Letter From The Desert: Snek

Let us briefly consider, then, the true soul of the American desert, the purest expression of honesty and animal guilelessness the arid lands may offer, a spirit trustworthy and honorable and true, of the kind and pensive character one might admonish one's children to emulate, that exclamation mark to the desert's run-on sentence: the rattlesnake.

This most refined of creatures, pure of heart and intention, pacific by nature, unencumbered by ambition of any rococo profusion of limbs, seeking only sufficient warmth, the occasional unwary surplus rodent, and the even more occasional companionship of his or her own kind; what better fate than to be born a snake? Thou art vivipotent and redolent of myth. Thou art lingam and yoni at once. Thou art... thou just art.

Of confirmed meetings with rattlesnakes I have had distressingly few, only a mere dozen or so, perhaps more if one counts the handful of sometimes half-imagined rattlings from beneath the cover of various low-lying creosotes or mats of Russian thistle. But those meetings have been respectably biodiverse. Of the eight species or subspecies of pit viper one can reasonably expect to see in the California desert, I lack but three on my life list, if one counts only individual buzzworms whom I managed to identify conclusively.

The shy sidewinder my love and I met on a moonlit walk last year might have been of the Mohave or the Sonoran subspecies; I failed to remember to count whether it had 21 or 23 scales in each row, and the moonlight was insufficient to determine whether its basal rattle bore a black patch or dark brown. Still, it was certainly one or the other. As was the moonlit sidewinder i saw six years earlier and 50 miles southeast. I certainly lack a Panamint rattler, and almost as certainly a western diamondback.

Of most of the rest, the red diamond and southern Pacific and unfairly dreaded northern Mohave, I have oft-repeated stories to tell, though most of those involving southern Pacific rattlesnakes are set outside the desert, on populated urban hiking trails where enspandiced Angelenxs strode past the beleaguered serpents heedless of the snakes' existence.

But until this past weekend, I had not met the Panamint's southern sibling subspecies, the southwestern speckled rattlesnake. Hiking with above-mentioned love and the dog on Nolina Peak at the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park on Sunday, we neared the summit — an easy 700-foot climb from the trailhead — and Heart decided to investigate a patch of blooming chia off to the side of the road. I gave her a few moments, then called her with a tug at her retractable leash.

"Come on, chia dog."

After a moment's hesitation she trotted back happily toward me. She was perhaps four feet from me, smiling prettily, and then I let out a yelp and she scattered fortunately to my side, for in the open, bare spot of stony ground she had just crossed twice reclined the below-pictured voluptuary, whose camouflage had failed her at precisely the last minute. How close were we?

Speckled rattlesnake


If it'd been a snake, it'd of bit me.

Except, clearly, no. The snake had not just not bit me. It had not so much as flicked tongue nor tail despite the two of us standing just a few inches away, clomping around in heavy hiking boots and rough pitbull paws. I handed the leash to my companion with fervent and completely unnecessary instructions about not letting the dog come back into proximity with the snake, then went back to shoot a few photos. That made the serpent cock her head a bit, but nothing more. The snake suffered our curiosity for a few more minutes, and when we came back from the summit about 20 minutes later, she was nowhere in evidence, though she almost certainly had not gone far.

Aside from 90 seconds or so of stationary cardio on my part it was an unexciting encounter, for which I am grateful. I am grateful as well that the dog showed no particular interest in an animal that almost certainly smelled intriguing. That encounter could have turned out so very differently had the dog said that thing dogs say that means "hold my beer."

Though having Heart there raised the volume on my emotions a bit, Sunday was not the first time I've felt that flavor of gratitude. I felt it close to a decade back in the hills above Palm Springs when that red diamond rattler and I sat trailside and chatted for ten minutes. I felt it when the Northern Mohave (a.k.a. "green") stood nearly on end in mid-wash in that Joshua tree forest in Nevada, rattling from 200 feet away, a cordial reminder of different cultural attitudes regarding inviolate personal space. I felt it two years ago with the adorable, shy, baby southern Pacific rattler beneath the boulder, four inches from passing open-toed tourist shoes.

I counsel neither carelessness nor recklessness around any temperamental animal that holsters chemical weapons in its teeth, especially if said animal has been taught by many generations of natural selection that humans are dangerous and unworthy of trust. But they still mostly trust us anyway, in that manner of trust of which they are constitutionally capable. And for that I am grateful most of all.