Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Strange Hitchiker on the Journey to the Azteca

Snaking and braking my way down the Valley

Usually bringing a load of supplies down to the Azteca Theater is a dull affair. Load up the van, check the oil and gas and hit the road. And drive through the Valley heat until I get there.

This time it would be easier. I started  early packing some tools and supplies, PVC pipe, an orange wig for Maria (the ticket booth manikin who lost her hair to a crazed druggie.) and  loaded the van two days ahead. I could hit the road as soon as I finished a job in Oregon. 

The drive through the Mt Shasta country is a pleasure. Tall mountains covered with Douglas fir and pine trees. Blue waters below. Blue sky above. This wonderful State of Jefferson ends at Redding as the road descends into the Great Valley of California all the way to Bakersfield.

About an hour above Sacramento, as the Valley heat intensifies, I catch a movement on the dash. Something brown and shiny seems to be glistening as it turns. I can't believe my eyes, but I swear there is the body of a snake about 1/2-inch wide turning on itself and disappearing into the defrosting vents on the dash.
I did a mental jump, but logic told me I must be mistaken. Nothing reptilian could be in the car.
And even if it was, it was now safely lodged in the air vents and I would not see it again.

So I thought.

Road sign warning of snakes going 20-mph.
I'm not paranoid!
I drove on with regularly glance across the dashboard to see if the illusion would repeat itself.
I never saw a snake in a car, how could they possibly get in a locked car? And a car that sat in the sun during the day. No animal, insect or reptile could possibly desire to get into my car. I mused on the impossibility of a snake getting into the car. But what if I brought the sank into the car without its permission? I remembered the boxes I had carefully  prepared and left outside. Could a snake inadvertently hitchhiked a ride with me? And remained undetected until the heat and road vibration caused it to move?

It wasn't a pleasant thought, but it was feasible to think a snake might be camping in my vehicle. But no worries, it is curled up inside the air conditioning system, or probably already let itself out on the shoulder and was slithering happily away. I tried to allay my fearful thoughts of what would happen if it was not curled up in the ventilation or slithering away.

I have always had an irrational fear of snakes. The childhood stories about poisonous rattlesnakes and horrible painful death left its mark.  My first acknowledge of a snake is to panic and jump out of my skin. Rationality returns momentarily, but that first impression is utter panic.
Needless to say, the thought of seeing a snake closeup while driving at 70-mph down the Interstate Freeway 5 did not appeal to me!

I was beginning to calm down a few miles past Williams when I felt something cross my right thigh. I knew instantly what it was and my body froze with hands gripping the steering wheel. I knew a 6-foot rattler has headed for who-knows-what sensitive region.  Good thing the road was straight. My grip of iron would not have wanted to turn. Luckily, the snake crossed my lap and slid down the door to the floor and under my feet.

It is not very comfortable driving with your feet off the floor mats knowing that at any moment a snake could crawl up your pant legs. The last i saw of him he slide over to the passenger side on the floor. I stopped the van on the fight should gravel soon as I could and hopped out of the van. I opened all the doors, two in  rear, four on the sides and circled it like John Wayne looking for varmints. I spotted its head almost in the middle as I looked in the side door. Great! I'll go in the back door with a stick and coax it out to the ground.

Well, the snake had its own idea. Soon as I looked in from the back he headed for a spot between the carpet and the plastic molding near the rear of the side door. No sooner than I could get close he had disappeared into a small gap by the wheel well. I pondered my options. I sure did not want to get into the car knowing he was holing up waitign for the raod noise and heat to start another snakepede.  I tried tapping on the carpet to see if he would emerge. Nothing. So I pulled up the carpet and saw he had escaped into the sidewall inside the body of the car.  Darn! I tried tapping on the body of the car from outside to see if he might find that unplesant and come out again. Nope.

