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Rattlesnake Tale

Rick Scheideman, 2007

 

 

The snow arrived early last winter. Two days after Thanksgiving the first northern snow swept the Golden valley that lies between Lookout Mountain on the west and the twin Table Mountains to the east. Ten days later a blizzard suffocated the town in twenty-two inches of snow. It took several hours of two days to make the alley passable from our red front door to the plowed street half an alley away.

Our carriage house stood midway in the alley. We called it a carriage house because it sounded quaint, maybe part of an estate rather that what it was, a studio apartment hunkered over a garage. Friends nodded approval that our move was into a carriage house. After a year, we dropped the affectation. Apart from the bathroom, our nest consisted of one large room, snug, airy, and light from five large windows. No walls or doors (save the bathroom) cluttered our home.  We called out to each other, “Going to the dining room now,” and walked the five steps to the table in the same room as the bed, couch, comfy chair, and kitchen. After a period of adjustment, we agreed that the place fit us well.

            Our pastime for all seasons was simple. The upholstered couch was short, almost a loveseat, but amply cushioned. Kimberly would sit with her back against one end with both legs stretched out, her bare feet on my lap. She enjoys her feet messaged or just held. We would read. Sometimes, with books pressed against our bellies, thoughts grew into conversations. At other times we gazed out the window into early evening at the large maple tree across the alleyway in the neighbor’s backyard. Fading sunlight flickered through the leaves. Hand-in-hand we lingered speechless at the remnants of the day.

            Early mornings found me jogging through the older part of Golden or hiking up the several humps on top of South Table Mountain. The once majestic volcano had worn broad and flat from eons of snow and rain. An immense plateau with rolling grass covered the long extinct crater except the northwest corner where steep rock faces kept watch over the town. These cliffs raised several hundred feet, but the summit was easily hiked from the backside. In summer, I ran the low-lying streets of Golden rather than enjoying the breathless views of Denver from the mountain’s trails. Legends had accumulated regarding the resident rattlesnake population on South Table Mountain and muted my desire for cutting-edge adventure. Shirtless summer runs invited far less anxiety.

            In Colorado, winter impedes jogging, especially this winter. The snow fell once a week, often twice, from December until early February. On three occasions, the accumulation demanded several hours to shovel the alley. Such recreation provoked in me an aversion to snow. Roads are treacherous. Traffic snarls with arrogant devil-may-care-go-fast-in-any condition aces when they encounter vigilant creepers.  I don’t like cold either. No do I relish the monotony of blanketed white over an otherwise varied landscape.

Granted, the first flurries in the fall brought feelings of home and holidays. But this season such romance was short lived. Each day the snow fell I groused around the house, mumbling oaths at that white suffocation.

            Then salvation. As I tied my running shoes one morning, a hopeful thought breezed through my chilly brain. I envisioned hiking up the mountain, a climb in the snow. Why not? Clothed in a mottled gray sweat suit, two pairs of gloves, a knit cap, and sunglasses to protect against blowing snow. My companion for this adventure was a slender fellow, a hickory walking stick given as a Christmas gift from my youngest daughter and her husband. Unused, it leaned in a garage corner because for me mountain travel meant unencumberance. Now, with a new plan, wisdom hinted that a walking stick provided more slip and slide security than my less than pristine running shoes. The trail began beyond the last house of a steep street. A steadily rising path meandered around the mountain’s shoulder. Then the trail ascended steeply alongside an ancient cog railway that in earlier days carried Denver visitors from Golden to the mountaintop. All the rails and ties had vanished but the steep right-of-way put a hiker at the summit in thirty minutes. Not in snow. Where the cog rail ended, a concrete foundation was all that remained of a concession building. After refreshing themselves, passengers walked the several concrete steps to the top of Castle Rock.

The first steps on to the snow covered trail felt good. I was surprised. The walking stick gave stability and later served as a rudder shoe skiing down the other side of the mountain. Jogging the slick streets back home at the end of the trek, an epiphany—winter’s grip loosened.

            In time, another surprise blossomed. I discovered that every morning the stage changed. Both the props and the set struck yesterday’s scene with a new setting. There might be eye aching sun, or hesitant sun, or cloud-flat light revealing no difference between slope and sky. Some mornings there would flakes the size of half-dollars, slow flakes, wind-driven pellets, or heavy wet snow sloshing the path. The trail might consist of fragile ice or the frozen mud of yesterday’s footsteps.

