It must have been around 1974—I was old enough to drive and had my own car—when I had an eerie adventure in my hometown of Whittier one summer evening. It had been a warm day, and a warm evening persisted after the sunset. Turnbull Canyon beckoned. Our group—my older brother Steve, our friend Mike, our neighbor Dan, and I piled into our cars for a drive.
As we drove up the sharp turns of the canyon, I saw creatures scurrying along the side of the road. I decided, as we drove past, that they must be small rodents, like I had seen along highways 14 and 395 in Owens Valley on warm nights.
The canyon had several turnouts, and as we drove up, we decided to stop and hang around on the side of the road. It was probably just after the second hairpin curve up from Beverly Boulevard, near the fire road. We stopped and turned off our lights. Much like Owens Valley, it was dark, with only moonlight. We saw more rodents scurrying by—but on closer inspection, realized they were something entirely different. They were tarantulas.
And that was how we found ourselves, in our summer clothes and shoes, standing in the midst of the giant spiders of the Whittier Hills. A year later, driving through Owens Valley, during a stop, I watched a large snake crawl across the road and behind the rear wheel of my car. I was inside the car, with the door closed and the engine running, so I simply pulled forward as it passed behind. But this evening, I had already gotten out of my car and walked away when I discovered the spiders. They were moving in their slow-motion way and seemed to be enjoying the still-warm ground or just taking in the evening.
It seemed the tarantulas didn’t mind us if we kept our distance. If we approached one from behind, it would jump forward. This proved to be a fun game; or, it was initially entertaining to discover the spiders would jump away to keep the distance from pesky humans.
According to TarantulaPet.com, most tarantulas do not jump, but “It turns out, some species of tarantulas can. Especially those living in arboreal habitats. And it’ll surprise you how high they can actually jump. Depending on the species, tarantulas can jump anywhere from 1 inch to as much as 2 feet high or, reportedly, even higher.”
It will surprise you. I remember it well. These large, hairy spiders jumped. Then we discovered they were just as likely to jump towards pesky humans (due to their poor eyesight).
We declared the jumping tarantulas the winners of the evening, sought immediate sanctuary in our vehicles, and drove away to find something else to do. Bob’s Big Boy was not far.
I never encountered tarantulas again either in Turnbull Canyon or the San Gabriel Mountains. It remains a disconcerting and vivid memory.
No spiders were harmed during this event.