Sensory Overload at the Biggest Rattlesnake Roundup in the World
Jun 4 2012
Illustrations by Winston Smith
“Rattler Round-Up” © Winston Smith, 2012
I’m one of those assholes at the airport who slaloms past you on a beeping golf cart. The limo of the elderly, lazy, and infirm. Even I can feel the seething looks. Sorry, but it’s for your own good. Airports are punishing enough without my people slowing the herd. Or so we tell ourselves as we relax in our cushy seats and run you over.
Since I’ve nothing to look at, and all I can hear is beeping, I’m left with one entertainment between gates. I smell the terminal. This is about as interesting as it sounds. Having said that, the salty, carbon-rich fog of deep-fryer grease we rolled through in the Dallas airport was pretty stunning. A nasal lubricant. Texas doesn’t just look big; it smells big, like a hungry, oily place.
I was racing to make my connection to Abilene, another hour’s flight west of Dallas in the heart of what’s considered central West Texas. You know something’s large when its west has a center. I tried this bit on my golf-cart driver. He just honked his little horn at the pocket of body odors clogging our passage.
At the gate, I listened for a familiar voice. Nobody called my name. I stared into the blur and hoped to be recognized. Still nothing. My brother, Mykol, was to meet me. His plane from Toronto had landed an hour earlier. The plan was for the two of us to fly from here to Abilene together. That seemed unlikely at this point.
They announced preboarding. I paced and called Mykol’s name, even flagging my white cane overhead. Bupkus. Final boarding call was given. I tried his cell phone. No answer. Should I just go and hope he’d catch another flight? I wasn’t prepared to bumble about Texas on my own. They’ve got trucks. Lots of them. I fit under trucks.
“Y’all are sure he was on the plane, sweet pea?” the gate agent asked and punched some keys on her computer.
“No idea” I replied.
“Don’t worry, hon. Bet he stopped for a snack. Some fries. Or a burger or—” I got the notion she was consulting the horizon of menus over my shoulder.
She was probably right, and I wouldn’t have worried, but things happen to Mykol. What kinds of things? Just look at the way he spells his name. There’s also the fact that lizards are his preferred roommates. I can’t say I know anybody else who collects sand or has imbibed a glass of bleach, twice. Once he even beat up our sister’s boyfriend because the man was on fire. Not only did Mykol extinguish the flames blow by blow, he fulfilled our sibling fantasy. Did he start the fire? Who knows. Is it wise to fix the wiring of an industrial dishwasher with your switchblade? Mykol has provided me with the answers to such questions.
“Snake Bite” © Winston Smith, 2012
We’d traveled all this way, from our respective homes on the opposite sides of Canada, to participate in Sweetwater’s Rattlesnake Roundup, which is held annually on the second weekend of March. Reputedly, it’s the largest of its kind in the world, although there’s no way to verify the claim. Only a handful of these events formally exist anywhere in the world, mostly hosted in small towns throughout Texas.
Four days of country-fair fun awaited us, all of it somehow dedicated to, or stemming from, the catching, skinning, cooking, and studying of western diamondbacks. Folks comb Sweetwater’s surrounding cattle ranches and desert to gather as many rattlesnakes—or, as they say, “critters”—as possible. Then they dance, have a parade, host a cook-off, and God knows what else.
Statistics from the past 50 years suggest that, on average, the weekend haul of rattlesnakes is about a ton and a half. How many critters is that? At four or five feet long, the typical western diamondback clocks in at ten pounds or so. You can do the white-knuckle math. Even with the annual harvest, they say, the population is barely kept at bay. They are, literally, everywhere.
“According to the website, we have to buy a special hook and a hand mirror,” I said to Mykol. “I sort of get the hook idea, at least in principle. But why a mirror?”
“Dibs on the snake hook. I’m bringing it home.”
“I can’t use a mirror. I can’t even imagine what it’s for, let alone how it’s going to disadvantage me.”
“It’s so we can look under stuff without getting too close,” Mykol said. “So we can look into the dens.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Don’t say what?”
“Don’t say ‘den.’”
“I said don’t say ‘den.’”
My feet were sweating. It wasn’t the idea of getting bit that freaked me out. Not entirely. Truth is, I’m mortally afraid of snakes, of everything snaky. The way they move, the way they sound, their shape. I won’t even begin to deconstruct the threat of a tongue that behaves so erratically. Never in my life have I touched one—not even the tiny garter snakes on our lawn when I was a kid, and that was way before blindness. They’d send me screaming.
