A surreal experience, according to my online dictionary, is one “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.”
It was the word that kept floating through my head as I drove through the dry, dusty landscape of southeastern Colorado. Nearly treeless, the browned flat prairie stretched endlessly. Little moved in the heat except the buzzards circling overhead and occasionally a tumbleweed as it blew across the simmering pavement.
The car’s tires ground up a faint brownish cloud in their wake.
My windows were rolled down as I blasted tunes from my selected playlist across the silent country. Actually it was less of an individually assembled playlist of songs — only song after song from my latest downloaded album, “Montero” from Lil Nas X.
His voice and lyrics spread behind my car like the clouds of dust raised by my rolling tires. Nas is 22, I’m 67, yet I danced in my seat to his addictive tunes.
Then, there was my destination — a migration of tarantulas whose seasonal movement was spurred by fiery passion.
I had heard about it only the week prior from a small notice in the Denver newspaper. The “tarantula migration” was something that readers might want to note on their calendars, the notice said, if they were looking for something unique and unusual.
And surreal? Certainly it would be the realization of a strange dream.
Then and there I promised myself I’d set out that week. A tarantula migration sounded like just the thing to cure the malaise of Covid containment.
In doing some research in preparation for the journey, I learned that it was actually less of a migration and more of a desire-driven journey for the eight-legged arachnids. Every fall the male tarantulas, most at least 10 years old, would leave their burrows in search of a mate hidden in its hole in the brown grasslands.
Visitors to the Comanche National Grasslands, where much of the migration could be observed, would be lucky to see a handful of the creatures and not a phalanx of approaching arachnids as implied by the “migration” moniker.
So that’s what had eventually brought me to the small equally dusty town of La Junta, the capital of the annual event. Although the tarantulas’ autumnal wanderlust had been occurring just south of here for years, it has only been the last couple of years that the town has decided to capitalize on the event. But perhaps the word “capitalize” is a bit too grandiose.
There were no signs to herald the event. No giant billboard. No visitors’ center. I happened across La Junta’s mayor, Jeffri Pruyn, while ordering a frozen yogurt at her small shop in the center of town.
Where can you see the tarantulas? She responded: How about my backyard? Then she laughed and pointed me toward the grasslands south of town.
Why isn’t there more information here about the migration, I asked after noticing only a single rack of small car decals heralding “Tarantula Crossing” for sale in commemoration of the event. We just got started with this two years ago, Pruyn told me.
To me, it seemed like an annual tarantula migration would be a perfect cause for celebration and a tourist magnet. I could imagine crowds of people traveling to this otherwise nondescript little town every fall to buy tarantula T-shirts and ice cream bars with eight legs. It would be a cash bonanza.
I bought a small decal and affixed it to my car window.
From there I headed south toward the Comanche grasslands. No signs marked my path or guided me toward the site where the spiders could be seen. I found I’d overshot my mark when I crossed into another county. Perhaps I should have anticipated I’d already gone too far when I crossed the Purgatory River a few miles previously, another encounter with the surreal, but I hadn’t.
Now, I turned my car around.
On the way back I noticed a small lump on the center of the pavement. My heart leaped as I realized it must have been one of the creatures I was seeking. As I was traveling way too fast to stop on a dime, I made another U-turn and returned to the lump that had now moved to the pavement’s edge.
Sure enough, it was a tarantula, and much more beautiful than I would have thought. Its hairy body and legs were shining and black while on the top of its back glistened an almost golden medallion-like spot.
It moved slowly, nearly regally, like the Imperial Walkers of Star Wars fame with a few more legs. The spider stopped completely as I bent low to take a picture and seemed to look up at me. It then slowly pivoted and began walking back across the broad highway.
What if a speeding truck or car came along and was less respectful than I? This eight-legged beauty – with which I’d already established a relationship – would be toast. And I would be a fault for causing it to turn in its path.
So I walked beside it as the creature slowly re-crossed the road. No truck or car approached and I bid adieu to what had now become “my” tarantula as it reached the grass on the other side of the road.
I finally located the dirt road that I’d been told would lead to arachnid nirvana, Vogel Canyon. And, it was the right time of day that I might see more of the migration, the hour or so before sunset.
When I pulled into the dusty parking lot, only one other car was there. I immediately set out on one of the trails that led into the canyon.
As I’d approached the grasslands, the countryside had changed slightly from flat parched earth as far as the eye could see to flat parched earth spotted with a few rocky outcroppings. Here, however, the land was more interesting as a small canyon yawned in front of me surrounded by low rust-colored cliffs.
Not only do arachnids live here for visitors to encounter, I had read that several of the rocks contain ancient petroglyphs. I hiked toward them. It was on my return trip to the parking lot that I encountered my second tarantula of the day.
Yet another black-and-gold creature pushing its way through the tall grass. As I again bent to take a picture my glasses fell from my head and landed directly on top of the creature. Rather than leap or start, it simply stopped and waited patiently for me to remove my glasses from its path before it again set out on its ardor-filled quest.
When I was finally ready to leave the canyon, the sun had begun setting. I had encountered three other visitors along the way also searching for spiders. The first had only seen a female lurking in its burrow and it had quickly disappeared once it spied the intruder. The second group of two men told me quite proudly they’d seen five tarantulas that evening.
As I drove slowly down the road I saw another group of people with flashlights slowly moving about, searching for late-night stragglers.
Several miles later I turned back on the paved road. I smiled. It had been a successful – if unusual – day. Spotting two tarantulas on an amorous quest was a triumph in my book, the realization of my dream. It confirmed both the miraculousness and the strangeness of nature.
I hit the “on” button on my car stereo. Lil Nas X came on my radio, crooning the chorus of his last song on the album.
“Am I Am I dreamin’,
Pinch me to see if it’s real,
Cause my mind can’t decide.”