Traveling Down the Highway

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began
                        -J.R.R. Tolkien

MAS04_09_20140309Year after year, we travel down this Great Rattlesnake Highway, two addicts never tiring of the desert, mountains, woods, prairies, and wetlands, and all the life that they hold. We hope that you will hitchhike down that highway with us. If you love nature, if being out there recharges you in ways that seem essential to your well-being, then you’ll probably enjoy the ride. If you are fascinated with the lives of plants and animals (and especially if you have a sweet tooth for reptiles and amphibians), we figure you may already be on that highway with us.

The Great Rattlesnake Highway is that endless road that leads to the wildlife and wild places in Texas and the surrounding states. It is a journey that leads to all kinds of unpredictable and beautiful experiences, including encounters with rattlesnakes. For us, these snakes encompass a lot of what draws us to the natural world: unique adaptations to their environments, beautiful forms and patterns, defenses that are not malicious but do command respect, and complex behaviors. And, while we might have embraced the ornate box turtle or the Texas spiny lizard as our icon for the wildlife we love, Clint and I are both just a little bit drawn to the underdog. Without a doubt, the rattlesnake is not high on everyone’s list of most-loved wildlife.

Maybe part of its appeal is that when you put aside preconceived ideas about aggression and threat, you find an animal that avoids conflict when it can, exhibits some degree of maternal care for its young, and learns to recognize the landmarks of the area where it lives. Rattlesnakes are not eager to use their venom against enemies unless truly threatened, but the snake’s venom glands, hollow fangs, and the mechanics of striking and injecting venom are amazing evolutionary adaptations. The rattle – that string of dry, interlocking, hollow pieces – is a unique warning device whose sound is not easily forgotten. Specialized muscles in the snake’s tail shake the rattle at nearly 100 cycles per second, producing a high-pitched buzz that has been compared with the hiss of escaping steam or the sizzling of bacon. Literally from snout to tail tip, the rattlesnake is highly specialized and evolved.

MS-CKmassasauga6-jpg-17Oct15

Western massasauga rattlesnake (photo: Michael Smith)

Whether it’s encounters with rattlesnakes or watching admiral butterflies hovering over stream side vegetation, we need this highway into the natural world more and more as time goes by. For some of us, the natural world is a refuge from the political and societal world of humans, which seems to get better in some ways but grow more problematic in many others. Given a choice between walking urban streets or taking a walk through the woods, we’ll take the woods. If we could visit a mall or wade through a marsh, it’s the marsh every single time. For Clint and me, the need for relatively undisturbed places in nature is like the need for oxygen.

We believe that there is more to this “need” for nature than just personal preference. Increasingly, contact with nature is being shown to be important for our physical and mental health. Research shows that children who spend time in nature gain benefits in mental health and emotion regulation and are more physically active (see the website for the Children & Nature Network). For us, this kind of research finding is just validation of what is already very real in our lives. Among the times we feel most alive, at home, relaxed, and engaged is in the mountains of the Trans Pecos, walking in a tallgrass prairie, or watching turtles and fish in a clear creek.

We plan to write on a regular basis about what  we experience and what we learn in our continuing travels. Whether it’s a note from the Big Thicket of southeast Texas, a recollection of a day in Palo Duro Canyon, or an observation from the preserve down the street here in the cross timbers of north Texas, we will be talking about it here. We hope you will stay in touch, and join us on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

2 thoughts on “Traveling Down the Highway

    • Thanks, Kimberly. I don’t know if we can subscribe you, but there should be a button on this page to “follow this blog.” If you press that, you’ll get notified of new posts. Thanks for reading!

      Like

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