From my lungs to his…

…Breathing life into an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Big Chief, male Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and king of the forest. Photo by Alex Bentley

Handling venomous snakes under anesthesia is never straightforward.  At any moment, an anesthetized snake–particularly during induction of anesthesia or during awakening from anesthesia–can experience enough arousal to snag you with his fangs.

It is my third Eastern diamondback rattlesnake this year, a vigorous 6.5 pounds male sporting a 9 inch circumference and at 66 inches total length, much longer than I am tall.  An impressive individual and a member of the largest species of venomous snake in North America, he is nonetheless fairly easy to handle.    His radio transmitter, thermal recording device and identifying pit tag are already sutured up tight inside his lower abdomen.  Biologist and field coordinator Mike Martin places the sleeping serpent back into his box and three biologists, a veterinary technician and I all walk around muttering, allowing the tension of having handled him before and during surgery to diffuse.

prepping the diamondback

Tension is evident in the faces of biologist Mike Martin and Kathi S. Craft, LVT.  These procedures always carry some risk to the handlers.

After a few minutes, we wander back to the snake’s box and observe him.  He is not waking up, not even a little bit.  This is not unusual; they can wake quickly or slowly.  But we all stare at him with his crazy pattern of diamonds long enough to decide he either isn’t breathing or at least isn’t breathing enough to be conducive to his well-being.

The three biologists rightly become nervous.  They’ve actually seen, assisted in or done many more of these procedures than I, a mere mortal veterinarian, have.  But it is my O.R., a sacred place where I command the bridge and seldom perform my job with an audience.  It is usually just me and one or two technicians.  But their concerns are buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees.  And I am the one who has to make the call as to what must happen next.

applying glue to incision

The procedure is done, I have removed the drape, cleaned the patient of blood and I am applying a cyanoacrylate tissue adhesive to the incision.  Photo by Charles Smith

I go on autopilot, a place where I am directed by years and years of training and my emotions are checked at the door.  Come, go along with me.

Me:  Do you want me to entubate him?

Them:  It might be a good idea to give him a breath or two

Me:  OK, get him up on the table, head on this end.

Them:  Do you have a red rubber catheter? (a tube used to pass into the glottis of snakes)

Me:  I have a trach tube that will fit him.

Me, to my LVT:  Kathi, I need a tongue depressor.

Kathi, instantly at my side, is bearing a handful of tongue blades:  Right here, doctor.

rattlesnake mouth

Opening the mouth, it’s a tricky thing, whether you are doing it to tube feed the individual, as team leader Ab Abercrombie and I are doing with this one, or whether you are entubating it to assist breathing, as I did with “Chief” and Mike Martin.

Mike silently and carefully considers what he is about to do and then holds the snake’s head up off the table for me.  Then it is happening.  Holding it flat with my right hand, I insert the tongue depressor laterally between the patient’s mandible and maxilla and I turn the blade 90 degrees to open the mouth.  The fangs unhinge and drop down and I hear biologist-intern Alex in the background remarking on how big they might be.

I am not looking at the deadly fangs at all.  My focus is on the glottis–the tracheal opening–in the floor of the mouth just behind the front teeth.  Automatically, I use my left hand to insert the tip of the endotracheal tube and advance it slightly.  It is a snug fit, and I don’t need to put it far.  During this procedure, both of my hands are within two inches of the fangs.

Then it happens.  I lean forward, put my lips on the adapter end of the trach tube and generate a breath from my lungs into his, my face mere inches from his truly impressive fangs.  But I am not looking at the mouth or the fangs or the glottis.  I am looking beyond to watch my own breath expand his glorious body.

At the apex of the breath, I pause.  Air is neither leaving my lungs to go into his, nor is it leaving his lung to come back into mine.  For a second or two, we are one.

I release my lips and take the trach tube out of his glottis and observe a fractional spasm.

Then, perhaps a bit too bitchily, I say:  I think this is unnecessary.  He is getting body tone back.

I might add that I slept like a baby that night.

endotracheal tube

A 3 mm endotracheal tube is designed for cats, kittens and tiny dogs. It fit our patient perfectly, though the majority of snakes need much smaller and more specialized tube.  In a pinch, a red rubber catheter may be used in place of a designated tracheal tube.

 The patient began breathing well on his own right after my gift of breath.  He was rattling and tongue flicking in short order.  Because snakes have only one elongated lung and lack a diaphragm, sometimes they need a little help to jump start their respiration after a surgical procedure.

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Cue the banjos if you will…

 “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” 

                                                           Norman Maclean

Enoree river up and muddy

Nolan in the Enoree River when she's up and muddy.

