Snake Signs (and Wonders) [or] A Tale of Two Trails

(excerpt from the forthcoming book “From Cubicle Hell to Heaven Knows Where: How I Chucked Corporate America to Chase a Dream”)

At the head of one of my favorite Colorado running trails, you are greeted by a black-and-crimson rattlesnake, with its disproportionately large mouth agape, revealing two imposing fangs. Each drips deadly venom.

“Warning!” the sign proclaims. “You are entering a natural habitat area. Rattlesnakes may be present.” I love that last sentence. It’s the most Zen thing I have ever read on an official government sign. And it’s about reptiles.

Conversely, I have begun my assaults of one of my favorite Kansas running/bicycling trails from a variety of entry points, none with signs warning of snakes or anything else.

Yet, dozens upon dozens of 10-mile Colorado runs have brought me exactly one rattlesnake encounter. We’re talking more than 10 years’ worth of ground-pounding here. And no snakes until this past summer. Just under a mile from the trailhead, I saw him, coiled comfortably on a rock shelf. A smallish timber rattler. He gave me a listless half-rattle. The rattlesnake equivalent of “Don’t even . . .” (I suspect this was a teenage rattler.) Then he returned to his nap, which I had apparently interrupted.

Meanwhile, back on my sign-free Kansas trail, I have come this close to stepping on or bicycling over enough copperhead snakes to fill the trunk of your car. I’ve been using this trail for less than a year.

I do my best to warn my fellow trail-users, especially the moms pushing strollers:

“Copperhead on the right edge of the trail, about a hundred yards ahead,” I’ll gasp as I run past. But I’m only one guy, and that’s on a good day.

Copperheads are also known as death adders, but a copperhead bite probably won’t kill you. Copperhead venom is a hemotoxin, rather than a neurotoxin. It attacks your blood, not your brain. In other words, it’s not going to send you to the Big Dirt Nap. But the venom, which looks like canola oil, can do the most spectacularly cruel things to you. Things that warrant at least a sign or two from one’s local parks department. See if you agree with me.

While researching this chapter, I discovered a few websites devoted to posts from copperhead bite victims. (Copperheads are No. 1 when it comes to sinking their fangs into American legs, hands, and arms.) These victims paint far more vivid pictures than those I found in my library’s medical reference books, with their sterile phrases like “copperhead envenomation may cause local tissue injury, resulting in intense pain and severe nausea.”

Envenomation? Local tissue injury? Sorry, but these words lack, well, bite. (And, by the way, when it’s one’s own body in play, isn’t any tissue injury local? If a copperhead’s fangs puncture your flesh, it won’t injure your aunt in Passaic, no matter how empathic she might be. Recently, I dropped a 45-pound dumb-bell on my foot. The pain, bruising, and swelling were decidedly local, no matter that I have long legs—or that I was at a gym far from home when a certain dumb-bell dropped his dumb-bell.

So we can conclude that whoever wrote the reference texts never had his skin punctured by three-eighths of an inch worth of copperhead fang. Otherwise, he’d have drawn from a different well of words. Like these, from web posts from the herpetological front lines. . .

“After two doses of morphine, “I was STILL begging the E.R. doctor to cut my leg off!”

“My arm felt like it was on fire,” says another member of Bite Club. “It made me scream just to rest my poor arm on a pillow. It made me scream when the bedsheet even brushed my arm!”

“I was bitten on my foot, and my leg and foot erupted in various shades of blue, green, and purple. I vomited throughout the first night. Understand this: I delivered a nine-pound baby, naturally. The copperhead bite was way worse.”

Hyperbole? I wondered after reading several breathless descriptions like these. Then I found a photo essay, of sorts, on one of the sites.

This site offered an array of photos featuring a hapless man lying in a hospital bed. His right arm blazing with sores and blisters in a dizzying array of hues. Colors outside even the biggest Crayola box. Some blisters look like marshmallows that were held too long over a campfire. Others are alien slime-green and the size of White Castle burgers.

If I were in charge of warning signs for Kansas trails, I wouldn’t rely on any cartoonish herpetological renderings. Just any one of the photos from the web – with the simple caption:

Actual Photo of Copperhead Bite Victim. (Beware of Copperheads on Trail.)

But I’d settle for ANY kind of sign. The cavalier stance of our local parks department leaves me bumfuzzled.

