By Sean Graham
Other considerations come to mind. Arches National Monument is meant to be among other things a sanctuary for wildlife—for all forms of wildlife. It is my duty as a park ranger to protect, preserve and defend all living things within the park boundaries, making no exceptions. Even if this were not the case I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I’m a humanist; I rather kill a man than a snake.
–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
This year in Texas the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup reported bringing in a record 24,281 pounds of snakes for unregulated slaughter. About 40,000 people attended the event, many of them children receiving their first impressions of wildlife at this grim spectacle. In west Texas, snakes are considered vermin by most. Around here they come up in small talk when you first meet somebody; folks like to recall the local oddities and dangers and the giant rattlesnake they saw stretched across both lanes of the highway. You overhear talk of rattlers at the local lunch spots and it’s generally negative and uninformed. Last year I found four western diamondbacks (Crotalus atrox) out on the highway, their heads bashed in and their rattles gone. When you live in a place like this—where rattlers still have that Western cowboy novel stigma; where mountain lions still prowl yet the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department trap and kill them without mercy or regulation—It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity and lose your optimism.
We awoke to an overcast and serendipitously cool day in Big Bend National Park. The class I was leading was to hike the high Chisos Mountains looking for mammals. Really these hikes are just an excuse to take students on a long walk; a valuable lesson in and of itself. We saw Carmen Mountains whitetails (a diminutive deer subspecies found only in these and neighboring mountains) and rock squirrels, a small haul for a 14 mile hike. My students routinely tell me that I took them on the longest walk they’ve ever taken. They complain about it, but I nod my head smiling.
At one point we passed a group of middle aged hikers. They said they saw deer and rabbits, but the conversation quickly turned to rattlers. One of them stepped near a rattlesnake. He said it was a diamondback but at this elevation it was more likely a blacktail (Crotalus ornatus). I hammed enthusiasm, told him he was lucky, and asked him if it rattled or struck at him. He said no but looked visibly shaken. Like he had just got in a car accident or came home to find his house burgled. I told him he had nothing to worry about and that his car ride down was more dangerous. I doubt he agreed, but the statistics prove it.
My temples pounded as we ascended the trail leading to the top of Emory Peak, the tallest in the Chisos Mountains. I was leading the two fittest students in my class, and they were on my heels. I’ll be honest, I was walking pretty fast because I didn’t want them to pass me. I wanted to win and get to the summit first. And when you’re on the way up a steep slope it’s usually better not to stop because starting again after a rest is even harder. Still, when we finally reached the rocky crag of the summit, I had to stop. Lauren, the fit 22 year old former cross country runner, pranced right on ahead, while Alec and I sucked wind. After I caught my breath I walked up to the base of the peak. There, about 20 people were sitting around, some working their way up the three story rock summit, others tip-toeing their way down, and about a dozen just sitting around on the rocks blocking our path. It was like the traffic jam Jon Krakauer described on the summit of Everest in his book Into Thin Air, only slightly less dramatic.
I wormed my way through the crowd, past Lauren, and headed straight up the rocks—they are deceptively tilted and do not require much finesse on the way up. You can get up pretty quickly using the craggy andesite like a ladder. I last climbed to the top about 15 years ago when I was the fit, 22 year old student that had recently run track. I caught my breath at the top and looked out across the panoramic view: yellow rocks thrown and tortured for miles to the west, Santa Elena canyon visible 20 miles away as a triangular cut carved into three thousand foot limestone cliffs. To the south, the uplift of the tall and mysterious Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico. To the north, dark pimples of volcanic intrusions and cinder cones emerging from Paleozoic strata belonging to the Appalachians. To the east, more pink-yellow rock. A geological kaleidoscope unrivaled anywhere in America. The outlying tip of the great Sierra Madre Oriental.
Lauren joined me after slowly making her way up the slope (youth is no substitute for experience), and Alec huffed it up a few minutes later. He told us he’d just seen a rattlesnake. I asked him where and what kind, and he thought it was a blacktail—the same kind we’d collected dead on the park road the night before. I believed him, because Lauren and Alec are not only the fittest students in my class, they also consistently ace my tests. He said it was back down at the base of the rocks, near the dozen or so people. I decided I better get down there, to make sure nobody got hurt and nobody hurt the rattler. I glanced once more at the Del Carmens and scrambled back down the rocks.
I imagined what I’d do if somebody started to harass the snake. I’ve butted in before when people feed squirrels and that sort of thing. But I also tend to cower in the face of such abuses, hesitant to engage another free American bearing no greater authority than my lack of ignorance. Like the guy humping it up the trail blasting techno music from the radio tied to his pack. I said hello when I really wanted to bash it and him into a thousand pieces. If it came to defending the rattlesnake, I was prepared to pull out all the stops. I quickly prepared a mind-speech about how the park is for the protection of all wildlife, making no exceptions.
A few people warned me on the way down that there was a rattlesnake. I said “cool,” and asked them if somebody was trying to kill it. They said no. I arrived at the base of the rocks, and some kids warned me about the rattlesnake. I asked them what they thought of it, and they seemed excited. “Isn’t it awesome?” I asked. They smiled. From the last ledge I spotted it, a straw-yellow eastern blacktail coiled perfectly among the pinkish talus. Everybody was keeping a safe distance and a few people had their iPhones out taking pictures. Almost everyone thought it was a diamondback, and were surprised and perhaps miffed to hear me say it was a blacktail.
The blacktail rattlesnake was until recently considered a single, variably-patterned species found from Texas to Arizona south into the Sierra Madre of Mexico. They come in two colors: a nice suede grey or a tawny yellow, each overlaid by a handsome pattern of chevrons; the tail is black. I’ve always thought of them as the timber rattlers of the southwest because they resemble them in many ways and occur in rocky forested habitats. There are really two blacktail rattlesnakes, each slightly different in pattern and genetic makeup. They occur along both prongs of the Sierra Madre, which terminate like the tips of a snake tongue in the Southwest. The left tine ends in southern Arizona, where western blacktails (Crotalus mollosus) range. The right tine ends here in west Texas.
I overheard a man say, “look how beautiful it is.” The snake kept its distance, of course, and merely moved its head in my direction when I sat down a few feet away to take pictures. The large family blocking the base of the summit drifted away. A few new hikers came by, admired the snake, and continued up to the top. A man and his wife sat two meters away from the snake eating lunch for thirty minutes.
The snake basked a few minutes more while I unnecessarily stood guard, and then it disappeared back into the rocks.
It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity and lose your optimism. Unless you focus on the times when everything turns out all right.