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Snake, Rattle and Stroll Puts Life in Perspective

October 08, 1992| T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County

Whatever you find will be in the last place you look for it, and generally not at all what you were expecting.

On a recent sunny day, charged with dual purpose, I labored up a steep hillside in Laguna Canyon. The canyon is, in the current parlance, "one of the last few undeveloped coastal canyons in Orange County." In less restrictive language, the canyon is, at times, a redemptively beautiful place. This was one of those times. The air was parched and rugged hillsides gave life to blooming rock rose, dogwood in its minor but resplendent blossom, haunted old oaks. The sky was pure, unalloyed blue. In short, a perfect hour.

My aforementioned dual purpose was this. One: locate and perhaps capture a California kingsnake and add it to my collection for breeding purposes. Two: try to figure out why a current work project was turning out to be so difficult.

Most of us, of course, do many things in life with dual purpose. I once admitted to a friend that there is always another part of me, my other, my "friend," watching whatever I do from behind the nearest corner, tree, closet--taking notes, observing, analyzing.

At any rate, the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus californae) is one of the loveliest serpents ever put on Earth. It is a banded affair, deep chestnut rings alternating with those of soft cream color, and especially when viewed in native habitat, it seems to shine with some craftsman's careful burnish. It possesses a head somewhat regal in attitude (for a snake). It is a peaceful creature, entirely harmless to man, and in fact eats rattlesnakes, quite literally, for lunch. Like some of my favorite people, kingsnakes are deliberate, cautious, hesitant.

If there were a state snake, this would be it. Not so many years ago, there were plenty of them in Orange County. Now there are less. You could call this progress.

I made it to the top of the ridge, trudged through 200 feet of leg-scratching sage, and emptied onto the fire road that runs the crest of the hillside all the way to town. I had my walking stick (actually, an ax handle) in one hand, and my snake bag (actually, a pillow case) stuffed between belt and shorts. I had on my hiking boots with the soles worn smooth from so many canyon journeys that they function like skis on any descent and banana peels on an uphill climb. I had my two big dogs with me, who are always insanely happy to go hiking. My lungs were pumping fast and my legs hurt.

I did not see a kingsnake, and I'd been offered no solutions to my work problems, so I kept walking.

The road twisted and climbed blithely, running in a general north/south direction. Since roads always know where they're going, I simply followed. On this day, I went north, away from town, down toward the steepest, wildest, least accessible reaches of the canyon. Three vultures circled overhead, perhaps viewing me as a future dinner option. A redtail worked an invisible thermal in the blue, tormented by a mockingbird. The idea struck me that the world is an inhospitable place to live, once room service and private tennis clubs are factored out of the equation. I left the road, took a rocky trail through prickly pear and more dogwood and wound downward into a valley, then upward to the top of a gentle rise. My dogs panted beside me.

From here I looked to the east, where the vast subdivisions are easing toward the canyon with the seeming inevitability of a tide. Bulldozers leveled a hilltop in the near distance. The ground beneath me throbbed almost subsonically: I could feel the weight of the machines in the bones of my ankles, could hear the space-delayed groans of their efforts reporting through the clear canyon air. A big cat traversed the newly flattened hillock with a surprising nimbleness. Beyond the building site, the suburban county spread as far as my puny eyes could see. The dogs lay down in the shade, then rolled over onto their sides, tongues in the dirt.

Still no kingsnake, so I thought about work. Had I made the right career choice? I'd never had a job where I wore a blue shirt with my name embroidered in the oval above the pocket, and this suddenly seemed like a terrific idea. I did not wish to whine. My wife once pointed out that work is hard, and that's why they call it work. Could I carve out a career as a hiker?

The dozers moaned. A huge raven swept by low with a croissant in its mouth. I walked back home.

Lying on the driveway, 30 feet from my front door, was the biggest rattlesnake I've ever seen, outside a museum or zoo ( Crotalus ruber, the so-called red diamond rattlesnake, which according to Stebbins grows to 65 inches in length). It was standing off the dogs, buzzing in controlled fury, coiled and ready to strike. The dogs barked and looked at me with gleeful alarm. I hustled them into their run, then went back to the snake.

He had not mellowed at all. He tracked me with his eyes and his prodigious, ballistic head.

I flat-out couldn't believe how big it was: 62 inches long, with 12 rattles. The dogs howled from behind me. My scalp was tight and my heart wouldn't slow down. I felt superfluous. I dispatched the animal because, although I'm brave enough to oppose subdivisions in my front yard, I'm too timid to share that yard with so large, ill-tempered and lethal a neighbor.

Suddenly, it seemed peevish and trite to worry about work.

His column appears in O.C. Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

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