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