The last time I floated this river was about 27 years ago, when I was lithe and strong and filled with enthusiasm.  These days I am troubled by bad feet, hot flashes, night sweats and anxiety.  I hide myself behind hipster glasses, voluminous clothes and work.  I don’t go out—even to the grocery store—unless it is totally necessary or unless my destination is obscure or anonymous.  I can handle walking around downtown Beaufort.  The local Walmart terrifies me.

So I don’t know what possessed me to float the river yesterday.  Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that the lad will be going off to college in less than two months.  And perhaps it was shame that my husband bought two kayaks four years ago and we have never taken them on the water.  Then there was the nagging knowledge that without something to do, I would sit on my bed all day and read or peck around on my iPad.

The plan was thrown out hastily before the boy scooted out the door to church, “Hey, want to take the kayaks down the Enoree River today?”

Sure, why not? Nolan with kayaks

“I want the green one.” Nolan picks his kayak in 2010, not knowing he wouldn’t travel in it until 2014.

In this household, I am never exactly sure whether or not a plan is going to come together until it is actually being executed.  So I puttered around the kitchen with less than 50-50 odds of the kayaking outing becoming a reality.

When it became imminent that I was going to get in the truck and go float the river, I hastily tossed some almost-random things into a gallon Ziploc bag—K-Bar knife, bug spray, Kleenex, a half a 16 oz bottle of drinking water, a floating solar powered lantern, a couple of individual serving packs of trail mix and because no one should ever leave home without enough bags, I threw in extra Ziplocs.  You might need a few things in an emergency, and only two weeks ago there had been a major search on our benign little river for two boys lost on a cheap raft.

We, it turned out, were so poorly prepared for this maiden voyage that I had to turn around and drive back home to get our PFDs.

Joey canoeing

Portrait of Joey canoeing the Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia circa 1982. Joey used to be my Enoree canoeing partner.

The Enoree is a silty brown river, medium-sized, and in most places sluggish.  We launched down a vertical bank that was maybe 15 feet high, quite a challenge for this old fat woman.  Immediately we ran into a mess of downed trees low across the water that would become strainers after a hard rain.  If I was afraid of spiders, I would have not made it past the first 100 yards.

But the river opened up and I began to point out landmarks along the stretch south from Lanford Station towards the Highway 49 bridge, including a famous fishing hole on the right bank marked by a big rock.  My daddy had loved to fish this place.

Beaverdam Creek near Lanford Station

This may be my lifer bluegill. 1961 with my Daddy.

My son’s experience with rivers had always been high adventure up until now.  We’ve done the Nantahala several times.  The Black River in Georgetown county.  The National Outdoor Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which is intense.  The salt marshes at Murrell’s Inlet.  The Green River, nestled deep in a gorge in North Carolina.  And oh, yes, the Chattooga when he was fourteen.  I almost drowned, though from a simple fluke and not for being caught in something as dramatic as a hydraulic.  The experience was such that I have never wanted to go back.

I wanted Nolan to know there was virtue in this quiet river.

“Listen,” I said.

Him:  “What?”  Wondering, I guess, what bird song or frog call I was about to point out to him.

Me, “Nothing.  You can’t hear anything.  No traffic, no dogs barking, no chainsaws or heavy equipment.  Nothing.”

Pause.

“You’ve been on a few rivers, Nolan.  All crowded with other boats and rafts.  How does it feel to have the river all to yourself?”

“My daddy always says if there are not cars in the parking lot of a restaurant, it’s because the food sucks,” he said.

Learning to Kayak

Nolan casts from my kayak in 2009.

A good ways before the Highway 49 bridge, he began to ask the cliché child’s question.  Are we there yet?  I waved towards the left bank, the Spartanburg County side.  The land there is one of my brother Joey’s primo spots for birding and herping.

“There’s Joey’s river pasture.  It’s Sunday afternoon.  Maybe he is over there herping.” I said, joking.

We got a little silly and started hollering.  “Joey!  Joey!  Are you over there?”  We even went so far as phoning Joey but our connection was bad.

Then I got occupied with spotting softshell turtles and we rounded a bend in the river and the bridge came into view.

“Look, Mama!” Nolan said, pointing at the bridge,  “There goes Joey!  In his Buick!”

It couldn’t be, could it?  We phoned Joey again and this time the call went through.  He verified that he had indeed driven his Buick across the bridge seconds before.

How often, I wonder, do lives intersect in this manner?  What are the odds that we would be floating kayaks under the bridge just as my brother was driving over it?  How many cars cross that bridge on any given day?  Hundreds.  How many kayaks go under it?  Very few.  The fact that our paths crossed, we recognized it and we were able to communicate with each other instantly is mind-numbing.