I know what you’re thinking. Why put myself through something that runs contrary to every cue from my nervous system? It’s a legitimate question, and one I asked myself at the airport, on the plane, and in the car. The only answer I can offer, and I say it with conviction, is this: The best experiences don’t invite you.
I don’t remember how I first heard about the roundup, but I do recall what captured my interest. All of the snakes spend some time at the local rodeo coliseum in a transfer pen that’s called the Snake Pit. From there they are weighed for research, milked for their venom, skinned for the leather trade, and cooked for dinner. At any moment, hundreds and hundreds of snakes are waiting, piled and writhing on top of one another. When I let my disgust and horror ebb, I realized something was ringing in my ears: If I was to go, I could take in the sound of that holding pen. It was one of those things that didn’t happen anywhere else on the planet.
The more I tried to conjure the sound in my mind, the more I couldn’t. I wanted to hear what it had to say. Why not? If by evolutionary design an animal’s primary defense is a singular, infamous noise, such an animal must be able to teach us something about listening, right? And all of this comes from a rattle and a spasm. Hundreds of snake tails banging out a primordial choral arrangement inspired by one unmistakable sentiment: “Fuck off.” I wanted to hear it. And then I would try to catch one, and maybe, just maybe, I would touch it.
“Don’t worry, big brother. I’ve got a plan,” Mykol said, turning us off the highway. “The way to hunt is this. First, you find a snake. Biggest one in the den—”
“Shut up about the dens already.”
“Then you get close. Distract it with your cane or something. La-la-la. It’ll get cocky. Then, listen to this, when surprise is on our side, wham, it’s Hello, Mykol time.”
“Hello, Mykol time?”
“I punch it in the face.”
The closer we came, the more overwhelmingly real this bad idea grew.
“And don’t you worry.” He patted me on the arm. “I won’t miss.”
It was dark when we pulled into our hotel parking lot. From the sound of things, you could spit on the highway from the rooms. I opened the passenger door, eager to stretch, but paused, my foot half out of the car. Warm air rose from the pavement and crept up my pant leg. I listened. Snakes could be anywhere out here. I recalled how they like to draw the evening heat from the asphalt. Slowly I dipped my toe and jiggled it like bait. Nothing bit.
We checked in, both of us starving and beat. Our hotel smelled like an airport.
All of this is to say he’s terrific fun, as long as he shows up in one piece, and there’s no denying his capacity for adventure, which I assumed would be invaluable on this trip. Besides, nobody else would come.
“Are y’all staying in Abilene?” the gate agent asked. “I could make a note here for where he can find you.”
“No, we’re supposed to drive to Sweetwater tonight. This isn’t good.”
“Sweetwater?” She said the name like an affliction. “What on God’s green earth y’all are going to Sweetwater for?”
I leaned on her counter, feigning cool and casual.
“We’re here for the rattlesnakes.”
A nervous grin cracked my face.
She spent a few beats sizing up the idiocy of the blind man in front of her. Then, finally, my brother arrived. He had encountered problems at customs.
“Really, the agent was nice enough,” he began as we boarded the plane, “but her badge said her last name was Powers. I don’t know, it just got me nervous and things got a bit sticky after that.”
“I started to lie.”
“Lie? About what? Why? Jesus, Mykol.”
“What? It’s a reflex. Her name was Powers.”
“But it’s not like you have anything to hide.”
You never know with my brother. He’s an archaeologist who spends much of the year living in the bush. That does things to a person. One morning, when Mykol was supposed to be surveying sites about six hours from our childhood home, my mom walked into the kitchen to find him boiling a bear skull in a CorningWare pot. He likes bones. My point is this: It isn’t hard to imagine him at airport security emptying his pockets—a heap of coins, bus transfers, and a half-dozen humanoid teeth—and then a security guard sternly offering him a seat in the interrogation room.
“What did you lie about?” I asked.
“Nothing bad. I said you were driving us to Sweetwater,” Mykol began, slumping into his seat, “But I guess I’d already said you’re blind. It was an honest mistake.”
To be fair, Mykol has let me do the driving before. Not that a customs agent needs to know that.
“Remember that time on the road to Douglas Lake?” he asked.
“You could have let me steer a few more miles.”
“Agent Powers didn’t think it was all that funny. Then I started to stammer because, you know, uniforms, and then the whole blind-man-and-rattlesnake thing was a hard sell.”
Among other stipulations, Agent Powers had required Mykol to explain how a blind man can write books and stories he can’t read.
Nevertheless, and despite it all, he made it, and now we were off, to die.
“Let me ask you something,” he said as our plane taxied. “A cheese smoker or a crossbow: Which would you get? I can’t decide.”
