Were one to insist on a strictly rational, actuarial accounting of the risks involved, one would of necessity admit that the little meeting The Raven and I had Saturday with the most dangerous snake in North America was not the riskiest thing either of us did that day.
There was our drive to the spot where we hiked, for example. There was our wading through a cloud of possibly Africanized honeybees engorging themselves on a yellow-flowering desert shrub. There was our post-hike driving of The Raven’s Little British Convertible to a Baskin-Robbins south of Las Vegas. There was our eating at Baskin-Robbins. Any one of those things entailed more risk, on a strictly statistical basis, than our enjoying a bit of face time with a Mojave green rattlesnake.
Still, you don’t meet a Mojave green every day, and a novel risk does offer a bit of excitement. We were walking up a wash in the Wee Thump wilderness near Nipton, heading in lazy meandering fashion back toward the Little British Convertible and chatting about nothing in particular, and then I yelped not more than a quarter-second after I heard the rattling. A familiar serpentine silhouette peered at us, backlit by afternoon sun, caught in mid-slither as it tried to cross the wash.
After the usual second of shock I decided the snake was about 20 feet farther away than it could strike, and I exhaled. “That,” I said too didactically by half, “is a Mojave green rattlesnake.”
The Raven got her eyes narrowed back down from dinnerplate size. “Uh-huh,” she said. “So… should we”
“It’s the most dangerous snake in North America,” I added.
“I really didn’t need to know that,” she agreed.
The snake peered at us, rattling furiously. The Mojave green has a reputation for aggressiveness. This reputation probably stems from the tendency exhibited by individuals in this species to stand their ground, metaphorically speaking. Where other rattlers would retreat, the Mojave greens tend to stay put and get angrier and angrier.
But they’re not actually aggressive. This one wasn’t. It didn’t charge us or bluff-strike or rise up cobra-style and hypnotize us. It just made it very clear to us that there was a circle of desert wash about six feet in diameter where The Raven and I were very much not welcome, and that that circle had a loud buzzing snake in its exact center.
We looked at it. It looked at us. The Raven was not making any suggestions, evidently deferring to my desert-expertise-informed judgment as to how we might best proceed. I swallowed.
“It can’t strike at us farther than it is long, so let’s just go around that way.” I pointed at a sandy channel in the wash that ran around and behind the snake, with about eight or ten feet of buffer. “Can we climb up out of the wash?” asked The Raven, sensibly enough. But I wanted a good look at the snake. Crossing my fingers that I’d gauged its length accurately enough, I walked behind it, feeling suddenly vulnerable in the shin-to-groin region.
The snake, until now stretched languorously across the sand, leapt to coiled attention. It rattled even more furiously than it had been, its tail poking rakishly up out of the coils. Tongue flicked and head moved, tracking us as we passed.
And then we were past it, and we retreated another twenty feet and stopped, and after a few seconds the snake stopped rattling. It had been what the diplomats call a frank and honest exchange of views with significant progress made toward a non-aggression agreement.
Which is really all the snake was after. Mojave greens do bite humans on occasion, and there are fatalities. Like other rattlers, Mojave greens possess a potent hemotoxin component to their venom. Many populations of the snake also possess a second, somewhat more insidious toxin in their venom: a slower-acting neurotoxin that can cause respiratory failure, among other things.
But it’s worth noting that the majority of bites by Mojave greens are suffered by males, and that young adults are more likely to be bitten than any other age cohort, and that the majority of deaths from Mojave green bites follow episodes in which, according to one description cut and pasted across the web, “the bitten individual was interacting intentionally with the snake.” Whether most such bites are preceded by the phrase “hold my beer,” as The Raven guessed later, is not known.
I imagine that’s what the snake thought, and perhaps The Raven as well, when I took a few steps back toward those wary coils. The rattling started up again, and did it seem a trifle more exasperated? I may have been projecting. “All I wanted was a photo” does indeed merit inclusion in the collection of Famous Last Words, just before the snakebite or the bear mauling or elk trampling, or the plunge off the scenic overlook into the canyon. But it worked for me this time, just one pace toward the snake with my cameraphone extended, still three times farther away than the snake could possibly strike and a reminder always to bring my long lens when hiking in Mojave green country.
And of course then comes the hike after seeing the snake, a day or two later. If there is a better way to make every single twig and stone seem alive and breathing beneath your feet, I do not know it.