My eyes adjust to the dark at the same time I hear the rattle, loud and fast and so close.

June 22nd, 2014, 8am

I can’t breathe.

I should be able to. Behind me, Scott is walking at a steady pace. I have to force myself to trudge up the incline, and my heart feels like it might explode out of my chest.

I have a shitty Star Wars line stuck in my head: I hate sand. The nice forest trail shifted to something more exposed and dusty, a burnt beige sun-beaten thing with overgrown grass and scaly lizards that scamper.

Ahead of us is my version of an oasis: a cool, shady spot where the ground seems to level off and the forest assumes its rightful dominance. Just a few more steps.

In front of me, something moves on the bank. My eyes adjust to the dark at the same time I hear the rattle, loud and fast and so close.

It’s big: the body as thick around as my wrist is wide, the coiled length of it bigger than my arm. It tightens itself even more, pulling itself back, ready to spring and defend its territory.

I assess it: snub nose and flat head angled in my direction.

And diamonds, massive ones.

The categorical side of me yields to the primal one.

“SNAKE!” I scream as loud as I can.

Fear and adrenaline propel me into my fiancé, and we’re sprinting down the trail until he grabs my arm and stops me before I trip over myself.

“Calm down,” he says, “you have to calm down.”

“It was a rattlesnake I saw it and it was huge and I know it was a rattlesnake and it was ready to strike,” I say, the words spilling out in a jumble.

“I didn’t see it,” he replies, which somehow scares me, that it was just my awareness that kept one or both of us from serious injury.

“Did you hear it?” I ask. There’s a mendicant tone in my voice that wasn’t there before.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Scott says.

We barricade the thin trail, me with my fear-induced paralysis and him with his iPhone. He looks up how dangerous rattlesnakes are. He could have just asked me; I grew up with a father who feared snakes. Like sinus problems and stubbornness, ophidiophobia is an inherited trait.

I start stamping my feet and talking louder while Scott scrolls on his phone, looking more perturbed and irritated.

“Well, what do you want to do?” He asks, after assessing terrifying Google images, Wikipedia, and a trip back to glimpse at the shadow of the snake from a safe distance.

“I’m not going anywhere near that thing,” I say, “I’m not going back unless you can promise me it isn’t in the vicinity.”

We both know he can’t make that promise, and that I wouldn’t trust him even if he tried.

“So we turn around,” Scott says. We’re maybe half a mile from the end of the trail. We have over three miles behind us - three hard miles we’ll have to cover again, this time in hotter temperatures and with less energy.

Scott doesn’t want to talk at first.

“Well, we know there’s at least one snake out there,” I say, “and I don’t want to surprise any more of them, so I’m talking so they can skedaddle. Or slither. Slither is a better word.

“You don’t want to talk, that’s fine with me. I’ll talk to the forest.”

I proceed to do a piss-poor impersonation of SNL’s “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals” for half an hour until the sun beats everything out of me, and I’m reduced to huffing, puffing, and groaning my way back to the beginning of the trail.

On the drive back home, I double-checked my initial assessment.

“It was a Western diamondback,” I tell Scott.

“So not a rattlesnake?” He asks.

“A type of rattlesnake,” I reply, taking a swig of water. “One of the worst in the US. Responsible for a lot of injuries and even death.”

The silence settles between us.

I’m mad at myself: I was brought up to respect nature.

I should have known it was too early.

I should have paid attention to how overgrown the trail was, how many critters we saw right next to it as we hiked.

I should have made more noise.

I should be in better shape.

I keep coming back to that; it’s the only thing I can change, and the only thing that matters in every timeline.

If I’d been bitten, my heart rate was so elevated the venom would’ve surged through my bloodstream. Scott is fast and strong, but the blood pumping through my veins was faster.

If Scott had been bitten, I wouldn’t have been able to get medical attention for him.

After we turned around, I barely made it back to the trailhead. I was exhausted and drained, and everything hurt: my body, my lungs, my head.

I can’t change a rattlesnake. I can take measures to scare it away, but I can’t control it.

I can control myself. I can choose to live healthier. I can make decisions about nutrition and exercise that will enable me to pursue the active, adventurous life I want.

I don’t want to be a size zero. I don’t want to weigh 105 pounds. I don’t care about seeing a thigh gap in the mirror.

I want a fighting chance at living and enjoying the life I want.

…and to be faster than a snake.

David Wade and Christine said thanks.

Share this moment

Erin Justice

writer. reader. chips & salsa eater.

Create a free account

Have an account? Sign in.

Sign up with Facebook