 

The River of Muscadines

Old bridge abutments on the Enoree River near Musgrove Mill

Below the Highway 49 bridge is the set of rocky rapids that are sometimes fun.  Not on this excursion.  The water was low.  We spent more time pushing off rocks and dragging our kayaks as we did surging over tiny sections of whitewater.  Our new kayak’s seats were horrible, with zero back support.  If you set your feet against the footrests and tried to push off the bottom with your paddle, there was not enough seat for you to do anything but flop backwards onto nothingness.  Every muscle in my body screamed in protest.  And let me tell you this—if a fat woman wearing a life jacket falls out of the kayak onto her back on the rocks, she is more or less stuck there like a box turtle until someone helps her roll over.

Past the rocky stretch, the river returned to its normal taciturn character.  Silent and slow.

Nolan at Sands Beach, Port Royal, SC

Nolan checks out the beach at Port Royal, SC, where we saw my South Carolina "lifer" bald eagle.

We watched the usual species—great blue herons, little green herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and red-tailed hawks.  For excitement, a goldfinch.  We passed sand bars cris-crossed with the tracks of nesting turtles.  We endured a brief stint of traffic noise while floating under I-26, and encountered an isolated rapid that Nolan went into sideways where he rolled his kayak.

He was grouchy, and the trip seemed to be taking far longer than the two hours I thought I remembered.  I was surrounded by water and yet horribly thirsty. Our moods plummeted. I somehow drew ahead of him, as he was not able to get all of the water out of his kayak after his last spill.

I noticed he was missing and turned to face upriver just downstream of a fun-but-tiny rapid.  I was about to paddle upstream looking for him, but at last I saw the movement of his paddle and then his green kayak came into view.  I enjoyed the rhythm of his paddle strokes, my mind a blank, my back temporarily comfortable.

It caught me by surprise, just over his head, circling out over the river.  A large dark bird with an unmistakable blazing white head and tail, flying so easily that it looked…casual.  I threw back my head and laughed, keeping my face towards the sky to watch for a re-run while I waited for Nolan.  I considered that perhaps he fell behind because he was watching this eagle.

He drew even with me and passed me in stony silence.  I turned the boat back downstream and stroked to catch up.

“Did you see it?” I said.Bald eagle

Nothing.

“Nolan.  Did you see it?”

Nothing.

“Nolan!  Did. You. See. It?”

He finally spoke, “What?”

“The eagle,” I said.  “Did you see the eagle?”

He raised his arm and pointed downstream.  “You mean that eagle?”

Sure enough, the bald eagle was perched on the Laurens County side and flew out over the river.  The white of its tail was blinding.  I broke out in cold chills and my eyes began to tear up.

Bald eagles belong to a subgroup of eagles called sea eagles.  They are seldom seen far from really big bodies of water.  In fact, breeding pairs prefer bodies of water greater than 7 miles in circumference.

Sightings away from large lakes, estuaries and oceans are rare.  They eat mainly fish, with a smattering of other birds, rabbits, rodents and possibly bigger mammals such as raccoons and baby deer.  They also eat carrion.

Birders and herpers call new-to-them species “lifers.”  The first Southern hognose snake of your life.  The first prothonotary warbler sighting of your life.  Your first-ever glimpse of a roadrunner or a smooth green snake or spotted turtle.

Joey Holmes with his lifer Heterodon simus

Joey with his lifer Heterodon simus, Southern hognose snake

This Enoree eagle is not my true lifer.

I saw an eagle in the Florida Everglades in 1980. And while I’ve kept my eyes peeled for an eagle in South Carolina for 55 years, I had never seen one until two weeks ago.  Venturing onto Sands Beach in Port Royal, I gazed out over the salt marsh and spied a bald eagle on a man-made nest platform.  Again, Nolan was my sidekick.

The boy has a knack for seeing eagles.  He saw his first at the age of 13, fishing Lake Murray with his dad, and has seen them on two different occasions less than a mile from our house.

Nolan can call the Lake Murray eagle his lifer, and the Enoree River eagle his fifth.  For a birder my age, it is not that simple.  The Everglades eagle, it is my lifer.  The Port Royal bird, my home state lifer.  But this Enoree River eagle is the lifer of my soul.  My stomping grounds.  My Upstate.  My heart’s river.

 

The lad and I finally rounded a bend near the Musgrove Mill Revolutionary War Battlefield to see a cluster of people, adults and small children fishing from a sandbar and teen lovers bobbing in the water.  We passed close to two encampments and were excitedly greeted by country folk—men clamoring towards us, all with the same question, “Hey!  Where’d y’all put in at?”

Cue the banjos if you will.  Open the pages of Norman Maclean if you prefer.

