I don’t know what random thoughts were floating through my mind when I came across the yellow phase rattlesnake on the Appalachian Trail last summer. The germ of an idea for a first novel that would be made into a blockbuster movie? An explanation for what all these mosquitoes would be eating if I weren’t around? Whatever it was, it’s lost forever. The space they once occupied filled suddenly with blinding light. Before I was quite clear about what it was I’d nearly stepped on, I was already airborne, flying backward in a fine, high arc that ended with a thump on Tom’s chest. Snaaake!
I backed up the trail like a Jeep stuck in reverse. I’d come across rattlesnakes before, but this one was different. Most melt quickly into the landscape. This snake was a stand-your-ground type of gal. She was up and at ‘em, in full rattle and hiss mode. I was fighting to put distance between us but something was holding me up. Tom! He was pushing ahead, eager to see what had gotten such a rise out of me, craning over my shoulder while I drilled into his chest. We ended up in a scuffle. Snay! Snay! Snay! My screams were like those in a dream, strangled into whispers no one hears.
Other deadly dangers lurk on the trail. Ticks, for example, carry up to 14 dread diseases, of which Lyme isn’t even the worst. But if an infected tick bites you, you’ll make it back home. At least you’ll have a few weeks before developing the bull’s eye rash or the flu-like symptoms or the swollen joints. At least you’ll get to see a doctor, put your affairs in order, and do a few things you’d always wanted to do, like learning how to curse really well in French. But when a poisonous snake strikes, your options are few and your future much foreshortened. Maybe you’ll have cell phone reception. Maybe the rescuers will be able to find you. Maybe you’ll make it back to your car before the hemotoxins in the snake’s venom, which pump faster through the bloodstream the faster you run, turn your vital organs to mush.
We came upon the yellow rattler high up on the Kittatinny ridge, hours away from any trailhead. The proximity of the snake and the remoteness of our position sunk in all at once. Imagine, then, my shock when Tom leaned past me to brush the snake’s thrumming tail with the tip of his forefinger.
I must pause here to explain about Tom and snakes. He loves snakes, even angry, dangerous snakes. He will always see things from the snake’s point of view. He will not always see things from his wife’s point of view, even though it is his wife who will stay weeping by his side until the world goes dark. But never mind. The snake, Tom explained, was not being aggressive. She was just scared. Couldn’t I see she was trapped in the blueberry bushes that crowded the trail? Wouldn’t I be frightened if I couldn’t escape the ungainly creature the size of an apartment building lumbering toward me? Wouldn’t I be aggrieved if some clueless giant out on a lark interrupted my quest for food?
What all this had to do with touching the snake’s tail, I can’t say. Tom has a special affinity, with deep roots in boyhood, for creatures generally considered loathsome, and he’s taught me to appreciate the role they play in the great web of life. I must say that anytime I see a rattlesnake, it’s an occasion. I make a note of it in my journal and tell my friends. I remember what the day was like for years afterward. I reflect on the strangeness and beauty of life.
Tom took my hand and led me off-trail in a wide circle around the snake. I stumbled after him, through the blueberry bushes, trembling at what he’d just done. I couldn’t believe he’d put all our happiness at risk like that. What a dumb stunt! Should I be angry at him? Should I give him a piece of my mind? When we got back on the trail, I grabbed his arm and pulled him toward me.
Okay, so what did it feel like?