The One About the Snake

Daniel House

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Coiled Rattlesnake

I don’t know much about snakes, but I do know that rattlesnakes are on the list of the things that are best to avoid close up.

In 2013, I learned that there is a particular species of rattlesnake called the Green Mojave that is apparently one of the most venomous in the United States. As the name suggests, the Green Mojave is indigenous to the Mojave Desert. It can be found in and around the area surrounding Joshua Tree National Park, the very same area where Patty and I had been looking to buy a weekend getaway since late 2011.

In August of 2013, we put an offer on a place that was being considered for a short sale, and in the meantime the hopefully-soon-to-not-be-owner offered to let us stay at the property to get a better feel for the place, a lovely gesture designed such that we might begin to think of the property as ours. We chose to go out on Labor Day weekend. We packed up the dogs and a weekends worth of crap for a laid back couple of days in the high desert. Double bonus, it turns out that we were going out the same weekend as the Joshua Tree Music Festival as well as the beginning of the High Desert Test Sites. The music festival was probably out, but the test sites sounded like an interesting series of destinations and art installations in various locations between JT and the east end of Wonder Valley.

We headed out Friday evening, grabbed a bite in town before settling in to our cozy little cabin, one that had been uninhabited for several years, one that we hoped might someday be ours. Full and spent from an abnormally long drive, we plugged in the iPod, poured a couple of tequilas and let the calm quite of the Mojave Desert begin to seep in as the warm day gave way to another one of those startlingly quite desert nights.

I’m sitting in the living room, looking through the window towards the long range of mountains to the north, marveling at the endless sea of stars above, while Patty, the consummate worrywart, steps out onto the front porch. She calls back in the house saying, “Honey, I think I hear a rattlesnake.”

My original nickname for Patty was My Sweet Little Panic-Attack, so my first thought was “of course you do (sarcasm inflected here in case you couldn’t figure that out).” I said, “We are in the desert, but I don’t imagine there are any snakes nearby.”

I stepped out on the porch with her to listen, and I think she might be right. It’s about the only thing that we can hear in this unmoving still. Not only does it sound like a rattlesnake, but it sounds like it’s not that far off. I comment that in all the times we’ve come out here over these last seven or so years, we’ve never actually seen one.

We both keep listening, and then I look down to see that the snake is about two feet from where we’re standing. Coiled up and rattling, letting us know that it’s about as freaked out as I have suddenly become. I don’t remember what I said then, but it was a shriek. Eleven-year-old girl shriek, loud, my brain is burning and I’ve totally slipped into my primal self. I didn’t know that I was capable of jumping backwards six feet in a single bound, but as it turns out, I am! Patty is apparently paralyzed. I am squealing something unintelligible, something line along the lines of, “honeyyouneedtogetinhere, rightnowtheresasnakeontheporch, whyareyoustillstandingthere?!”

Coiled Rattlesnake - Not as big as it appears

I am not acting very calmly.

Patty suddenly re-enters the world of present-moment awareness and realizes what has just occurred, and jumps back in the house pulling the screen door shut behind her. I slam the main door and am looking for a series of eight bolt locks to further insure our safety. My head is spinning and I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to do next, so I do the only thing that makes any sense at the moment: I grab this gallon-sized plastic margarita glass—apparently there as more than just decor, because there is no human capable of drinking an alcoholic drink that size—and fill it with water, open the door and throw the water on the snake effectively drenching it. A classic Woody Allen moment, only we’re dealing with a venomous snake instead of a Lobster.

Patty starts cracking up. “What’s the water supposed to do?!?” I begin to realize how ridiculous my little act of machismo is, however for a moment the snake does seem a little dazed.

And then it isn’t.

It begins to retreat, winding backwards, rattle fully engaged. It’s clearly feeling more threatened than anything. I on the other hand am in full flip-out mode. I tell Patty to go back inside and I begin to look around for something to smash the snake with. I am not as worried about myself as I am for the dogs who are both inside, and have no idea what the hell’s going on, other than the fact that something is not right and I am acting like a complete nut-job. I want the dogs to be able to run around outside, so I cannot have a rattlesnake hanging outside our front door, or anywhere in the yard for that matter.

I find a rock and lob it at the snake from an overly cautious distance. It lands on the middle of its body. I step a little closer and watch for the next several minutes. I think I may have killed it, but eventually the snake begins to move, and starts to try to wriggle out from under the rock. Another 5 seconds, and it manages to get out from under the rock entirely, slithering away seemingly unscathed, rattling its way to a low bursage bush a few yards away slipping  into its coarse foliage. I’m hoping its hurt, and decide to go back inside until the morning when there’s adequate light to see.

I feel the need to pour another drink. I make sure it’s a tall one.

It seems that the light pours in much earlier than back home in Los Angeles. I’ve had a restless night of sleep dreaming of snakes and checking on the dogs every hour or so. I trade my pajamas and slippers for a proper pair of pants and sneakers and see that the snake is still draped among the branches of the bush. I’m hoping that the snake has perhaps died during the night and go searching for a stick long enough to dislodge him from a safe distance. Patty is up now and is watching at an even safer distance through the window from the inside of our little desert snake farm.

