Welcome to Arizona

I had been traveling abroad for three weeks and I only had less than 36 hours with my family before leaving again for I didn’t know how long. And that was ok I guessed.

I was running on two and a half hours of sleep when I traveled alone to Arizona, but that was ok too.

Traveling to El Coronado Ranch, in the Chiricahua Mountains

The research site was a three-hour drive from the airport, and my professor and I ran errands within that time, making it take even longer.

When we arrived at one of our two study sites, the path up to my lodging was too torn up for a car, so I had to carry my suitcase up a gnarled gravel path and up this little dusty switchbacking hill to a cabin in the back.

The next day, I would have to get up at 4:45am to conduct a six-hour data collection session without a break.

The cabin I was to stay in that night and the next didn’t have a real toilet—it was just a toilet bowl over a hole in the ground in a closet of a bathroom.

But it was ok.

I had made it. I was shifting gears. I was ready to hit the ground running.

That night, as I talked with a couple of my lab partners, I realized I would be working 8-10 hour days, 10 day weeks with maybe one full day break between them. And I would likely be too exhausted to really do anything substantial when I did have hours to spare.

I had expected research would claim quite a bit of time, but I wasn’t ready to surrender quite that much. I needed my summer for my creative pursuits. My more ardent passions.

Research had to share. It couldn’t do this to me.

But it was ok…I was there, fully prepared or not…

What have I done?

Shortly after this conversation, I figured I should deal with my sleeping arrangements, so I initiated a perusal of the two bunkbeds. The bottom bunks were taken, so I had the choice of one of two top ones. None of the beds had pillows, and the single blankets were more undersheets than blankets. But I could deal with that.

There were mouse droppings on the first bunk I checked. A little grossed out, I switched to the other, to find the same thing.

This gave me pause. I didn’t know exactly what I would do, but I would figure something out. Because somehow I had to sleep that night.

Or maybe I would just never sleep again. That seemed viable, right?

I deliberated. Mouse droppings weren’t that big a deal, but, admittedly, I was running severely short on emotional stability. I was exhausted and trying to hide how dismayed I was. Because I had just learned my summer was no longer my own and I was probably grieving a little bit.

But I was holding myself together well enough.

One of my lab partners, sweetheart that she is, offered her bed. She proposed to sleep on the floor, because she was comfortable sleeping practically anywhere.

Then she got an idea. Maybe she didn’t have to sleep on the floor after all. She could flip the sheets inside out and sleep on the bed that way.

As I stood by rather limply, relieved that my sleeping arrangement problem was mostly remedied but feeling bad to have imposed so much upon someone else, my lab partner pulled off the sheets to the top bunk above her former bunk.

And rat poison went spraying out all over the floor in front of me.

At that point I just backed up, sat down on top of my suitcase against the wall and brought my hands up to my head. I succeeded in not crying, but it was overly apparent to my lab partners, still just acquaintances, that I was definitely not ok. They weren’t quite sure what to do with the newcomer on the point of losing it. They wished they could help, but there was nothing for them to do.

Throughout my general college experience, I have learned what I need and what I can go without. If something runs through a meal one day, that’s ok, I’m not entitled to regular meals. If balancing academics and my passions results in sleep deprivation, that’s fine. I’m not entitled to a full night’s sleep either. I’m not entitled to anything, really, and I can make do.

I wanted to show my lab partners that I wasn’t going to be the high-maintenance one of the group. I was in the field and I could rough it with the rest of them. They had been there for a good week already and I couldn’t possibly have been so naïve to assume this experience would be comfortable. (Which I wasn’t.)

But that night a line was drawn, scratched jarringly through any sort of gracious composure I still possessed. The freedom to pursue my passions was being severely threatened, and someone had stuffed poison under my contaminated bed.

So I just sat there, asking myself over and over again What have I done?

I don’t remember much about the remainder of that night. I folded up my sweatshirt as a pillow. A box fan belted white noise from the window, and come the middle of the night, the cabin got very cold, so I froze and couldn’t sleep very well with my paltry blanket. The rat poison stayed in the middle of the floor the remaining two and a half days we spent there.

The next morning I got up at 4:45am, did what I went there to do, and I was allowed a nap after lunch before getting back to work on other projects. The next day was another early morning, and the work continued on from there.

My experience that week was not so much “hit the ground running” as it was “thrown from a moving vehicle,” but I acclimated to the pace well enough. Every day became a little easier as I caught up.

Incidentally, though I worked quite a bit, I also ended up finding a great deal of time to be productive and work on what I needed to work on.

The following six weeks were full of interesting experiences, including but not limited to lengthy IR camera sessions, trekking around the baking forests of the Chiricahua mountains, driving off road in a rental car, being left in Arizona without our advisor for three weeks while my lab partner and I continued work, pulling several all-nighters for nighttime metabolic measurements of hummingbirds, getting to use my Spanish with a cashier at a Walmart next to the Arizona-Mexico border, forging a deep friendship with the lab partner I worked closely with, getting to be on a show on the BBC, and celebrating my twenty-first birthday with chocolate cake at a hotel in Tucson the night before our flight home (after pulling an all-nighter and packing up the lab straight after)

When people ask me how research in Arizona was, I usually tell them early on it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. And I tend to start off with this story.

It was hard, and those first four days were the roughest.

But I did it. And I’m glad I did it

Still, I can’t understand why anyone would think it was a good idea to stuff rat poison under a mattress.


IR camera setup at El Coronado ranch
IR camera setup at El Coronado ranch
The lab at Southwestern Research Station, our second study site. This is where the all-nighters took place.
A huge moth we found on one of our all-nighters
Most of our temperature sensor transects ran through bear country.

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