For decades I’ve hiked the deserts of Arizona without seeing one of their most dangerous characters, the rattlesnake.
Just because I don’t see a rattler does not mean I don’t think about one. Everytime I start a hike, the rattlesnake is very much on my mind. There are 13 species of rattlesnake that make Arizona home. That is more than any other state. Of these, the Western Diamondback is probably the most prevalent.
A few days ago, I started down a wide dirt trail at Brown’s Ranch Trailhead in the McDowell Mountains about 25 miles northeast of my Phoenix home. While I don’t specifically remember thinking, “Will this be the time I see a rattler?” I am certain that thought lingered near the surface of my mind. It is rattlesnake season, after all. The weather gets warm, the dormant rattler begins to move from its winter quarters.
The trail follows an old dirt road, now cut through by erosion. It once led down to Brown’s Ranch. There are only ruins now. I steered toward Cholla Mountain, a heap of granite boulders to the north.
About 2/10 of a mile from the trailhead I came up a small rise and noticed a long stick laying across the road. For some reason, I stopped to take a closer look at this thing that was as still as a stone-cold rock.
It did not take me long to identify the “stick” as snake. And, as I looked down to the black-and-white banded tail and the rattle below it, I knew it was likely a Western Diamondback. It was about three-feet in length with the familiar diamond pattern on its back. I was too far away to see if the scales atop the head formed a “V.” The “V” would ID the snake as the similar but more poisonous Mohave rattler. The last person killed in Arizona by snakebite was a 70-year-old woman bitten two years ago by a Mohave, whose fangs carry a very potent venom that attacks the nerves.
As I slipped my camera off the shoulder and began clicking a few images, the snake began to slowly move to the right side of the path. In less than a minute, it had slipped into some desert scrub and disappeared from view. I was relieved there was no drama. The rattler did not once coil into a defensive pose. It did not once send a rattle-noise my way. It just went away.
Back home, I bliew up the photo on my editing software and counted 10 rattles. The rattlesnake adds a rattle everytime it sheds its skin, I read, and it sheds two or three times a year. If so, this snake was 3-5 years old.
It seems like my first encounter with a rattler should have been more exciting. But no matter. I will remember the moment for a long time.