California mountain kingsnake on Figueroa Mountain. Not to be confused with a California kingsnake: Killer Kingsnake Eats Water Snake
“To combat the boredom, I occasionally drove over the coastal range and into the Santa Ynez Valley to hike the trails of the Los Padres National Forest. . .Of course, the ticks were happy to welcome us, as were the biting gnats. The rattlesnake wasn’t as felicitous. It was a coil of shadow, 2 feet from the trail, and it was not happy with our presence.”
—T.C. Boyle on getting out during the COVID lockdown, excerpted from a piece in the current September-October issue of Westways magazine
I did something, sent some unintentional signal in my appearance or actions and the guy walked over.
He had been eyeing me from across the dirt parking lot at the trailhead for some time. I don’t think he knew that I knew he was watching me.
I ambled about my vehicle readying myself for several days in the woods. He moseyed over. He asked if I knew the area. I said I did, better than most but not as well as some.
He told of coming up against two furious rattlesnakes in the forest somewhere along the trail back yonder in White Ledge Canyon.
He asked if I knew the place he mentioned. Yes, I had been out there the week before, I told him.
He asked what to do in such a situation and I said something about avoiding the snakes and moving on. The common man’s wisdom rooted in the obvious. His question seemed odd. What else would you do?
Well, he abandoned his planned two day loop and turned back, too haired out by the rattlers to continue.
He encountered the snakes about halfway through the loop equidistant from the trailhead no matter which of two ways he chose to return by.
Why not then continue and complete the loop? I wondered. Sidestep the snakes and get on with it.
A California mountain kingsnake hanging from a cascade in Manzana Creek in Santa Barbara County. The snake slithered out from the darkened void between the rocks and hung from the outcrop by what looked like only the last third of its body, wagging in the misted air of the waterfall back and forth above the pool, apparently looking for something. Then the snake pulled itself up and slithered back where it came from.
Rattlesnakes seem rather nonthreatening in my own experience except when pestered or when I come too close. Then they get aggressive or at least loud. Otherwise they mind their own business and keep quiet.
Of course the venomous fangs and the terror triggered in a person’s head by a rattler’s presence alone, just the mere sight of one, can be impossible to ignore.
That wicked and malignant head attached by hair trigger to the latent deadly potential of a coiled body. That’s not inviting.
As Boyle dryly notes, the run-in with a rattlesnake made him feel, “oh, I don’t know, a bit less than welcome.”
Those twenty minutes or so after seeing a rattlesnake when hiking are always especially nerve wracking. I find it annoying as well.
That extra burden of worry I had forgotten about, as every little spot in the forest I had walked over and passed by without regard a moment earlier, I now remember with frightened intensity can be hiding a killer serpent ready to strike. Eggshells and thin ice.
“Meekly, I slunk back home to the lockdown,” Boyle writes, and the “rattlesnakeless shade of the trees of my own yard.”
That guy I spoke with at the trailhead ended up spending his one and only night car camping at NIRA rather than way out in the wilderness on foot backpacking. That’s a bummer man. He got vibed by the locals.
A rattlesnake seen on the lower right of the frame here, coffee cup to the left, between the two I stood.
John Muir wrote of rattlesnakes in ways that match my own experience.
“He carefully keeps his venom to himself as far as man is concerned unless his life is threatened,” Muir wrote.
He was not a herpetologist but he knew what he was talking about from his own common experience.
He wrote of one encounter that the rattlesnake “was coiled comfortably around a tuft of bunch grass, and I discovered him when he was between my feet as I was stepping over him. He held his head down and did not attempt to strike, although in danger of being trampled.”
Muir intentionally trampled the snake to death, an act he wrote about later regretting, “before I learned to respect rattlesnakes.”
“I was on my knees kindling a fire,” Muir wrote of another encounter, and “one glided under the arch made by my arm. He was only going away from the ground I had selected for a camp, and there was not the slightest danger, because I kept still and allowed him to go in peace.”
About another close encounter Muir wrote of pulling himself up a boulder in a canyon and coming face to face with a rattlesnake coiled on top. But “when my head came in sight within a foot of him,” he wrote, “he did not strike.”
Rattlesnake circled on the left, the line showing where I was loitering about, and the coffee cup on the boulder. It appeared the snake was posted up opposite the clump of stones lying in wait for rodents.
There’s something about snakes this season. I’ve seen more this year and in a worse way than ever before.
Not a lot, actually, just a handful. And it’s happenstance, surely. But it’s more than usual. And two scary encounters with rattlesnakes.
I was probably close enough to each snake to have been bitten, but neither moved in the slightest. They held their venom to themselves.
I walked past one and nearly stepped on another in as many days when out backpacking this summer in the Los Padres National Forest. Those were two of the closer encounters of my life, on a single short trip.
At 8,000 feet in the seven o’clock hour on a chill morning I never thought to look for rattlesnakes.
I stood clenching a hot coffee cup, lost in a long stare over the high desert badlands and arroyos fanning out thousands of feet below and the beginnings of the broad wash of the Cuyama River.
I glanced over at some point and saw the viper wedged up in the soil and the pine needles, coiled, locked and loaded and ready to strike.
The mere sight of its presence excited uncontrollable feelings deep within my biological machine and in a fraction of second.
I had stood and stepped around unknowingly so close to the snake that I might have eventually stepped on it had I not finally seen it. The thought rippled through my body in another shiver.
Alone in early morning leaning on a boulder and immersed in a silent moment of extreme serenity, glancing over, the viper registered in my brain like the crack of a gunshot and a primal shock wave of emotion fired through my body.
Visual realization of the snake hit with a physical force. The sensation felt like a string being pulled through my innards from head to toe. The willies. A full-body wet noodle shiver.
I sat there for fifteen minutes or so marinating in the afterglow of having come so close to the hypodermic jaws of catastrophe, maybe death.
I live a sheltered life. I hadn’t felt so alive, old school cave man alive, since I was sixteen and I jumped from a 600 foot bridge in Costa Rica strapped to a bungee cord.
I’d look over at the snake every once and a bit and shudder again.
Even now, writing this, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and a shiver shoots down my spine. The old cliches. That’s what everybody says.
The editor of Westways titled Boyle’s piece, “The Shiver.” Because it’s true.
On the hike out from camp the morning we left, not much more than a stone’s throw up the trail, where the path lead between two old stump ends of a fallen tree a helpful sawyer had taken care of, I strode past another rattlesnake.
The snake lie coiled in the shadow beneath the log right at the edge of the trail.
I suspect that in my stride through the narrow spot along the footpath my leg swiped by the snake within striking range. I didn’t even see it.
Several seconds later a wild, pinched yowl ripped through the quiet from behind me and I knew immediately what my friend had just seen from the sound of his reaction.
That was the sound of the electric shiver that had just shot through his body like a lightning bolt. The split second moment he caught sight of the rattler as he passed.
That instinctual unthinking knee-jerk reaction from the genetic memory bank of the Deep Past fired by raw emotion. Like flinching without thought at a loud noise, because when fractions of a second may mean the difference between life and death, the process of logical thinking takes too long, is a waste of time.
Hence the rapid fire automatic flinch. And so the shiver.
Properly harnessed these ancient raw emotions can power extraordinary feats.
“I set the world record standing long jump of 25 feet on the Horn Canyon trail in 1984,” local hillwalker E.M. Walker writes of a day of glory long ago in the mountains of Ojai.
Walker concedes, “Only a rattlesnake witnessed my jump that day.”
But he affirms, “That does not detract from the prodigious nature of the feat. I know what I did. . .”