Scraped, bruised, sunburned, tired and thirsty, we pulled our kayaks toward the bank near the concrete pylons of a bygone bridge to the stares of more recreational waders and splashers.  I was so feeble at that point that I washed through the final rapids, dragged behind my empty kayak, too wiped out to curse the slippery rocks upon which I kept falling.  A float I thought I remembered taking two hours ended up being a five hour adventure, and I was shocked when Joey informed me it was ten miles.

Ten miles for an eagle?  Totally worth it.

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Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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Jewels of the Carolina Winter

Ambystoma maculatum

Two spotted salamanders dancing cheek-to-cheek

It is March, cold and muddy, just like a South Carolina upstate winter should be.  Our pickup slips and slides in the mud along the river of muscadines but Joey Holmes finesses the two track and we don’t have to engage the four-wheel drive.  There’s a hint of mystery and excitement.   Joey’s wife’s cousin Leon Cook is here from Maine, and we are on our way to find some spotted salamanders!

Chances are you could live your life in the upstate of South Carolina and never see the official State Amphibian, Ambystoma maculatum.  These hidden jewels spend their lives underground in wooded areas.  This is oversimplifying things a bit.  They have rather specific habitat requirements.

Vernal pool that hosts breeding salmanders

This inauspicious upstate pasture hosts the party of the year for the official State Amphibian of South Carolina.

We run a gauntlet of cattle gates with Leon as gate man before Joey parks the truck beside some open flooded timber.  Quickly Leon and I gather binoculars, cameras, tripods and cell phones while Joey arms himself with a potato rake for turning over muddy logs.  He strides towards the first log with purpose while I whisper to Leon that Joey is like a salamander savant.

“He knows which logs they are under and he turns them in a specific order.”

We work through this temporary wetland with Joey turning over semi-rotten logs adjacent to the water while Leon and I wait for the salamanders.  We are not rewarded instantly, but have to work for our prizes.

Winter is the salamander’s mating season.  The spotteds work their way down from the forest and hide under logs near temporary wetlands called vernal pools.  These pools are filled with winter rainwater now but dry up during the summer, so they contain no fish.  This makes them ideal for the salamanders, because there are no fish to eat their jellylike egg clutches.

Abystoma maculatum pair

Freshly baptized by Joey, these two spotted salamanders pose for their glamour shots

During this time, the salamanders can be found under logs as they wait to deposit their eggs in the nearby water.  Once mating season is over, the spotteds will retreat to their underground home in the forest, where they eat worms and insect larvae.

Ambystoma maculatum, cranium

You can see my self-portrait reflected in this salamander's shiny head.

Joey has herped these vernal pools for well over twenty years.  We are soon rewarded with quite a find—two robust and beautiful spotted salamanders practically cheek-to-cheek under one log.  Leon and I photograph them in situ, experimenting with flash and camera settings, before Joey takes the salamanders out and places them on top of the log for more photos.

Their little bodies, about seven inches long, feel as cold as ice and surprisingly dry, with bits of rotten wood and dirt sticking to them.  The ambient temperature is about 42 degrees.  Joey takes a bottle of water from his pocket that is easily twenty degrees warmer than the salamanders and washes them off for the photos.  In spite of its relative warmth, you can practically see the spots gasp as he douses them.

Ambystoma maculatum

Plump female in situ

We find a total of four spotted salamanders.  One is ridiculously fat, and Joey says, “This fat girl hasn’t let go of her eggs yet.”

Leon and I remark on the texture and temperature of the spotteds.  They are cool and dry, and with their fabulous spots, they seem like jewels of the Carolina winter.  I can’t imagine why everybody isn’t out wearing rubber boots, looking for them with a potato rake.

“Hmmrhh,” Joey rumbles.  “Some herpetologists call them gummi lizards.”

I can’t help but laugh at this.  They do look and feel like gummi bears.

Joey keeps careful records, and knows the salamanders by their spot pattern.  They have a dark brown to black background color with two lines of offset yellow spots along their top line.  Near the head, the spots may be orange or almost red.  I marvel that he can tell them apart by their patterns.  But in real life, he has a little help from his meticulous record-keeping.  He takes photos he will later compare to past photos to see if he has ever found these individuals before.

Ambystoma maculatum

"Gummi lizard"

Spotted salamanders share this wetland with a similar species, marbled salamanders.  I tell him I hope we can find some marbled and he gestures with the potato rake and says, “They’re more likely to be over there.”

“Why?” asks Leon.  “Do they have a different habitat that the spotted?”

Ambystoma maculaum

A rare chance to hold one of these treasures

“No,” Joey concedes.  “They seem to be the same.  But they like it over there, perhaps for reasons known only to themselves.”

We don’t locate any marbled salamanders on this trip, but all four of these spotted gems turn out to be new-to-Joey.  Fair enough for a cold March 1 in the Upstate, herping in winter.

 

All salamanders are documented and released unharmed after their glamour shots.

