The first time I personally encountered a rattlesnake we were hiking the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls in Yosemite Valley. Not the gentle walk to the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls, but the Serious Hike to the top. If I’d read in advance descriptions of the hours of strenuous switchbacks, I would have opted for a different hike. None of us made it to the top. Not a big water year, we got great views of the Valley but not the Falls, since that view rewards hard-core hikers who make it further than we did.
Disappointed, we eventually called it and began the return trudge. I quickly fell to the back of the pack (again) with my Guy and young son, the youngest in our group and the least likely to enjoy a grueling hike. I must have stopped to take a picture because I walked a few paces behind them.
Switchbacks mean everything slopes every which way. The trail sloped downward ahead of me while the mountain also sloped from above me on my right to below me on the left. Plodding along, I heard the leaves rustling to my right; just then a snake stretched long and slithered straight at my feet.
I know that protocol dictates an immediate halt: stay statue-still and let the snake go on its way. My head holds that information, but my fear-of-snakes instinct took over. I screeched, leaping into the air and landing several feet down trail.
I crashed headlong into my startled guys, and I should have anticipated what happened next: after a quick reminder/chastisement that I had not followed procedure, my Guy moved in to get a closer look at the imminent danger I’d narrowly escaped: a four-foot-long rattlesnake.
Still shaking, I had no interest in a closer look. That thing almost slithered across my toes! I clamped down hard on my son in case he ran after Daddy. Meanwhile, Guy found a stick and gently prodded the snake off-trail to keep both it and other hikers safe. And then he took pictures, though the snake was well camouflaged in leaf-litter.
Our older son felt especially devastated to have missed the excitement. At the time, he imagined his future as a herpetologist, a reptile expert. Most animals fascinate him, but snakes especially have his heart wrapped in their coils.
When we spent a summer in Costa Rica, he regularly held his own with seasoned field guides and experts discussing all the native reptiles, how to distinguish between the venomous and nonvenomous species, where they could be found, and what to do if you got bit. It was riveting to watch adult reactions to a kid, then fifteen years old, who already knew what they had spent years studying in college and post-grad programs.
I am not a snake enthusiast, but my son has taught me to appreciate their necessity to ecosystems (not a rodent fan, either) and their beauty. Yes, I said it: snakes can be beautiful. I doubt I would have come to that realization on my own volition, but he’s been putting snakes in my hands since he first held one at a pet store when he was three. I love him more than I fear snakes.
We now have seven snakes in our house, all nonvenomous, all in enclosures in his room. He’s also incubating the six eggs one of his snakes laid; he plans to sell the babies once they hatch. You don’t have to see them when you come over, but in pre-pandemic days some people came over specifically to see them. Our home feels akin to a family-run petting zoo.
So I wasn’t all that surprised this weekend when Guy and C21 hurried out the door with snake hooks and a large plastic tub with a lid. By word of mouth, a neighbor had known who to call when she found a snake in their yard. In fact, dangerous as it could be, I wasn’t even all that nervous nor did I suggest that they call the proper authorities instead. My guys have proven that they respect the animal and its power, and they know their stuff. They could have their own Animal Planet show.
Without incident, they got the snake into the tub and the lid firmly on. They put it in the car and drove it to a remote, unpopulated area nearby where they released it. They described the ride between sites as incredibly loud as the snake communicated its incredible displeasure; the neighbors, on the other hand, were ecstatic.
I’m proud of my guys for honoring both the humans’ need to have the snake removed and the snake’s place in the ecosystem. The snake is not a bad creature for doing what it was created to do. Like the spiders who eat the flies and so we relocate them out of our house, the snake will go on to do its thing keeping down the rodent population.
A friend asked if I could ever in my wildest dreams have imagined I’d be related to people who could do this. Nope, I replied, and some days it’s still a wild dream.