Happy Trails To Us

It was a late summer morning, the air was crisp—it was early in the day—but with a strong hint of warmth blowing in from the south. A faint cool breeze also rose from the gorge below us, as a fading counterpoint and last gasp of opposition to the overpowering heat we all expected would be our companion for the days ahead. Our small group had gathered at the trailhead and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for stragglers to arrive. We were novice hikers at best, about to enter a difficult and dangerous wilderness for a two-week excursion, hoping to get through the adventure alive, and also to make a few good memories along the way.

Everyone was cordial, none of us knew the others in the group very well, most meeting the others here at the trailhead for the first time. A nervous anticipation made several members of our entourage extra talkative; a young couple sitting inside the open hatch of their Subaru were speaking loudly and rapidly to the mother of a mother-son-daughter trio, telling them all about their recent trip whitewater rafting. The mother listened attentively while sipping her coffee, nodding affirmation and approval as they told their tale, while her teens stared vacantly at our surroundings—bored already.

Before embarking on our journey, the two leaders of our excursion called us all together, to gather around in a circle for formal introductions, as a first step towards building the all-important community that we would need in order to make the trip a success—for fun and for safety, and for survival. They introduced themselves—Heather, and Tom—and confirmed our hopes and expectations; that they both had many years of experience in guiding tours throughout the backcountry. They were both very amiable and exuded confidence, and set the proper tone of fun measured with wisdom. The group fed on their charisma and folks were pumped-up, and ready to rock!

Everyone gathered up their things: donning backpacks, adjusting straps, tightening down tents and sleeping bags which had been packed atop or below their bags—we checked our water-bottles and re-tied our shoelaces. One or two of us ran back quickly to our cars to get something they had forgotten, or to make sure they had locked their doors. Heather led the group down the trail, and Tom brought up the rear; we started off at a brisk pace. “The wilderness won’t wait for us forever.” he said, “It’s time to make our mark and conquer our fears!” We cheered at his brief but inspiring exhortation, as we marched along, and the cool dust filled our nostrils, and the sun rose higher over our heads, up into the blue and open sky.   

We stopped several hours later, mid-morning, for a little rest and to drink some water, before continuing on. As we sat scattered within a small area, some of us in little groups with backs leaning up against the cliff-face which we had been following for most of the morning, Heather gave us a foretaste of our itinerary for the day. We’d be continuing up the gorge for the rest of the morning, and then stopping for lunch at a beautiful overlook, which provided vast panoramic views of the surrounding mesas, the crawling river down below, and the dark mountains far-off in the distance. Tom interjected as some of us expressed surprise and concern at the name of the overlook—Rattlesnake Ridge. “Ha! That’s just an old name, nothing to worry about. There haven’t been snakes there for years,” he comforted us. He went on to explain how the climate in the area had been changing and there was just no longer enough water—or moisture even—on that ridge to sustain life; so, without water, there’s no prey, and without prey there’s no snakes. One in our group raised a small objection, noting that it had been an unusually wet summer so far, and wondered, could they have come back? No, he then assured us compassionately, it doesn’t work like that, these kinds of changes happen over long periods of time, and a few simple rains wouldn’t change anything. He chuckled, to set us all at ease, and said we’d be about as likely to see a snake up there as we would to see Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. And we all laughed.

The morning hike was beautiful, but getting hot. Between the hot reds of the surrounding rock, the deep blues of the sky overhead, and the pure whites of the passing clouds it felt as though we had been dropped in the midst of a great, undulating American flag. The river, far below us—sparkling—reflected the bright summer sunlight so that, those of us without sunglasses, had to turn our heads, or squint and blink to keep our eyes from shedding tears. Everything was light, everything was bright, and by the time the sun passed directly overhead, there were no shadows. Not long after that, we reached Rattlesnake Ridge.

With sighs of relief we pulled our heavy backpacks from our shoulders and dropped them onto the ground. Again, we all found a spot to sit, some of us on boulders, some simply on the dirt. Our guides were absolutely right, the views from this spot were breathtaking. Cameras and cell-phones emerged and photos abounded; one young lady getting a bit too close to the edge as she snapped the perfect selfie, but caught and pulled back onto solid ground by our guide, Heather, before anything terrible happened. We ate our lunch, enjoying the scenery, and it was about the same time, when Tom had announced we’d be moving along soon, when one of the older men in the group, Mitch, made a commotion from his spot on a low ledge just off from the main group.

He leapt into the air, cursing, and jumped down from the ledge. To his right and to his left several small creatures slithered off the ledge rapidly and quickly disappeared into the dark crags which abounded in the vicinity; and one large rattlesnake followed directly in his wake. It came right for him, and looked to be attacking. Before he could catch his balance completely, or could find his legs beneath him, the darned thing struck. It hit his left boot and bounced off; and looked to have gotten its nose smushed against the hard leather. Stunned for a brief moment, but long enough for Mitch to gather his wits, Mitch then struck back—as the snake tried to gather its own wits—and, raising his very same boot in the air, Mitch brought it down decisively upon the creature’s slithery head. That was the final act in their battle; the long muscular body writhing and twirling for several moments before going limp.

The onlookers had mixed feelings. Several gasped, one turned away unable to watch, and two smiled surreptitiously and winked at one another, while shaking their heads in disbelief. After a moment, a collective sigh let out, apparently nobody had been breathing throughout this altercation. And then the reactions came: Man! I can’t believe it came after you like that!…How dare you, how could you kill it?!…It was coming right at me, it was him or me!…It didn’t have any choice, poor thing, its just living by instinct but you had a choice, you should be ashamed!…Boy, those are some good boots you’ve got!…I think I’m going to be sick!…I can’t believe he crushed its head, that was disgusting, hee-hee!…What choice did he have?!…Well, I guess we’d better be looking out for Bigfoot now!

Then somebody offered the suggestion that maybe we should pack up and get out of there as fast as we can, because there are an awful lot of creepy holes everywhere, and maybe there are more snakes where these came from. Another person reminded everyone of the other snakes that they had all seen just moments ago, slithering off into the holes just over there; what if they come back? This caused a general commotion and a flurry of activity as folks hoisted their bags onto their backs, with some hikers starting off quickly down the trail without even strapping their bags in place.

(To Be Continued)

~FS

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