Upon comparing photos of these salamanders, Joey says he has found eleven new-to-him spotted salamanders this season.

I will add these individuals to my list of “Spottings” (no pun intended) on my www.projectnoah.org.

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The Probability of Cyndi Lauper: Hell Hole 2008

 

 

It took two showers to wash the funk of three days camping in the wilderness off of me.  That and a swim.  In a couple of days I’ll be semi-satisfied that I no longer smell like I spent three days bicycling in a jungle.

 

Day 1

 I arrived in the Hell Hole Wilderness area of the Francis Marion National Forest on the heels of a May thundershower.  In the darkness, the misty roads were disorienting.  My dashboard GPS, which speaks to me in a robotic male voice I call Bob, only served to make matters worse, commanding, “Entering unverified area!  Use caution.” 

 Bob didn’t know diddly.  He kept telling me I had about 15 miles to go and I knew it was a flat-out lie.  But the further I drove, the more confused I became.  I found a Forest Service spur road, number 198A that was also labeled Hell Hole Road.  It wasn’t the one I knew, but rather was bushy—overgrown—and even curvy.  The smell of wood ash stirred by rain on a fresh controlled burn filled my nostrils.

 Bob commanded me to “Make a u-turn, if possible” and my iPod shuffled to Cyndi Lauper. 

 I had to escape

The city was sticky and cruel.

 Hmm.  And I thought girls just wanted to have fun.  I gripped the wheel tighter and wondered if I was going away from Hell Hole campground or towards it.

 The road grew thick with toads.  Thick like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  Though I needed some air, I rolled the window up so I couldn’t hear them when they popped under my tires. 

 Finally 198A came to a t-intersection.  I glanced at Bob and his screen showed a blue dotted line connecting me with a target-shaped destination.  I hung a right.  I’d get there eventually.  The road grew straight and flat and cypress trees in the headlights gave my mist-limited vista a feel like something out of a sci-fi movie.  I strained myself for a glimpse of headlights to confirm that my comrades were out on the roads.  They weren’t.  Ah, well, it’s a wilderness area—there isn’t supposed to be traffic.

 Toads hopped everywhere in front of my tires.  I usually swerve.  There were too many.  There were so many I saw them hopping over each other.  Twenty minutes and maybe two thousand amphibians later, I spotted the campground, though I use the term loosely.  It’s a two acre clearing the national Forest.  There are two meat poles, a big steel trash can that rednecks use for target practice and a concrete picnic table.  No electricity.  No water.  No bathrooms.  We use the woods. 

 *  *  *

 I found out why there no one was out cruising the roads.  Everyone was in the campground, the cars circled like covered wagons in a cowboy movie.  And there in the center of it all was my brother Jeff and his bride Miss Punkin plus old friends and some yet to be made.  I was home.  Yes, Cyndi Lauper is right–I would drive all night to get there. 

Understand that this is an annual event, a reunion of sorts.  Snake hunting is the term we use for this activity but it is a gross misnomer.  We do not hunt snakes, at least not with guns.  We look for them and catch them.  It is an act of intimacy, this rendering an uncooperative reptile into your hand.  You are touching it against its will, if they have a will. 

 So we go out herping and visit and play a lot of music and gather around a fire.  But our purpose is clear.  We are re-aligning ourselves with nature under the pretense of hunting snakes.

 Operating with special permits from appropriate state and federal wildlife agencies, we count, catch and release any animals we find.  Mark their locations with GPS coordinates.  Share the story of the species with others.  We talk about the habitat, the impact of hurricanes and drought and humans. 

 Like me, some choose to camp in the national forest.  Others stay in at a Holiday Inn in Monck’s Corner, which is quite a distance from Hell Hole Wilderness.  There is an occasional commuter from the Charleston area and even from near Georgetown.  We are an eclectic group consisting of a mixture of naturalists, fans of the indie rock band The Floating Men and borderline TFM stalkers.  Looking around I saw cast of characters easily described as Southern gothic, a jumbled mix of tragedy and triumph, part refugee and part genius.

 The lovely Miss Punkin helped me unload a few things from my truck and we pitched half a camp in a few minutes.  I chose not to erect my tent in the dark and possibly end up sleeping on a hill of fire ants.  And even if it is me, I think there is something just right about a middle age woman willing to sleep in the back seat of her pickup truck.  It strikes a pose between self-confidence and self-flagellation.  I sleep there because I want to.

Day 2

I was already stinking.  To avoid being carried away by mosquitoes, I slept with the windows rolled up tight, tangled in my sweaty sleeping bag and worried about whether or not I’d be getting enough oxygen.  But I woke surprisingly fresh; the seat of my truck apparently is shaped so that my shoulders and spine were in perfect alignment all night long. 

