Escaping the Snake

My husband and I love going on hikes to see sequoias. (Did you know these trees are the largest living things on earth? And they only grow in California!) We started with the usual tourist attractions in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Then we branched out to lesser-known groves with well-maintained trails but smaller crowds. When we found a book that listed the top 40 biggest trees, we were both hooked by a desire to find them all.

We’re well on our way. We’ve probably found two-thirds of the trees on the list. But along the way we’ve seen numerous other beautiful sequoias. They’re all different, each unique in its own way. Most of the biggest trees, which are two or three thousand years old, have been hit by lightning, which sometimes kills the tree but typically only destroys the highest part, which gives the tree a distinct top. In addition, the big trees are burned by various fires over the years. The outer bark is fire-resistant, but when flames get through, they create burns from the inside out. So a massive, tall tree with thick branches way up top may have a huge empty section near the ground. Those black, burned-out areas give the trees added character.

Many of the sequoias have names, which is fun. We sometimes come up with creative names of our own when we find a tree that’s special but is listed only as a “large unnamed tree.”

At this point, we’ve seen all of the top 40 sequoias that are easy to find and get to. So our hikes lately have been to more remote groves, many with faint trails (or none), going on vague directions like “Pull off the road where there’s two fallen sequoias, take the path to a rocky section followed by a meadow-like area. Then leave the trail and go left, cross a drainage on a fallen log, and continue on to three or four dead snags. The forest is dense here, so this tree is easy to miss.” Yeah. We followed those directions the best we could—on three different days—and still didn’t find the tree we were looking for.

Other times the directions are clear and the path is easy to follow and we find the tree described in the book. Yea! My husband has an extra-long tape measure that he wraps around the tree at chest height. One of us will take a picture while the other one poses, to get a perspective for just how enormous that sequoia is.

On a recent trip, I had the camera and was snapping shots of one side of a “large, unnamed tree,” which had a bare, pointy top (from being hit by lightning) and a burned-out section at the bottom that was so large the tree had a “room” of sorts with two “doors.” My husband walked around to the back of the tree and called out, “You gotta see this side too!” So I slung the camera on my shoulder and picked my way through the underbrush.

As soon as I took a gander at the back side, and saw the incredible burned-out area there, I wanted pictures of that too. So instead of going to where my husband was, near the tree, I stepped through more underbrush to get far enough back to snap a shot of the entire width. I glanced at where my feet were walking, but mostly I kept my eye on the tree, to see how far I needed to go to get the whole width in the frame.

My husband hollered, “Where are you going?”

I replied, “I want to get a picture.”

At that very moment, movement on the ground caught my eye. I looked down and saw a seven-foot-long rattlesnake coiled maybe a foot away from my tennis shoes!

“Or maybe I don’t!” I screamed.

In an instant, my body turned away. But my feet were stuck in the underbrush and didn’t move as quickly. So I lost my balance, and my backside landed on a rock. To my relief, the snake slithered in the opposite direction, away from me.

While I breathed “Thank You, Jesus” and “Praise You, Lord” over and over, my husband rushed to my side. He tossed pine cones in the snake’s general direction to give me a chance to move farther away.

It’s the only time we’ve seen a snake in all our sequoia hikes. Let me just say, I watched where I was walking a lot more carefully after that. And I let my husband carry the camera.

We decided to call this “large unnamed sequoia” the Rattler Tree. Its top does look like a rattle on the tail of a snake. Sorta.

We are not going to let this experience end our quest, however. We have another trip to a different grove planned for later this month.

Women and snakes have had a terrible relationship ever since the beginning of humankind, when Eve took the advice of a serpent, which had devastating consequences for her, her husband, her children, and everyone after that. But I’m not about to let fear of some slithering enemy stop me from pursuing my goals.

Still, before we go on our next trip, we’re going shopping for hiking boots.