Ronn and I were sitting in the backseat of Chris and Don’s Subaru, reading a brochure for Roxbury State Park, our destination for the day. The brochure described the park as the place where “the mountains meet the plains.” The illustrated pamphlet offered several pictures of the spectacular vistas and wildlife in the park, along with pictures of the most impressive of the park’s appeals: wildflowers — hundreds of varied flowers grow within the park boundaries. My friends and I were looking forward to spending the day trekking through the park, savoring the warm Spring day, and taking in the landscape.
Ronn, Don, Chris and I arrived at the park around noon. We pulled up to the gate and paid our five dollar admission. The ranger at the gate handed us a map of the trails and told us to follow the rules of the park.
“You are to stay on the trails at all times,” said the ranger, in a matter-of-fact way, “The park is a delicate ecosystem, and stepping on the ground cover can kill it.”
We nodded in understanding.
“You should also remain on the paths because the rattlesnakes are out in force, sunning themselves on the rocks.”
Someone in the car gasped — it may have been me.
“If you see a rattlesnake,” the ranger continued, “just stop moving and stand completely still. It will eventually go away. We don’t want to have to call another ambulance.”
“Ambulance?” we asked in unison.
“A person was bit yesterday,” explained the ranger, still in his most matter-of-fact way. Then he smiled. “It was our first incident in four years.” His tone conveyed a sense of pride that hinted he was the one responsible for the park being incident-free for four years. “Just remember to stand still. Enjoy the park.”
We drove the few miles from the gate to the parking zone in silence. We glanced at each other. Then we looked through the brochure: it mentioned nothing about rattlesnakes.
After we parked and got out of the car, we stood there for a few minutes discussing rattlesnakes. Chris had grown up on a farm in Eastern Colorado where the risk of encountering a rattler was an everyday concern. He had seen them and knew what to do in the event of an emergency. I knew what to do if someone got bitten. When I was younger, my best friend and his family had moved to a farm, also in Eastern Colorado; before we could go outside, on our first visit to their farm, I was given a lesson in snakebite first aid. The knowledge of emergency procedure did little to ease my mind. Snakes petrify me. Big ones and small ones, venomous or not, snakes scare me. I cannot even watch documentaries about snakes without my heart pounding and feeling as if my house were awash in slithering snakes. I had nightmares for a week after seeing Indiana Jones trapped in the temple filled with snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was not alone in my terror — snakes terrified Ronn too. Don was the only ambivalent one, neither liking snakes, but not scared of them either.
We left the car and headed for the Visitors Center (for you grammarians, here’s an explanation of why it is not Visitors’ Center). At the edge of the parking lot was a sign that welcomed us to the park; told us that the Visitors Center was a quarter-of-a-mile up the path; informed us that the hiking trails began outside the center; warned us to be alert for rattlesnakes; reminded us to stay on the trails at all times; and encouraged us to enjoy our time in the park. It reminded me of the sign at my dentist’s office: “Welcome to our office and enjoy your visit.”
We reached the Visitors Center, went inside, wandered around, looking at the pictures and displays, made a rest stop. Don bought a wildflower identification guidebook.
As we hiked the first trail, another sign reminded us to stay on the path, and to look out for rattlesnakes.
It seemed odd that a place that had had four “incident” free years posted warnings every five feet. Perhaps the signs were reminder enough and people remained vigilant. I thought about my years working in retail, and how simple signs like “Line forms here” have little impact. I began to suspect that the ranger was involved in a Watergate-like cover up, hence his smile, because he knew that hundreds of people died from snakebites at the park. I was ready to turn around and go home, but did not want to be a party-pooper, so I took a deep breath and got in step with my friends.
The four of us followed the trail for about a mile until we noticed a sign with an arrow pointing to a small path to the left. We consulted the map the ranger had given us, and discovered that the trail led to a scenic overlook, then curved around in a semi-circle, connecting back to the trail we were on. We went admire the overlook.
The trail led us up a hill. We encountered a variety of wildflowers, stopping at each one to consult Don’s book, and to admire their beauty.
I still believe that at no time are rattlesnakes dropping from trees funny.
