by Michael Amot
I had intended to hike up Mr. Riley but as I
neared the turn-off point I veered off and continued to a ridge that leads up to
Mt. Riley. Mt. Riley is 25 miles from El Paso in the Chihuahuan Desert. It was a
beautiful fall day, and the climb up was interesting. It struck me odd that
there was no lechuguilla. Lechuguilla (Spanish for wild lettuce) is related to
yucca, grows ankle-shin high and is an indicator plant of this desert; that is
it grows only in the Chihuahuan Desert. Once on a day hike with a Sierra Club
friend I warned him to be careful with this plant, as the sharp tips have a
slight poison causing excruciating but temporary pain. He glanced at me with a
confident look and assured me he hadn't paid $100.00 for those fabulous boots
for nothing. Lechuguilla grows in sizable patches and this friend was annoyed by
having to avert his bulldozing walk - so he just waded right on through. Well
now! Lechuguilla loves non-believers. Those boots made it about half way before
the retaliation set in. Unable to extract this inch-long needle in my friend's
shin, we had to head back down the mountain. Somewhat impaired by his injury,
added with the "agility" those "cast iron" boots provide a
hiker with, he slipped. He slipped and sat right on a small patch of lechuguilla
he had just attempted to crunch!
With this inspiring remembrance, I wandered on
up this ridge picking my way decisively. Having been pricked once long ago was
enough for me; this rather lowly looking plant made an instant stalker out of
me. You don't wade through anything. Lift your feet and place them
The view from the top anywhere in this
magnificent wilderness is awesome, and on this windless fall day the silence
enveloped me. I had come for the silence. I stayed for some time on a knoll on
the ridge soaking in this vastness. From my vantage point I could see
Kelbourne's Hole, an extinct, sunken volcano, or a meteorite hole, no one knows.
With Kelbourne's Hole in mind, I started back to my truck. A mule deer, 1/4 mile
off, caught my attention as it "sproinged" down the steep slope. Mule
deer, when they really get going over rough terrain, sort of "sproing"
like a four-legged pogo stick. This one was in particular noisy and comical, and
made me laugh. I watched until suddenly it disappeared into an arroyo.
As I pulled into the dirt trail leading to
Kelbourne's Hole, three Mex-Americans nodded to me from their truck and
continued onward. As the most frightening thing in a wilderness to me is the
sight of another human, I made certain they were leaving. The surrounding plain
is very flat and supports sand-bound mesquite clumps and creosote bush. There is
little grass and no trees. Kelbourne's Hole suddenly yawns in front of you, and
while it is only 3/4 mile across with 30-50 foot cliffs, it is a fascinating
place to explore. Some of the cliffs and slopes into the basin are littered with
volcanic rock, making good habitat areas. I didn't have much hope of seeing
wildlife at midday but there are always a myriad of tracks to decipher. Scanning
the ground I headed for a volcanic cliff that juts out into this ancient mouth,
now silted in. Numerous tracks of desert cottontail, black tail Jack rabbit,
coyote, rattlesnake, quail, roadrunner, and insect tracks crossed in all
directions, none of them interacting with the other. The volcanic cliff sloped
steeply into the flat basin and at the edge I sat for a long time absorbing the
detail of this enclosed plain. It was such a perfect, endless day. As I lay back
on the rock, with my eyes closed, the sun was warm. The silence seemed to press
in around me. I became intrigued with this feeling and spent some time
straining, trying to hear something. Nothing. Siesta time in the desert - the
thought floated by. Then, I gradually became aware of a slight scraping noise,
leathery it seemed. I had an annoying feeling that I was unable to turn and
locate the sound. I suddenly startled with the realization and sat up wide-eyed.
I had nearly drifted off to sleep. The noise, along with the realization of what
a perfect sunning day it was, brought me to an abrupt stand.
The rattlesnake was nearly 30 feet off, slowly
moving up the slope. I was truly amazed at being able to hear it move from that
distance. It was enormous, 6 feet long and as thick as my arm. I circled over
slowly, my drowsiness instantly gone. The rattlesnake was edging along the last
part of the cliff and searching for a way to the top, only a 3 foot drop at this
point. As I peered over this drop it sensed (saw?) me instantly and drew back
hissing, coiled and ready. I drew back too, excited with the afternoon, thrilled
with the opportunity to watch such a magnificent being. I positioned myself
where I could see its tail and lay on top of the sharp lava. After a few minutes
it relaxed and continued passing only 3 feet under me through a split in the
rock. It reached the cliff top and I shifted myself from my uncomfortable,
cramped position. The instant warning from the snake shifted my concerns back,
its position now 15 feet away. Did it see me? Heat sense? Vibrations along the
ground? I became obsessed with these questions and for hours I followed it
trying to experiment with just how it did detect me. As I followed it seemed
that as long as I remained out of sight it would continue even if I made noise.
However, when it "saw" me it would coil and warn me of my distance. I
had always thought that snakes were dim sighted and that they heat sensed or
detected earth vibrations. This rattlesnake appeared to be able to detect motion
from quite a distance. It would not always rattle but would slowly coil and
swivel its head and observe me from 40-50 feet off. I would let the snake slide
off a distance and then pretend I didn't know its whereabouts. Then I would
track its sliding tracks through the strewn lava rocks and sand.
The tracks were fascinating and in some places
there were actual imprints from the “scales" of its underside. A special
note tucked away for future reference was that this track wasn't much larger
than many others I have observed, its nocturnal maker long since gone. (So they
are all 6 feet and grotesquely thick, eh?) It is rare yes, rare for most to
actually see a rattlesnake in the Southwest. But their paths are apparent for
those aware enough to take notice. At times of the year the desert is laced with
their sliding motions. Today's coolness warmed by the sun had brought this
monster out. It seemed intent on going somewhere. I glanced up in time to see it
go through a large split rock in front of a small mesquite bush. I hurried
forward, crouched, picking the sandiest, quietest path; an insane idea emerging.
