Looking at the date of my last post makes me realize just how lax I’ve been in keeping this up! So, for now, another tall — but true, at least in my memory, of my time in the Badlands, doing archeology (archaeology isn’t used much now; personally I think if any word should keep its old spelling, it’s this one!)

Well, it was the late 1970s (yes, children, I am old) and there were a (small) handful of companies drilling for oil (as I write this, I think western North Dakota has more active oil drill rigs than any state in the lower 48). We were doing “cultural resource” surveys for proposed roads and drill pads on federal land out there (Bureau of Reclamation). If we found something, we recorded it (location, drawings, and the description and location of any material evidence. Then our fore-person would decide if it was enough to be called a site, and if so, it went up the line for “mitigation.” Sometimes that means a report. Sometimes it was a test “pit” (actually a very neat square hole, dug in 2-3 cm layers with trowels and sieved through a device made of wood and screen). Very rarely, it meant a full-scale excavation. And sometimes it meant that the company who wanted to use that land had to choose another route or another place to drill.

You may or may not know that western North Dakota is home to rattlesnakes — diamond-back rattlesnakes, to be more precise. They are a pit viper (not because they live in a pit, but because on their nasty little faces are very sensitve indentations — pits — that pick up vibration in the ground around them). They’re very sensitive to movement, a good thing for them because their vision isn’t very good, but not so great for people walking around in desert workboots. However, they don’t jump out at you or chase you; they only bother you if you bother them. Step on them, for example, or put your hand on a ledge that you can’t see the top of when you’re climbing, a ledge that just might be occupied by a rattlesnake trying to get some sun. (Not that they tan or anything; they’re cold-blooded, and they like to warm up.)

They do bother you if they’re angry. On one all-too-memorable day, I was doing survey in an area with several active drill rigs. Think about what a drill rig does to the land around it as it drills. If you’ve never experienced it, use your imagination and see how the ground is almost visibly shaking, and the rumbling is spread out around it for miles. Now imagine you’re a rattlesnake who is extremely sensitive to that drilling and those ripples of movement. Not very happy, are you? And no wonder! It would be like the loudest concert you’ve ever been to with the noise multiplied at least tenfold. Your ears! Their pits! Nasty! Angry!

So I’m walking along, with a light backpack, and with a USGS quad map in the other so I know I’m where I should be. I’m looking from side to side, trying to see if there’s anything there that shouldn’t be there. A hard stone that either has clearly been used by a human in some way, or is a flake from the making of a tool. And small changes in topography, possibly marking campsites used over and over through the past 1000 years or so. I searched so much around me that for a brief moment, I wasn’t looking in front of me. Big mistake.

I realized my mistake when I’d put one foot down and lifted the other to set it down ahead of me. Because directly in front of me was a rattlesnake, all coiled up, hissing and rattling. Oh dear. So I look to the left. Another one. I look to the right. ANOTHER one. This cannot be possible! Then, oh dear lord, I hear another one behind me, that I must have stepped over without even seeing it. I was in a rattlesnake den; there were at least 5 of them, probably more, and although in my memory they are huge to the point of genetic anomaly, I’m sure they were just rattlesnake-sized. But they looked ginormous at the time.

I stood there, on one foot, trying to balance, and terrified to the point of witlessness. Somehow, and I do not know how I was able to do it because I am not in the least coordinated or athletic, but somehow, I managed to leap backwards, off of the one foot on the ground, over the rattler behind me. Really. That part is amazing but true. I couldn’t do it again — unless maybe my life depended on it. It must have been fear and adrenaline, because I have trouble simply hopping these days. Then I backed quickly away. I wanted to faint, but I was honestly afraid they would come after me if I didn’t get away from their location!

Their anger was justified (I wasn’t too happy about the drilling myself, and I could just hear it, not nearly as loudly as they felt it), and I was there to take it out on. I could have been killed; I don’t know why I wasn’t. The grace of Someone. I was doing survey alone, and it would have been several hours before anyone realized I was missing, much less find where I was. One or two snake-bites could have killed me, and I will bet you that it would have been a lot more than that because more than one of those angry snakes would have bitten. Struck. Fanged me. Envenomated me. Pick your favorite verb. I know how lucky I was.

For the rest of that summer, I jumped every time I heard a rustle in the grass, a cricket, a grasshopper. I was on edge for a month and a half. The rest of the crew teased me relentlessly, but they had no idea what that situation whas like. I’ve never been particularly fond of snakes, although I will acknowledge that many are quite beautiful and they play an important role in whatever ecosystem you find them. But now I absolutely hate snakes. Most mammals do. Some scientists say that it is an innate and genetic fear that has helped keep us alive to become what we are today, both people and other animals too. I don’t know. All I know is that it really improved my ability to look where my foot was going to go down before I put it down!

I never saw that many snakes together again. For which I remain forever grateful. Not that I never saw another rattlesnake, no; I saw plenty of them. But I gave them wide berth (and didn’t poke at them with a stick, like one idiot in our crew did!) and they did likewise. And that’s a true story.