the spider, which was by then lounging on the side of my tent. When I related the story, the urge to laugh was assuredly mitigated by the fact that there is not a single human being who has ever lived who does not shit his or her pants at the thought of having a tarantula jump upon one’s neck. I feel fairly safe in saying that I am not the only one who would panic.
After a few minutes, the tarantula continued upon its merry way.
“On second thought, I think I’ll put my tent up tonight,” said Mark, who, up until that point, had planned to sleep out under the stars.
• And, speaking of tarantulas …
My buddy Fosco Spinedi, a Swiss-Italian I have known since high school, joined me for three weeks while I made my way from Utah to Mexico along the Arizona Trail. His first day out, just south of Flagstaff, we found ourselves in the middle of the autumn tarantula migration, which, while certainly lesser known than the migration of the African wildebeest, is still a sight to behold. Since this migration, which consisted of literally thousands of tarantulas, was southward bound, taking obvious advantage of the Arizona Trail’s tread, we were able to witness it up close and personal.
Fosco, being a life-long resident of the civilized Alps, was somewhat taken aback at the notion of sharing the trail with several thousand humongous spiders. But he calmed down a bit once he realized that, since there were so many, and they we so tightly packed, we could stand atop their backs and get transported along our merry way like Egyptian royalty being borne by bearers down the trail, to life’s next great adventure, life’s next great tale.