Sunday, May 19, 2013

Snake Eyes

Raise your hand if you have ever come upon a rattlesnake during a hike. Now raise both hands if this has happened to you twice, in one week.

So you know I didn't die because I am writing to you now. Unless of course this was a piece that I penned in the event something like this happened, and I asked that it be posted afterwards. But I am not that clever.

I am not a country boy by birth or nature. I grew up surrounded by brick and mortar, birds and ants. A squirrel running through the walls of a house was reason enough for a panic attack. My most disturbing childhood memory of confrontation  between man and beast was when my mother took a potful of hot water to an ant colony. Problem solved. Psyche damaged.

But time and circumstance move all of us to places not originally in our master plan.  And so, on this day, one week removed from my first face to foot, I headed back for another adventure into what to me seemed the most absolute of wilderness.

My son confided, out of earshot of my wife, that a sign warned that ticks and rattlers were possible companions for this journey. So, as we began our day by taking off shoes and socks, rolling up pant legs and fording a very cold and rapidly moving stream just above a waterfall, I wondered for a brief moment what the hell I was doing.

There is an exhilaration in ascending an almost vertical 1000 feet, at times holding on for dear life to the railing that was built for those like me who are attempting what they are ill equipped to accomplish. Fear and adrenaline is a very powerful combination, as I would once more soon learn in bold letters.

We three had spent part of the last week in discourse on the do's and don'ts of attending to venomous  bites after our first encounter with a slithering, rattling trail hogger. My son, ever the student, was able to recite the why, where and what with great detail. But unless there was to be a car trailing our every step or a helicopter hovering overhead to come to our immediate rescue, I can't say I was completely without concern merely because there was now a scholar in residence.

My wife mentioned the word rattler several times during the first hour or so of our travels yesterday. My son grew irritated, stating that he now had a concern that was clearly sapping a piece of his enjoyment of the moment. Shortly, he would revisit his words.

There are long stretches of time in woods like these, where there is no hint of man or beast except for those companions who trek with you. And this was no different, until we were almost 2 hours removed from where this trip began. A few hundred yards away, out of sight but not sound, there was conversation, laughter and then an unmistakeable, piercing noise. It lasted for what seemed an eternity, growing ever louder.

"There is a rattler ahead." The warning came from above us, from a person unseen but not too distant. And then we heard the thunk, thunk of rocks being thrown. This was not good. Apparently, their concept was to scare off or damage, and then pass. All they were accomplishing was to piss off. The rattle, sounding like a 100 cicadas in full voice, grew more ominous.

My son shouted out his concern for the course chosen. Having spent recent days in study, he strongly suggested the rock throwing was not helping.  (And, as an aside, illegal, since the rattler is an endangered species, not to be harmed in the making of this film) The rattler quieted. With trepidation we slowly headed up the path to get a long distance look. It was huge and coiled squarely in the center of a narrow path. It made last week's encounter seem pedestrian, almost cute. It was not going anywhere anytime soon.

One of the issues, so I am told, is that where there is one, there may be more. I know that whenever I see a deer I am always vigilant, as they travel in packs or broods or whatever it is that deer do. And so too, snakes?

Our choices were evident: heading back from where we had come, descending the almost unthinkably difficult down, then taking off shoes and socks and wading into the rushing waters, or going through the deep brush around the now resting giant and continuing our ascent. We had long distance discussion with the rock throwers and devised a plan.

We would take similar routes through the brush, thus meeting half way, each side taking an equal risk that they would be the unlucky ones to come upon some relatives of our immovable obstacle. This was, in an imperfect world, the best option.

I took a deep breath and began pushing the bushes aside, the limbs from the small trees brushing against my face. My wife and son trailed closely behind. Each step brought a new universe of uncomfortable possibilities. And yet, within less than a minute, I sighted colors and clothing of human beings heading towards me, and before I really had time to think, we were joined.

For the briefest of moments, we exchanged words of the great size of the problem that we had encountered. They, it turned out, were rattlesnake virgins, unlike the seasoned and knowledgeable veterans who greeted them. As the underbrush was not the best of locations to begin an extended discourse, we soon parted ways, safe in the knowledge that there was a short and clear path to safety.

Soon afterwards we reached the summit. There, we encountered two others and warned them immediately of the danger that lay only a few hundred yards away. Each of these hikers was on his or her own, and one decided to join us for the balance of our journey. She asked whether, before we began our descent, we would mind walking back to where the rattler lay so she could take a peek.

At that moment, I  looked above to see a covey of hang-gliders in mid-flight. I have a significant fear of heights, but my immediate thought was that I would clearly have opted for hovering in the sky thousands of feet above the ground, rather than heading back to revisit our resting friend. Curiosity, I was certain, does not only kill cats.


Anonymous said...

We're glad you're practicing your hiking. You'll be ready for Sonoma County: Annadel State Park is waiting for you! Golf sounds dull right now I bet!
See you soon.

The Victors

diane said...

Yipes! I have only seen one rattler up close and that elicited a string of words, but none of them so eloquent as yours. I , too, took the long way around it.