Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Rattler

I stood stock-still, alone on the trail, staring ahead. There it was, maybe 30 feet ahead of me. It had slithered out of the brush on the side of the trail, and literally took my breath away. Three feet long, minimum, and easily thicker than my forearm, the rattlesnake seemed completely unaware of my presence. All I could think was, "I'm an idiot. I'm a total, freaking idiot."

Why? Oh, let me count the ways:
1. I'd gone up into the not-even-two-miles-from-my-house newly-reopened wilderness park to get a glimpse at the trails I'd heard so many nice things about, and instead couldn't resist actually hiking up a ways, just to see what I could find.
2. I was alone.
3. I was clad in shorts, a tank-top for running in, and sneakers without socks.
4. The only supplies I had? My pocketbook, my cell phone, and my iPod. Oh, and a tin of Altoid's ginger mints. (Curiously strong, indeed.)
5. I had no map of the trails.
6. It's been a minimum of 10--and probably more like 15--years since I've done any hiking at all.

Really, if there were any justice in this world, you'd all be reading about me in the Los Angeles Times in about a week. ("Missing hiker found dead; Angeles National Forest rangers say, 'She was like the poster child for what not to do when hiking a trail.'") It would have been especially amusing when they tried to identify my remains by using dental records, considering I have no dental records, or at least the only ones I have go back more than 25 years.

Anyway. Back to the rattler. I stood there staring at this curvy monster, trying to remember something, anything, about rattlesnakes. How fast can they move? Do they avoid confrontation, like I do? Can a rattlesnake bite kill you, and if so, how quickly? Do they like ginger Altoid's?

I couldn't answer any of those questions. All I could think of was how, at the bottom of the trail system, there was a huge message board, with all those usual hiker-warnings. It hadn't been more than half an hour ago that I'd stood there for a second and perused it: There was a note about the mountain lion population, a request for you to clean up after your dog, and a few other odds and ends, including a "how to tell a poisonous snake from a nonpoisonous one" chart. If the writer of that one had been within striking distance, I would have simply thrown him at the rattler in complete disgust. "A poisonous snake will have a triangle-shaped head that juts out from the rest of the body," he'd written. Um, sure, OK. But really, the key point was that this snake, the hugest I'd ever seen, HAD THIS ENORMOUS...RATTLE...STICKING UP AT THE END OF ITS TAIL. I'm no herpetologist, but even I could make that particular ID. What I needed to have read was WHAT TO DO when you're standing on a trail watching a rattlesnake meander around, seemingly completely unaware of you.

Because I was still fairly far away, and because I had already begun descending the trail and knew that there was no obvious way to loop back to where I was trying to go, I was determined to try and get the rattlesnake to wake up and notice me. Why I thought a three-foot-plus snake filled with poisonous venom would be terrified by a five-foot-barely woman whose only weapon is a slightly biting wit is beyond me. Still, I started taking loud steps. The snake didn't seem to hear me. I rolled a few small rocks down the path a bit, making sure they never got close to him, but rather hoping that it would attract his attention to the fact that he was no longer alone. He did eventually move back over to the side of the trail, hidden by the grass, but I could still see his rattle. He was more-or-less out of sight, but not out of striking range, by any stretch of the imagination.

And then, along came my knight in shining lycra. A bicyclist, coming up the trail I was heading down. As he neared the snake, I held up my hand to stop him, and crept a little closer. "There's a HUGE rattlesnake in the grass right near you," I called out. "Huge." He stopped, and peered into the grass. I took the opportunity to literally dash those last few yards, past the snake, past the bicyclist. (I figured that, if worst came to worst, at least he would have been there to get me down the trail quickly.) As I passed him, sprinting, I said, "Be careful. It's right there."

He hesitated only a second, and then apparently decided to proceed up the trail. His tire had only moved a fraction of an inch, enough to make a slight crunching sound on the rocks, when we both heard it. Hell, people in Oregon heard it. CHCHCHCHCHchchchchchCHCHCHCHCH. The rattlesnake was clearly not happy about the bicyclist's choice.

I didn't even look back, just muttered, "Oh my god," under my breath, and skip-ran several yards further down the path...followed within milliseconds by the bicyclist. "Think I'll just head on down the trail instead," he said with a weak laugh.

"Good choice," I replied.

At the end of May, I will have lived in Southern California for 12 years. I've experienced earthquakes, including Northridge. I've had rabbits killed by coyotes. I've had to kill several black widow spiders who've chosen to live inside my home. I've seen raccoons and skunks on my front porch; I've rescued (and inadvertently killed) squirrels and oppossum. But this was my first rattlesnake, ever.

It was also, I'm thinking, the last hike I'm going to go on for a long time.

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