Certain phobias are widespread it seems, like the fear of public speaking or of flying. I happen to love both, and judgmentally I can’t understand those who find either activity frightening. But since childhood, I’ve had an equally common deathly fear, and I do everything in my power to avoid any contact with its source, which is a representation of the devil incarnate.
A bug or spider? I’m not a fan, but I’m not afraid of either. I can squash and remove one with more distaste than anything. Yet, put me near anything that slithers, even the lowly salamander, and I’m a shaking mess of freeze or flight. I can’t enter the exhibits that have snakes on display, and walking through a beautiful meadow of swaying grass is ruined for me by the fear a snake might be lurking underfoot. I finally said our young son couldn’t have rubber snakes at all when he couldn’t resist shaking them in my face. I’m simply TERRIFIED of them.
I don’t know if this is true for most phobias, but I’m sure mine was born in early childhood. A beloved college student who lived with us—Bard, who was one of the “good guys” as I call them—had several eccentricities. He loved jazz and played it regularly on our baby grand piano, which was a completely new sound for our household and my young ears. He also loved snakes, and he hunted them on long weekends or holiday breaks and donated them to the Nashville Children’s Museum. I often heard the story of how Bard was stopped by a state trooper for some infraction late one night, and the officer asked about the tied pillowcases in the back seat and floorboard. The guy didn’t believe the answer, “It’s just snakes,” which was delivered I’m sure in an intentional monotone with flat affect. When the trooper insisted that Bard open a sack, which revealed that it, indeed, contained multiple writhing, hissing savages, the guy ran for his car and Bard happily drove away without a ticket.
To be honest, I’m not positive I really remember seeing the snake-filled pillowcases in the back of Bard’s old car, but every time I think of them, I have a visceral reaction, so it may be true. I know I was frightened that a snake would escape during its brief sojourn in the vehicle between life in the wild and life behind glass.
My second, more upsetting snake encounter came at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, West Virginia, where I spent every summer with my maternal grandparents. At that time Oglebay had an open snake pit, which was a concrete square probably four feet deep with walls that sloped inward to keep the snakes from crawling out. They were non-poisonous, of course, but that made little difference to me. I was both repelled and fascinated. Daily a ranger would get into the pit to describe the snakes and allow people to hold one. A couple of times I screwed up my courage and took a serpent in my hands, which was barely tolerable until the thing started moving and put its flat face solidly against my flesh as if considering it might sample a taste.
When the ranger wasn’t present, the snakes were unsupervised and available. (Who thought that was a good idea?) One day my next-older brother, who was my loving tormenter in childhood, may or may not have nudged me into the snake pit, and, being a little kid, I couldn’t get out by myself. I still remember the terror of seeing the snakes moving around my feet, which were as immobile as bricks in the concrete of fright. By the time my brother had mercy and helped me out, I was DONE with snakes. They are the source of nightmares and extreme aversion. I don’t like even seeing a picture of a snake or hearing a snake story. When I read just the headline that an escaped python appeared under someone’s sink, I’m uneasy in my own bathroom for days.
Fast forward to today and my newfound love for hiking Ganier Ridge, which is part of the Radnor Lake trail system. Of course, I know intellectually that it’s possible a snake or two may be living in the thousands of acres of natural area, but denial works well for me. I focus on the deer and owls and other wildlife. I revel in the beauty of the trees and colors and sounds and silence. I’ve always felt safe there and comfortable, even though I normally hike alone.
On a recent late afternoon, I was ascending the steep part of the trail that leads to the top of the flat ridge, and a woman came running toward me. Her face had no color and her eyes were wild with fear. “Be careful up there!” she stopped to warn. “There’s a HUGE RATTLESNAKE in the middle of the trail!”
A rattlesnake?? Oh my!
She ran on down the trail, and I thought about what I would do from the safety of my spot surely hundreds of yards away from the serpent. Soon a group of coeds came in sight, and they too were talking about the enormous rattlesnake, which they said rattled and lunged at them when they got too close. They had pictures, and the circumference of the beast took my breath away. More frightening, it was coiled in the leaves and underbrush right at the edge of the trail, and thus it was nearly invisible. (Why, God? WHY?) The young women encouraged me to turn around and not risk a rattler encounter.
I was surprised to realize I felt conflicted. As terrified as I am of snakes, especially a poisonous one, I’ve apparently become one of those crazy people who just “has to” exercise—or at least be out in nature, which is the real draw. I hike for the experience; the exercise and how strong hiking makes me feel are just nice by-products. That day and time were out of the ordinary for me, and I was on the trail because my spirit needed the connection and consolation I feel there. I didn’t want fear to rob me of the experience.
Cautiously, I ventured a few feet into the woods and picked up a large stick, taller than I am and as thick as my wrist. Fortified, I ventured 50 more yards up the trail. Two young men met me coming from the snake’s direction, and they, too, had seen the rattler and had a video to verify it was ginormous. They promised it was moving away from the trail and told me I should be fine if I kept a close lookout.
We chatted a bit and they said they attended a nearby high school where I had happened to do my student teaching over 40 years ago. They were such nice and polite kids, and I was so hungry to complete my hike, that impulsively I said, “Well, I’m 63 years old and scared. I really need to hike today, and I can’t do it by myself with the rattlesnake. What about you nice young men escorting the old lady back across Ganier Ridge?” They exchanged glances, smiled, and one of them said, “Sure! Why not? We don’t have anything better to do. Besides, we want to hear about Overton High when you were there. And you sure don’t look 63!” (God love them.)
With that, Trent and Peter led the way back up the trail. I insisted on being between them, and I tapped my huge stick back and forth in front of me like a white cane for the visually impaired. We got over the ridge and down the other side without incident, though my hypervigilance kept me from feeling the serenity I normally enjoy. Thankfully, I didn’t see the rattlesnake or any other reptiles, and I had a lovely conversation with two terrific teenagers.
Determined to reclaim my sacred route, I’ve now traversed the Ridge trail several times since the near-snake encounter, always with my sturdy staff in hand. On the first post-rattler venture I asked a dear friend who regularly hikes there to join me. When I told her my terrifying tale, she said nonchalantly, “Yeah, I’ve seen rattlers up here a bunch of times. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” Nope, impossible! Each hike, though, I feel more at ease than the time before, although I’m vigilant about watching for a rattlesnake, which the helpful park rangers inform me mate in the heat of summer and are therefore more mobile and apt to be on the trails. Good to know.
I’m learning anew that growth comes when I walk through my fears, whether they are of the “lions, tigers, and bears” of emotional or spiritual challenges, or the physical panic of encountering a rattlesnake (OH MY!). It helps to have a friend walk with me.
Marnie C. Ferree