Sunday, March 19, 2006

Snake Stories

It was early spring. Daytime temperatures warmed under the western sun, but as soon as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the thermometer plummeted below freezing. One afternoon, I headed out by myself, hiking up a ravine I’d not yet explored. The northern wall of the ravine basked in sunlight. It was steep, almost straight up, but there were many ledges and it wasn’t that high, maybe 30 feet or so. It would be an easy climb and the view from the top would provide an overview of the Virginia Range of Northern Nevada. Sure enough, it was a lot like climbing a ladder. When my feet were about three or four feet off the ground, I reached up to a ledge. Pulling my body up, I peered eye to eye with a coiled rattlesnake. I quickly dropped back down lower and moved sideways, only then to hear the ominous buzzing of another rattlesnake near my foot. I jumped. Luckily, I landed safely and quickly moved away as a number of snakes began to buzz. I could hear them for the longest time and even longer in my dreams.

The air was still cool enough that the snakes, soaking in the warmth from the sun and rock, would have been sluggish. That may have been the reason they didn’t strike, which would have been deadly as far away as I was from help. Or maybe they didn’t strike because they just wanted me to go away. If that’s the case, I was glad to oblige.

What is it about snakes that make our hearts pound? According to the Good Book, we once had a good relationship with a particular snake who, like traveling salesman in the skin game (a con artist), encouraged our first Mother to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. There after, we’re told, the snake was cursed to crawl on its belly and enmity or hostility has existed between the woman’s and the snake’s off-spring. Snakes are subtle, and are feared for they seemingly appear out of no where as that one did on that ledge. In a fraction of a second, my trip changed and from then on, the only thing I’ll remember about that ravine is the encounter with rattlesnakes.

I grew up with a mother terrified of snakes. When I was kid, and I’m sure the only reason I remember this is because of the story being told over and over, my father found a colorful snake in the yard. He put the snake into a gallon pickle jar, punched some holes in the top so that it could breath, and put it out on the porch. Though he wasn’t sure; he thought it might be a coral snake; the most deadly snakes in the United States even though they are not particularly vicious. They cannot strike like a rattlesnake and other members of the pit viper family. My mother decided to take no chances with her children around, so she emptied a can or bug spray into the jar, killing the snake. It turned out to be a king snake.

Perhaps my mother’s fear of snakes came from my grandfather. He often told stories about encounters with aggressive snakes. One of the memories I have of my this Granddaddy, who died when I was nine, is him showing a large rattlesnake he’d killed at his tobacco barn. According to my granddaddy, the snake attacked him. I was probably six or seven at the time, and my granddaddy came back to the house with this snake dangling dead over the double barrels of his Savage Stevens twelve gauge. A decade later I’d use that same gun to take down my first and only buck.

Granddad’s rattlesnake was good sized, but not nearly as big as the rattlesnake I saw along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I was hiking alone one afternoon, my partner way up ahead. The trail descended through switchbacks, dropping toward Rattlesnake Creek. And sure enough, when I’d gotten down into the ravine, where the trailed leveled out, I heard that heart-stopping buzz and froze. "Where is it," I thought to myself as I stood straight as a soldier. Looking around, I then saw the largest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen alive. The snake was longer than I am tall and its body as thick as my calves. The snake was stretched out, parallel to the trail, only inches from my foot. It didn’t coil, instead it just picked its tail up and shook it long set of rattles, giving me fair warning. I quickly sidestepped and circled through the woods back to the trail a far piece from the snake. There I dropped my pack, took out my camera and headed back toward the snake who decided he wasn’t going to hang around and quickly slid away.

And then there was a sidewinder that stopped by the door of the tent in Death Valley. It was night. Stepping close, he began to buzz. Sidewinders aren’t that big, but they are fascinating and several of us got lights on him and watched him throw his body back and forth as he moved out into the desert, losing him in a clump of creosote bushes. Most of my snake encounters have been like that, a little encouragement and an open path, they’ll run away leaving you alone.


  1. The only snakes I;ve seen are in zoos and aquariums. They are beautiful, but scary. Michele sent me.

  2. I have never actually encountered a snake "in real life." I know I would be scared, though. Just that whole snake stigma. :)

    Michele sent me!

  3. Once hiking in the Delaware Water Gap area near Sunfish Pond, I came within three or four feet of a three and a half foot long rattlesnake before I noticed it. It startled me and I quickly retreated but then came closer again to photograph it.

    I also remember that once as a child Mom locked us children out of the house because we were trying to bring in a dead black snake that one of us had mowed over.

    Snakes fascinate me as long as I'm not taken by surprise.

  4. You have had so very many snake encounters....that is amazing to me. I have seen maybe 3 or 4 snakes in my yard at different times, two of them I put there...Gopher Snakes...and the did their job well, and were pretty friendly people! But to encounter rattle snakes and sidewindrrs, etc...OY! (lol) You are a very brave person.

