(Ye Have Been Warned…)
It’s hard to imagine that Steve Campbell has been gone for five years now. He was a herpetologist as well as fisherman, and talented naturalist, working for Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (teaching about aquatic ecology and fishing) and serving as President of two herpetological societies in Texas. His humor was legendary, and I think he loved being teased by others about that humor. Here is one of my attempts to do just that, in an article published several years before his passing.
It seems my devil-may-care attitude towards the superstitions of the ancient elders in the herpetological society has finally caught up with me. I crossed the line this weekend and almost paid dearly for it, so I figured a public written apology was in order, if not downright necessary, to restore any luck I may wish to have in the future. Apology to whom, you may be asking? Well, Steve Campbell of course, a man with a few tight screws in his head I had considered hopelessly loose for many years, until I was shown the error of my ways as a direct result of radical arrogance.
Anyone who has spent any time at all with Steve Campbell in the field knows you cannot simply load up your gear and vehicle, pull out the road map, and go herping. It is not that simple. There are ancient customs and traditions that must be adhered to or the man just plain refuses to even go. I have balked at all of his rabbit’s foot and black cat, salt-over-the-shoulder hoopla for going on a decade now, and decided it was high time his theory be disproved once and for all, for all to witness as gospel truth in writing.
The setting I had chosen for which to conduct my experiment was East Texas; Brazos County to be more specific. I have long considered the area I herp there virtually infallible when it comes to finding snakes. So in all fairness it seemed like the perfect constant in which to test my theory of Campbell Ideology. My hypothesis was that all of those obsessive-compulsive hang-ups the man seemed to suffer from were unfounded, and could easily be disproved by an overnight trip to Brazos County along the Navasota River during perfect climatic conditions ideal for finding herps, whereupon I would purposefully break each and every one of his strange rules like some blasphemous herpetological heathen.
Before I go any further I suppose it is necessary to mention the Campbell Ideology and what it is, exactly, should any novice readers be unfamiliar with his seemingly silly rules and regulations. The Gospel of Steve is as follows:
RULE # 1: PAY CREDENCE TO THE ALMIGHTY WHATABURGER
When on any given trip, at least one What-A-Burger must be visited and something must be purchased and consumed. This rule is set in stone. The more What-A-Burgers you pass up en route to said destination, the worse your luck will become. If you are a vegetarian, order a burger anyway and just eat the lettuce and tomatoes. If no What-A-Burger is available on the way, turn around and go back home. This rule applies to all field outings, no matter how near or far.
RULE # 2: SPEAK NO EVIL
Do not, under any circumstances, speak the names of the species you wish to see in the field. This will automatically jinx you from seeing them. Should some self-righteous jester begin spouting off everything native to the area, you can protect yourself by plugging your ears with your index fingers and chanting ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ over and over for as long as said offender continues with their insolent name-calling.
RULE # 3: WEAR A LUCKY ITEM
Something you found at least one of your memorable life-listers while wearing. This is usually a shirt or hat but can be a lucky pair of Care Bears boxer shorts if that’s what you wear in the field. It doesn’t hurt for the article of clothing to be adorned with some type of fishing tackle, or, even better, a stray mustard stain from a What-A-Burger. A strip of such an article will work in a pinch, in the unlikely event that it is finally deemed unwearable, which few of Steve’s clothes ever are.
I took all three of these religiously followed and time-honored traditions and broke them like a sack of cheap Christmas ornaments. I wore dress slacks with the legs still pressed, a striped silk shirt I hadn’t so much as found a DOR in on the way to the beer store, and a pair of brand new hiking boots so fresh from Cabela’s they still didn’t quite fit.
To add insult to injury I brought along a jumbo industrial-size bag of cajun crawtaters for consumption, along with a case of Red Bulls should I thirst. I passed dozens of What-A-Burgers, every single one of them, smiling at each as they disappeared unvisited in my rear-view mirror. In a final outlandish act of pomposity I pulled into the last What-A-Burger along Highway 6 in College Station for a restroom break. I bought nothing and didn’t even flush the toilet when I left. On the way out the door I filled out a customer service survey card and rated the place of overall poor quality, commenting that they could at least keep their toilets flushed.