Part of its body was still on my part of the
rock. Its head was now well into the bush. I let my hand slide along its body,
marveling at the velvety, leathery feel. As its rattle began to disappear
through the crack I gave it a quick tug. The snake hissed violently, thrashing
its tail forward into an instant coil. With a mixture of raw fear and amazement,
I snapped backwards so quickly that I pricked myself on some cactus, causing me
to lurch forward again, imagining I had been struck in the ass by the snake.
With some lightening fast glances (if not hilariously funny) from snake to
cactus I assessed that all was well. I backed off, laughing nervously, still
glancing in all directions, my nerves frazzled. The snake did not think it was
funny! Somewhat calmed down I looked up at the sand ridge half expecting the
three Mex-Americans I had seen earlier to be peering down at me, wondering what
the hell kind of demented gringo this was.
One of the things Tom says in the Standard
Class is that to know an animal you have to touch it (it's all your fault!).
'That is so true - even getting the hell scared out of you. The snake would not
budge. I moved off and started to walk around the rim of the cliffs. I had not
gone too far when I noticed - no doubt to my snake-induced awareness - a
movement in the basin. A coyote was running across the basin plain. I watched
until at a distant mesquite clump it turned, looked my way, then vanished behind
it. Not believing my luck, I started out to follow the tracks. At the bottom of
the cliff, the coyote crossed the same snake path I had been following after it
had reached the top. My curiosity of where the snake had come from took hold.
That snake had traveled 1/2 mile across the basin to finally run into me. Its
path went from one clump of vegetation to another. In some it had investigated
the many tunnels and burrows that characterize these sand-bound mesquite bushes.
Right at the base of a yucca palmilla the tracks swirled into a coil. Something
had frightened the snake, or was it sunning itself, still too cold to move? I
began to circle the site slowly increasing the radius to see what I could find.
Only 20 feet away I found the first tracks, then close by two other trails. The
Mex-Americans had passed by this spot only an hour before I had passed them at
the road entrance. They had passed unaware but not the snake unaware of them.
Hadn't it warned them? The tracks spoke of nothing. They had plodded on,
probably hunting for rabbits.
can be so lethal yet equally vulnerable. Instant survival food. These tracks
could remain fresh for days, creating an illusion of worn tracks only to
reappear brand new. One would have to look at the finer details. Examining one
boot print I could see the edges had eroded slightly, older than my fresh tracks
next to it. A darkling bettle had already made another print past history, its
trail leading toward the cliff, well defined in the sand. I continued onward
(backwards). My snake before coiling had just come down a long sandy stretch.
Had I not known what direction it had gone, its path would have been apparent.
The faint scale prints would point the direction, the straighter downward
motions, the more labored path upwards would have clued me to its direction. I
finally reached a rabbit-sized hole where the path had emerged. I was feeling
hot and tired, the sun magnified in this hellish hole. What had happened to
Kelbourne anyways? Not fully paying attention, I scanned methodically past the
snake hole, expecting the sliding marks to continue. They didn't, so I rotated
toward the cliff. There I picked up the trail, and as a matter of course, slowly
eyed it back, expecting it to lead to the hole in back of me. Instead, the trail
joined up with an actual rattlesnake making the trail, only a couple of yards
away from me. It also seemed fleetingly that the trail had not only joined up
with the actual maker but with the subconscious leathery sliding noise I had
been too unaware of to surface and act upon. This was too much! Glancing in all
directions, I backed off half believing the same snake was now tormenting me.
Calming down, I crawled forward and re-examined the whole scene, seeing that
this second snake was smaller and the whole thing a freak coincidence.
I headed back to the truck, going nearly the
same way I had come (trying to pick up on the nuances of a snake tracker, heh!).
The coyote trail seemed to blare across the sand. I suppressed an urge to follow
it across the basin. It was national snake day and they had decided to vacation
in the hole, I reasoned. Backtracking the coyote led me out of the basin towards
the general direction of my truck. The prints were smaller than normal, maybe a
young female out providing for her young. At the top of the cliff the prints
stopped and she had looked to her right. Looking in the direction of interest I
was hit with the realization that the coyote had been looking at me creep up on
the snake. It had watched, crouched down until I had started in her direction.
Backtracking further, the tracks eased into a lope. Too thirsty and tired, I
veered off to the truck. I came to an abrupt halt, acutely aware of my
whereabouts. The snake I had followed earlier was just emerging from a clump of
mariola only 15 feet away. Believe me, the noise of a 6 foot snake moving slowly
on the sand, rasping against rocks, even crunching small twigs, is quite
audible. Imagine that lovely noise while tightly zipped in your sleeping bag -
your stuck-zipper bag.
Slowly I sat down in the sand and waited.
Immobile, I watched as the snake emerged again from the creosote bush in front
of me. I was so fascinated at looking at it approach - its tongue flicking
always down then up, the soft diamond pattern, the four black bands just before
the rattle - that I didn't realize how close it was. Its head brushing a tuft of
grass only two feet in front of me slapped me out of my detached observation.
Standing up in a surge of fright, I witnessed one of the funnier things I've
seen in nature. The snake reared up so frightened that it fell over backwards,
rolling in a lashing, hissing, confused bunch down the slope. It finally
regained its composure and rattled magnificently. The fat broad out of the B.C.
cartoon could not have done better.