J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher
March 21, 2011
Though there are people who love snakes, we seldom hear favorable attributions of snake qualities to people. No one says, “Oh, that man, he’s smart as a snake,” or, “She’s as pretty as a snake,” or even, “That person is sly as a snake,” even though that one might be appropriate.
Some people dread snakes. A friend of mine was very close to having a phobia about snakes, which makes his story a bit more serpentine than it would be for a person who felt neutral, or even charmed, by snakes.
My friend saw a large rattlesnake near the base of the long driveway up to his cabin.
He spotted the snake while driving to town in his pickup. Passing it, and seeing the snake coil and rattle, he backed up and ran over the snake, three times, going back and forth, back and forth.
But when he drove ahead after the third time, the snake was not in the driveway.
Thinking the snake had probably flipped into the brush alongside the road, he drove a ways, but then had second thoughts, and backed up. “At that point,” he told me, “I was a little concerned, but not worried. I just wanted to confirm the snake was dead and no longer coming up my driveway.”
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But there was no sign of the snake on the side of the driveway.
Then it dawned on him that if the snake had been thrown, he probably would have seen it as a flash in the rear-view mirror.
The remaining possibility caused great and sudden panic. If the snake had somehow become tangled up with the underside of the truck, such as twisted in the drive shaft, or forced up the side of the engine block, the head could be loose, waiting to strike. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to get out of my truck. I imagined the snake striking my calf or foot. I didn’t want to drive on, either, because if the snake was attached, it could melt.”
He sat for a long time, until his neighbor Fred came along. Fred stopped, and after hearing the story, told my friend that you can’t kill a snake by running it over, unless you hit squarely on the head, which could only happen by accident. Fred looked under the hood and under the truck while my friend bravely remained inside the cab.
Fred found no sign of the snake.
They walked back to the place in the driveway where my friend was pretty sure he’d run over the snake, and there was no sign, not even an indication of tracks in the dirt.
This experience caused my friend to allow that the snake he saw may have been a product of his imagination, given the nature of his phobia, but it haunts him to this day, and for several weeks afterward, he approached his pickup with caution.
“I learned this,” he said the last time we talked about it, “it’s best for me to leave rattlesnakes alone.”