The highway between Abilene and Sweetwater is dotted with billboards advertising all-you-can-eat beef joints with names like Buck’s and Skeet’s. This pleased Mykol and me to no end. We love everything cowboy. The older, the sadder, the leatherier, the better.
Driving this stretch of road, one can’t help but appreciate the endless miles of wind farms this part of Texas is known for. Incredible gusts bucked us about. Some were natural, some were from the convoys of semis and diesel pickups that threw around our rental car like a cat does a ball of yarn. Mykol, a chatty driver, often returned to the subject of his two goals for our trip: to find himself a “sweet-ass bolo tie” and to keep me from getting snake-bit.
“Rattlesnake Ranch” © Winston Smith, 2012
“Hey,” Mykol chirped as we walked the hallway to our room. “There’s a huge stuffed snake stretched on the wall here.”
He stopped to admire it. I hurried past.
“You want to touch it?” he said.
“Nope,” I said, racing down the hall.
“C’mon, it’s not alive. Just put your hand up and—”
“Still right beside you. You can just reach up and—”
The snake was on a wall, dead and stuffed, yet I couldn’t outrun it.
According to the sleepy fellow at the front desk, we were lucky to get a room at all. Given that we were the only car in the parking lot, this seemed to be based on his own sunny optimism. Still, he insisted that the town would fill up tomorrow for the opening-day parade and barn dance, and the grand opening of the coliseum where the snake-hunt registration would take place. When we asked where to eat, he said we had plenty to choose from. Buck’s or Skeet’s.
The next morning, Mykol and I stepped out of the hotel in our requisite knee-high boots. The sharp light of a blue sky bit into my retinas.
“Ah, Sweeeeeetwater,” Mykol crooned. “Where the water is yellow and a bit buttery.”
We cruised about town, and Mykol described what he saw. It didn’t take long. Sweetwater, it turns out, is only a few minutes wide.
“Here we have another church, next to that a pawn shop and another bail bondsman, and, ah, if you need money for the bail bondsman, thoughtful, here we have a Money Mart…”
Every other house seemed to be boarded up or for sale. A lot of cars rotted on a lot of lawns. Gas was expensive, but litters of puppies and kittens were free. We kept the exploration short. I got the picture. Recessions always look the same. Then again, according to a quotation from the local chamber of commerce, “If you’re bored in Sweetwater, it’s your own fault.”
“Cowboys!” Mykol squealed. “Oh my God! They’re everywhere. And on horses. And some of them are old!”
In a town this small, I imagined a few dozen of us comparing hooks and hand mirrors. But the farther into the fairgrounds we drove, the bigger the scale bloomed. Seas of campers and RVs. Truck after truck hauling industrial-size smokers and barbecues. A makeshift amusement park stretched to our right while a shantytown of kiosks and curios occupied the desert to our left. Stitching their way throughout were men and women on horseback, and overhead, like a tent of sound, speakers blasted syrupy country-pop into the sky. I rolled my window down to the smell of horses. My head filled. It was my grandparents’ farm when I was eight.
We parked at the side of the road, where I did my foot jiggle over the grass before I climbed out. My brother took my elbow and steered. The grasses were crispy blotches, the ground mostly dust. Nothing rattled.
“About a hundred yards this way,” he said, “there’s an evangelical Jumbotron. I can see the coliseum just past.”
The gates were open, so we bought our tickets. Before we entered, though, Mykol wanted to take a picture of a sign that prohibited the use of firearms inside.
“Shouldn’t that go without saying?”
He hitched my hand to his elbow. “We haven’t seen what’s inside yet.”
Our boot heels echoed ahead into the coliseum as we stepped through a long concrete corridor and emerged on the mezzanine level. I couldn’t hear anything worrisome, just the chattering of folks, a distant fountain, and announcements echoing from the stadium PA. Mykol stopped abruptly, as if we were about to plow into somebody.
“I think registration is downstairs by the back wall,” I said.
I went to move, but my brother was frozen.
“What? What are you—”
“Just gimme a minute.”
“What for? Let’s go and—”
He snapped. “I just, I just need a minute, alright? It’s a bit… much.”
Descriptions like this don’t help. My mind’s eye only sees what it is told.
“What’s out there?” I asked.
At my own question, my body pressed to my brother’s. His paralysis drew the horizon of the unknown, its proximity, closer and closer.
“C’mon, Mykol, What do you see?”
“It’s just…” He whispered, searching for words. “I don’t want you to think I’m exaggerating, but it’s just, it’s all, all of it, snake.”
