Ray Larson was thinking about snakes, as he frequently did when driving across the desert barrens of Nevada. He was on his way to a writers’ weekend workshop in central California, using the scenic route through Yosemite National Park. Ray had left Las Vegas in early morning darkness with a waning crescent moon still hanging in the sky looking like a lost toenail clipping. Now, three hours later, the desert flatland on both sides of Highway 95 was heating up. Ray suspected it was that time of day when rattlesnakes were sunning themselves before retreating underground or to other shady spots as the temperature rose.
He shuddered at the thought, an involuntary response to his life-long fear of snakes. Ray suspected his snake phobia had probably originated in a trauma incident of toddler-hood, but he had never really worked it out to a favorable resolution. Since retiring to Las Vegas, Larson had largely given up hiking in the mountains or rural areas as he had done back in New England.
Sure, there were snakes in the wilder areas back east too, but Ray suspected they were fewer in number and not as hot and bothered as out here in the desert. Besides, Ray had always made it a habit to hike well-used foot trails. He always tried to assure snakes knew of his approach by tapping his hiking stick loudly against convenient rocks, giving nearby serpents the opportunity to slither off into the woods and undergrowth.
Maybe it was also age that affected him now. Between possible heat stroke and a predominance of rattlesnakes, the hiking in the hills thing seemed a little riskier for a man in his seventies. Or, maybe that was just the current environmental excuse for his fear of snakes. Certainly, he had no restricting physical limitations that would keep him from shorter hikes in the desert.
Lost in his thoughts on the lonely highway, Ray was startled when he saw a car fifty yards off the road in a small depression and tipped up at a thirty-degree angle away from the highway. Simultaneously, he saw the two braking tracks that skipped off the right shoulder. He remembered how he had struggled against sleep himself earlier in the morning. Ray braked quickly and pulled onto the shoulder of the road.
He got out of his pickup. He could not tell for sure if the car was occupied. There were no cars in sight on the highway in either direction. Ray realized he alone was responsible for checking whether someone in the car needed help. He took a step toward the desert. Then he froze.
A memory floods Ray’s mind. It seems as though a film strip is being projected against his brain at high speed. It is a warm summer day in the country. He is a toddler pushing open a farmhouse screen door to escape from the porch. Coming down the steps, he notices a large black snake coiled on the root cellar door and takes a step to investigate this new discovery. A scream erupts. A screen door slams. He is snatched up violently by his aunt on a flying run down the sidewalk to the yard gate. Several men are running from the barn. His aunt crushes him to her bosom with one arm and uses the other like a wind vane arrow to dead aim on the snake. His uncle fetches a shotgun. Moments later there is a bang and his aunt jumps backward. Amid a flurry of exclamations, the snake is draped over the fence. Ray is hurriedly being carried into the house in his aunt’s trembling arms.
A second later the memory was over. Ray knew he must cross the scrubby land stretched out between himself and the crashed car. Someone could still be inside and badly hurt. He scanned the nearby ground in the direction of the car, looking for an open, snake-free path that would hasten his coverage of the distance to the vehicle. Momentarily pushing aside his fears, he took a cautious step forward. He willed himself to hurry but he could feel the soles of his sketchers dragging on the sand as he crept toward the car. He desperately searched the sunbaked surrounding ground. He was sure he heard some pulsating sound, but decided it was only the quickened beat of his own heart. His legs and knees had gone weak for some reason, and for a moment Ray suspected he might faint. He was surprised to find perspiration already spotting his arms. Sweat trickled down in front of his ears.
He tried to make his presence well noticed by repeating “I’m coming to help” in a loud, but quavering, voice. “Perhaps,” he thought, “any one of the five kinds of Mohave rattlers out there will just slither off in the opposite direction before I get too close.” This reminded him that he should look for the telltale path marking the presence of smaller desert sidewinders. He had read that they moved by sideway thrusts that left a repeated “j” pattern on the ground. The ground here, though, was quite hard, and Ray was not sure the markings would show.
As Ray approached the car’s rear fender he could see a female slumped into an air bag, but he couldn’t tell how badly she was hurt. Ray’s hopes of having scared off any snakes were dashed a second later. From somewhere beneath the half-tilted car, and much too near his feet, he heard the sound he most wished not to hear: the rapid, whirring buzz of rattles that could only come from a rattlesnake.
Ray’s mind went hyper. He could feel his chest expanding and contracting from his now rapid breathing. He knew his legs must be in range of the snake’s striking distance. Somewhere he had read that if a rattler doesn’t leave of its own accord, the threatened person should slowly back away from the snake, out of its range of smell. Adults didn’t usually die of a rattlesnake bite. He had once seen a man arriving at a medical clinic in the badlands of South Dakota, who had been bitten four times previous to that day. Hell, he was near the highway and his car. But, what about the woman? If she wasn’t dead already, she needed immediate help. He wished he had thought about calling 911 before venturing this far. Cell service, though, was spotty out here, and calling may not have been successful had he tried.
He had to move. Now.