            I looked forward to what conditions lurked outside my door. The novelty intrigued me and I rarely grew bored tramping that hour or two up South Table Mountain. When the slopes were precarious, I climbed gingerly or swiftly when the trail was bare. On the down side, with stick in hand and sweatpants frozen stiff, I slid down the blotchy snowfields to the streets that led home.

            On the morning of February 16th, winter’s jaw eased. Not that the snow ended, but there was a change. When I opened the door that morning, I felt warmth. Not the Chinook winds from the west that frequent the Front Range winters with deception. That morning’s enchantment caused the icicles to drip and I stepped into a puddle in the driveway. Within three weeks almost all of the snow on my route had vanished. A few patches survived on north side, but the trail emerged. It was important to start earlier in the morning, closer to six than seven. Then the mud softened by yesterday’s sun would have refrozen into solid foot-sized steps. Mud walking fails to please. The slippery goo sticks the shoes and flings mud up the legs with each step. Grass sticks to the mud and soon slipping accompanies mud flinging. With frozen shoe prints, I could climb quickly, and best of all, without a backside mud bath.

            A few more storms came and went in late spring, but nothing serious. By May, wild flowers bloomed on the hillsides, and with the change once more the hickory walking stick leaned against the garage wall. I considered snakes now and then. Once in April, I thought I heard rattling in the tall grass. But I settled my self with the common wisdom that held that these cold-blooded creatures remain sleepy in their winter homes when the temperature keeps cool. In early May, the nights often dipped below freezing. My plan was simple. I would start up while the shadow cast by Castle Rock covered the trail. Cold prevented an unwanted encounter. I figured it was cold enough. I figured wrong.

            One morning, two weeks into May, the dawn sky showed gray. The young grass was pale grebe and small leaves had begun to pop from their buds.  I ran the four blocks to the trailhead and began to walk. In the valley to my left, the old part of Golden stirred with the 7:10 bus; a flatbed truck unloaded equipment at the School of Mines. Half of the town warmed in sunshine, the rest lay in the shadow I occupied. The slope on my right was mostly barren. Here and there, clumps of scrub oak began leaves from their stiff branches.

            As boy at Outward Bound, I learned to hum a tune when I hiked, a song to find a rhythm for my steps. It might be a Belfonte calypso tune or the whaling songs from the Kingston Trio. Fogelberg, Chapin, or Paul Simon served up the tunes these days. I have another trick, a silly practice. I keep my eyes fixed a foot or two ahead of my shoes. I don’t look around and I don’t look up where I’m going. Looking brings disappointment. The top is always further than I surmise. So I don’t look. With eyes cast down and the song working, the top arrives as a surprise. That’s what was happening on this perfect day in May. Perfect.

            Rattling. My head jerked up. My shoes slipped back on the gravel. Instantly, my eyes focused on a snake above me three or four feet away. The upper third of the snake weaved back and forth above the coils of the rest of its body. At the end of the coils, the rattles roared. Shock and fear collided: dry mouth, heart pounding, and breathless. I hate snakes. That’s imprecise. I feel phobic about snakes. To play the adult and deal with this fear, I have petted (make that touched with one finger) the pet boa constrictor of a neighbor. My unsettledness increased when he related that he fed his pet a live rabbit once each month.

            I have tried. Once, when catching a glimpse of a garter snake among the radishes, my hope was to react serenely, to act with benevolence at this marvel of nature. I did not. I panicked and hunted for a shovel.

I bow before those women and men of nature who not only pet snakes; they hold them and enjoy their embrace. Take John, Kimberly’s co-worker who, after stepping out of his sagging Volkswagen bus, noticed a large black snake winding underneath a nearby Miata. With calm purpose, John intercepted the snake on the other side of the car. He stooped down and grabbed it by the tail. He lifted it up to its full length, the head writhing with malice. John carried the snake further than I could imagine and deposited it in a grove of willows.

            I try not to be obsessed, but listen to this. One June morning, I was riding a bike full speed down the Lookout Mountain road. The ride up takes its toll on body and mind. On the other hand, coasting the downhill is pure reward. About a half-a-mile from the bottom, I noticed a man walking up the opposite side of the road. I saw something in his hand, a walking stick, I supposed. I slowed and looked again. This incredible person was holding a live rattlesnake by the tail.  I dawned on me that I lived in the rattlesnake capital of the world.