 The night had passed without rain, but everything in our camp was soggy or covered with water and soon my running shoes were squishy.  My matches were so damp I couldn’t light my stove.  Still, I’m such an early riser that I managed to make it to the closest convenience store in nearby Jamestown.  There I was dazzled by a staggering array of exotic coffees and creamers.  I chose Kona and half-n-half.  What the hell.  After briefly considering bathing in the ladies room sink, I purchased a bag of ice and, feeling like a little bit of a cowboy, headed south for Hell Hole.

 *  *  *

 I am the bicycle guide.  I guess.  Maybe the bicycle geek.  Three years ago I decided that we might see more snakes, turtles and lizards from the seat of a mountain bike than a truck and started leading small groups of eager cyclists on a thirteen to fourteen mile out-and-back on Hell Hole’s main road.  I have a high dollar road bike that’s high-tech, light and fast and I consistently can’t live up to what my bike is designed to do.  But on these gravel roads on a heavy steel-frame hard tail with knobby tires, I can kick ass.  One year I sent tee shirts that read “I Survived Cycling with Jackie” to those who rode with me. 

 This year I was expecting to ride alone, to maybe make a day of it.  But Jeff had more participants than guides and low and behold, Gordon and Ronnie brought their bicycles and had the guts to go out with me for a second year.  I arranged for people in vehicles to give us water when they passed us and told Gordon and Ronnie that I had packets of Hammer Gel should they need it. 

 Right down the road from camp I spotted a swallow-tailed kite, a dramatic, graceful raptor that winters in South America.  It is a species of special concern in the southern states in which it occurs.  We see them every year, but I proudly pointed it out to my two cyclists.  These kites have deeply forked tails and are a blue color like where the sky meets the horizon on a clear day.  Gordon and Ronnie didn’t know how lucky they are to see it, but I did. I would report it to the Citizen Science for Swallow-tailed Kites Network.  Last year they gave me an actual refrigerator magnet for my effort.

 Later I spotted a medium-sized alligator as it slid into the road ditch.  Ronnie and Gordon didn’t see it and snakes weren’t crawling.  By this time last year I had caught two snakes and detained another one.  It felt like we were in a steam bath, but the temperature really wasn’t that high.  Maybe seventy-five, not ideal but plenty warm enough for crawlers.  I’m being generous to describe the mood as subdued.

We reached the end of Hell Hole Road and started back.  Soon I saw what I thought were people in the road ahead.  In Hell Hole, I’m never sure if what I see is a mirage or not.  But finally I realized it really was someone.  Eddie, Patrick and Ty materialized on the road, arms extended and thumbs out as though they thought I could pick them all up on my bicycle and ferry them from the swamp.  They had spotted an alligator, scared it into the water and just took off on foot to look for more neat stuff. 

Ronnie and Gordon caught up and we went with the Hade family to where they had pulled their car over for the gator.  Of course it wasn’t there.  These gators are savvy and go into the water fast if they feel pressured.  They have good eyesight and keen hearing and since they have been harassed before, they usually don’t linger in an area this accessible to people. 

Ronnie found it, though, on the opposite side of the road, its prehistoric head sticking out of a culvert.  The six of us clustered around the culvert, and I was certain the gator would disappear in a swirl of black water.  I thought wrong. 

It stayed while every frigging one of us tramped onto its culvert and then it stayed some more.  Eddie got close, really close and patiently took photo after photo, grasping for just the right light and exposure and angle.  I stepped down the ditch a few feet and into the edge of the water to take some photos of my own.

Since we had permission from state and federal agencies to handle reptiles, I’d quizzed Holmes—which is what the fans call my brother—before heading out.  Hey, Jeff, should, uh, opportunity arise, can I catch an alligator?

 “Hmm.  They’re not endangered any more.  But they’re not clumsy and they are really fast, even on land,” he said. “And this year’s hatchlings—remember the mother’s not far away and she’ll get pissed if you mess with her babies.”

Then he gave me a conspiratorial little smile, one that said, ok, you didn’t hear this from me but, maybe one a foot long or so. 

Gordon and Ronnie and Patrick and I pow-wowed while Eddie continued to take photos and Ty played around in the road.  They wanted to call Win.  Win, they reasoned, would try to grab it.  But between all of us, we didn’t have a cell phone with enough battery to text anybody.  Good thing we hadn’t encountered a venomous reptile.

But my womanhood was threatened a bit.  Call Win, my butt. 

“I’ll try to touch it,” I said.  “But it’s too big to grab.”

I had handled alligators and crocodiles before.  Small ones are easy enough to grab bare-handed and bigger ones can be handled with the proper tools.  This one was maybe four and a half to five feet, its snout easily broader than my hand.  It would take two hands fast on the snout, simultaneously, flawlessly, to avoid being bitten.  Knowing myself rather well, I worried about getting the clumsies and rolling into the water, where it might slash me with its claws.

