The Highway Revisited

There is a road, no simple highway, 
Between the dawn, and the dark of night,
And if you go, no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.
–    Robert Hunter (the Grateful Dead)

Rolling hills cast long, stretching shadows across a wide expanse of open short grass prairie long conquered by mesquite trees, as the crown of a vibrant August sun, held at bay all day by dense cloud cover, finally gave in and slipped out of sight on the western horizon.  It shone but for a moment on a beat up Ford F-150 as it rattled slowly and deliberately down highway 6 in Haskell county. My wife leaned up in her seat, eyes focusing on the ribbon of grey tarmac several yards in front of us.  As if on cue, a winding, serpentine form appeared there, the last fading rays of daylight glinting off its smooth scales.  It was an eastern yellow-bellied racer, and past experience had taught me not to waste my energy on this diurnal speedster who was probably headed for some familiar burrow following an afternoon of lizard hunting.  The snake crossed safely into the roadside grass, and we rolled on, stopping only to identify a road killed western coachwhip before turning off the state road onto the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

In what visible light remained, the silhouette of a red-tailed hawk stood out from atop its noble perch on a telephone pole, surveying its world from the pinnacle of the food chain.  Although the day had been overcast, the clouds were now parting to reveal a gleaming full moon.  While this wasn’t necessarily ideal for herping, I had great confidence in this road, for seldom has it let me down.

As darkness engulfed the plains the night shift began to emerge, first in the form of black-tailed jackrabbits and eastern cottontails, who seemed to be making a game out of playing ‘chicken’ with us, the only vehicle on the road.  Whitetail deer could be seen in the outer realm of our headlights, their ever-paranoid heads jerked taut as they struggled over the decision of going towards the light or bounding away from it over the fence line.  This is always my favorite part: anticipation…

It didn’t last long.  A stout, cylindrical tube of rectilinear motion slid along between the shoulder and center stripe, the telltale black and white rings on its posterior slightly elevated.  Even from inside the vehicle I knew instantly what it was.  The thick head, swollen on the sides where the venom glands lay just below the skin, those handsome rusty diamonds set around their edges like cream colored pearls.  It was a western diamond-backed rattlesnake, a Texas legend, vestigial reminder of what precious life is left in our  rapidly vanishing wild places.

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Western diamond-backed rattlesnake (photo: Clint King)

We slid the vehicle to a stop and got out then, our flash lights bouncing erratically for a brief moment before one locked on its target.

The western diamond-back is the most common nocturnal venomous serpent on this road, but it is one I never tire of finding.  This one was a juvenile; several segments on the rattle were proof of the area’s adequate rainfall and the subsequent crop and grass growth that had occurred since the past summer.  Seed production had been higher as a result, which had led to a higher rodent population, which meant this particular snake, and others like it, had enjoyed their first season in times of plenty. More food meant more growth, which led to more shed skins, which added more segments to the rattle.

My wife and I admired this exquisite creature, perfectly adapted in every way to ensure its survival here in such an inhospitable environment.  From the tough, roughly compact and water resistant scales that protected it from the sharp spines of mesquite and cacti, to the subtle muted coloration and pattern that rendered it all but invisible under those same plants, to the formidable hypodermic fangs packed with a tissue destroying venom that both protected it from predators and heightened its chance of subduing prey, this was an animal born to thrive and succeed in the dry, brutal landscape that is the rolling plains of Texas.  And, after a brief photo session, that is right where we left him.

Pulling back out onto the roadway and out into the moonlit night, our senses on the alert now that we had enjoyed a little victory, the headlights cut an intrusive path through the mysterious hidden secrets of the plains, as we impatiently awaited our next discovery that as of yet lay just beyond our tiny half sphere of vision, somewhere out on the Great Rattlesnake Highway.

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