    Here from Michele tonight!

  5. Oh, jeez! I'm deathly afraid of snakes! I can't imagine going back to photograph one! I'd scream and run, run, run!

    Michele sent me. Greetings from Wisconsin!

  6. Michele sent me, Sage.

    I like snakes. Always have. As a kid I searched them out and handled them. I'm not as fast now as I was then so that's no longer an activity I engage in but I still take pictures of them. Still, I've not been close to a Rattlesnake since I was around 12 at my Aunt's ranch out in Oregon and I don't think I'd want to see one up close. Hell, I'm quite sure I'd not want to. LOL Dangerous snakes aren't my thing. But it's great to read about your encounters with them, Sage.

  7. You almost had me thinking about taking up hiking until I read this. :-)

  8. As much hiking as I do and have done, you would think I would see more snakes in the wild. I can only think of one incident (off the farm) where I had a close encounter with a snake and that was in the Grand Canyon. I found a rattler sunning himself on some rocks near our lunch spot. He was just a baby one and nobody on either side was surprised to see each other. We ate our lunch, he sunned himself and then we both went our different ways.

  9. All I can say is I'm glad it's you and not me :) They would sense my fear. Oh and then that terrible racket I make as I panic, shriek & run for safety lol

  10. We have copperheads here, but I wouldn't know one if I saw one. I once got barred from walking to my mailbox by a huge black snake that was spread out across my drive-way. I didn't need the mail that bad.

    I bet if you came to Floyd, it would seem like just another small town. Things have a way of sounding more historic in print than they really are.

  11. I think my heart stopped when you described climbing up and coming face to face with the rattler.

    I have seen far too many copperheads in my day, and also came face to face with one while I was climbing stone steps holding 2 bags of groceries. I hope that never happens again!

  12. I'm surprised to see that there are some of you who have never had an encounter with a snake (you must live in Ireland). This post had just some of my more notable encounters with rattlesnakes--there have been a many others and I didn't even start to talk about my encounters with cottonmouth water moccasins and copperheads (a really beautiful snake).

    Tim, I remember Deleware Water Gap--isn't Sunfish pond on the north side of the river?

    Murf, hike in the winter--when it's below 60 degrees, then there is no need to worry about snakes.

    Ed, I can't imagine going into the Grand Canyon without seeing a rattlesnake!

    OZ, according to Bill Bryson's book on life down under, you folks are tripping over posionous snakes all the time!

    Colleen, All the rattlesnakes I saw along the Appalachian Trail were in Virginia! So you may have some of them around too.

    Kenju, Copperheads actually seem not to mind being around humans--not nearly as much as we mind being around them. Luckily, they don't pack as much posion as the other pit vipers. And they are beautiful.

  13. It was still spring in the Grand Canyon when I went so any snakes weren't going to be very active but I was disappointed to only see one the entire trip. I guess the reason I don't see a lot of snakes when I hike is that I usually going during fall/winter/spring. During the summer I am used to be on the farm and I have numerous snake run-ins there but nothing with poison.

  14. I kind of like snakes... as long as they are within striking distance. Just seeing once does get the heart racing - it's a thrill. There are lots of rattlesnakes in the mountains where my parents live, so they have mounted skins all over the living room. It's kind of common up there to go rattlesnake hunting, although I'm not sure that's necessary. They are not really overpopulating the immediate area.

    My phobia, however, is spiders. It makes me physically sick to even see one on TV, lol.

  15. Sage, Sunfish Pond is just a couple hour hike from the Delaware River on the New Jersey side. I have some pictures that show some of Sunfish Pond on my blog at

  16. Oh god, I'm terrified of snakes. It goes deeper than mere fear -- something in my core just freezes when I see one. Though they are born on this earth, they don't look like they belong on this planet. I don't hate them, but they repulse me. When I was four or so, I had nightmares every single evening about snakes. They represent something I can't face -- I'm so afraid of this thing, I can't even figure out what it is (forget Freud, it's not that). If a boa constrictor dropped on to my back, I would probably have a stroke. That's my worst fear -- to be sqeezed to death by a boa contrictor or to be paralyzed and then swallowed alive by a giant snake.

  17. Being from swampy eastern N.C., I know why you're a little bit used to the poisonous snake concept.

    Fortunately, my rattler stories are all secondhand!

  18. *shivers* yes, there will be nightmares tonight. I've been really fortunate where snakes are concerned. My only encounter with a rattle snake was hiking along Warrior river just outside of Birmingham. I had just entered the trail...I never saw it, but there was that heart stopping sound of a rattle in front of me (I thought). Being pretty inexperienced at the time I had NO idea what to do, so I froze, then took steps backward just praying the whole time that my guess that the snake was in front and not behind was right.

  19. hey kontan so was the snake in front or in back of you if i saw a ratler that close I would feak out. The only snake ive seen was a gardener snake.