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ON THE ROAD

Hiker Who Takes Gamble Gets 2 Pairs of Snake Eyes

August 18, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST — There was, of course, little warning. The full-throttle buzz of the rattlesnake, primordial and resonant, commenced as I was nearly upon the rock pile.

I backed up, stood still. A dark brown curve of his 2-inch-thick body was visible behind the cream-colored rocks, but otherwise he was hidden.

He and the rocks were situated on a narrow stretch of the Piedra Blanca Trail, an area just north of Rose Valley noted for its startling, white slopes of exposed rock. People come to look at the rock formations because they are, depending upon the play of light and shadow, figurative: here a giant elephant, there a 30-foot-high Indian face. Lunar surfaces, animated beauty and haunting quiet combine to lend the place a holiness. And there is no better way to move through it than to be a pilgrim on the Piedra Blanca Trail.

I'd been on it for hours, covering perhaps 5 miles, in the searing summer heat, sweating myself into a happy delirium of mild exhaustion. The buzzing from within the rock pile, coming at sundown in the last half hour of the hike, seemed so loud as to be amplified.

*

I would have to get past him. This was the only trail home. Still a mile from my car, I needed the remaining light to descend the trail safely.

But passing him posed peculiar problems: The trail at this point was a narrow gulch, walled in on one side by 15 feet of solid rock and on the other by sharply ascending hardpack made impenetrable by chaparral. The trail was perhaps 6 feet wide.

If I hugged the left side, I would come within 5 feet of the rattler. Yet he was putting me on notice at a distance of 10 feet.

I once lived in Texas and there picked up a habit that would offend the Sierra Club. But I was running out of time here. So I gathered small stones and decided to "evict" the rattler from his rock house, hoping he'd be confused and seek cover off the trail, allowing me passage.

Thwunk --I hit his fat side on the second lob. He didn't move. Then he shot within the rocks, rattling anew. In a moment, like an apparition, he came up through the top of the rocks, exposing an undulant 2 feet of his body, coming straight at me, tongue flicking away.

I ran backward, frozen, mumbling holy references. I had trouble comprehending the event in real time. Was he coming after me?

I had had success years before in making snakes scram by the eviction method. But I'd misread this circumstance: This snake was trapped. He wasn't on open ground. He was, literally, up against the wall. And I, haplessly seeking safety, was chucking stones at him, provoking him.

He retreated again into the rocks, this time without showing an inch of himself. No, I could not bring myself to walk by the rock pile. If I were him at this moment of escalated hostility, I'd strike at me.

With daylight running out, I committed to forging an alternate route. Retreating on the trail would only put me back in the Sespe wilderness, and I am not a survivalist. So I would bushwhack: climb up the rock ridge above the rattler's wall and--with luck--creep down the lee side through dense chaparral and rocks, finding the trail again within 50 yards.

Getting to the top was easy. Coming down involved punching through dense growth, jumping over a shallow chasm, and slowly stepping across a firm dirt slope. That's when my vision went neon, luminous, edged in odd light: A hole bored into the ground by a squirrel was serving as cool refuge for a second rattlesnake. He lay curled within, rattle end out, 3 feet from my right foot.

*

In all the hiking I have done in state and national forests and parks, I have always looked out for wild things. As a result, I have always taken note of what signs and rangers say. And when rattlesnakes are concerned, the advice is lean, minimal, consistent: Avoid Them.

I did. Yet I found only more trouble--even though I will admit fearing the bushwhack for this very reason. Still, the momentum of the descent and late-day lighting prevented my seeing Horror in the Hole until I was upon it. While my rock-throwing obviously found its specific failure circumstance, the Avoid Them dictum also proved inadequate, hollow, without guidance.

In sorting these events out, I sought to find out precisely what real snake people would have done in my shoes. I do not intend to stop hiking.

Rick Wilkinson leads the Rattlesnake Roundup annually in Sweetwater, Tex. That is, he personally catches more than 300 pounds of live rattlers in a given weekend. Those snakes are sold for meat and skins, but Wilkinson keeps a few for live demonstrations on safety. And he's never been bitten.

"You should have just walked by the rock pile," he said.

"What?" I asked. "While he was provoked and buzzing and only a few feet away?"

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