By: Sarah Jane Woodall aka Wonderhussy As anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie knows, the desert is alive and seething with creepy crawlers — each more venomous than the last, and all of them out to get you. Rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, fire ants — if you think about ‘em too much, you’ll never […]
By: Sarah Jane Woodall aka Wonderhussy
As anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie knows, the desert is alive and seething with creepy crawlers — each more venomous than the last, and all of them out to get you. Rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, fire ants — if you think about ‘em too much, you’ll never leave the house again. And even in the house, they can still get you. Even where I live, in Las Vegas, people keep blacklights around for the express purpose of spotting scorpions indoors at night. Shudder!
As much time as I spend in the outdoors, you’d think I’d have been bitten, stung or otherwise attacked more times than I can count; shockingly, that’s not the case. In all my years of wandering the Nevada outback, I’ve only ever seen a handful of rattlesnakes, and all of them from a safe distance. I’ve also only seen 2 scorpions in the wild, and one of those was squashed flat under a friend’s tarp (which we were all dancing on the night before). I’ve only seen a couple of tarantulas…one of which came lumbering into the frame once when I was working as a nude model, standing naked in an old barn. (Thankfully I was naked except for cowboy boots. That tired-ass trope finally came in handy after all!)
That’s right, for many years I was lucky. The aforementioned tally of creepy crawly critters was all I’d ever seen, and I could count them all on two hands. But all of that changed forever one summer day in 2019 when I encountered a bug I’d never even heard of, and which turned out to be a thousand times more odious and terrifying than all the tarantulas and scorpions in the Mojave!
It all started as my sister and I were heading out to camp at a natural hot spring in the-middle- of-nowhere-Nevada one beautiful July evening. A great, glowing yellow moon rose over the mountains into the gorgeous pink-and-lavender expanse of a high desert twilight, and we were looking forward to a glass of wine while soaking in the hot spring as the first stars came out. We totally had a peaceful, easy feelin’-but as my 4Runner bumped along the dirt road bounded by alfalfa fields, we began to notice the occasional big, black spot.
Bugs! And BIG ones!
Now, being outdoors women, neither my sis nor I are overly squeamish about bugs. And though the bugs we were spotting were on the large side (maybe 2-3” long) they were fairly infrequent- we’d see one every so often, but they weren’t swarming or anything like that. So we rolled on, neither of us saying anything to the other…but the closer we got to the hot spring, the more of the bugs we saw.
And when we finally pulled up at the hot spring and stepped out to take a look around, it was like a scene from a horror movie: they were everywhere!! Big, fat, black locust-looking things with wings, but they didn’t seem to be able to fly; they just sort of hopped around, congregating most profusely around the open pools of water. What a drag!!!
The biggest drag of all was that here we were at this beautiful natural hot spring on an amazing desert evening, and this particular hot spring even had old fiberglass bathtubs installed on little decks, with plumbed taps connected to the hot spring source…but the tubs were full of these damned bugs!
I’d estimate there were several hundred of these gruesome crawlies hopping around the sagebrush, tubs and stone foundations of the old resort that had once occupied the site, and it didn’t look like they were going anywhere anytime soon. As frustrating as it was, my sis and I turned to each other and agreed that we had no choice but to abort the mission, and find another place to camp. Neither one of us wanted to spend the night surrounded by this horror show!
So, with daylight fading fast, we jumped back in the car, slammed the doors and windows tight, and got the hell out of there back down the dirt road we’d come up, trying to find an uninfested spot for the night. We figured the bugs were probably attracted to the water of the hot springs, so if we could find a dry spot, we’d be OK. But the whole damn desert was wet with spray from the alfalfa field irrigation…and nowhere was safe!
As I hauled ass at the wheel, my sis frantically Googled other campsites in the area, but both places we drove to were similarly swarmed with hideous giant bugs. By now, it was getting pretty dark, and in my mad haste to find shelter for the night, some kind of large bird or something hit my front grille with a sickening THUNK. I had to slow down, give up, and admit defeat: there would be no camping tonight.
Cringing at the rusty, shuddering screech borne of long disuse, I creaked open my wallet and booked us a room for the night in nearby Winnemucca…and an hour later, slunk into the lobby feeling like a loser and a quitter. As I signed in, I told the desk clerk what had happened and he said something like, “Oh, yeah, those are Mormon crickets.”
Mormon crickets?! I’d lived my entire life surrounded by Mormons, first in California and then in southern Nevada, and I’d never heard of these things! “They come in waves every few years,” the clerk went on. “They eat everything in sight, including each other. They’ll even eat YOU if they get on you!”
Once settled in our room, dismally guzzling the glasses of wine we’d planned on enjoying in the hot spring, we did some more Googling and found that the desk clerk wasn’t kidding. Mormon crickets are a crop-destroying pest whose population flares up every so many years and creates giant swarms, numbering in the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands, wreaking total havoc in their wake. Being unable to fly, they essentially hop or march along, almost in formation, eating every single thing in their paths — be it sagebrush, an alfalfa crop or a slower-moving fellow cricket. Apparently, that’s why they move in creepy, Nazi-like formation — none of them wants to stop moving, for fear of being cannibalized!
Technically a katydid and not a cricket, they earned their name by completely destroying the crops of the first Mormon pioneers, almost causing the settlers’ starvation. But according to Mormon lore, a flock of heavenly seagulls finally swooped in and ate the crickets…and thanks to those blessed gulls, we here in the west get to enjoy the company (and Jell-O salad) of Mormons to this day.
I wasn’t able to confirm the desk clerk’s macabre tidbit about the crickets eating humans, but honestly the more I read online, the more I believed it anyway. Apparently these swarms are still devastating to crops, and almost indestructible — although often, when they march along a paved highway, they do get crushed by cars creating a thick, gooey slick that makes for very dangerous driving conditions.
How had I never heard of these things?! It turns out they only really thrive in the sagebrush country of the Great Basin, that’s why. Vegas is too far south, the Great Basin basically starts up around Tonopah, and stretches north into southeastern Oregon and northeastern California, going east as far as western Utah and west to the foothills of the Sierra. So I’ve never really lived anywhere within the breeding area of Mormon crickets. THANK GOODNESS!
Anyway, discovering the existence of Mormon crickets was kind of like learning there’s no Santa Claus: it permanently tainted my perception of summertime- in the Great Basin, at least. Ever since, my summer travels have been strictly planned to AVOID areas where crickets might be present and it’s a real bummer, since those are some of the most beautiful parts of Nevada!
But I just don’t want to be part of the carnage. Speaking of carnage, when my sis and I woke up the next morning and went outside to load the car I found that the THUNK I’d heard the previous evening had been a beautiful little owl of some sort. NOOOOOO!
I felt really bad about killing that poor, beautiful little owl. Worse, its little head was totally wedged into my grille, and it took both my sister, me and a crowbar to pry it loose. We wrapped the poor little thing in a towel, and gave it a sad and very solemn burial at a nearby ghost town, taking care to decorate its grave with colored rocks and a cross made of sticks. Poor little fella!
But as I drove along through the Great Basin the rest of that summer, I spared no such kind thoughts for the dastardly Mormon cricket. I’d have gladly driven over a million of them — but then I guess that would mess up my undercarriage pretty grossly.