While we were making our way across the top of some rocks, Chris voiced the thought that had been floating around in the back of my mind, the thought I was trying desperately to not acknowledge: “Be careful. Rattlesnakes like to climb up on the rocks and sun themselves, and they like to enjoy the shade of the rocks too.” Having the words said aloud made the situation more frightening. Don and Chris picked up the pace, hopping from rock to rock, while Ronn and I picked our way across the rocks, keeping our eyes on the stones and the surrounding ground, searching for anything suspicious.
We reached the overlook. Chris and Don looked around, admired the view and took pictures while Ronn and I glanced at the scene, and returned our gaze to the ground and the rocks, remaining on high-alert for the slightest sound or movement.
A few minutes later, we moved again, working our way down the rocks until we reached the dirt path that led us back to the original trail. As we reached the wide, solid dirt path, Ronn and I breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps we wouldn’t encounter a rattler after all.
Our journey continued along the trail. We found and identified more wildflowers. A find of particular interest was a large flowering bush, heavy with red berries. Without the help of the book, Chris identified the berries as chokecherries.
“My mother used to make chokecherry jelly,” he said, “It’s quite good. Of course you have to be careful when you pick them. Rattlesnakes love them. They’ve been known to climb up into the bushes to eat the berries, and they can drop themselves on unsuspecting people.”
Ronn and I took a few steps back, away from the berry bush. Neither of us wanted to stand in the way of any snake who wished to indulge in the berries. I was more worried about any snake that might have already climbed among the branches of the bush losing its grip and falling onto my head. (Years later, reflecting on this piece of information from Chris, I suspect he was attempting to be funny, to make Ronn and I laugh at some of our fear. Even more years later, I still believe that at no time are rattlesnakes dropping from trees funny.)
After looking at the bush, we continued our hike. Chris and Don were walking side-by-side, ahead of Ronn and me; Ronn was to my right. Chris was looking through the wildflower book, and Ronn took a several quick steps forward so he could look over Chris’s shoulder and see the book. I was looking at the ground, watching Ronn’s feet as he was walking.
Suddenly, Ronn’s feet did a funny jig, and his feet vanished from my field of vision. As I watched his feet disappear, I heard the most ungodly scream I have ever heard (before, or since), a scream of terror that caused every hair on my body stood on end (I’d always thought the idea of all your body hair standing on end was just cliched. That day, I learned that it is undisputed truth.)
I looked up to find where Ronn’s feet went and to look for the source of the scream.
There it was: a foot away from where Ronn’s feet had been, and nearly three feet away from me, was the biggest brown rattlesnake I had ever seen (granted, I’d never seen one outside a zoo cage but it was damn big). There it was, coiled, tail shaking from side to side, ready to strike.
Embed from Getty Images
The next few seconds took place in slow motion. In the first second I realized the snake’s tail was vibrating, and that I was not able to hear the sound of it. A breeze was blowing directly at me, the air rushing across my eardrums — I could hear the wind, but not the sound of the snake’s rattle. The lack of sound made the whole scene surreal and more frightening. A second later, I discovered that I was still walking, and that the poisonous snake was now only a foot-and-a-half from me. In the following second, my brain realized what was happening and told me what to do: I screamed, turned, and ran.
I ran five or six steps, stopped, and turned back around, the ranger’s warning ringing through my mind, “Just remember to stand still.” I looked at my friends who were staring the snake. Don and Chris were eight or ten feet away from it, and Ronn was a good dozen yards behind them. He had just stopped running and was turning around to make sure that the snake was not following him.
It was at this point I realized two things. With the ranger’s warning still ringing in my head, I realized that I was not the only one who had not followed the instructions, was not the only one whose first reaction was to run. And, I realized that because of this failure to follow instructions we had become separated.
The snake had coiled up on the side of the path. From the snake’s point-of-view, I was to its left, and my friends were to its right. The only way to rejoin my friends was to pass in front of the snake. I was as sealed off from my friends as if we were standing on opposite rims of the Grand Canyon.