To add icing to it all I had pre-recorded every single species of reptile and amphibian native to Brazos County in my own voice, covering the scientific names as well as the common. I took this tape and played it over and over again all the way there, from Waco east. If the Campbell Ideology was indeed a pointless lie, as I had long proposed, this radical behavior would prove it. And if it indeed did hold any truth at all, I was about to find out the hard way.
As if to laugh in his face, we began to see DOR snakes along the road to Bryan. It is a one-way road with little shoulder so we couldn’t pull over to see what they were. It was 79 degrees when the sun set over the river, and I pulled off the main highway onto my favorite. With flashlight at the ready and field notebook on the dash, it was showtime!
“Where are all the snakes? I figured we would have seen something by now,” Amber said from the passenger seat.
“I don’t know,” I replied glumly. “It’s a perfect night.”
The truth of the matter was I was afraid I knew all-too-well. Still, I was unwilling to accept defeat. We drove down the first road without seeing so much as a green tree frog, then broke off onto the highway that runs directly over the river and three of its tributaries.
The temperature held at 75, no cold wind blew, and the moon was invisible behind a thick gray wall of clouds devoid of even a hint of moisture. Still, we found no snakes. To make matters worse a line of cars filed up behind us, insisting on driving the average Saturday night college-town speed of 115 mph, so I had to keep pulling over to the side to let them pass. I drove five miles down the road into Grimes County, and then turned it back around. Without so much as a DOR or a toad to show for our efforts, I began to worry just how deeply I had offended whatever unseen forces Steve bowed to. It had to be bad mojo … some real serious stuff I had unleashed, and I began to regret my arrogance. How could I have been such a fool? Was there really a method behind the man’s apparent madness? Did those dazed, half-closed eyes behind the bearded face and 3-gallon fast-food cup hold the key to the mysteries of good field herping that were too deep and subliminal for my young petty mind to wrap around? And more importantly at this critical second hour into the rapidly failing experiment, how could my own bad luck be reversed?
I glanced up from the barren road and my jaw dropped open. The temps had dropped from 75 to 65 degrees, and it was only ten o’ clock. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. This couldn’t be happening. Could it? In a last-ditch effort to regain any chance at having any luck in the field whatsoever the rest of my days, I came up with an emergency plan. I shut off the tape recorder that was going down the list of Brazoria County herps for what had to be the hundredth time and smashed it to bits beneath my new hiking boot. A sacrifice…
“What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger! What-A-Burger!” I cried out as Amber looked nervously over at me and simultaneously inched a little closer to the passenger side door.
“Man the wheel!” I yelled at her, and as she did I grabbed my new luckless silk shirt by the collar with both hands and split it down the middle, sending buttons flying about the cab of my truck like tiny pearl missiles.
I slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road, threw it in park, and jumped from my truck and hit my knees on the pavement, repenting of my sins in a manner that would have put Jimmy Swaggart to shame. When the final tear had fallen, I looked up at the road in front of me and couldn’t believe my eyes.
There, illuminated by the head-lights, a beautiful southern copperhead emerged from the roadside vegetation and paused there, motionless. The self-inflicted curse had been lifted! I was free once again from my sinful chains to herp the roads of Texas! An unstoppable cry of joy came bellowing out of my mouth as I threw back my head and howled at the late Brazos County moon, whose half-hidden face seemed to smile back at me with a peculiar shadowy spot on its surface that could have been a beard.
I made a bee-line to the nearest What-A-Burger (I had to get that foul survey card out of the box!) and on the way found an additional copperhead as well as a diamondback water snake. Lucky for me the What-A-Burger is open 24 hours for my convenience, and as I sank my fangs into the tastiest hamburger I had ever eaten, I made sure to let a little mustard drip down onto my new lucky herping shirt. I was just going to need to replace the buttons.
In conclusion, I learned a very valuable lesson that night. Herp where you will, and go wherever you want to go, whenever you get the chance. Run wild and free in what few places are left that allow that kind of behavior. But never, I repeat, never question the Campbell Ideology, or dismiss it as so much eccentric clap-trap. I made that mistake, and I barely made it out with any herping luck left in me at all. Always stop at What-A-Burger, always wear your lucky clothes, and if anyone mentions something they hope to find while riding with you, for snake’s sake, plug your ears! I’ll see you all in the Big Thicket hopefully, sporting my new lucky shirt, if I can find a What-A-Burger down there, that is!