One of the things many people said when I told them I was moving to the desert is “rattlesnakes.” Maybe that’s all they think they need to say, as if the word encompasses every peril and life-threatening situation you’ll find yourself in. Killer heat, coyotes, meth labs, neighbors with guns and pit bulls who fly Confederate flags, needle-tipped cacti, getting lost and dying of thirst; are all lesser concerns.
After two years in Joshua Tree, I began to feel deprived of the snake experience: I didn’t encounter a single one. Our local newspaper frequently carried cautionary tales of human-rattlesnake encounters, like the one about the lady who reached for her coiled garden hose and found a coiled diamondback napping inside.
I asked our neighbors about rattlesnake sightings. No one had ever encountered one, although the lady down the street awoke one morning and went outside to find a mountain lion on the roof of her house, which I thought was almost as good. I started to think that maybe our neighborhood was a rattlesnake no-fly, or no-slither zone.
Still, I was cautious. I watched my step when we went hiking in the Park, or on the Land Trust trails. I avoided stepping near creosote or brittle bushes, thinking their shade provided a nice place for rattlers to hang out. I steered clear of the ubiquitous cholla cactus both because it might shelter a snake, and because I am sure the barbed needles leap off its branches and imbed themselves in your skin when you pass by. And I never left our garden hose coiled.
Finally I saw a snake. Unfortunately it was dead, in the middle of the street outside our house, run over by a car. I went out to get it. It was small, less than two feet long, a kind of pale off-white color with brown spots on its back. Google said it’s a Desert Glossy snake.
I felt sorry for it. It was young, it had its whole life ahead of it. Then roar, squish! It’s over. I gave it a brief non-denominational service and buried it in our yard.
I did some research. It turns out there are lots of snakes in the Mojave desert, but only a few are poisonous. We do host two members of the pit viper family, the diamondback rattlesnake and the Mojave green, which has the distinction of having the deadliest venom of any North American poisonous snake. Months went by, a couple of years passed, and no more snakes appeared. I wasn’t exactly disappointed (who wants to meet a Mojave green?), but felt a bit left out, like when you’re young, you see kids playing, but they don’t invite you to join them. And I became self-critical; maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Other people had snake encounters (according to our local news); why not me?
A month ago, I left our sliding glass door open while I took out the recycling. Coming back, as I approached the door, I saw this long, rope-like thing moving very fast along the door sill and into our dining room.
A four-foot long, chocolate brown snake. It coiled up in the corner of our dining room. I put down the empty recycling can, and went over to it, keeping what I hoped was a safe distance. I grabbed a newspaper and folded it, holding it between me and the snake. As I came near (as near as I thought safe, but who knows?), the snake reared up, opened its jaws and hissed at me.
Remember that scene when Indiana Jones face plants into a tomb and looks up to see a whole nest of cobras? Yeah, like that.
Brown snake and I faced off, him coiled up and hissing and me fanning the folded-up newspaper as if I were trying to get a charcoal barbeque going.
First thing, I checked his tail. No rattles, a good thing, I guessed. I thought about looking up to see what kind of snake I’d cornered, but I just knew that if I left the room, he’d slither off somewhere in the house, and we’d have to find lodgings elsewhere.
There are poisonous snakes without rattles, I recalled from my Google search for the Desert Glossy. Who knows what I’d cornered in our dining room?
Snake and I faced off for a few minutes, my thoughts bouncing between
“how do I make it go away?”
“will I die?”
I bet the brown, possibly deadly, snake was thinking similar things.
Aha! I’d left the sliding glass door open. I decided to fan my newspaper to the left, urging the reptile to the right. He’ll go out the way he came in. But no. He just scooted right past the door, under a cabinet and coiled up in another corner, raising up, baring his fangs and hissing.
This called for strategy. We have a small mat to wipe our feet on, just inside the sliding glass door. Fanning the newspaper with my right hand to keep the snake in the corner, I grabbed the mat with my left and laid it over the sill like a ramp, providing (I hoped) an easy exit for my guest.
Me: “Look. There’s the door. I made a ramp.”
Him: “Hiss. Hiss.”
Me: “It’s been ten minutes. I’m tired. You’re tired. We’re both scared. You can end this now.”
More newspaper fanning and fang-baring. I was finally able to encourage him to slide the left, and zip! He glided over the mat, out the door and off the patio.
POSTSCRIPT: According to my research, my visitor was a brown racer. They are very fast, and known to mimic the behavior of rattlers, coiling, arching up, showing their fangs. They aren’t venomous, but they will bite.
Another name for the racer is whipsnake.
I named mine Snidely.