I find an old branch that’s been cut to about four feet and poke at the snake, pulling it from the bush. It drops to the ground. At first, he’s motionless, then it wakes up, and rather quickly coils up in a defensive posture, rattle poking up and warning me that this is one pissed off groggy little snake. I run back inside to retrieve Gulliver’s Margarita glass, bring it back out and without thinking about it much, throw it upside-down over the snake, coiled up and not too pleased. I place the rock from the night before on top of the overturned glass, trying to figure out what the next course of action should be.

Snake under glass

I suppose it’s thanks to my hippy upbringing, but in my somewhat less panicked state, I don’t want to kill this angry little creature.  I hatch the idea that we can simply relocate the snake somewhere away from the cabin, and everybody can go on with their unfettered lives. We will hang out unencumbered, and the snake can find a new set of friends in a new patch of desert, one that is far away from our now-tainted little slice of paradise.

I enlist Patty’s help in finding a flat piece of metal or something that I can slide under the plastic margarita glass; something that will allow us to transport him in an enclosed space with zero wriggle room for potential escape. Somehow in this moment Patty is not viewing me a completely insane. Patty finds a dartboard hanging on one of the outside walls beneath the overhang off the kitchen and brings it over. It’s perfect. I manage to slide the snake-under-plastic onto the dartboard. In this moment, this all makes some strange kind of sense. What could possibly go wrong?

Patty starts her Prius  and I move the whole snake under overturned margarita terrarium structure over, carefully setting it on my lap while Patty begins the slow and careful drive west along the dirt and sand road, turning north up along Godwin Road.  We drive an extra half mile or so further until we decide we’ve gone far enough. Patty shuts off the car. I get out carefully so as not to free the snake prematurely while still on my lap, and walk another hundred feet further into the desert where I fling it as quickly away from where I am standing. The snake winds away, rattling its way hotly into another bush. I am pretty sure it’s telling me to fuck off, but my translation abilities are sorely lacking. I feel like a low-rent gladiator amped on adrenaline, and am proud that I took the time and made the effort to save a life rather than destroy it.

And with that, we set out for a day of fun and art installation adventure. For the next six plus hours, we drive all over the place experiencing a fantastic array of desert art installations. From large parabolic mirrors tucked in to the rocks and a community of crocheted tents, to a glass art installation inside of a trailer that had made the journey from New Mexico and the glorious and virtually incomprehensible subterranean “secret restaurant,” the evening culminating at The Palms, one of the more surreal and fantastic watering holes in this little slice of the Mojave Desert. They were hosting a fireworks display of sorts as a closing ceremony, so we sipped on a couple of drinks while waiting for dusk to fall.

The fireworks were not anything to write home about, but The Palms is always a fun time and is just a few miles away. We decided to return to the homestead for the rest of the evening and to let the dogs out to pee.  In a few short minutes we’re pulling into the homestead. Patty’s still in the car with the headlights on as I open the kitchen door to let the furry kids out to relieve themselves. It’s dark out except for the headlights of the car, and as both dogs begin running towards the mesquite tree in the corner, and in that split second, I see the rattlesnake sidewinding from the same spot on the porch where we first saw it towards the same bursage where it had spent the previous night! This was the same snake, and over the course of the day, it had traveled the half mile plus and returned to our house which it had apparently also made its home.

Pippa is running directly towards the snake and I scream “NOOO!! Pippa! Back in the house!!” She skids to a stop, turns around and runs back in the house while Teddy —alarmed at the panicked tone of my voice—bolts past the snake and around to the side of the house near the cactus patch and the palo verde tree. I run to the kitchen door of the house and close it to keep Pippa inside. Patty screams from the car, “what’s wrong?!?” I yell, “The snake! It came back!” I tell her to pull the car closer so that I can benefit from the brightness of the headlights and on autopilot reach for the closest brick, and hurl it at the snake. A direct hit. I find another larger rock and aim it with all my force. And then another. And another. Its head has been crushed.

Feeling bad about the dead snake

It takes a good hour before the adrenaline to ebb. It took several minutes to get Teddy to come back into the house. He is freaked out as he is a very sensitive dog. I am imagining dozens of rattlesnakes under every bush and stone, and am having second thoughts about this desert house thing.  I am of course being a city slicker in a complete state of panic (not for me so much as for the dogs) and this is the first rattlesnake I’ve come into this sort of contact with, and I had killed it. I have mixed feelings about this as I do not like taking the live of another creature, but when it comes to our safety, I don’t know that I can say I wouldn’t do it again.

I have however learned a lot about snakes since then, and know that half a mile to a snake is basically the equivalent of down the street to you or me. I have learned that there are calmer and saner ways of capturing a rattlesnake using tongs or a length of PVC and some nylon rope, and that you can relocate them safely, but you need to go several miles away if you don’t want them coming back.

We ended up buying the house the following January of 2014. Beginning that March, we started a top-to-bottom remodel of the place  and we managed to get everything done by September. We go out as often as we can, and have been renting it out on AIRbnb. We have never seen another rattlesnake since that one, and now that there is a steady flow of people coming in and out (with all of their smells and noises), it’s not too likely that a snake will be calling our place home. Given the choice, there preference is to stay as far away from humans as they can.

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More pictures of the Rancho are available on Facebook.

2 thoughts on “The One About the Snake”

  1. Oh wow, what an intense story, well done! I am always surprised for the almost 20 years I’ve lived in So Cal on and off, how rarely I’ve seen them.

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