Ray raised his foot a mere half inch and took an almost imperceptible step backward. When he remained unbitten, he took another, and then another. From about ten steps behind the car, he saw a three-foot rattlesnake wiggle out from under the automobile, then coil itself mere feet from the driver’s front door. Its rattles were vibrating a vigorous warning.
“Damn slithering bastard!” Ray shouted. He wanted to kill that damn snake. His face was flushed with hatred and anger was overriding fear. This snake had delayed him long enough. Ray picked up a nearby small rock and heaved it at the rattler, hoping the snake would find another place to go. The rattlesnake held its ground.
Picking up another rock, Ray decided his next move on impulse. Using a short running start, he heaved himself onto the car’s trunk; his chest sprawled over the rear window. Then he scrambled onto the hot roof that was tilted away from the snake’s side of the vehicle. He squirmed forward where he hoped to see through the windshield, around the airbag, and further determine the woman’s condition.
The driver appeared to be alone and unconscious. Around the side of the windshield, Ray spotted the snake still coiled in a striking position, thrusting its ugly flat head upward in Ray’s direction. From the safety of his “high ground,” Ray slung his second rock at the snake. For the briefest moment the rattler held its position, but then a car horn, and the yells of several men running toward the wreck, alerted the rattler to the danger of sticking around. It slithered away in retreat between the scattered clumps of sagebrush.
Buoyed by the arrival of help and a winner’s sense of control, Ray slid off the car and opened the unlocked door. The hot roof had left small red burn patches on his fingers and one palm. The woman appeared to be regaining consciousness. There was an ugly bump on the top of her head. She was missing several front teeth. A smear of blood and lipstick gave her mouth a Halloween mask appearance.
“Is she OK?” a man asked as Ray unfastened the seat belt. It hadn’t done much of a job when the car mounted a large boulder and came to a jarring stop.
“I think so” replied Ray, “looks like she hit the car roof.”
“Did either of you call 911?”
“Yeah, I did,” said the second new arrival. “An ambulance is coming.” A distant siren confirmed his assertion.
Ray and the others helped the injured woman down from her car and sat her on a sweater grabbed from the front passenger seat of the car. Then Ray went to his pickup for water and a light blanket that he carried along with a small first aid kit. He moved more quickly on the return trip but was still careful to look well ahead on his path. After all, he figured, the rattlesnake he had encountered was likely not the only one around. He had no desire to be the man God had suggested in the Bible would crush a serpent under his heel.
Ray had the woman lie down on the blanket and gave her a sip of water to drink. He elevated her feet on a flat rock. A few minutes later, a policeman and two ambulance attendants marched over from the highway in unison. Signage on the vehicles indicated they had come from nearby Beatty where Ray had eaten breakfast a short time earlier in a casino. The patrolman took a report on Ray’s actions, seemingly unconcerned about the snake encounter, and then gathered the personal identifying data of everyone involved. The woman admitted falling asleep.
Two days later, on the final night of his workshop, Ray had a dream. It was identical to one he had also dreamed twenty years earlier, and totally unlike the snake dreams he occasionally had where snakes were always menacing, slithering in heaps around him. At the time of the earlier dream, Ray was seeing a counselor and wrestling with some religious issues.
Ray is at some sort of garden party when a huge snake arrives. The snake is strangely not scary because it is dressed out as a clown with vivid red, green, and yellow patches. The snake is wearing a large ribbon below its head and prancing about while standing on the tip of its tail end. The snake has a dopey looking face, and everything about its appearance seems designed to dismiss any negative emotions and yet draw attention to itself.
In the earlier instance of this dream, the counselor had told him the snake represented a universal religious symbol and Ray’s religious struggle at the time, and that it was designed to draw Ray’s attention in a way to help him make the decision to leave his religion behind. Re-dreaming the dream now, the clownish snake seemed to be a sign that Ray’s snake phobia was exaggerated and unduly hindering his enjoyment of the outdoors. The snake’s dancing celebrated Ray’s partial overcoming of fear to successfully help the accident victim. At least, that was the way Ray interpreted the dream at this point in his life.
At breakfast the following morning, before starting his trip home, Ray struck up a conversation with another attendee at the workshop. Over coffee, the conversation turned to the incident with the snake on route to the workshop. Ray confessed he had always been afraid of snakes in general and, except for viewing them in captivity, had only a few actual encounters with them in his lifetime.
“It’s strange,” he told his breakfast companion, “I was even able to deal with a snake like that this late in life.”
“Emergency. Brings out our best traits” said his companion, “Your concern for the person in the wreck probably let you set aside your fear, at least, long enough to help.”
“You think it will carry over?” Ray asked.
“Perhaps, who knows?”
After breakfast, Ray Larson began his trip home. Along the way, he stopped at a toy shop to purchase something for his two young granddaughters who also lived in Las Vegas. The toy shop’s inventory included two plush green snakes with silly looking faces that made Ray laugh when he spotted them. He purchased the stuffed snakes and flung them loosely coiled on the passenger seat, where they–and he–rode comfortably together all the way home.
And that is why, arriving safely in his upscale neighborhood, Ray was so startled to see a rattlesnake sunning itself at the corner of his garage door.