His whisper made everything worse, like he didn’t want to alarm something. My mind’s eye went to town. To say a stadium is all snake is just cruel.
“What the hell do you mean it’s all snake?”
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“Start with what’s next to me!”
“OK, well, about ten feet in front of us there’s an old man, and he’s shaking a rattlesnake, shaking it like a toy, at a baby.”
“Yes, and his other snake, that one is not being shaken.”
Before I could even zero in on their rattles and separate them from the din of the stadium, hissing and spitting noises boomed from the PA, followed by the distinct sound of a snake strike. Then a terrible thud. Immediately I knew that the picture in my mind’s eye was correct. A critter somewhere had just eaten a microphone. I practically hugged my brother, ready to piss myself at the thought of moving through this room.
“Whoa, Nelly!” exclaimed a voice over the PA. “That’ll turn your engine.”
Somewhere in the building, this man’s voice was attached to a body that stood in a pen with a dozen rattlesnakes. The fellow, part biologist, part circus performer, was in the middle of broadcasting his demonstration. He chatted on and on about the predatory habits of pit vipers, casual as pie, bland as a chemistry teacher, while snakes chewed his boots. His presence, along with other educational booths and pens, evidenced the recent shift in the roundup’s public-relations strategy. Science and information were being foregrounded to mitigate accusations of cruelty. I can’t say whether their efforts were working, or even sincere. I was too busy hoping somebody from PETA might save me.
We descended the stairs to the floor level, its packed dirt pocked by years of hooves and tractor wheels. The sounds of the snake exhibition followed us, punctuating the air with hisses, rattles, and textbook paragraphs about the animals that have haunted my ears ever since.
Winding through a maze of stalls, we came upon purveyors of everything from snake skins to snake meat, from first-aid kits to rattle keychains to jars of preserved bits, and wall after wall of fancy critter-proof chaps. Mykol spied every conceivable mount and trophy, including a rattlesnake head and tail glued to the shell of an evicted turtle. You could fondle belts and boots adorned with fanged, glassy-eyed heads, or buy antitoxin for your cattle, or a hand mirror. Every ten feet or so a rattle went off next to me, sometimes low enough to imply it could be on the loose, or perhaps in a cage or bucket. I didn’t know where to move.
“You have to keep talking to me,” I said. “Am I OK here?”
“You’re gray,” Mykol whispered, keeping to his tactic. “And your hand is soaking through my shirt.”
Another rattle went off, this one beside my ear. I ducked. Then it passed by, as if somebody were taking it on an aerial tour.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “We have to go. I can’t cope with this.”
“Serpent Serenade” © Winston Smith, 2012
“It’s OK, it’s OK. Let’s just register for the hunt, and then I’ll take you outside.”
By the time we found the registration table, I’d overheard far too many phrases that should, in principle, be prohibited at a snake roundup. These include: “Shit!” and “Hold this” and “Back up, back up!” and, worst of all, “See? That’s how fast it can happen.”
The registration table was empty except for one man. Jeb, by Mykol’s account, was tall with a silvery ZZ Top beard. He wore sunglasses, despite working indoors, and a Stetson in the style LBJ made popular. Jeb was a JC, one of the organizers behind the event. Considering Sweetwater’s evangelical climate, I assumed that being a JC meant you were a member of the Jesus Christ gang, but the acronym actually stands for junior commissioner. These were small-business and civic leaders, not woo-woo snake handlers.
“Pretty day, boys,” he greeted us. “Pretty day.”
I wanted to hug him.
“Hi. He’s blind,” Mykol began, “and we came from Canada to go on the snake hunt.”
Jeb’s reaction was administrative and cool, as if he’d processed a busload of me this morning. All we had to do was purchase our licenses and pony up the fee. It was settled. Our team would head for the desert early tomorrow. That was fine. I’d had enough for one day. Jeb told us we’d meet at a grocery-store parking lot bright and early, and convoy from there.
“Can you tell me, has anybody been bit?” I asked.
“When?” he said.
That, of course, was the wrong answer.
“Has anybody been bit recently?” I tried.
“Son, y’all will be just fine now,” he said. “OK?”
I felt better. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
“But don’t forget to have your bite kits with you tomorrow.”
A woman elbowed in front of us, burning to ask Jeb how many snakes she had to catch in order to make a set of pumps.
“Oh, I hear tell they need about four for ladies’ shoes,” said Jeb.
“How about three? Is that enough if I want a really open, strappy style?”
“Couldn’t say, ma’am.”
“But I really don’t want to pay unless I know I can catch enough by noon.”