            My personal snake was doing its dance and experienced no fear of being picked up by the tail. Between the snake and me, the path narrowed. On each side, the scrub oak crowded the passage. It wasn’t a bamboo rain forest, still I felt confined. Logic or panic suggested this reptile might have kin in the immediate neighborhood. Maybe they hunt in packs. The wise choice would have been to back down, then at a safe distance turn and bolt, be done with today’s exercise regimen and head for home. This was the wise choice, the environmentalist’s choice, and the nature lover’s choice. Not mine.

            I looked for rocks. I picked up rocks, closed fist-sized rocks. In the confrontation with danger, one chooses fight or flight. I choose fight, blind adrenalin- pumping fight. I regret that choice. One of my front teeth was violently removed because of the fight impulse. I claim too many yelling matches with provocative adversaries. It’s my choice to fight, but not a good one.

            What comes next lacks dispassion. I’ll avoid the details. My delusional reasoning found foundation in the movies I’d played in my head at the thought of encountering a snake. In this fantasy, I would pick up three or for perfect stones, aim, hurl, and kill the Goliath of my fears. So, here I was, three stones in my left and one in my right. I threw them at the snake. They all missed, the rattling increased. Quickly, I escalated my offense and threw several handfuls of gravel. If any of this debris hit the snake, it was unfazed. The fingers of my right hand were bloody scraping the grit. The body feels no pain under real or imagined threat.

            As I caught my breath, a window opened to inhale wisdom. The time was ripe to exit, leave the wild kingdom alone. I was not persuaded. The failure of rocks and muck did not deter my effort only my strategy. My resolve strengthened. Fear transformed to anger. I considered using a scrub oak limb as a club. Since my skill with the rocks failed, I considered: 1. I’d have to get close to the enemy, and 2. I’d miss. The snake would then strike me (lots of movie reels here about fangs and blood and a snake not letting go). Thankfully, I couldn’t find a stick.

Now begins the shameful part of this tale. Boulders. Not boulders exactly, but not far from me was a pile of very large rocks, two armed rocks. I heaved several at the innocent snake who remained upright through the first couple of misses and then keeled over and departed to wherever murdered snakes go. The final thrown boulders were redundant.

            Through panting, I looked at the body of my adversary. It was much smaller than it had appeared in my panic, though a friend declared young snakes more venomous than their parents. I felt obliged to clear the corpse from the trail. Hikers would pass this way. I felt ashamed. I found a stick, poked once to make sure, and then threw the snake carcass into the bushes. It didn’t hurl far, but one stick contact was enough for me. I didn’t want to look anymore.

            What to do climb down or continue on with the route? I concluded that it would be unlikely to stumble on two rattlesnakes in one hour. What was I thinking?  I resumed my climb fearing a counter attack from the dead snake’s pals. Might there exist a snake communication system for just such an occasion (maybe tom-tom-like pounding with a rattling tail)?

When I gained the plateau, wild grass grew across many acres with scattered trails running through it. As I ran, my eyes riveted to the ground around me, senses on high alert for an attack. Once through fields, the trail descends back to town. As I started down, I encountered a runner cresting the trail. Sweat darkened his red headband, his bare chest heaved. We stopped and talked.

                        How’s it going?

                        Not too bad, how about you?

Well, I came across a rattlesnake on the trail.

Oh ya, where?

(See just a couple of mountain guys talking about snakes. No big deal.)

'Bout halfway up the cog railway trail.

Big?

Yeah, pretty good size (At this point, my precision is suspect).

Yah, well yesterday when I was right about here, I was looking off there to downtown Denver and I stepped on something. Felt like a log. I turned around and it wasn’t a log at all. It was a rattlesnake, maybe as big around as my forearm (he had bulging forearms). Big sucker. The sun hadn’t hit here yet, so he was pretty sluggish. He just slowly moved off the trail. Gave me start though. (I laughed, supposedly amused).

We parted encouraging each other to keep a sharp eye.

             This would be my last trip up South Table Mountain until November, maybe December, maybe ever. No doubt the ravens that hunt here took the body of the rattlesnake. I thought about that snake for a long time, still do. My fear of snakes was confirmed. Yet, I hope my fight will be tempered with flight next time. Next time?

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