Monday, September 22, 2008

Rattlesnake Hunt

by Ben Small

You’re at the buzzer on Family Feud. The question is, “Things you’ll find in the Arizona desert?”

Push the button.

"Ccactus” or “rattlesnakes?, one or the other.” You choose. You got a 50-50 shot.

So why have I heard so much about Arizona rattlesnakes, yet not actually spotted one? I've lived in Tucson two years, and I've yet to have a snake-event...of any kind. You’d think by now I’d have a snake farm, maybe snatch a grant to research reptilian weapon potential.

Nada. Nope. None. Not a single snake.

Every year more people are killed by rattlesnakes in the Tucson area than anywhere else in the world. The green Mohave is the most deadly. Bad mojo. It’s aggressive, and its venom is especially toxic. A buddy was biking in a wash and stood his Trek on its fender when he saw a Mohave slither out from behind its bushy cover, ready to greet him. He dove off his ride and was stuck for two hours while the snake used his bike as base camp.

Another friend was hiking and came over a hill in the late afternoon sun. Blinded, she covered her eyes and started down the trail. Rattles. All around her.

Hitchcock should be so scary.

The baby rattlers are the worst. The larger ones know they can’t eat you, so they modulate their venom, just give you enough, supposedly, to scare you away. But the young’uns don’t know any better; they’ll load you up. Same venom, just lots more of it. My landscaper’s friend was nailed by a wee one. It stabbed him as he fished in his tool chest for an Allen wrench. He almost didn’t make it.

Yes, we’re told if one makes enough foot-traffic noise, snakes will move away. But my wife found one in our driveway, a western diamondback, and it was in no hurry to leave. All stretched out, the snake seemed to be enjoying itself, not moving at all. But it separated my wife from the mailbox. At first she thought the snake was dead; it didn’t move at all. But she shuffled her feet, and the snake swung its head.

And tongued her.

You don’t do that to my wife. Not unless you’re carrying chocolate, flowers and jewelry.

Normally, my spouse would have practiced her backswing with the machete, and we’d be having sautéed snake-bites for appetizers, but that day she’d been swimming and hadn’t re-Spartanized yet.

So she pelted the snake with rocks, stomped her feet and yelled. She’s good at that, too.

No rattle, no coiling. The snake just slow-slithered away.

So my wife came inside and alerted me, knowing I’m hot to trot to catch me some rattlers. I wanna play some games with my neighbors.

I mall-ninja-ed up, complete with plated click-and-stick Molle-type vest, tacti-cool cargo pants, parachute cord, personal hydration system, safety glasses, high steel-toed boots, tactical gloves, helmet, knee-pads, a taser, pepper spray, and a six-foot long aluminum pole with a steel squeeze-handle on one end and steel spring-loaded jaws on the other. “Snake-Stick” or something like that. American-made, by Aazel Corporation. Good for long distance snake grabs, plus I’ve found it useful on my bicycle. Neighbor-grabbing, if you get my drift.

Dressed for action, I tip-toed out to the far end of the driveway and then into the desert, looking for slither-signs, round corners in the Etch-a-Sketch Sonoran scape.

I wasn’t as quiet as I’d have liked to be. Some clanking, a bit of pinging, the rub of leather, as my pouches, plates, buckles and slings swung with my step.

Sixty pounds of gear. You try being stealthy.

A promising creosote bush caught my eye, and I heard rattling, although in truth it might have been me. Anyway, I got down on my knees and peered through the evergreen blur. Then, I moved forward, crawling. Kept my head down, used my helmet to brush aside branches and green.

Heard what might be a rattle. I stayed stock still. Moved only my eyeballs. Caught some motion underneath my chin, and I panicked, threw up in my mouth and then had to swallow. Sudden movement might trigger a strike. My jugular was exposed. A bite there, and I wouldn’t make it back to the house.

Imagine my fear.

My eyes focused, and I saw sweat dripping off my chin strap. The drops fell on dried mesquite seed pods, which turned and rustled in the desert detritus. The temperature was a hundred-five, I was scared and wearing sixty pounds of mall-ninja gear. Sweat. Who’d’ve thought?

I exhaled, and smelled my lunch. I found my hydration tube and sucked in stale two-year-old water.

That’s when I felt it. Combustion in my legs. A searing heat. Starting at my shins and moving upward. Stinging, like a bee plague. Burning, like my limbs were on fire. The conflagration pulsed forward.

Flame touched my loins, and I was up and running. Knees high, boots pounding, my arms pumping, I must have sounded like a pan vendor jumping rope. But I was oblivious, too busy screaming and slapping at my body as I hurtled down the driveway.

I stormed through the back gate, straight to the pool. I dove in... and almost drowned.

All that gear, you know. Good thing my wife’s a strong swimmer. Better yet, my life insurance premium was overdue.

Fire ants.

When I get out of the hospital, I’m going to Cabela’s for fire ant gear.


Beth Terrell said...

Ben, you're braver than I am, mall-ninja gear and all.

When I was a little girl (about nine), there was a lovely bush beside our house. Its branches grew up and over, a little like a weeping willow, so there was a hollow place inside like a little cave of leaves and branches. I used to love to crawl in there and read.

Then one day, I heard a rattle--right beside me! Maybe I should have frozen. Instead, I bolted out of there like I was on fire. I didn't see the snake, but there was no doubt he was there. It was just a regular old Tennessee rattler, but that was scary enough for me.

I lost my favorite reading place, but I felt lucky that I didn't get tagged by the snake.

Chester Campbell said...

Your adventures continually crack me up, Ben. They say fire ants have arrived here in Nashville, but I haven't encountered any. The only varmints we have around here are little green lizards. I think they're kinda cute, but Sarah can't stand 'em. Particularly when they poop all over the garage floor. So I put out sticky pads. One got stuck Saturday. If he had learned to poop in the right places, he'd still be slithering around. Put that on your reminder list. It might come in handy sometime.

Beth Terrell said...

Ooo, Chester, I love the little green lizards. We never get any at our house.

Ben Small said...

Actually, you two get it worse than we do because you've got copperheads, rattlers without rattles. Those things are next to impossible to see. My son, a builder in the mountains of North Carolina, says he runs into two or three snakes a day, often copperheads or timber rattlers. We seem to be the rattlesnake capital, but at least we don't have copperheads, and our coral snakes aren't as deadly as the ones on the east coast.

Fire ants are nasty creatures. My mother was once standing on a fire ant hill. We had to rush her to the hospital.

Jean Henry Mead said...

LOL, Ben. I look forward to your adventures every week but I had no idea that you would try to imitate Steve Irwin with 60 lbs. of gear. We have both rattlers and fire ants here in the northwest. In fact, my husband had to kill two rattlers in our yard this year with a pellet gun. Better him than me.

Ben Small said...

Wow, Jean! With a pellet gun? He must be one heck of a shot. Maybe he and I can form a club, call ourselves "Old Coot Pellet Pounders." OCPP for short. We've got the initials, maybe we can get a guv'ment grant. :<)

I was crushed when Steve Irwin died. I loved the joy he got out of life.

Beth Terrell said...

My husband and I cried like babies when Steve Irwin died. Mike still can't get through his shows.

The Crocodile Hunter will always be my hero.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm sure he would be happy to join the club, Ben. As for Steve Irwin, I, too, cried when I learned of his death. What a guy! I'll bet little Bindi and Bob will be carrying on his work someday.