(This is part 2 of a five-part series)

For the first half hour of our hike, Dr. G and I chatted and scanned the dry mud and shards of broken rock for interesting shapes and wild animal footprints. When I got home, I decided, I would learn how to read animal scat because there was a lot around and I couldn’t be sure what it was. Elk? Goat? Coyote? Javelina? We were happy to discover that the trail was in pretty good shape and well-marked with stone cairns. Most places, it was wide enough to walk two abreast. We congratulated ourselves on planning such an excellent adventure.

The trail dipped into a dry gulch shaded by live oak and picked up, much narrower, on the other side. Dr. G. went ahead, and within a few hundred yards we found ourselves on a shrubby hillside where the trail dissolved into faint animal trails headed several directions through the bushes. We pushed on, always choosing the strongest trail, keeping an eye out for cairns. There were three or kinds of bush on that hillside, and two of them had thorns and pricklies hidden among their glossy green leaves. I’d try to step over or around the branches only to have an offshoot cling and drag across a shin or forearm, leaving in its wake a red stinging welt and sometimes an embedded thorn or two. These were the first of 37 separate scrapes I would collect over the next few days. Yes, I counted. But that was much later.

Now, Dr. G. and I peered at each other over the tops of the bushes. The trail had totally evaporated. We had slowly moved farther and farther apart in our separate battles across the terrain and now had to speak quite loudly to decide what to do. We knew that we would eventually be at the bottom of the canyon; we could either bushwhack down now, in the hopes of stumbling across a trail on the way, or retrace our steps to the gulch and try again. If we couldn’t find anything, there was still plenty of light, and we could head back to the car or down a different path altogether.

“Retrace our steps” was an innacurate phrase. Every bush and path looked the same as all the others, and we just floundered along the path of least resistance, generally uphill and to the right. Dr. G broke through a big pile of thorny bushes and ended up behind me in a somewhat clear path. I was navigating a fallen log when I heard him say, “Move ahead, quickly!” in a voice that wasn’t exactly a shout but wasn’t not a shout, either. He is the least bossy person I know and almost never orders me to do anything. The last time I heard him use that tone was when he said “Pedestrian!” while I was driving the car. So when I heard his command on that trail, I figured I’d better obey, post-haste. I hurried over the log and a few paces down the trail.

“You just stepped over a rattlesnake!” said Dr. G.

“Where?”

“Right, there, that big yellow thing coiled in the path!”

“Where?”

“Right where you were just standing!” He backed up a few yards. I inched forward so I could see over the log. Sure enough, there it was, stacked in a tight, striped coil, its triangular head slowly weaving and scanning. I backed up again because it seemed like it might be coming my direction. Dr. G. narrated its actions at a safe distance on the other side of the log. “Now it’s stretching out a little. Its rattler seems stunted– there are only a few rows on it even though it’s such a big snake. Wow, this pattern is beautiful. It is moving very slowly. Why won’t it move?” We waited silently for the snake to make a decision as the breeze whispered through the bushes. After a few minutes of watching it sway, Dr. G. decided to take on the clump of thorny bushes again and give the snake a wide berth, since it was in no hurry to move on. There were more and more clear spaces and soon we were back on the trail.

“Weren’t you afraid?” Dr. G. asked. No, I wasn’t. It was hard to feel afraid after the fact, when I was safe and couldn’t even see the thing very well. He was the one who experienced a real sense of danger on my behalf, watching me blithely step over a coiled snake. I was put out, actually, that the snake didn’t act like a proper rattler, warning me to stay out of its path. What the heck was its problem? Was it a rebel snake, not interested in the common courtesies of the wild? I don’t have snake radar, for heaven’s sake. It was my closest encounter with a rattler ever, and I had almost missed it altogether. I assumed, incorrectly, that it would be my last for this trip. Surely I had used up all my rattlesnake bad luck.