by Hal Walter
The telltale squiggly tracks across the dirt roads begin to show up in mid-May, a sign you need to watch your step until about late October.
One of the hazards of living in this particular ecotone — a place where different ecosystems overlap — is you may go jogging past an aspen grove one minute and step right over a rattlesnake a quarter-mile later.
And that’s basically what happened to my burro Laredo recently as we were training for the upcoming pack-burro racing season. Like a dog on a walk, Laredo has the annoying habit of wanting to pee or poop in the first mile. He generally pulls over into the ditch and sort of waddles until he gets the job done. Actually I think he’s so smart he sometimes fakes the urge to go as a work-avoidance tactic.
Well, recently he found a not-so-little surprise in the ditch. And so did I. I heard the buzz, just about jumped out of my Nikes and turned to see the 2-foot-plus snake coiling and Laredo crow-hopping over it. I dropped my lead rope toward the burro and yelled in an effort to haze him away from the snake. The rope came down slapping the snake’s side just as Laredo landed on his feet.
It all happened very fast — a tangle of hooves, legs and writhing snake. But I’m pretty certain about what happened next. One of Laredo’s legs came down fairly near the snake, and I had a view from directly behind as the viper coiled, zeroed in on the leg, and struck.
All the while I was thinking, “Here comes a big vet bill.”
But oddly, the snake pulled up just short, maybe an inch, and merely snapped a warning strike. Or perhaps Laredo was just slightly out of range. Whatever, the burro moved off and left the coiled buzzworm rattling away in the ditch.
I tiptoed gingerly through the brush — after an experience like this every stick or patch of bunchgrass tends to look like a rattler — to regain the lead rope and check Laredo over. It seemed unlikely he had gotten away unscathed, but apparently he had. As always with high-adrenaline incidents that happen so quickly, it takes some time and thought to sort through what actually happened. And sometimes you never really piece it all back together.
Laredo and I finished our training run and there was no sign of swelling or other ill effects. I marveled at our good luck.
Rattlesnakes are supposedly altitudinally limited, but I guess someone should tell them that because we’ve seen plenty of them up here at 8,900 feet. Never mind what the realtors (lowercase “r”) say. The buzzworms may know more about this country than many of them do.
In the last five years I’ve seen many more snakes than in the 13 previous years I’ve lived here. My theory is development of surrounding lots has either stirred up a den or otherwise somehow displaced many of these creatures.
Over the years I’ve had more encounters with rattlesnakes than I care to remember. I actually stepped right on one while running once and narrowly missed being bitten. Another time while running I saw a snake coiled as I pulled off the trail about three paces away. It bobbed its head three times, as if counting, and struck in the air right where I would have been. Never even rattled.
I have swerved at high speed on my mountain bike to miss a big one stretched out across the road. I jumped sideways off one foot just as I was about to step on another one. There was the time I turned to see my dog several feet in the air and a snake futilely striking straight up like a missile. And once I accidentally ran a burro right over the top of a snake in the road and it never even moved until I dropped my lead rope to avoid stepping on the snake myself and the rope whacked it right on the head.
One thing is for sure: rattlesnakes seem to always appear when you least expect it. And it’s often a real jolt to your adrenal system.
The wet spring brought up a lot of tall grass around the house and it was choking the flower beds along the front porch. One morning I decided to clean up this growth and also trim back a lilac bush. I moved the little decorative fence out of the way, cut a branch away from the base of the lilac and threw it aside. Then I crouched down and commenced to pull grass from along the rocks lining the flower bed.
About the third handful of grass was near the place I had just trimmed the lilac. As I grabbed the grass I realized the back of my hand was actually against a rattlesnake and it was coiling.
The snake never rattled. I sprung back off my feet and when I landed I was several feet back. My hat was behind me on the ground. My sunglasses were later found against the barn several feet farther back. I am not sure why my hat and glasses flew other than I jumped with such force.
I was wearing a glove, a jersey variety I’m partial to called a Sport Utility Glove that has a rubberized reinforced palm and strip across the back. As I jumped back from the snake I had also simultaneously pulled the glove off and thrown it to the ground. Why did I do that?
A quick inspection revealed no obvious wounds and so I set about “relocating” the snake. And then I set aside gardening to go running. About a mile down the road, still trying to piece together what actually happened when I had touched the snake, I noticed my right index finger seemed sort of stiff. I looked down at my hand and noticed a tiny red dot on the finger’s knuckle.
Could it be? Nah. Surely not. I continued on.
Back at home with my reading glasses on, I looked at the tiny prick in my skin. It looked as if I’d just lightly scored the skin with the tip of a needle. The little poke could easily have been from hay or wire or anything else I handle daily. My fingers are often stiff or sore from various outdoor chores. Or the pain could have been merely psychosomatic. There was no swelling, no discoloration, no other symptom.
An inspection of the glove was inconclusive. There were a couple of indentations in the rubberized back, but they could have been from anything as well. Perhaps the snake did bite and the glove offered just enough protection to keep it from injecting venom.
I’ll never know if I was actually bitten by the snake, and I rather doubt that I was. Either way, it does appear I was struck by luck once again.Hal Walter writes and edits from the Wet Mountains. You can keep up with him regularly at his blog: www.hardscrabbletimes.wordpress.com