She seemed to think she was negotiating the number of tickets necessary to win the big stuffed panda. We finally bolted for the nearest exit, heading past the coliseum’s fountain. Its gushing water, almost like a sizzle, was loud enough that it touched every corner of the room, though it failed to cool us to any degree. Then, about ten yards away, my ear distinguished the first edges of its rattling.
“Is that—?” was all I could muster.
It was. A plywood pen, chest-high, teeming with diamondbacks. The Snake Pit. Mykol had come closer for a look, not knowing I’d misheard it as a fountain. We pushed toward its wall of noise.
The sound had a startling physics. It had mass. A tangible weight and effect on the air. I was immediately reminded that, at its essence, noise is vibration. To listen is actually to receive our most subtle form of touch. How easily we forget that.
What radiated from the Snake Pit was extraordinary in another way. It didn’t feel remote or abstract. For me, sounds are often little more than a caption for a picture I can’t see. A lesser substitute for sight. Functional, but incomplete.
Consider my perspective. A noise illuminates a specific thing in a specific place. The dishwasher door slams and, in slamming, defines what’s out there and where it is. The effect is like a glance. Or let’s say a kid rings a bicycle bell. Now I know there’s a bike, and the fading ring traces its path, giving a hint of depth and dynamic to my two-dimensional blur. Other sounds are more environmental, less precise. The irrelevant buzz of electronics in an office. The panoramic thrum of distant vehicles. These don’t conjure images in the mind, not so much, and they certainly don’t locate things in the world very well. But their noise is out there, as generic and unfocused as “cars” or “traffic.” Call it color.
With the exception of music, sounds share one chronically frustrating quality. For me, they just refer. That’s their cognitive nature in my body. They point, name, and gesture to the unseen. They are as substantial, or unsubstantial, as a word.
But these rattles had more. They were something unto themselves. Their occupation of the pen rose, swelling, solid and defined, like the feeling of heat from a road. A thing. The sound physically pushed us back while it asked us to come closer. We put ourselves inside its vibrations. I could feel the rattling with my face. A quickening in the air as more joined in and intensified their spasms, then a thinning, a deflating lung, as some gave up and calmed down. A sour smell, just a moisture, would faintly whip about when the activity increased, faster, louder, angrier, the snakes sensing whether the numbers of looky-loos had grown.
Rattlesnakes can detect a shift in temperature of 0.01 degrees Fahrenheit. The slightest change can alarm their tails, which are actually a matrix of cartilage, not bone. So as the warmth of our bodies came and went, drawn and repelled, we played the snakes like a prehistoric Theremin.
Though I was transfixed, it was too much. The pit was too flip and unnatural. Too shamefully spectacular. Mykol continued to watch, but I swung my cane, trying to carve a way back through the crowd. Nobody moved. A few quick raps on the plywood drew some eyes. Folks stepped aside, some gawking at my curious and somewhat frightening image. Back and forth I whacked my cane, tapping an exit, as hundreds of tails, likewise, waved.
Because a few stragglers on our hunting team were late, Mykol and I sat in our car in the grocery-store parking lot and ate the sandwiches we’d bought for lunch. It was eight in the morning. Neither of us wanted to smoke any more cigarettes. We’d both quit eight years ago. That was before we learned every store in town was sold out of snakebite kits.
“Your hand hurt?” I asked Mykol. I could barely hold my sandwich.
“Got a blister the size of a quarter.”
After we’d registered at the coliseum, Mykol and I had driven to Abilene for some decompression. There he’d experimented with the phrase “Hi, my brother’s blind, and we came from Canada. Can we—?” You can insert any number of bad ideas here. Who can say no to the disabled? My unchecked power was Mykol’s new toy.
So he had tried this phrase in Abilene on a couple of fellows at an indoor gun range. Within minutes they’d loaded a .44 Magnum and set me loose. Of course, Mykol aimed me, but interestingly enough, nobody questioned my right to be there. In fact, the only thing said was a reminder to wear ear protection. Wouldn’t want to lose that, too. The gunmen were indeed courteous and considerate, despite a penchant for blowing the shit out of objects.
“We’re just waiting on two more. We’ll give ’em five more minutes, folks,” called Jeb to the parking lot. “Then we’re outta here.”
I heard one of our team add, “Damn straight.”
“Were you surprised how well you did?” Mykol asked me.
He’d carefully folded my gun-range target so I could bring it home, show it to my students (I teach at Capilano University), and possibly lose my job.
“All this violence, or threat of violence,” I said, “is sort of making me toxic. Or maybe it’s this sandwich.”
