A Blind Man’s View of the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup
Canadian journalist and author Ryan Knighton—who is blind—communes with reptiles he can't see for VICE magazine.
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Last week, VICE magazine published a long feature about Sweetwater’s self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup” written by Canadian author Ryan Knighton, who is not only afraid of snakes but is also blind. “I’ll be goddamned!” one of his cohorts marvels when he realizes the blind journalist signed himself up for a snake hunt. “You the bravest son-bitch I ever met!”
Knighton spends a small slice of the story having his preconceptions confirmed (Texans drive trucks, shoot guns, and dine at “all-you-can-eat-beef joints with names like Buck’s and Skeet’s”), but the heart of the story deals with Knighton, who is “mortally afraid of snakes,” confronting his fears and experiencing something extraordinary:
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?
It’s a funny, gracefully written piece, both as vivid, straightforward journalism, and because it comes from the unique perspective of someone experiencing the roundup via sound and smell rather than sight (though he clearly takes in a lot of secondhand visual details).
Knighton also wonders what good a hand mirror (usually used in conjunction with a hook) will do him, and, in the midst of what for him becomes a frightening arrival on day one writes about overhearing “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.'”