Ballard and Walker: PCT Thru-Hikers

Snakes Alive!

June 3, 2000: It's another bright sunny morning along the PCT, this one in the quiet waystation of Agua Dulce. Four-hundred-fifty-four miles into the trek, nearly a fifth of the way to Canada. Things are about to get even brighter and sunnier, not to mention hotter, as we prepare for Section E and the Mojave Desert.

There are plenty of things for a novice hiker to fret about when setting off for a thruhike—most of which include the prefixes hyper or hypo. There's hypothermia, hyperthermia, hypohydration, hyperhydration, hyponutrition, hyperexhaustion, hyperextension of mission-critical joints, falls from hyperhigh trails, run-ins with hyper bears and so on. So far we have been pretty lucky to have avoided any serious encounters with anything from the hyper-hypo family. And while some of my fears have been alleviated as we have covered hundreds of miles unscathed, there is one menace looming large as we begin the next stretch of trail: snakes. In particular, ones with rattles. . .and heat-sensing pits and fangs designed to deliver nasty toxins.

My dread of these critters goes way back to pre-adolescence. I was a rather skittish eight-year-old, the type that would shy away from large dogs, no matter how friendly their intent. I also, like many kids of that age, had an exaggerated impression of the danger of wild animals. I was well aware of the rattling menace that lived in my native California, and was quite sure that its bite meant instant death.

Thus, when I saw my first rattler, a 5-footer playing its percussion at top volume, on the trail to my family's cabin in Big Sur, I was duly petrified. Matters didn't improve when the big fella started advancing up the trail towards me. I desperately flung my sleeping bag at it, but this defense didn't seem to deter my assailant. He kept slithering towards me, perhaps mistaking me for a very large lizard sandwich. Luckily, my father, just behind me on the trail, quickly came to my defense, lobbing a number of large rocks at the rattling reptile. This sent him into retreat down the hill, but not before my young psyche was permanently and severely, well, rattled.

Twenty years later I have been reintroduced to the rattlesnake. Now I know that their bite is not instantly fatal; in fact, up to 40% of bites are completely dry of venom. I also know that these reptiles fear humans more than we fear them and are anxious to avoid confrontations. The majority of bites result from attempts (usually by drunk teenagers) to prove that they are faster than the snake—which, considering that the rattlesnake can strike in 1/256th of a second, means that the only thing the homo sapien dildoheads prove is that they know how to end up in the emergency room. I know to give the snake its 6 feet of distance and that it shouldn't bother me. I also know the treatment if a bite should occur—application of an extraction device called the Sawyer extractor, which if applied in the first five minutes after a bite can remove up to 30% of the venom. Then a compression wrap of the affected extremity and rapid evacuation to an ER for treatment with antivenin.

Knowledge is power, but, at least in my case, it can't overcome boyhood terror. Especially not after reading in the PCT guidebook that rattlers can be found virtually anywhere along the California PCT. And also not after frequent encounters with trail landmarks named after my scaly enemy—Rattlesnake Canyon, Rattlesnake Springs, Rattlesnake Trail—we've encountered all of these so far. The guidebook described Rattlesnake Trail as "little-used"—gee, I wonder why.

We have seen four rattlers on the PCT to date—two Timber rattlers (large black ornery ones), a Diamondback, and a Sidewinder (tan and smallish).

Despite the initial primeval adrenaline surge and metallic burning in my mouth, these encounters haven't been too bad. None of rattlers have tried to slither towards me, mistaking me for Lunch-A-Lizard.

So we set off into the desert tomorrow, and I can't help but still be scared of rattlesnakes. Maybe we will see one of the Mojave critters early on and, having faced the enemy and survived, I will walk on unfettered. I can dream of this sort of resolution, but I am sure it won't be that easy. Maybe I need a fatal (not my fate, mind you) confrontation to vanquish my reptilian nemesis. I am smart enough to know that I shouldn't grab the sucker with my hand (I am no dildohead), but maybe my father's rock approach might work. Or even a slingshot. I could kill one of these Mojave Greens and then roast him over the fire. And as I enjoyed a rattlesnake dinner (backcountry folks say that they taste like chicken—reinforcing the notion that anything can taste like chicken), I could also gulp down those lingering childhood fears.

Or maybe I should just face the reality that although I will always be scared of rattlesnakes, the odds of them ever hurting me are miniscule, and I would be wise to focus instead on staying away from Mr. Hypo and Mrs. Hyper and all their unsavory offspring.

Duffy and Angela are losing weight! Check out what gear they've dropped. Also see their original gear lists.


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