Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct several errors.
Retired zoologist and museum curator Ray Pawley likes having an office with a view.
His cluttered desk overlooks the west side of the Capitan Mountains, whose rocky peaks jut up to 11,000 feet.
“This is basically my laboratory,” Pawley said of the most westward room in the house with a near-panoramic view of the rocky, hilly landscape. “I’m in my church 24/7.”
For the past 12 years, Pawley and his wife Hedda P. Saltz, an accomplished artist, have lived in a spacious two-story house at the end of a 2-mile gravel driveway in the tiny community of Arabela, which is near the dead end of the two-lane road that heads north from U.S. 380 in Hondo.
Don’t even think about going out there unless you have a truck or a four-wheeler. And even if you do, Pawley has to know you’re coming and unlock the gate for you.
Never mind the vultures circling overhead, it’s probably a dead skunk, and not you, that they are eager to devour.
Pawley is a contributor to the Roswell Daily Record, occasionally submitting his “Through a Zoo Man’s Eyes” column. He has worked at the Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos in Chicago and is known across the globe for his research on critters, large and small.
But it was the venomous creatures — rattlesnakes — that drew him to New Mexico.
“In 1959, I came to some ranches on Pine Lodge Road to collect rattlers and other little critters — kangaroo rats, silky pocket mice, etc.,” he said. “At this time, the road was dirt — open range, a few cattle guards that were treacherous to cross, no electricity and no telephones for the scattering of residents.”
A year later, he started to also go to the Slover Ranch in the Peloncillo Mountains in the boot heel of New Mexico to collect many different kinds of rattlers that occurred there in the Animas area.
So when the decision came to retire, Pawley said the choice came down to either New Mexico or the Okefenokee Swamp, a sprawling 438,000 wetland that spans the border of Georgia and Florida.
Pawley said the two places are “defined by water.” Okefenokee has too much and New Mexico not enough.
He said when he first started coming to the Capitans in the ‘60s, the weather was much cooler.
“In April, there always was snow on the Capitan Mountains,” he said. “Now, if we see any snow at all in the winter, it is gone in a few days.”
When zoologist Ray announced to artist wife Hedda — who had never lived anywhere except Chicago — that he’d like to move to New Mexico, she asked, “What is New Mexico like?”
Ray said he couldn’t give her a complete answer, because he’d only been to the Arabela area and the ranch in the boot heel. So they took several trips to the Land of Enchantment and sunny New Mexico won out over that big, ol’ bug-infested swamp in the Deep South, which too, has its fair share of snakes.
Their house on the hill is much like any other nicely furnished American home — that is, until the power goes out.
The rain can knock the power out, the wind can knock power out — well, it doesn’t take much to knock the power out when you’re the only house at the end of a 2-mile gravel road. And you’re pretty far down on the electric company’s call list. So when that happens, they have a propane generator.
When storms come in from the west, they can be quite violent. They say they have clocked wind speeds of 80 mph and are considering hurricane shutters for the west side of the house.
They have satellite internet and two four-wheel drive vehicles along with a pickup.
They said their house is exactly 60 miles from the intersection at West Second and Main streets.
Ruidoso is a bit closer, but they split their shopping about 50/50.
Asked if living in such a remote area concerns them as far as finding health care providers, Ray and Hedda said they are both in good health and have great doctors in Roswell and Ruidoso, both primary care and specialty.
“It’s a trade-off,” Ray said. “In Chicago you have specialists just minutes away.”
“What would be most critical is if we had an emergency,” Hedda said. “Once in a while we see an ambulance (on Arabela Road).”
Currently, Ray said he is focusing his research on the hibernation of rattlesnakes.
He said cold-blooded animals hibernate much differently than warm-blooded animals, notably bears.
Bears need to fatten up before they go into hibernation. They lose weight as they hibernate and look like “death warmed over” when they wake up, Pawley said.
Snakes, on the other hand, only lose a few ounces and Pawley said he’s seen a few cases in which a snake has actually gained a little weight during hibernation.
“The don’t look scruffy at all,” he said.
Ray keeps a few live snakes at his house.
Ray said he takes good care of his snakes, and never touches them with his bare hands because he knows that traumatizes them.
Besides the snakes and the creepy crawlies living in the vivariums of Ray’s home laboratory, they have a black Chihuahua named Raven to keep them company.
Like many Chihuahuas, she’s a yapper but likes people. And she’s this itty, bitty thing who thinks she is “6 feet tall.”
For that reason, Ray and Hedda avoid taking walks with Raven at dusk so she doesn’t get snatched up by a great-horned owl. The birds become active as the sun sets.
There’s really no limit to the wildlife that keeps them company while they’re outdoors.
There are deer, skunks, jack rabbits, box turtles, snakes, reptiles and more than 200 species of birds.
“And the biggest black widows you’ve ever seen,” Ray quipped.