I’d never shot anything before. I never plan to again. The explosions were frightening, even though I caused them and could anticipate their arrival. The kickback from Dirty Harry’s .44 is not a pleasant sensation, either. It’s like trying to catch the hoof of a pissed-off donkey. Besides, it’s dull when you can’t see. Bang. What’d I hit? Bang. What’d I hit? Golf is essentially the same sport.
A truck sped into the parking lot and pulled up beside our little crowd. I knew it was a truck because it’s always a truck in Texas.
“Viper Ride” © Winston Smith, 2012
“Sorry we’re late, Jeb,” a man’s voice called through the window.
“S’OK, Bill,” said Jeb. “How’d you do yesterday?”
“Not so bad, not so bad. Brought about 20 in from the south pasture. Got a pretty corn snake, too, but it got loose in the back here somewheres and damned if I can find it.”
“I hear that,” said Jeb.
Mykol would later tell me that Bill’s wife, or friend, or captive, smiled and waved shyly at the crowd from the passenger seat, sort of like the Queen, as Bill admitted a snake could be nesting behind her ankles.
Jeb and his two sons led the way, and Bill’s truck brought up the rear. About half an hour out of town, we turned down a dirt road deeply corduroyed by cattle and tire tracks. Our destination was a 9,000-acre ranch, where we would fan out. To Jeb and his sons, and Bill and the ranch owners, this wasn’t sport or fun or curiosity. This was work. A service to the town and to the farms. Culling the diamondback herds would remain an annual chore for the community’s health and the cattle’s. If hapless tourists wanted to pay to help, step right up, folks.
Jeb’s words to live by, his only instructions, were given at the side of the road. The ten of us listened like a platoon, each of us armed with a plastic bin, a very, very securely fitted lid, a pocket mirror, and a hook, though “hook” is really not the word for it. Mykol and I each held a retrofitted golf club. The head had been sawed off, and in its place a small piece of metal had been welded, something not unlike an Allen wrench. I’d been puzzling over mine for hours. Jeb, mercifully, was about to disclose how the hell you pick up ten pounds of angry snake with an IKEA assembly tool.
“Listen up, and we’ll keep her brief,” Jeb said. “You and your partner will keep your eyes down at all times. Y’all want to look for piles of rocks, fallen trees and logs, old lumber, tall grass. Shady spots, that’s what we’re wanting. But, and I can’t say it enough, you keep your eyes down at all times.”
A couple behind us popped two cans of Coors, getting their morning shine on.
“Now, if you find a snake,” Jeb continued, “first thing is you want to come to it with your boot up.”
I heard him tap the sole of his boot with his augmented IKEA wrench.
“Then, with your hook, you want to wave a little and, here’s the trick, you want to provoke it.”
“See?” Mykol whispered. “I told you.”
His joke in the car, about taunting a rattlesnake with my cane, is the actual method. According to Jeb, we really wanted the snakes to throw themselves at us. Uncoiled, they’d be vulnerable. Vulnerable enough, the theory went, that you can just plunk an Allen wrench down over their necks, pinning them in place. Then you just pick them up, put them in a bucket, and snap on the lid, and, presto, you’re a survivor and an undisputed loon.
But Jeb went from “provoke it” to “put it in your bucket” as if nothing much happened in between. It seemed, at least to me, we should have spent a lot more time in breaking down the interim skills. For example, how, exactly, do you pick it up? And how do you let go of it in a bin, and while we’re on the subject, how do you grab the lid before the diamondback gets its rightful revenge on your neck? Oh, and how do you repeat the steps when it gets loose in a tiny rental car?
One of our Coors enthusiasts wanted other clarification.
“I read,” she said, “that you gotta tuck your pants into your boots on account of the fact that if they bite, they’ll leap at your ankle or calf mostly, and if you got your boots on, well, then what’s done is done, but if you got your pant leg hanging out, then the fangs get caught and then you got a snake hanging off your damned pants. Am I right?”
Jeb gave it a bit of thought, but not much.
“I’d say that’d be about so.”
Pants were tucked like you’ll never see at the Gap.
“All right now. Happy hunting, folks,” Jeb said. “Holler if you got need. And keep them eyes down, you hear?”
Mykol and I stepped off the road to wander the desert scrub. Our steps were slow and deliberate, the way our teenage bodies used to sneak home drunk.
“I’m going to get you the biggest snake ever,” he said, returning to a whisper. “Wait here.”
Poking around, his hook worked inside little holes, which I still refused to call dens.
