What better day than today – April 1st - for a story about Jackalopes, the elusive half-rabbit-half-antelope conglomerate animal of urban legend? KNAU’s Scott Thybony puts his imagination to work in his latest Canyon Commentary, musing about all the mythical creatures that have found a home in the legendary landscapes of the West.
Mythical creatures have long found a natural habitat in the American West. A town square in Wyoming has an immense statue of a jackrabbit sporting antelope horns. “Home of the Jackalope,” the sign claims, and I’ll take their word for it not having had the pleasure of encountering one in the wild. But I’ve seen plenty of mounted jackalope heads, often in bars, which only makes sense. They have a reputation for sipping whiskey on a full-moon night while playing pranks on whoever happens to be out and about.
Arizona has more than its share of improbable wildlife. The dry rivers of Tucson support a population of Santa Cruz Sand Trout, known to be extremely difficult to catch, and Prescott has the fur-bearing Hassayampa rattlesnake. While few birders have managed to add the desert rock pecker to their life lists, evidence of it turns up throughout the canyon country.
Faced with a scarcity of trees, these distant cousins to the woodpecker have had to make do with the materials at hand. The holes found on numerous sandstone outcroppings clearly show their work. It’s what geologists call honeycomb weathering, but I suspect they’ve never given proper consideration to the presence of the rock pecker. And while unable to claim a sighting, I have heard them while camped deep in the canyons. Their pecking has been mistaken for the staccato bleating of a mountain goat, a sound the naturalists insist comes from the canyon treefrog. But a treefrog living miles from the nearest tree makes less sense than the hammering of a rock pecker.
Inside Grand Canyon lives another elusive creature known as the sidehill gouger, who goes unmentioned in the guidebooks. The first recorded sighting came in a letter written in 1910 by George Collingwood to his little sister, Laura. He was on his way to Springerville to begin work as a forest ranger in what was then the Apache National Forest. “Now I am going to tell you about a very horrible experience we had in the bottom of Grand Canyon yesterday,” he wrote. “I didn’t tell mother about it for fear it would shock her too much, but I will trust you to break the news gently to her.” He went on to describe how he descended the Bright Angel Trail with a friend, passing peaks shaped like pyramids.
“On each one of these peaks,” he wrote, “is an animal called the Side Hill Gouger. They look something like a blood hound only larger, and the legs on one side of the body are much longer than those on the other. In this way they are able to run along the side of the mountain very swiftly but they can only go one way, and are very easy to catch when they get on level ground. But they are very wise, and seldom get off the hill.” On flat ground they run in circles until they get dizzy and fall over.
“When there are two on the same peak,” George continued, “they have short legs on opposite sides of the body so that when one goes N. the other goes S. and in that way they can run around the mountain and corner their prey. We were chased a little way by one of these but as soon as we got on the level plateau, we were perfectly safe because he did not dare come down.”
The imagination tries its best to match the strangeness of western landscapes with all of the cactus forests and hoodoo deserts, the lunar expanses and never-summer mountains. It keeps trying, only to end up following one jackalope or another down the rabbit hole.