Snake Stories: The Deadly Diamondback Rattlesnake

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Real Life Encounters With Adrenalin

Many published articles swear up and down that rattlesnake venom usually won’t kill you. Oh yeah? Talk to the fellow who was bitten in the neck near Spokane, Washington, some years ago.

Oh. Wait. You can’t. He’s dead.

The victim was in his fifties, camping near a lake, and never made it out of his sleeping bag. There were no witnesses to the strike itself, but the best guess is that the reptile snuggled up to him to get warm during the night…the man rolled over in his sleep and–oops.

That said, both animals and humans do on many occasions survive a dose of reattlesnake venom. For myself, I’d prefer not to test my resistance. As to my wife, with her tiny size (92 to 95 pounds) plus her allergies to every known form of venom…let’s put it this way: A snake bite would kill her faster than an exploding airbag in the face.

Growing up on a ranch six miles west of Drummond, Montana, my childhood years garnered many a snake story. Here are a few of them, not including one in particular that would be a good topic for a bit of cowboy poetry:

At age five, one fine summer evening when Dad was not home, Mom and I became aware of a rattler crawling past the front step. Even at that age, I had learned caution. Not only did we live at the foot of Rattler Hill, just one ridge over from Rattler Gulch, but diamondbacks sometimes actually denned beneath our log house!

It took me no time at all to scramble up on the hood of our family station wagon. Mom called out for me to stay there, and I had no objection at all to listening to my mother on that one.

At age six, I had a good friend my own age, a first grade classmate named Sandra. One day in August, Sandy and I were playing on an old, broken up stretch of asphalt that had once been a state highway. Her parents rented a log cabin from my parents, and several adult men–including my father–were working on a barnyard fence nearby.

I was pulling my little red wagon, a real Radio Flyer. She was towing her tricycle. Sort of a Tarzan-Jane thing without the vines. But we did have a bit of jungle of sorts: A patch of tall weeds with broad leaves (I forget what they are called) had grown up through the crumbling asphalt. As small as we were, the plants were well over our heads. The patch covered about six feet from start to finish.

When I was almost through this mini-jungle, I heard a rattler buzz. Up to that point, I’d not actually heard that distinctive sound–but once heard, you and your adrenal glands never forget it. I had learned caution. WIth extreme care, I parted the weeds at face height with my left hand and peered out.

No more than a foot ahead of my foot, a gray rattler lay coiled just outside the weeds. It was about a three footer, and seeing it ready for business inspired me greatly.

I yelled, “RATTLER!!”and launched out, up and over the snake. To this day, I suspect that if we had been able to videotape the event, it would stand for centuries as one of the record athletic feats of all time. Not only did I clear the snake easily; I did it without remembering to let go of the wagon handle. Which meant the Radio Flyer came clattering out of the weeds right behind me, no doubt terrorizing the poor, innocent snake.

Sandy, sensibly, turned around and went back up toward the adults. For my part, I did not stop until I had set a sprint record for the 100 yard dash. Then it turned into a hollering contest between me and the men, who were about three football fields away from me at this point.

They ordered me to come on back up to the corral. I refused until someone came down to make sure that snake was gone. Finally, a young man named Pete walked down to the weed patch, carrying a two by four with which to clobber the critter if he found it. To no one’s surprise but mine, the serpent had sped. Probably went back down a hole to its mate, telling stories about the horrible human kid with the red clatter-wagon.

It got worse from there. The grownups insisted I was imagining things, that I must have heard a cricket.

Really, now.

Some time later, Dad loaded me into his pickup, hauled me the 1/2 mile to our house, told me to stay there, and drove back to work. Mom was, as usual, in the kitchen. I repeated my story to her, using the edge of the kitchen table to mark off the estimated length of the rattler.

Being Mom, thankfully, she at least had no doubt that I had seen a snake at close range, not just heard a chirpy cricket.

Perhaps it was that sort of event that inspired my “snake art” in later years, particularly during 1980 and 1981 when I was taking an art class by correspondence.

My First Snake Art, Circa 1980

Snake In The Grass, Assignment For The LaSalle Correspondence Art Course.

Snake In The Grass, Assignment For The LaSalle Correspondence Art Course.

The Psychological Impact Was Considerable

As the years of my childhood and teen years rolled on by, I developed a mental problem concerning snakes. Not that I told anyone. It was my personal battle to fight, and I knew it. No one in the family was ever bitten, but that made little difference. I was aware that the Nelson family, who ranched over on the Rattler Gulch side, considered the danger real enough to move their kids to a house in town during the summers.

The psychological trauma manifested in several ways:

1. In the summers, in other words during “snake weather”, I often had trouble going to sleep at night. As soon as I closed my eyes, I would see an entire sea of snakes, all coming to get me. I learned to counter this by picturing myself climbing a tree, which worked somewhat…until the snakes began climbing up after me.

2. I came to believe absolutely that if I met a rattler and did not kill it, I was dooming someone else–or even myself–to a fatal encounter at a future time.

3. Even in my thirties, in the City of Spokane, Washington, in the dead of winter, I would visualize rattlers under my feet any time I had to walk from my bed to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Also, there would be others coiled by my bed, ready to nail any stray hand or foot that might hang down over the side.

For many years, I could not sleep with even a toe or a finger outside the covers. To counter the underfoot Slytherins, I would picture myself wearing heavy cowboy boots, crushing their heads as I went.

Yup. I was a certifiable nutcase. Fortunately, those fixations did somehow pass. I can’t say when it happened or how long it took, but today I have nothing against rattlesnakes. I will still kill any rattler I find within half a mile of my home, but nowadays I regret having to do it.

Special note to my readers: If you do not believe in reincarnation, you might want to stop here–or simply figure my subconscious healed me!