This alligator, it was way too large to hand-grab and I knew it.

Still, you will never get this close to a wild gator, at least not outside of a national park where the animals have no fear.    I could, though, envision counting coup on it, extending my hand and touching its snout as it quickly submerged.

I could also imagine it slashing its head sideways and ripping the meat off my hand. 

I stretched out on my belly on the culvert and cameras came out. 

“Whatever you do, don’t get my butt in the picture,” I said.  “I will kill you.  I mean it.”  They, being men, understood.

Time stood still.  I realized the water was clear though dark orange from the tannins in it.  The gator was tantalizingly close, a beautiful thing, eyes rimmed in gold lamé.  My face was maybe a foot and a half from his.  I extended my hand to six inches from the reptile.  My fingernails, polished pink and shiny with my own gold bands, glistened in the sun.  I hesitated.  Okay, no, I suddenly went chicken.  I choked.  But so did the gator, which submerged just as I paused. 

I am so down with no emergency room visit.

*  *  *

Meanwhile, Holmes and Miss Punkin got lost, really lost, in the swamp.  For an hour and a half.  Jeff, who has become somewhat of a techno-geek, went temporarily insane and left his cell phone and GPS in their Land Cruiser.  They tried following the sun.  They finally nagivated back, zeroed in on the music of the frogs.  Punkin, I said, I’ve been in a swamp with Jeff and I can tell you he can get lost with a GPS in his hand.  I’ve been lost before and I know it’s true what they say in the Westerns.  You do go in circles.

*  *  *

A front blew through and the weather went from sort of okay to really chilly.  Folks snacked and napped.  Steve and Sylvia arrived and Cris mistook Steve for a stray dude wandering into our camp.  Pam and Tyler came in and put up two tents.  Junkman and his girlfriend put up a tent.  I noticed him trying to pound pegs in with his knife so I produced a rubber mallet for them.  I must own three rubber mallets, having had days when I couldn’t get a peg in the ground for nuthin’.  At any given time, I can find one of my mallets.  Good thing.  Everybody needed it.

Then we went back out cruising for reptiles.  This time, I took them in cars.  Alysen and Misty rode with me.  It was party time.  We started with my iPod on shuffle again and then we rocked out.  Every artist had a story, split between my softer, flatter accent and Alysen’s high-pitched and very fast mountain twang.  We got hung up on Prince for a while. I could barely drive for dancing.

“That’s one sexy, tiny little black man,” Alysen said.  I laughed my butt off.  She is so right.

Back on shuffle, the iPod spat out Billy Idol and by some improbable cosmic occurrence shuffled back to Cyndi Lauper. 

I was dreaming as I drove,

 The long straight road ahead.

 

How likely is that? A machine with almost 4000 songs, set to random shuffle, picking up one of maybe two Cyndi Lauper songs on it and playing it twice in one day’s time?  Not very, I thought. 

Alysen had a story about that, too.  “Cyndi Lauper.  I ‘member I used to like her better than Madonna.  Tried to dress like her. ”  I grinned, mentally envisioning tweenaged Alysen and Misty decked out in some mixtures of clunky beads, ripped lace and plaid with crimped pink hair and pouty lips.

Later I had the pleasure of taking out Junkman and his girlfriend Sarah, who I promptly nicknamed Junkwoman.  Nice kids, first Hell Hole experience.  I let them drink beer in my truck.  Junkman, I was told, holds the dubious distinction of being the only Floating Men fan ever arrested at a Floating Men concert.  He served twelve hours of hard time for trying to talk a policeman out of taking his friends to jail.  We talked a lot and quite naturally didn’t see any snakes but found two dead hogs and a dead pit bull near the meth head’s trailer.  Such is Hell Hole.

Back at camp my matches had dried out enough that I could start my stove.  I cooked butterfly pasta.  Tossed it with some olive oil and canned smoked salmon.  No capers—according to Miss Punkin, the Monck’s Corner Food Lion was fresh out, though I hardly think there was a Memorial Day Weekend rush on capers. I put some olive oil in a cup and sprinkled it with Italian seasoning, served it with French bread and offered it up to the public.  I guess I stunk so badly that nobody but Jeff’s old college friend Lauren took me up on it. 

People drifted in and out of the campsite that I occupied with my gal pal Cris.  In Hell Hole, Cris is in her happy place.  Happy with carrots and white bean hummus.  Happy with spring water. Happy with blackberries and yogurt.  No wonder she’s a stick.  Me, I gotta eat something with major carbs.  I have a little tool box full of necessaries.  Instant oatmeal.  Seasonings.  Olive oil.  Jiffy pop. Mustard, ketchup.  Crackers.  Tuna.

