The plan for the day, after having our hearty breakfast and enjoying the morning at camp was to take a day hike to Pine Flat, near the river. It was a short hike, but very steep. We had to descend 1000 feet in about a 1/4 mile, which, trust me, is a bit of a hill. Sometimes it's harder going DOWN the hill. Kc set off and went ahead of us. Monica's foot bothers her on the downhill, so it was a little slow going, which was fine because there was a lot of loose rock along the trail. Monica's behind me, Samson's ahead of me, happy to not be wearing his pack, and I spot something in the trail. Something long and wiggly with a orange-red belly. It turned out to be one of these: A Diadophis punctatus occidentalis or a Northwestern Ring-necked Snake. Beautiful, isn't it? Yes, to those of you who are not heart-racing, short of breath, crap your pants phobic about snakes. Aside from public bathrooms, my first biggest fear is actually snakes. I am a true Ophidiophobe. I cannot even look at pictures of them or look at them on television. This is my great fear hiking. I know. They're more afraid of me than I am of them. blah blah blah. Most of them are harmless. blah blah blah. I stop dead in my tracks as the serpent just continues to linger and twist itself around by a sunny rock right smack dab in the middle of the path. Monica doesn't even need to ask me what's going on; she can smell the fear. My incoherent babbling and incontinence tips her off. She goes ahead of me and tries to coax the snake to move. He protests. I squeal. Finally, he slithers off and I am free to pass. Great. Now I'm paranoid.
We reach the bottom without further ado where Kc is waiting for us, trying to figure out how to cross the creek. She finds a narrow wooden plank that she bravely clamors over. It is too narrow for my comfort and I have to hold onto Samson as he crosses so he won't get washed away. The only recourse is to walk through the water. We rejoin the path and try to make our way over to the river, but the path leads us into some woods, then back across a meadow. We are all hot and sweaty and ready to reach the refreshing river.
The meadow was once home to a rancher who raised cattle for the miners that panned for gold along the Illinois river many years ago. We finally made it to the water's edge by hopping on large rocks that lay along the river's edge. The water was like ice, but that did not keep Monica and Kc from getting in. I opted to stay on a rock while they splashed around and screamed. As I was sitting there, minding my own business, I look to my left and see a familiar face. It is attached to a legless slithering body that is crawling right up to me as if I was its long lost friend. I jumped up and he continued to slither toward me as if to say, "what's wrong? aren't you happy to see me?" He crawled towards Kc's shirt, slid around our shoes and then crawled away, weaving in and out of the rocks. By now, I'm beginning to wonder how I'll get back up the hill because I've aged 10 years in a couple of hours.
Monica decided to go and hang out under a wide oak tree she discovered while Kc, Samson and I hopped along some rocks. Another snake. It's time for me to go to the meadow and find Monica. We all gathered under the tree, enjoyed the shade and ate our jerky and peanut butter for lunch. Kc eventually went off to find some rapids and do some more rock hopping. We agreed to meet back at the creek at a certain time. We headed back toward the trail, winding through the meadow and the swampy area where I discovered a little pond with tadpoles and baby frogs in various stages of development. Monica kept going and I heard her make a yelp. "What's wrong?" I shouted.
"Oh, nothing," she replied. "I just got off trail." She was up on some rocks above the actual trail when I caught up to her. Drying out my socks was futile because I just had to cross the creek again. We headed up the trail. It was still hot, nearly 90 degrees so we thought we'd just take it slow and steady. Kc went on ahead. "Get that fire started when you get back to camp," I told her.
We were about a third of the way up the trail. Samson was leading, Monica was behind him, and I was a few paces behind. I heard a sound I'd never heard before, but knew immediately what it was. I was astounded how clear, dramatic and distinctive it was. Listen. I saw it just as Monica walked right past it. It was coiled up on a rock right next to the path, waist high. I saw it's head peering at us. It had already warned us so I wasn't about to walk past it. Monica and Samson were on other side. "I'm not moving until it's gone," I said.
"Take your time," Monica said.
I couldn't see where it went from where I was standing and I was afraid to move. What if it come onto the trail? What if it decided to bite me as I walked past? How long would it be before it went back into hibernation? Six months? I could wait. After a few minutes I gathered enough nerve because I thought he went back into the rocks. I scurried past, my heart in my throat. "I can't believe you've taken me on a hike into a damn snake pit!" I told Monica.
"I didn't want to tell you, but I saw a rattler on the rocks down by the pond," she admitted. Why tell me this now?
OK, so rattlers like hot, dry, rocky areas. Great. That's the entire freaking trail! I'm growing older and older by the minute. I hadn't seen this many snakes in one day since I went to the reptile house in the Cincinnati zoo. "I've never seen a snake while I've been backpacking. Ever." Monica told me. "I've always hiked in higher altitudes."
"Fine. Let's go there," I said.
"You might not get enough oxygen," she reminded me.
"I don't care. I'd rather be anoxic than keep running into these snakes."
I was relieved when we climbed out of the snake pit and got into the cooler woods where we would most likely run into some tree loving serpent before we got back to camp. As promised, Kc had the fire going.
Time for supper again. Tonight, it's Mexican Chicken and rice. This time, less water. I head into the woods to get more fire wood while Monica lights up the stove and boils water for our food. We each have our own utensil. Mine is a plastic "spork" that I got at the outdoor store. She chose to bring along one of my nice hand carved wooden spoons. She gave it to me as a gift for Christmas. It was nice, smooth with a deep bowl. Perfect for eating soup. "You won't need a fork backpacking," she told me. Little did I know the food would seldom ever be solid enough to pierce with a fork. I returned with the firewood. Monica said, "Where's the wooden spoon? I just laid it here." She pointed to a plastic bag that was sitting on the ground. "I stirred the food with it."
I looked around the area and spotted the spoon, broken into slivers and chunks. "Is that it?" I asked, hoping I was wrong, but it was obvious I wasn't. Apparently, Samson got a hold of it, licked the food off it and proceeded to try to eat the entire spoon. When it proved to be less palatable than he originally thought, he abandoned it. "Well," I said as I picked up the remainder of the handle, "too bad you don't have a utensil now." I tossed the remains into the fire as I explained that the dog thinks the ground is his territory as far as food is concerned. Normally, anything at floor or ground level is fair game. Monica did not explain the camp rules to him, mainly, the humans use the ground as their table. Poor dog.