In West Texas, we’ve learned to live with our slithery neighbors. Not that we have a choice.
The half-hour ride from Marfa to Alpine was uneventful. My husband, our son, and I had crammed into the single-cab truck one Saturday, chattering about school and 4-H projects while on the way to the feed store. In Alpine we bought alfalfa and returned to the vehicle, where Huck, who was about eleven years old at the time, opened the passenger door. Instead of climbing in, he abruptly jumped backward into my chest, nearly toppling us both. “Snake!” he stammered. “There’s a snake.”
And, lo, reader, indeed there was a snake. As we peered into the cab and opened the door a smidge wider, a two-foot-long snake slid from the floorboard and dropped onto the asphalt below. We shuddered in place; he was a slim fellow, narrow-headed, lightly striped in brown.
It’s hard to say who was more bewildered, the reptile or the people. While it was obviously nonvenomous (no rattle, no shovel-shaped head, no red and yellow stripes that touched), the snake’s sudden debut was still a minor shock. We gawped; he moved into the tire’s shadow and attempted to orient himself. We tried to wrap our minds around what clearly must be the truth.
“So, uh,” I began. “It rode with us to Alpine, then? In the truck?”
It had. It must’ve. We’d gotten in the truck and driven straight to our destination. The windows were up. How long had it been there?
My husband, Michael, has a sunny-side-of-the-street disposition. “At least it waited until we were in the parking lot to show up,” he said, “and not while we were driving seventy miles an hour.”
Yes. That’s only a little comforting, though.
For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes. Well, that’s not 100 percent accurate; certain snake activities freak me out. I don’t really dig snakes in water, for instance. As a child, I remember swimming in the springs at Balmorhea State Park and someone calling out, “Snake!” Sure enough, a lengthy snake skimmed past with great facility, its head held high. It’s alarming that they can go so fast on water, faster than I can go and probably faster than you can go, too. And despite my indulgence as a mother, I’ve never given in to Huck’s occasional wheedling pleas to own a snake, because pet snakes always find a way to get out, at least once, and then you have a loose snake in the house. Apparently I’m also not keen on snakes that are footloose in vehicles.
Then there was the time last May when my young friend Parker called my attention to a Western coachwhip near a truck parked at the Marfa Golf Course, where we were working a fundraiser. These coachwhips are commonly six feet long and are also called red racers, for their bright pink scales and the surprising speed at which they travel. “Come look,” Parker called. “Yes, I see it,” I replied. Parker and I were on opposite sides of the vehicle, though, and it quickly became clear that we weren’t looking at the same snake. Parker followed his as it slithered up a stunted elm nearby. I walked after mine, which slithered into the same tree. Friends ambled over to gaze at the two snakes in the tree, and while we all marveled at the scene, a third snake sped through the grass and joined its companions draped overhead in the elm’s spindly branches. Three snakes in a tree. I did not know that coachwhips climbed trees, much less in multiples. It is, in fact, perhaps something I did not need to know. Now you know it too.
Others have a less benign interest in things slithery. A friend of ours swore revenge on all rattlers after a Mohave’s bite killed his favorite dog. As retribution, he’d pick up rattlers he found and mess with them until he got bored. Michael once jumped in this guy’s truck and a rattler struck at him; it was in a fish tank on the seat, the top marginally covered by a piece of window screen.
But there is beauty in a snake’s mystery. I genuinely love encountering them—their beguiling limblessness; their provocative, emotionless gaze; their abilities and knowledge beyond our own. Our small tabby cat brought us a Texas blind snake one night, a bumbling and harmless, shiny, brownish-black creature the size of a pencil whose head and tail were initially hard to tell apart and whom we wrested from his captor and released into the front yard. I’ve never seen another.
Snakes can seemingly appear and disappear at will, a clever and enviable trick. The Texas garter snake I met just outside our kitchen door last summer took off for the cover of salvia bushes when he realized he’d been seen, gracefully eluding both me and the chickens that had also spied him and come trotting. Sometimes snakes appear as something they are not. We’ve seen a bull snake thrum its tail against leaf litter to convincingly mimic a rattler. And once, while hanging a halter in our barn, I puzzled at the loop of intestine that inexplicably spilled toward me through a wide crack in the plaster. How could that happen? And whose intestine is that? Only when the snake’s head spilled out as well did I realize that it was actually a red racer, a very complete and long red racer, that was unspooling right in front of me from out of the wall. I emitted a yelp, and Michael arrived in time to see it slide to the floor. We banged around for twenty minutes, encouraging it to leave, which it finally did, through the cat door and without a goodbye.
There’s power in a snake. Emily Dickinson wrote that the sudden sight of a snake causes “zero at the bone,” and she was right. The body knows about a snake before the mind. If you’re walking along a dry creek bed, the distinctive buzz of a diamondback’s rattle will stop you cold. There’s no “I wonder what that was” moment, no “Gee, that’s a weird sound” sort of thought. Instinct takes over.
This reaction occurs even in someone unacquainted with snakes. A long time ago I was among the attendants of a late-night party at the mobile home owned by our friend who hated rattlers. He was a bachelor, and his bare-bones effort toward any interior decoration showed that his interests lay elsewhere, a real one-fork-one-spoon-one-bowl kind of guy. Marfa tends to draw together people of disparate backgrounds, so it was not a surprise that a visiting New York photographer of some fame and his assistant had sniffed out the fun and were ensconced on the couch. The photographer was doughy and loud; his handshake was damp. The assistant sat silent and meek, clutching a tall boy in a paper bag and gazing alternately at the defeated shag carpet, the faux-wood-paneled walls, the host’s spittoon. Both men dressed in layers of black, like widows, and between taking flash photos of their fellow partygoers, the photographer was given to trilling giddy comments to the assistant, as though none of us could hear. “Can you believe we’re in a trailer?” he said. “At a trailer party? We’re trailer trash!”
Whatever novelty or charm the New Yorkers brought to the setting swiftly waned. The host took action. He grabbed a paper bag off the kitchen counter and dumped its contents onto the carpet: a fat, angry Western diamondback that furled into a tight coil, drew back its head, and rattled mightily. Everyone stared. The photographer, showing athleticism I did not anticipate, leaped from the couch, scaled the kitchen counter, and wedged himself into the space on top of the fridge. Remarkably, the assistant was right behind him, and since there was no more space on top of the fridge, he perched on the counter, next to the microwave. In my memory, the tableau is a frozen instant of time: men, snake, wide-eyed guests, couch, fridge. The rattler kept rattling. I figured the night could not get any better, or stranger, than this moment, so I spun on a heel, sailed outside, caught Michael on the porch, and we headed home. I didn’t hear what happened to the photographer and the assistant. Perhaps they’re still there.
We have a live-and-let-live attitude about snakes found near the house or barn, though snakes with venom are excluded from this compact. Our drafted army of cats, chickens, and snake-hating donkeys seem to keep them mostly at bay. I know that they are there, however, even if I can’t see them. It’s February, and snakes are soon awakening from their winter-long sleep, called brumation. Local lore is that rattlers are at their most dangerous in early spring, cranky, I suppose, from hunger and close quarters underground. I’ll be on the lookout, poised for a shiver in the sun.