“Tension” is not an adequate word for what filled us. Step, listen, step, listen. Occasionally, Mykol prodded crispy stands of grass. I’d flinch, recoil, or even leap at its audible likeness to a rattle.
“Jesus, Mykol, tell me when you’re going to do that,” I whispered.
“We’re so awesome. We’re looking for a deadly snake.”
We found a large pile of rocks and old wood.
“I can feel it,” he whispered. “Get ready.”
I prepared myself to run away.
He lifted a large rock, then jumped to safety and stifled a giggle. We listened. Something moved in the pile.
“I’m so scared,” he whispered.
He reached for another rock.
“No hands, boys!” Jeb shouted across the scrubby field. “Keep your damned hands away!”
Mykol shoved another rock aside, this time using his hook. Then another. I did the same. We’d invented a new sport through a combination of Russian roulette and landscaping. Again, something moved. We could hear rustling in a crevice. Then, out it came, sufficiently provoked.
“Damn. It’s a mouse. Or a rat,” Mykol said.
“Can I ask you something?”
The voice came from behind me. It offered a Coors. I declined politely as Mykol hurried to a nearby stand of stumps.
“Are you, you know, blind? Like really… blind?” Mr. Coors asked.
Several yards away, Mykol shrieked and leaped back, then realized it was just the wind in the grass.
“Like, really blind?” Mr. Coors pressed.
“Yep. Really blind.”
“Well, then I’ll be goddamned!” he hooted, and slapped his thigh. “You the bravest son-bitch I ever met! Hey, Connie! Come here, baby! This here man is the bravest man ever!”
He shook my hand, praised Canada for making me the kind of “son-ah-bitch” I am, and wandered off to find a snake just for me. I said it was OK, I’m fine, but he insisted that he and Connie would help and that they wouldn’t take no for an answer. How friendly, assisting in my self-destruction.
Mykol gasped at some logs as he pulled them apart with his hook. Then he cursed at them.
“Idiot jerk wind!” he said. “C’mon, let’s try the grass over there. I can feel it…”
Several hours in the sun yielded nothing but Mr. Coors singing my praises to whoever would listen. Jeb decided we should pack up and try another spot down the road a mile or two.
“You know what, Mykol,” I said as our car humped along through a cloud of dust. “Let’s just turn around and call it a day. I mean, I’ve heard them. That’s enough for me.”
“OK. I just want to see what’s down here,” he said. “Then we’ll go. Just a few minutes.”
“Really, I’m done.”
“OK. Just a quick look.”
I knew that tone. An even, autopilot voice. He was ready to get stupid, determined to catch something, come what may. Was it for me? Was it for him? At this point I would have gladly just fingered the skin on the hotel wall and gone home.
“Awesome,” he shouted, quickly parking us. “There’s an old house and lumber and car bodies. Go, go.”
“Miss Snake Bite” © Winston Smith, 2012
We leaped out and he dragged me, rushing to beat our platoon to the riches that could only dwell in such a decaying outpost and its shadows. Others clearly had the same hope, because they ran after us or rocketed ahead. We caught up with Mr. Coors and Connie. Like us, they had eyes on the house. It was an abandoned one-room shack about 20 yards in from the road.
Connie’s voice was pointed, almost nagging, as we rounded the grasses at the corner of the old porch, where she stopped.
“Hank,” she said, “get it.”
“I ain’t getting’ it, you get it,” he replied.
I stepped past Connie and, unknowingly, toward the tail of a critter that lit up, bright as fireworks. It was about three feet away. I froze, clueless which way to retreat.
“You got the damned hook, Hank!” she argued.
“Then you take it, then!”
The snake’s tail seemed to double its speed.
Jeb’s boys hollered, “Daddy, it’s real big!”
Where there’s one, there’s likely others. I didn’t care. I hop-skipped backward into the safety of the unknown, or the camouflage of whatever.
“Hank! Get it, quick!”
“I look like I know?!” she shouted.
The rattling stopped and, for a microsecond, my world and its pictures were snuffed into silence as the snake shot, from what I’m told, up and in the general direction of Connie’s face.
“Holy Jesus!” Jeb hollered as he came running.
The snake had missed and was quickly recoiling beside us.
Mykol yanked me back, exclaiming, “It’s for real! It’s for real!”
Before Jeb could plant his IKEA tool, the snake, at least five feet long and thick as a fire hose, booked it in reverse, jetting under the house, its tail drumming against the floorboards and mapping its escape. The sound was like a stick dragged across a picket fence.
Everybody stood around, though way back, from the mouth of the hole while Jeb’s boys fetched tools to force the snake out. Hoses were inserted. Clamps, flashlights.