Now, to be fair, copperheads are rather easy to avoid, if you’re paying attention. As long as it’s summer.

A copperhead’s appearance is striking, if you’ll pardon the pun. And my local park’s freshly poured, licorice-black asphalt trail provides a high-contrast backdrop for a copperhead, which looks like it has been hand-painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. In the snake world, the scary-beautiful copperhead is like that one stand-out house in a neighborhood of drab grays and greens. The one with the crazy owners who went with Coke-can red or traffic-cone orange — and who cares what the neighbors think!

A copperhead’s skin is pink like salmon flesh. Criss-crossing chestnut bands stretch from the base of its head to its narrow tail. Then there’s the snake’s head. Worthy of the name. If you see a copperhead close up, you’ll marvel at how it looks like someone has melted a Lincoln penny on the top of the reptile’s dome.

There’s no mistaking the exquisite copperhead for a garter snake or rat snake. Thus, if you’re vigilant on the trail, you have ample time to veer wide of danger – or to lob a rock or tree branch at the snake. To urge it to sun-bathe elsewhere.

Further, a copperhead would rather not bite you. Its favored mode of defense is to freeze until danger passes. You have to practically stamp your foot in front of the snake’s mouth to earn yourself two fangs in your flesh. Indeed, many a bite victim’s testimony begins, “I accidently stepped on something soft, and . . .”

That’s why things on the Kansas copperhead front don’t get dicey until late fall. That’s when the trailside river birch and maple trees start dropping their broad leaves, leaving a dense carpet that makes an ideal hiding place for a copperhead come to cool itself in the early evening.

For most of this past autumn, caution and dumb luck protected me from trouble. Sure, I nearly rolled over the noggin of a four-footer at the bottom of a hill, but I was doing about 25 miles an hour and neither the copperhead nor I had a chance to do more than blink.

But on one early October day, my luck reservoir was to run dry.

Four miles into a ride, I was off my bike saddle, struggling up a steep 100-yard grade. My wheels crackled through the parchment-dry leaves. My quads started to burn, like someone had doused them with gasoline, and then tossed a match on them. I lowered myself back to the saddle to give my muscles a brief respite. I was barely moving. I’ve pushed a cart full of groceries faster – down the cereal aisle with two of my kids dangling off either side.

I didn’t see the copperhead until I was almost on top of him. Only three feet long, head facing up the hill. There wasn’t time to swerve. It wouldn’t have been prudent anyway. At my slothful pace, a change in direction would have toppled me to the ground. And there wasn’t time to free my feet from their pedal clips.

My only hope was that the snake’s head would stay pointed up the hill. That way, if he struck, he’d hit my back tire. It has a Kevlar lining. I’d emerge from the encounter without as much as a flat.

I felt my heart lunging against my chest, like a trout in a net, as I pulled alongside the copperhead. I could make out the individual scales on his back. I could have reached down and grabbed him.

He still seemed to be focused on something up the trail. Maybe this was just going to be another close call.

Then the snake’s head snapped around, honing in on my hapless calf. His mouth sprang open, and I heard an angry hiss, like air being forced from an inner tube.

I looked down helplessly as the snake struck. He was a blur. A punch from Manny Pacquiao. Then the impact. Unspectacular, but sharply effective. Like a blow from the doctor’s Taylor hammer. I nearly ejected from my seat. Then I peddled furiously up the remainder of the hill.

Cresting the hill and gulping air a few seconds later, I tried to process what had just happened. I had sensed the strike’s impact on my left shoe, or perhaps the bike’s toe clip. But maybe that was just my brain playing tricks on me. I dropped my head over the left side of my bike and studied my leg for signs of a bite.

But when you’re a trail runner/rider – and also rather clumsy – you tend to be perpetually tattooed with a potpourri of scratches, scrapes, road rashes, gouges, and insect bites–all in various stages of healing or aggravation. At the moment, they all seemed to sting. So maybe the snake had scored a direct hit?

What strategy does one employ in such cases?

I declined using my cell phone to call for a park ranger or medical assistance. I also opted out of interrupting my ride to more closely investigate my leg for signs of snake-created punctures among all the other wound wreckage.