Acceptance of an uneasy quiet

That snake was happy just to let me know he was on board and he would be staying a little longer.
Turns out he didn't have rattles. He was a shiny brown snake about 30" long and just over 1/2" in circumference. Its belly was a little yellowish. For all the world it looked like a Territorial Garter Snake first noted in the journals of Lewis and Clark back in 1805. Well, a distant relative perhaps.

I can't imagine what people driving by thought. A big white van with all the doors open. "Something sure must smell bad!" "Glad I didn't eat what he ate!"  So off again towards Sacramento and on to Fresno. With a little trepidation about the passenger. The passenger that kept me alert. There was no possibility of getting sleepy on this drive!

The freeway noise and flows began to take on a normalcy and I began to imagine I would not see Mr. Snake again now that he was curled up happily in a secret cavity in the sidewall. Never mind that he is on the sunny west side and the sun is getting lower.

It wasn't long before I felt a nudge on my elbow. Am I getting edgy? There it was again! I glanced but could see nothing. But I knew it was there! I was on the outskirts of Sacramento and the freeway was gettign wider and busier. The snake was just letting me know it was there and not to be forgotten. I sat up on the edge of the driver seat with feet off the floor and looking very seriously alert to other drivers.  The road rumbled and the sun got lower and hotter.

Through traffic takes the left lane through Sacramento, usually 70 miles and hour and the far left lane to avoid all the merging and exiting in the city. It is always a thrill to see the old town bridge and high-rise builings come into view. Made more so by appearance of the snake, this time fully coiled up in my lap and with no intent on leaving!

The van made a little dance as I overcame my panic. Shall we dance? I assumed the frozen now-what-do-I-do? position. The view was not as enjoyable as before.
I was passing the center of town and the freeway followed the Sacramento River. The river that flows like a snake through Sacramento...

Sacramento River snaking through the city
I began merging to the right lanes as safely as possible and by the time the Seamas exit came near I was poised to exit. Mr. Snake decided he could relax and dropped himself to the floor and slithered behind me. Did he know it was time to stop? Would he hide again and I must drive on and repeat the ride of terror all the way to Fresno? Would I make it to Fresno?

It just so happened I lived near this exit when I worked for the Sacramento Bee and it ran into an area called the "Little Pocket" along the river.  There are beautiful parks and bike trails forever in this south area of Sacramento. And all kinds of insects, slugs and small varmints. Wouldn't this be a good place to live if you were a snake? I would soon find out.

I unlocked my arms and pulled off on Seamas, through a light and pulled up parallel to Bahnfled Park, a 6-acre sunken soccer field. It was shady there and the grass looked cool. Surely this is what the rogue snake wanted to find. I knew that California has all kinds of alien species rules, no insects, no fruits, no undocumented people, no non-native plants. But I didn't remember anything about migrating snakes. In fact, as i looed over the green park with no people anywhere to be seen, I thought this park needs a snake!

I knew the drill

Open all the doors, be quiet and see what the shy snake would do. Sure enough, as the cool breeze flowed through the van, the snake crawled to the middle of the van facing the main open side doors. Its little tongue tasted the air and he surveyed what was in front of him. Not leaving anything to chance, I went to the back door and pulled out a piece of plastic pipe and lowered it behind it. No more encouragement was needed. The snake dropped to the ground and started worming along the curb.

The rogue snake that could
I ran to grab a camera and got this one grab shot as he was moving at a fast walk. Soon he found the break in the curb that lead to some grass and bushes and he dissolved into nature. Whew!
I felt much lighter. I jumped in the van. My feet touched the floor, my grips was light and my arms hung down in a relaxed position. Life was good. There are no problems in front of me. Arriving at night to the curious stares of corner drug dealers, nosy transients and bar revelers. No problem.

Soon as I saw the lit ticket booth on Fresno's F Street with Maria smiling out it was okay!
And the rogue snake must be reveling in the mild California climate full of new bugs and wallows.

Life is good.
Thamnophis Rogus?
Western Rogue Garter Snake from Rogue River?

The Northwestern Garter Snake was first noted by the Lewis and Clark Expedition on July 24, 1805 near present-day Townsend, Montana.

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