“I am not going near that with a fucking hand mirror,” I said to Mykol.
“That was awesome,” he whispered. “It tried to eat Connie.”
Though Jeb and Bill did their best, the snake knew better than to show itself again. It kept quiet deep in the dark, millions of years of evolutionary stasis proving the perfection of its strategy. Lie low, tuck in, and stay away from predators. We, on the other hand, were something else. Something ugly and graceless. Out here, in packs with trucks and Allen wrenches and boots and bins, we can’t clear room enough to feel safe under the biggest sky.
Mykol and I searched about but, again, found nothing. It was late afternoon, and we were both hungry, dirty, tired, and dispirited. I was, to be honest, sort of relieved, too. I was more than content to leave the diamondbacks of Sweetwater and have them leave me. I’d listened. To be left alone was all they asked. The paradox of their tails became clear: Remain quiet, you might get crushed; alert the world to your presence, you might make yourself a target. I get it. I’m a disabled guy.
Every few hundred yards, driving us back to town, Mykol pulled over and announced that he’d be right back. Then he darted into the desert to some distant pile of rocks or knobby patch of grass, imploring the universe to give us our moment. That’s Mykol. I listened to him happily scratch at rotted logs, chasing a scare, and marveled at the fact we are, somehow, the same.
As Mykol threw his hook into the back seat, admitting our final defeat, I warmed with a big love. I eyed the blur of his snake hook. He’ll do anything for me. I don’t have to wonder at such questions.
Though we didn’t catch a snake that day, Mykol continued to work the fairground for any other sensation he could wrangle me.
“Hi, my brother’s blind and he came from Canada. Can he judge the rattlesnake cook-off?”
We sampled 20 plates. Yes, it tastes like chicken, only bonier and fishier. Everything was hampered, or aided, by the beers we’d been asked to cleanse our palettes with between plates of snake.
“C’mon,” Mykol slurred. “I got one more idea.”
Back into the coliseum we went. He dragged me past the curios and the idling Snake Pit, until we reached another plywood pen.
“Hi. Blind. Canadian. Can he try that?”
It was the skinning pen, and it was full of women whom I would soon learn were competing for the title of something called Miss Snake Charmer. Apparently a revealing swimsuit and a desire for world peace aren’t enough. You must also have enough skill with a knife to remove the epidermis of a serpent. After each snake had been successfully unwrapped, smiles and big hair walked past us. Each contestant went to press her bloody palm to a nearby white wall, autographing it with a bloody finger. Someone named Keri even doodled a heart over the “i.” The world is, officially, indisputably, that fucked up.
The gate opened, and a big man guided me in to take my turn, to literally touch my greatest fear.
“You ready, son?” he said. “Here’s the knife. You’re safe. The head’s already gone. Worst is over. Now you just got to carry on, all right?”
What has stayed with me is neither the cold nor the sliminess of flesh and skin. The coiling and uncoiling spasms of the headless body required all my strength to keep it taut. I’ll spare you the details, because what really impressed itself on me was something small.
After I finished, my guide, a JC named Mark, opened my hand and dropped something into my palm. The snake’s heart. It felt like a tangerine. Then it beat. And it beat again. I hate to admit it, but the sensation was beautiful—the primitive rhythm that keeps us alive. And there it was, a surprise every time. Beat. When will it stop? Beat. I waited, but it kept going. To think, life comes of something so unremarkable. Just a twitch. That’s it.
When our plane left the runway, I gazed out the window at a Texas smear and could sense, albeit abstractly, the landscape shrinking below. It cheered me to think of all the thousands and millions of snakes in my visual field, dwelling way down there. The ones who got away.
Though he had worked at it, Mykol couldn’t engineer a way to cram the snake hooks into his suitcase. Bringing snake hooks as our carry-on luggage also didn’t seem reasonable. The gunpowder residue on our hands could prove trouble enough, especially for the blind guy. We’d had no choice, so the hooks were abandoned in the trunk of our rental car as we raced to catch our flight.
“Do you realize what we did back there?” Mykol giggled.
I turned away from my window. “Shed blood with beauty contestants?”
“I mean, just back there,” he said. “We left the snake hooks in the trunk.”
“So, the next person who opens that trunk is going to find a garbage can with the lid on, and two snake hooks resting on top.”
The picture filled my mind’s eye. What a postcard. What a thing to be confronted with.
“Would you open it?” he asked.
To see more of Winston Smith’s artwork check out a new episode of VICE Meets… this month on VICE.com
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