Friday, August 16, 2013

Rattlesnakes and Yugoslavia

This morning I'm hiking with my dog through a familiar ravine, and she's off leash and chasing lizards happily when suddenly a huge noise erupts from a sagebrush. The dog flies straight up in the air, cartoonish, and instantly I know it's a rattlesnake she's nearly stepped on. I know it's "nearly" because she still has her ears perked up in Happy Lizard Hunter mode and looks curious, not pained. She then proceeds to nose around for a better look, so I scream her name and she comes right to me. Good girl. We stand together quietly and the snake continues its racket for a moment, then settles down.

I've lived in the southwest almost my entire life, but this was my first wild-rattlesnake encounter. I've only seen them in zoos. They are quiet and complacent in zoos. In the wild, they are really very loud — I had no idea.

Anyway, the dog and I are fine but in a bit of a pickle here. We are in a deep ravine, the east side of which is pretty much a wall, dotted with cactus. The west slope is gentler, but, you know, snake-inhabited. If I continue my way down the sandy-bottomed arroyo, I cannot give the snake much room. It's a loop hike, so my only other other option is to turn around and go back the way I've come. It's hot, I have to get back home for an appointment, and my car is either a short downhill trot away (if I continue), or a long arduous climb away (if I turn).

It occurs to me this situation feels kind of familiar, but I'm not sure why. I've run into other snakes before, but they are cruising along and not rattling and that is not what's ringing my memory bells.

I shift back and forth on my feet and the snake picks up its rattle again. Man, it sounds really pissed off. Do they always sound like that? I can't see it. Mercifully, there is a big sagebrush between me and the snake. I know it's watching me (the rattle) but it can't launch a neat strike across the distance between us.

OK, I remember what this reminds me of: 1992, Yugoslavia. Actually, Hungary. I'm in Budapest, and I want to get to Greece. For the past few weeks I have been backpacking through Eastern Europe, on spring break from the University of Aberdeen, and I am ready for some beach time. Only now does it occur to me that there's a war between me and the beach. Drat. I go to an embassy for advice: can I go through Romania? "Nope, no Americans allowed." What should I do? "Go back through Austria, around through Italy, and down." That will add days to my itinerary, I'll have no time left for beaches! "Not my problem."

So. I have to push through Yugoslavia (as we were still calling it, sort of), or go back. Unlike Romania, there was no rule against me going through Yugoslavia: nobody would stop me. And as I thought it through, it seemed less and less crazy to continue. Look: the war was not hot at the moment, and no American civilians had been kidnapped or shot at. That I knew of. I'd already seen Austria and hated it, and I'd seen plenty of Italy, plus I would have to go through it again to get back to Scotland anyway.

So I pushed through. And it turned out fine, although the train was very slow. It was called the "Hellas Express," which was apt only in the "Hell" bit: it traveled so slowly at times I could have walked alongside it, literally. OK, I might have had to jog. But then I couldn't have slept, which is mostly what I did: I slept on trains during the night, I visited cities during the day — efficient. On this train I could not get a seat, so I slept on the floor, which was absolutely filthy. I shared the floor with gypsies, which meant I had to curl up around my pack and not really sleep, but still: I was saving days! And no more Austria. I had to keep this in mind.

At 2 a.m., the train jerked to a stop. This happened a lot that night, so I kept dozing. Then a man came through the train shouting into each compartment, "Americans?" I thought about saying nothing, but all the other eyes in the compartment turned to me when he stuck his head in ours, and so he pinned me with a look. "American," he pronounced. I was ordered to get off the train with about five other Yanks, all of us sleepy and grumpy. None of them looked scared, so I was not scared. They took our passports, and then I was a little bit scared. We waited for what seemed like hours in the damp cool night air, train huffing at a standstill, like it was impatient. Then, with no explanation, we were given our passports back and we got to reboard the train. The other (non-American) passengers glared at me, as if I were personally responsible for the delay. Which, possibly, I was.

But the upshot was: it was fine. I got to Athens in one piece, and from there went island-hopping, and the Greek islands were the most beautiful place I had ever been. Maybe still the most beautiful place I've been. I swam in the Aegeian Sea and it felt totally worth it, even the dirty train floor and the passport thing.

This is flashing through my mind as I contemplate the rattlesnake, which has calmed down again. I am not a foolhardy person; actually I'm fairly cautious. But my caution is up against a clock, plus a big dose of inertia: the forward way feels so much better than reverse. I'm also pretty sure the snake cannot strike me through that bush. If I stay on the very far wall of the ravine, there's some five feet between me and the snake, plus that bush. Lastly, the dog was prancing on top of it and it didn't bite her, so it can't be that horribly aggressive.

I grab dog's collar and we run. I do this high-stepping, half-screaming run ("don't strike don't strike don't strike!"), and the snake is definitely rattling away, but it stays put and we are past it in a flash.

I didn't even have to relinquish my passport.

Me in the Aegean Sea


  1. Great post. I like how you tied the impasse with the snake with your experience in Yugoslavia. (Wow! You've been to a LOT of neat places!)

    I'm not a fan of rattlers, but at least they're polite enough to warn you before they strike. Rather gentlemanly, dontca think?

    Have a super weekend.

    1. Yes, I did have that thought: if you're going to be deadly, at least you can advertise it noisily. Viva la evoluciĆ³n! :)

      May your weekend (and mine) be entirely viper-free.

  2. I liked hearing about your European adventure.

    You need a nice cat to add to your walks, they basically kill and eat snakes with ease and aplomb.

    1. Great idea — erm, how do I do that? They are not keen on leashes, I hear.

    2. It works best with cats if you start walking them on a leash when they are kittens, but even as adults, once they realize that it means they are going to go outside (true of house cats who don't go out), they will allow it. :-)

    3. That is fascinating. My husband is allergic to cats so I won't be able to experiment with this, myself, but our son has been reading this thread and he loves the idea of leash-training a cat. Maybe when he gets his own place ...

  3. Great stories both - artfully tied together, as well.

    1. Thanks! I wasn't sure they really tied together in any logical way, but my brain instantly made the connection. Curious.

  4. Ah, yes there is the occasional rattler here. Thank your dog for alerting you. Really that's all you need as they are shy of humans. Humans though, following political initiatives, require even greater care. You have proven yourself more than equal to both. My compliments and admiration.

    1. I am so, so grateful she alerted me. I'd say "this is why I hike with her," but it's not really. We hike together because we both love hiking, and it's just nice that she also alerts me to critters.

      "Humans though, following political initiatives, require even greater care."

      Wise, wise words, as always, Geo. Nothing more dangerous than a human. I was scared-er of the two blokes I came across — same trail — with camo and guns. Unfortunately for me, the dog thinks all humans are wonderful. Still, the humans don't know that, and these men looked warier when they saw her than they did when they saw me.

      Too bad the dog wasn't with me on that train ride, eh? Maybe I'd have kept my passport.


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