Junkwoman looked shyly at my box. “Do you have any marshmallows?” She asked. 

But of course.  I even offered to pull the skinny wire legs off my plastic pink flamingos to use as skewers.  Too bad the Leap-people weren’t there.  Michelle, I’d bet, could produce something Starbucky.

Everyone arrived by the fire.  It was as large a Hell Hole gathering as I’ve ever seen.  And as quiet.   Where’s Leftwich when you need him? No one was loud or drunk and disorderly or the least bit boisterous.  Ty ran around quietly playing with a turnip he found on the ground.  We sat close by the fire, partly for the warmth.  People left and came back with blankets.  It was that cold.  No snakes? No wonder.  And no worries.

Jeff took requests from each of The Floating Men’s studio CD’s.  Win’s friend Randy nabbed me and got me to serve wine that he and his wife Kim had concocted.  Home-made blackberry merlot.  It was damn fine stuff, though fortified, he said with some real alcohol.  I took it real easy, produced some clear plastic glasses and served it like communion, circulating quietly through the chairs.  Coffee, tea or me ran through my head. 

Holmes, sans indigestion this year, gracefully played the requests.  Then he took a short break and launched into his new material with Punkin holding a flashlight onto his notebook full of lyrics.  Good stuff.  No, great stuff.  Not a soul heckled him or talked out of turn.  Near the end (wink) I thought I saw Eddie nodding off.  Then he got up and put Ty to bed in the back seat of their car.  The wilderness area biologist arrived late with his wife and three daughters.  We talked after Jeff was through singing and I wished they had come sooner.  True, the guy was fine (A Georgia alum and all) but his wife could’ve been the life of the party.  Gordon cranked the TFM on his motor home stereo and a few stalwarts hung around the fire and visited over marshmallows. 

I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag, rated to zero and oh-so-comfy by 11:30.  This time in a tent.

Day 3

Morning found me energized though stinkier than ever and wanting to head to Jamestown for more Kona and cream and maybe–just maybe–a sponge bath in the sink at the convenience store.  It was not to be.  That scoundrel Bob had stayed up all night partying and his battery was as dead as my tent peg mallet.  I located a semi-dry match and made coffee in my enamel percolator on my stove and Cris boiled some water for my powdered eggs. 

They were simply not edible.  But Hell Hole, being a little bit of a temporary commune, took care of me. 

Pam popped up, handy with jumper cables and cars were hastily rearranged to let her Mustang Ka-Thunk, a girl car, couple with my Honda.   Randy showed us how to connect the terminals and Bob purred to life, basking in the afterglow of his chance encounter with a real American auto. 

Randy and Kim and Amanda and Paul and Hope and Win cooked enough eggs and bacon for the entire camp.  They offered and I accepted, my appetite for eggs apparently whetted by the disgusting powdered stuff that I had tried to reconstitute in its pouch.  We folded the eggs and bacon in giant flour tortillas and I spiked mine with Tabasco and shredded cheddar.

Hell Hole?  Hell, yeah. 

Then I took Miss Punkin on a run down Hell Hole and to the old cemetery off Yellow Jacket Road where we saw a flock of turkey hens and admired a little plastic saxophone that’s always on one of the graves. We stopped and watched woodpeckers in the tall stand of long leaf pines at the intersection and I whipped out my Antsy McClain CD collection.  Punkin said nice things (though her colorful use of the English language would make a sailor blush) about the cover art on Way Cool World and we couldn’t stop laughing so we sat there and listened to “Skinny Women Ain’t Hip” and watched red-headed woodpeckers where we should have seen red-cockadeds.

She is getting out more because of changes in her office.  I’m glad.  Her laughter is contagious, her wit keen.  Both of my brothers have excellent taste in wives.

We didn’t see anything of great significance but this is not failure.  The sun was bright, though, and the day promised to be warmer.  Maybe someone would catch some snakes before the day wrapped with the Ghost Tour on Pawley’s Island, but I knew it would not be me.  Like many parents, I get the guilties for taking some me time.  And there was a lad at home and he won’t be twelve forever.

I left Hell Hole at noon, gassed up and put the iPod back on shuffle.  Inexplicably, just before Summerville, Cyndi Lauper came on again. 

I drove all night

To get to you

Is that alright?

I drove all night.

 

Yeah, I probably will next year, too.

 

I remembered this essay and posted it today due to the duplicity of Led Zepelin.   Driving home from the grocery store, the radio was playing “Fool in the Rain.”  When I got home and got out to unload the groceries, “Fool in the Rain” was playing on my iPod, which I had set up outside by the pool.  I laughed out loud.

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