I felt the need to be hysterical, but the rational part of my mind told me it would accomplish nothing. I felt the tears sting my eyes as I thought, “Here I am, separated from my friends by a killer snake, and the nearest help is at the Visitors Center, over a mile away.” As my thoughts raced, panic tried to overtake me. I imagined not being able to rejoin my friends. The trail we were on was circular, ending back at the Visitors Center. The only scenario I could envision was my friends having to continue on the path in one direction while I turned around and went back the way we came. There would be three of them on their side, but I would have to hike the mile back on my own.
In a park filled with snakes.
I’d have to walk the trail by myself, a lone beacon for every rattlesnake in the park.
A voice intruded into my consciousness, saving me from further panic. It was Ronn, off in the distance, shouting, “Run! Just run! Run! Run!” A laugh threatened to burst from my mouth. There he was, standing still, terrified of moving, but shouting for us to run.
We all stood frozen to the ground. Don and Chris appeared calm and rational, watching the snake with a sense of fascination. Ronn looked as if he would like to pass out if he were not afraid that the snake would slither over and bite him. He was still shouting, “Run! Run!” I’m sure I looked like a small child who had just wet his pants, and I felt dangerously close to doing so.
Again, the ranger’s words floated through my mind, “Just stand still. It will eventually go away.” As I stood there, paralyzed, I realized what an ambiguous word eventually is. There are no specifics in the word eventually. There is no hope to cling to. Had the ranger said, “It will go away in a few minutes,” there would have been a sense of the time frame involved before the snake decided it was safe to crawl off to the nearest
As I stood there, paralyzed, I realized what an ambiguous word eventually is. There are no specifics in the word eventually. There is no hope to cling to.
chokecherry bush. With only an eventually to cling to, I had no idea how long I would have to stand there. It could be another minute, or an hour, or a day, or a week. In the state of near-hysteria I was in, all I could envision was me still standing there when the first snows of winter fell, months from then, with the cold driving the snake back to its nest.
Time had come to a complete standstill, just as we had. How long we all stood there rooted to the ground, watching the snake, I do not know. It was a lifetime. My heart was beating so loudly I was certain everyone within a five-mile radius heard it.
A lifetime later, the snake sensed the danger had passed and with an excruciating slowness, it uncoiled and crawled away.
This was not as much of a relief as it sounds, for you see, the snake decided it was going to slither right towards me.
I took a few, tiny, very slow steps backward. The snake was still slithering in my direction; I took a few more small, slow, steps back. As the snake continued making its way towards me, I continued my slow reverse retreat.
Suddenly, a new wave of panic and hysteria hit me. Visions of stepping backward into a group of waiting rattlers assaulted my brain. So every few steps, I would stop, and turn my head to look over my shoulder to make sure there were no snakes behind me.
Another lifetime later, the snake angled away and slithered into the grass.
I stood where I was for a few seconds to make sure the snake was not just laying in wait to ambush me when I was able to move.
When I was certain the snake left, I bolted back to my friends.
In quick silence, we walked down the path for about ten minutes before any of us felt safe enough to stop and calm down. We walked until we found a bench placed on the side of the trail. Chris and Don sat on the bench, but Ronn and I preferred to stand, ready to run at the slightest hint of movement in the grass and flowers. We replayed the event over and over, each of us relating the story from our individual point-of-view. Ronn and I smoked several cigarettes to calm our frayed nerves. As we retold our stories, we discovered a large footprint on the front of Chris’s shirt. When Ronn had seen the snake, he had leapt over Chris, and used his foot to launch himself further down the path, using Chris’s chest as a springboard. The laughter relieved the tension and we could move on.
We reached the end of the trail and headed for the parking lot and the car where food awaited us in the cooler. We took the cooler to the safety of the center of the parking lot where Ronn and I would keep watch for snakes while Don and Chris unpacked the food. After we ate, Ronn and I were ready to go home, but Don and Chris persuaded us to hike down another trail — what, they argued, were the odds of encountering a second snake in one day?
Chris and Don approached the new trail with as much enthusiasm as they had the first path. Ronn and I were much more cautious, stepped softly, and kept our eyes glued to the ground. When Don and Chris would stop to look at a new flower, Ronn and I would stand still in the center of the path, our eyes scanning the trail, the grass, the flowers, the rocks.
