Snakes on a Plain

May 31, 2010

I'm spending a few days with my wife, younger (16) son and a friend of his in Grant County in Eastern Washington. Ad men call it "the other Washington," to distinguish it from the Puget Sound, Olympic Peninsula, Juan De Fuca wet side of tall conifers, snowy peaks, scattered islands, Microsoft, flying fish and steady rain. This is high desert country, as different from a rain forest as a landscape can hope to be. While the teens attend a mammoth music festival called Sasquatch (ironically, as the poor beast would wither in this climate) we have been hiking sagebrush country amidst buttes, mesas, deep ravines, oasis lakes, delicate wildflowers, peripatetic tumbleweed, rock scree hills, broad plains, potato fields and snakes. Snakes, snakes, snakes. They're rather a theme for me every time I come out here, particularly the Western Rattlesnake, a magnificent malevolence prevalent in this half of the state, and never far from a hiker's mind. (or feet.)

Way back when the world was new I had the stupidity and misfortune, followed immediately by very good luck, to step on the head of a rattler and not be bitten, though the snake tried, understandably, to sink his juvenile fangs deep into my offending boot. Only the precise and utterly random trajectory of my desperate and entirely instinctive leap saved me, not perhaps from death, but certainly from a very unpleasant day. (And I would have missed a Croatian music gig in Pasco, where ultimately I did perform, on a stage so hot that my dress shoe sole melted to the stage, and for all I know remains there, twenty-five years later.) The snake rattled, hissed, flicked his tongue and slithered away. I've seen lots of rattlers since--including one fat one on Saturday--but never felt one underfoot. I watch the ground very, very carefully...

This is magnificent, breath-taking, cliche-feeding country out here, and I recommend it to anyone who'd really love to go to, say, Mars, but can't afford a ticket, as the closest reasonable facsimile of an alien world. And yet it's as earthly as it gets. It's in-your-face geology at every turn, with high basalt cliffs and striations and mineral waters and stone, rock, stone dominating everywhere that irrigation hasn't made amenable to crops. It's easy to imagine that the Ice Age was not 12,000 years ago but perhaps the week before last; that the glaciers were just here and gone. A Woolly Mammoth or Saber Tooth on the road (instead of mule deer and coyotes) would not be a particular surprise.

It's our last day; a rainy one it seems. (It's still spring here, and wet enough to bring the hills to pea-green life for a few weeks. Come July the barrenness will be much more pronounced. Complete, even.) We plan to descend a steep trail to the Columbia River this morning, and later to hike some reportedly lovely hills of cacti and birds. (Oh the birds! A snowy owl in flight yesterday nearly hit my side mirror on the road. Hawks, eagles, meadowlarks, cormorants, herons, kestrels, magpies, thrushes, vultures, gulls, avocets, stilts, and the ubiquitous ravens...) Hopefully the festival-goers will be rained on only enough to make it a true Festival Experience, and not enough to smell like damp Labradors on the long drive home tonight.

The air is pure here (when the crop dusters are grounded, and far from the fertilizer plants, that is.) It clears the mind. I have vowed to finish my novel ms.-in-progress within the next couple of weeks, certainly by the end of June. On Friday that seemed a laudable but unlikely goal. After the the past few hikes, with more to come, I think I actually can do it.

Snake time.


Short Stories
Many of my stories have appeared in literary journals. Several have won national awards. My most recent and upcoming publications include pieces in Short Story America, Writing Tomorrow Magazine and The Ledge.

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