So there I was… faced with the most primal of natural dangers: the highly-annoyed Western Diamond rattlesnake. My escape options were limited; I couldn’t back-up because of my hiking partner, to my left was a wall of scrub-brush and to my right was a steep cliff of several hundred feet. All I could do was leap and pray, and it better be a quick prayer because the rattle was ticking.
This story begins, as it often does, with the purest of intentions. I was in California for my nephew’s graduation and wanted to spend some time with Albert, a former drama student of mine. Instead of our usual meet-up for a meal at Universal’s Citywalk complex, I thought it would be more interesting (and cheaper) to go out on a hike instead. Albert suggested a trail he knew through the Angeles National Forest, and I quickly agreed.
We met about one o’clock at the trailhead. Since neither one of us thought to bring a backpack, we were forced to carry our food and water in a reusable grocery tote bag. Not the way ol’ Zebulon Pike would have done it; but we made do and set off. The first couple of miles passed without incident. There were several tiny cabins and a series of small dams installed to control the run-off from the melting snow in the higher elevations. As we got higher and higher up the side of the mountain, the vegetation became steadily less lush and more prickly. By the time we were some four miles out, the trail became a narrow footpath through very inhospitable and thorny growth on both sides. The only wildlife we spotted were a couple of lizards sunning on the rocks and several hawks floating in the clear blue sky. Then, out of nowhere, a pile of thick light-tan rope dropped out of the brush and onto my feet.
My first response was one of confusion. Why would a piece of coiled rope fall from a sagebrush for no apparent reason? Was this the result of some pranksters, or an early omen of a rock slide about to come? That’s when I heard one of the three most unmistakable sounds in the world: a rattler’s tail in attack mode (the other two sounds are the racking of a shotgun shell and the crumpling of sheet-metal in a car crash). I looked down at the dusty colored snake and quite clearly saw the rattle at the end of his tail shaking. Immediately, I started tracing the snake’s body back around its loops looking for the head, for that was the end I was most concerned about. Found it. But, why was it pink like a wad of chewed bubblegum? Oh, of course. Since his mouth was wide open, I was looking directly down his throat. That’s when I took a colossal leap of faith.
Leading with my right leg and with my head still facing down, I vaulted up and forward with a mighty surge of adrenalin. No sooner had my left foot left the earth than I saw the snake leap up to bite me. Luckily, his bared fangs found no purchase and he crumpled back to the ground. After landing myself, I sprinted forward a few steps before skidding to a halt to make sure Albert was out of danger. He had also responded by instinct. Of course, being a millennial, his first instinct was to take out his iPhone and start filming. He yelled, “Did you see that? You just jumped over a rattlesnake!”
Very cautiously, we inched back towards each other looking for the legless reptile who had so rudely intruded upon our most pleasant sojourn. He was doing his part to be noticed as his rattle was still going off, at a much higher pitch than I would have expected. We spotted him all coiled up just up off the trail. He had retreated under some brush, but I could still see how his body was as thick as my forearm. With the passage of time, I have reduced my initial estimate of his length from ‘about a mile’ to just under seven feet. Subsequently, we were now faced with the issue of what should we do next. If I had been bitten, the odds of my survival were against me. Neither of our cell phones had service in these hills, and any medical assistance was at least a four mile hike away. I knew this animal presented a clear and present danger to anyone in the vicinity. Ultimately, that’s why I chose to leave him alone and walk away.
The present vicinity was his backyard, not ours. It was purely in the interest of recreation that we were wandering around out here in the first place. For me, it was a close call that ended without injury. For him, every day was a constant life or death struggle to stay alive. He was only doing what thousands of years of instinct told him to do to survive. In the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. Just business.” Thus, I decided to take my business elsewhere, preferably somewhere air-conditioned with a fresh change of underwear because I could now certainly use both.