About halfway around the trail, I felt a slight relaxing of my tense muscles and nerves. Don and Chris might be right: the odds of running across two rattlesnakes in one day were low. I took an occasional glance at the surrounding scenery: only for a moment at a time, before looking back at the ground.
The trail curved around and wound its way up a hill. The path narrowed, and we had to walk single file: Don, me, Ronn, Chris. Don was mid-stride and mid-sentence as he came to an abrupt stop. I collided with his back as I was still ground watching. I looked up in alarm.
“Stop a minute,” Don said, “There’s a snake crossing the path ahead.”
I was ready to die. It was almost too much to bear. I wanted to turn and run, but, also, I needed to see where the snake was. I peered over Don’s shoulder and followed the direction of his pointing finger.
“I don’t see it,” I said.
“It’s just up there, about ten or twelve yards. See it right there?”
We had all bunched together, looking over Don’s shoulder.
“It’s right up there,” said Chris, pointing in the same direction as Don.
“I don’t see it!” I said, a note of panic creeping into my voice. Knowing it was there, but not being able to see it made the panic inside me run rampant. “I can’t see it at all!”
Ronn pointed, “It’s just crawling off the path.”
“I don’t see it!”
Chris walked up the path, Don following behind him. I don’t know whether Ronn would have followed or not. I knew he was as scared as I was, but he was not able to move because I had such a firm grasp of his shoulders. I was not moving until I could see the snake.
Don and Chris had reached the top of the trail, and had turned around, looking down the trail at the terrified figures of Ronn and me.
“It’s okay,” said Don, “It crawling off into the grass.” He pointed.
“I can’t see it.”
Chris tried to guide my eyes toward the retreating snake. “See that little tree sticking out of the grass?”
“Look into the grass at the right, about four or five feet away. It’s right there.”
“I don’t see it!” I shouted, my fingers digging into Ronn’s shoulders. “How big is it?”
“Not as big as the one that’s right behind you,” said Don.
I imagine the screams that came from Ronn and I echoed all over the park. We jumped and ran up the trail to where Don and Chris were waiting.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t realize until now just how scared you were. I was only trying to get you guys to move. I’m sorry. There wasn’t a snake behind you. I thought it would help you start moving again. You looked like two statues standing there. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you that much.”
The last half-mile of the trail wound through a meadow and ran parallel to an access road. Don and Chris walked on the meandering trail while Ronn and I walked down the center of the road. Chris and Don were still enjoying the scenery, and Ronn and I were still watching the ground, praying we would not encounter a third snake that day.
Five o’clock found us making our way back to the parking area, and the safety of the car. The closing of the car doors behind me was the most welcome sound of the day. As we were heading home, Chris and I, sitting in the backseat, decided that we all needed a drink. Chris turned around, pulled a two-liter bottle of soda out of the cooler was in the back, and I had turned and was rummaging through a bag for the cups.
When Chris twisted the lid on the bottle it made that familiar hissing sound as the air escaped from the bottle. We almost had an accident as Ronn, sitting in the passenger seat, screamed and tried to crawl out of the window, trying to escape the snake he thought was in the car, hissing.
I looked at picture after picture and recognized none of it. It was a landscape I had never been to, never seen before.
As we drove away, I sat there thinking I had no memory of the park other than the ground and the snakes. I would not be able tell you about any of the flowers, other than the chokecherry bush. I couldn’t describe any of the scenic overlooks. Even now, all these years later, the only certain things I could point out, if I were ever to return to the park, were the two spots where we encountered the snakes. Those two spots are forever etched in my mind.
A few weeks after our trip to the park, we were all together again, Don and Chris showing us the pictures they took that day. It was not until that moment I realized that while Don and Chris had taken pictures, neither Ronn nor I had taken any. If we had taken pictures of what we’d seen, our pictures would have been of the ground. Looking at Don and Chris’s photos was like looking at the pictures people show you of their vacation — looking at pictures of a place you’ve never been. I looked at picture after picture and recognized none of it. It was a landscape I had never been to, never seen before.
When they finished showing us the pictures, another realization struck me: no one had thought to take a picture of the snakes.