My down-to-earth friends

Snakes are really friendly creatures. I wonder why they're so maligned and misunderstood, feared and avoided. For over 20 years, my husband, Bud, and I have walked over and through the mountains, hills, deserts and seashore of California and other Western states. During the last 16 years we've lived on the western fringe of the great Mojave Desert.

In all that time I've only met five snakes on our myriad treks. There were the three rattlesnakes: two of them were sleeping peacefully in their rocky nooks, the other noisily welcomed us to his coiled territory. Then, there was the beautifully designed king snake who slithered out of a hole under a creosote bush as I searched for arrowheads in Butte Valley, near the one named Death. And, finally, there was the hissing gopher snake with whom I recently held an early morning chat. Please don't laugh as do others; it was really a serious and enlightening moment.

It first occurred to me to talk to snakes this spring, when the noisy rattler told us of his presence. We'd stopped alongside a busy desert freeway to walk Juniper, our wild- Indian-of-a-dog. It was night; we couldn't see; but Rattler saw us. His briskly moving tail rattled a warning to us as Bud and Juniper quickly returned to the car. I'd never left. We backed up, put our headlights on him and watched. No, we didn't kill him. He'd talked to us, told us he was there and we avoided any unpleasantness. We drove on down the highway to walk Juniper.

Two snakes came visiting us at home. A large gopher snake was found cooling himself in the damp backyard lawn and a young king snake was found resting in a niche between two fireplace bricks. To this day we don't know how he got inside. Both visitors were returned to their own homes in nearby fields.

As to those fearsome reptilian rattlers, I've angered more than one acquaintance with my refusal to kill them. The two who slept peacefully were where men usually don't walk; the helpful fellow we met when we stopped to walk Juniper took care to rattle a warning of his presence.

A few years ago I interviewed a striking young woman of slender build and lovely features for the daily newspaper for which I write. She was a snake fancier, too. But she collected them and shared their special place and purpose in the scheme of life with the schoolchildren in her town.

Her pride and joy was a boa constrictor which weighed well over 100 pounds. She'd raised him from his pencil-size form after she'd bought him at a pet shop. He stretched languidly as she woke him from a nap he was taking in his large cage and cradled him -- in her arms, around her chest and over her shoulder! He was huge!

I touched him. I could have held him, she said, promising he wouldn't hug too tight, but his awesome size and weight suggested wisdom. His skin was dry and smooth and solid, unlike anything I'd ever touched before, but then I'd never touched a snake before. I have since then.

As the summer sun warms the earth, I see an increasing number of my reptilian friends on the roads, struggling to cross to the other side or merely basking on the warm pavement. Too often they are crushed to death by passing vehicles, too often intentionally.

I've decided to mount a one-woman crusade. If I come upon a traveling reptile seeking to cross from here to there, I plan to stop and gingerly approach and help him on his way.

It's a peaceful feeling, to walk and be without fear. I know the snakes are there as I search the desert floor for rocks or flowers or any of nature's special beauty, in whatever form it takes, or as I pierce a hidden canyon or climb a wall. I like to think the snakes know I'm there, too, a fellow traveler on the land with them.

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