My plan instead: Keep riding, going into a Tour de France style sprint–to force the issue. If I’d been poisoned, I reasoned, I wanted to find out right away. And increasing my heart rate and blood flow would be the best way to do this. If I bloated up like the Michelin man, or my skin bloomed in a hideous array of painful, oozing sores, I would have my answer. Then I could decide what to do next. Probably sit beside the trail, on hold with 911. Hoping for a kind passerby. Praying not to die.

(By the way, in case you are wondering: Yes, I am married. And, yes, you should pray for her.)

Ten minutes of furiously peddling later, I was exhausted, but I was also fine. I turned around at about 18 miles and headed for home. I confess I felt mild disappointment that, while my current writing career was snakebitten, I was not. And a snakebite would have made for a more engaging book chapter. Maybe a more marketable book.

On the plus side, I’d avoided death, blinding pain, and/or some nasty-looking necrotic skin tissue.

As I rode home, my disappointment ballooned. And I realized it had little to do with the missing drama from what you’re reading right now. If I had been bitten by a poisonous snake, I realized, I would have earned myself a respite from, well . . . life. At this stage of my existence, a hospitalization is the closest thing to a paid vacation that I’m going to get.

For once, I could stop organizing, planning, budgeting, deadline-setting, deadline-meeting, deadline-renegotiating, conference-calling, Tylenol-popping, and proposal-drafting. I could forget about the growing pile of failures and false starts that is my writing life. I could lie back, let the medical experts handle everything, for once, and have no other worries in the world, save for not dying. Believe it or not, I was wistful for envenomation. Wistful for the ER. Wistful for eating lime Jell-O with a plastic spoon and sipping acrid budget apple juice through a bendy-straw. Perhaps a soothing morphine drip.

And beyond the time-out from life was the sure-fire front-page story in our local weekly newspaper. Night Ranger made the front page when they did a free concert this past summer. And I didn’t even know Night Ranger was still rangering, at night or any other hour.

So, yeah . . . “Local author nearly killed by copperhead.” That’s front-page, above-the-fold stuff here in western Shawnee, Kansas. A headline like that would have even landed me in the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s weekly e-news bulletin. It would have been a great first-ever Tweet. (Assuming I could learn to Tweet.)

Most important, a headline like that moves books. I could have seen my Amazon.com sales rankings vault out of the 1-millions, all the way into the 800,000s, maybe even the 750K club. Right up there with John Grisham’s less-successful cousin, Ernie Grisham.

Back home, I peeled off my sweaty cycling gear. I held my left shoe up to the bathroom light. There, in the mushy white midsole, was a solitary puncture mark. “Nice try, copperhead,” I whispered. “Three inches higher and we would have both become local celebrities.”

In about two weeks, the temperatures here in Shawnee will dip below freezing. The copperheads will retreat to their dens for a few months. And I will ride a bit easier. But when spring comes, I am going to write to the local parks commission. If they don’t respond, I’m going to erect a few signs of my own. I’m already evaluating fonts. A non-pretentious Helvetica is the current front-runner.

If Colorado can put up signs for the rare rattlesnake, Kansas can come up with something for the consistent copperheads. Right?

But, sign or no signs, if you live in Kansas, Missouri, the Carolinas, or the half-dozen other states that are home to the handsome death adder, take care out there. Especially while ambulating on cool fall evenings on trails littered with deciduous leaves. There might be no signs to warn you about the snake danger, so let me be the one: Eyes on the trail, please. Step smartly. Don’t let fatigue or your cell phone sabotage your senses.

And for another group of adventurers, those (fool?) hardy enough to try to write their way to financial freedom, or write their way out of financial ruin, here’s your sign:

It’s harder than you ever imagined, even if you’re the kind of person Albert Camus would classify as “a real bring-down.”

Go out on your own and you’ll cue your major appliances to start emitting strange noises and bleeding puddles of mysterious fluids on the floor. Your spouse will wreck your car – while perusing the garage sales in hopes of finding a second-hand bunk bed on the cheap. And when you find yourself asking for literary favors – the flipside of your handing them out like hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party — you’ll discover that you have a LOT fewer friends in publishing than you once believed.

So . . .

Eyes on your goal. Steer your time smartly. Don’t let fatigue sabotage your good common sense. Or your heart. And pray. Pray your fool heart out.

Copperheads may be present.

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