"Ooooeeeee," he said, lifting up a six-foot Eastern Diamondback with a pair of protracted grabbers. "Looka' this girl! Ain' she a mean one?"
And then he jostled the snake a bit to wake it up, prompting it to give the crowd a desultory hiss.
"I wouldn't wanna be caught out in the woods with 'er!"
And then he showed her around, cajoling an impressed murmur from his enraptured audience.
"If you get bit by a rattlesnake, an' you don't have my personal brand a' snake-proof boots—on sale o'er yonder for only $99.95—you are gonna die!"
"Or at least rack up fifty thousand dollars in hospital bills," he'd quickly clarify, but even this startling truth was lost in the turmoil of half his terrified audience rushing off at once to buy his life-saving boots.
"So, yes! Please, buy my boots! Now on sale—in the stall right behind ya, in between the kindly gentleman selling sawed-off shotguns and the deep fried Twinkie stand—for on'y $110.50, an absolute steal!"
"Buy my boots. Seriously. Or you're gonna die."
"Seriously. You're gonna die."
"I mean, purty please? I been snake handlin' for goin' on twenty-five years, an' its a bit like dancin' naked on Interstate Sixteen durin' a lightnin' storm. Nobody will insure me! I got bills to pay, gran' kids to feed an' put through high school. An' I really want to retire. Soon! So please?"
At which point he was carried off the stage sobbing by some strange men in black suits and cowboy hats.
The point being, twofold: rattlesnakes are dangerous, ooooeee! And I did not, in fact, buy his boots.
Waking up with your head a mere few inches1 from an angry rattlesnake is exciting. Sort of like the frantic fumblings in the dark of young lovers, searching and exploring with their hands, their tongues, and their imaginations. Ever curious and inquisitive, sticky and undignified, but pure, and intoxicating, and exhilarating all at once.2 It's also horrifying, and makes one wonder why they don't make snake-proof hats, or helmets. Or underpants, for that matter. What if that thing had slithered into your sleeping bag during the night? Unlikely, but still, what if?
Anyway, I wasn't particularly affected by this snake except for that I was woken up prematurely by its incessant—and surprisingly loud—rattle. Endangered in many states, rattlesnakes are beautiful, awesome creatures,3 as efficient as predators as they are cool and cruelly primal to behold. A shelter maintainer had told us the previous day that the rattlesnakes were protected by law in Pennsylvania, so depressed were their numbers. And they really are immensely important to the local ecosystem, seemingly effortlessly controlling the rodent population that can be so pernicious and troublesome on the trail.4 And the shelter maintainer told us a story.
A Boy Scout troop had been camping nearby when one of them discovered a rattlesnake that had apparently taken up residence underneath the shelter. Thrilled by the opportunity to put his Scouting knowledge to use, the boy had eagerly rounded up his companions to kill to marauding beast. Which is when the maintainer, alarmed, had stepped in, and said in an authoritative growl,
"We don't kill snakes around here. But we do kill Boy Scouts."
And apparently all the Scouts had shit their pants and ran away. The maintainer was a scary guy. Okay, so he wasn't. He was a sweetheart.
Still, I consider it a shame that more of the shelters—unlike the Tumbling Run Shelters, where all of this went down—didn't have rattlesnake alarm clocks. If only we could breed them and train them to only kill mice and to stay away from humans. Except for southbounders, slackpackers, and day hikers who don't give out trail magic. Them they can take.
1. Or feet, or yards.
2. Too graphic? Or not enough?
3. And of course, I say that only having not been bitten by one.
4. Mice in particular have a bad tendency of destroying or eating through hikers' equipment and bags to get at their food.5
5. Wait, was that factual and actually relevant information, and not just a cheap joke? Yes! Yes it was!6
6. Footnotes on footnotes. Nice.