Two things I do know about, things that helped me see diamondbacks in a different light. One was a TV program, an old black and white documentary about the Amazon. Along the great river’s bank, the film showed a huge rattler coiled and buzzing at an approaching crocodile. The croc calmly walked up and ate the snake; it didn’t care in the least about being warned off.

Seeing that made me sick to my stomach. This I did not understand. Snakes (I thought) were my enemies. Why would I have such a reaction? It puzzled me for two years, by which time my previous curiosity about reincarnation had become (and is to this day) an absolute conviction. The answer, when it finally came, was stunningly obvious:

I had experienced the snake’s death from the point of view of the snake.

This discovery surfaced when I met a man who, I firmly believe, had been a crocodile…and had turned me into lunch when I had been a rattlesnake! Deja vu nausea. The “croc man” and I came to a near-confrontation; it was a razor’s edge situation and then some. I knew if he pushed things even one hair farther than he just had (toward my then-wife while we were all playing frisbee), then it would be necessary–necessary–to take him on. And I would lose.

One more event clinched it: A dream in which I was a mother rattlesnake who loved her babies where they had been born under a human’s house. I went crawling out into the sunlight. A human was waiting for me and chopped off my head, releasing me to go on to the next life. Perhaps, then, I grew up around rattlers in this life simply because I had been one? Hmmmmm…..

Okay. ‘Nuff esoteric stuff. Back to the snake stories. One that happened not to me but to a friend of mine went as follows:

This man grew up in Oklahoma many years back. One day, while he was out plowing a field, he looked across a fence to see his neighbor stop his tractor, pull a length of log chain off its carry rack, and begin swinging the chain at the ground repeatedly. My friend found this quite interesting.

Then, all of a sudden, it got MORE interesting: The neighbor turned around and began beating the ground right behind where he had just been standing. Such a mystery needed to be solved. Before long, the neighbor’s tractor pulled to a stop so that he could talk over the fence to my friend. His face was still drained of all color.

He explained that he’d been plowing along when he saw the Grandaddy Of All Rattlesnakes, so he had stopped the tractor, grabbed the chain and gone to work. Then something made him turn around, and right behind him was the GrandMommy of all rattlesnakes. The experience had given him a new level of appreciation for adrenaline.

A Striking Example Of Snake Art (Pun Intended)

No Grade On This One, But It Did Count For Extra Credit

No Grade On This One, But It Did Count For Extra Credit

Racers, Bullsnakes, And Other Confusion

Rattlesnakes were bad enough, but other snakes definitely did add to the mix. Once, at about age nine, I was sitting beside a riverbank, waiting for Dad to finish mowing hay across the river. When he crossed back over to my side, he would give me a ride to the house. In the meantime, I sat quietly, watching the water flowing by.

Until I heard it. Snake in the grass. Beside me.

It had to be some sort of water snake, headed for the river as it was. From the corner of my eye (not daring to actually turn my head) I could see a small section of the beastie as it glided past. And glided. And slithered. And kept going. Knowing what I know now, the black serpent with the yellow stripe–whatever species it was–could not have been more than three or four feet long.

My perception made it more like thirty or forty feet.

Racers are a whole ‘nother breed of cat. Uh, snake. They call them racers because they ARE fast–and sometimes aggressive. When my sister, Donna, was in her teens, a blue racer wrapped itself around her boot. The result was probably a new land speed record for a Screaming Sister.

Bullsnakes can look huge…and they EAT rattlers. We tried not to kill them, since we logically knew they were on our side. But snake-phobic humans can’t always differentiate that easily when terror is on the rise. I don’t believe we ever made a mistake about that…but we certainly could have.

There was the time in Wenatchee, Washington, when I saw a two-foot copperhead crawling across our driveway and made the mistake of calling across the yard fence to tell my wife and stepson. They came to look, but then wanted to bother the poor thing. Rather than get into a mouthfight with my soon-to-be-6th-ex-wife, I SAT on the concrete in my jeans and motorcycle chaps (I’d just come in from a ride).

Looking for cover, the slender reptile crawled beneath my upraised knees. I now had a venomous Slytherin in a really good position to bite me through my pants. Trust me, I did NOT move! Eventually, my stepson lost interest, and I was able (with a bit of wheedling) to get my future ex to confirm that the little viper had gone out from under me and taken cover in the rocks bordering the driveway.

In the Mojave desert of California, during the summer of 1967, I spent two weeks at an Army summer camp as part of my reserve commitment following my release from active duty. In that environment, both scorpions and desert sidewinders (rattlesnakes) are plentiful. One day we moved camp as part of a military exercise, arriving at our new location just at dangerous dusk.

We Montana men, of which there were many, set up our cots and went to bed ASAP. Rattlers are risky enough in daylight; moving around unnecessarily after dark is just plain idiotic.

What that makes the California guys is beyond me. A bunch of them were running around the low ridges surrounding the camps…looking for “bellworms”, as they called the rattlers.

Yes, my attitude toward snakes has evolved remarkably. That does not mean I see them as toys or pets or even entertaining bellworms. Or that I ever will.

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Update: This post was first written and published in 2008 when my wife and I were living in Colorado. At that time, though I had plenty of experience with diamondback rattlesnakes, there was a version out there I’d never heard of: The Mojave green rattlesnake, which looks a lot like (and appears to often crossbreed with) the western diamondback. We moved to southern Arizona, off grid, in April of 2009…and eventually discovered that Mojave greens were by far the most dominant pit viper form on our particular acreage.

They’re also far deadlier than the deadly diamondback discussed above. If you’d like to know more about them, I’ve got at least five articles on Mojave green rattlesnakes published on this site; just check the Critter Index.

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