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.
"Cactus” or “rattlesnakes," one or the other.” 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 four years now. Only snakes of any kind I've seen were a King Snake and a Black Racer, both good slitherers to have around. You’d think by now I’d have a rattlesnake farm, maybe snatch a grant to research reptilian weapon potential.
Nada. Nope. None. Not a single rattle.
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. The Green Mohave is aggressive and its venom especially toxic -- both hemo-and-neurotoxic. 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, 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 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 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 steps.
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 then I panicked, threw up in my mouth and forced a swallow. Couldn't spit; 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. Imagine my breath...
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 up my body.
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. She was highly motivated: My life insurance premium was overdue.
When I get out of the hospital, I’m going to Cabela’s for fire ant gear.