“Snakes and the California Boy” by Nils Skudra

Before coming out to Greensboro for graduate school at UNCG, my Virginia-born god-mother sat me down and painted a vivid picture about what to expect in NC: different social traditions from those of the West Coast, a phenomenon famously known as “southern hospitality”, food the likes of which I’d never heard of: pulled pork, vinegar-based fried chicken, and  chocolate chess pie. I would be greeted by the slow drawl of speech mixed with expressions of gentility (‘bless your heart”) and life would be infinitely slower and simpler.  At every turn I would see vistas of dogwood and crepe myrtle trees gracing every street.  Southern belles would extend a great measure of attention to me and I would be basking in their inimitable charm and the soft rhythms of their sonorous speech.  How could any red-blooded young man protest?  I couldn’t wait to put the almost 3,000 miles between the San Francisco Bay Area and my future home behind me, speeding along in 98 degree July heat in my not-too-pretty-but-fully-functional Toyota Corolla with its UC Berkeley sticker on the rear window.

None of these descriptions of North Carolina life were in my actual Californian field of experience. I relished the idea of sitting in a high-backed rocking chair on a veranda or in a screened porch, sipping sweet tea and reading a southern author of note like William Faulkner.   I came to the South to fulfill my life’s ambition of becoming a Civil War historian and my god-mother told me that,   I would not only see historic statues, parks, battlegrounds and museums first-hand but also meet the descendants of many people who had fought in The War Between the States (aka “The War of Northern Aggression”).  I would  have the great fortune to visit areas of “sacred ground” – battle fields where the South had given up sorrowfully  its far too young men to the wages of war.  I was to experience a “totally different culture” which would fitfully challenge the operational life norms I knew to be true on the West Coast.

There were however sins of biographical omission on her part as well.  She failed to mention the sweltering heat and humidity that had me copiously swigging down large amounts of ice water at every opportunity.  Things that I was accustomed to – gelato, sourdough bread, the Pacific Ocean, and Trader Joe’s – appeared not to be here and I wasn’t sure I could survive without them.  Tailgating (an apparent “art” in the Triad made daily driving an act of “taking one’s life in one’s hands.”  Driving in the “slow lane” was no solution to the tailgaiting problem either: everyone seemingly bought into the practice and my 2002 Toyota was clearly no serious road warrior contender.  But all this pales to one really gigantic omission which was intentional or unintentional in nature: the mention of snakes and their general occupation (almost everywhere) in the Tarheel state.  It turns out that NC is a veritable snake play-ground with plenty of places in its mountain regions and coastal plains for these critters to slide and hide, locate prey and find their slithery mates and produce a continuing infinity of snakes.

The truth is that I never even thought about snakes until one memorable day last June when my loving parent and I decided to do some hiking in the Piedmont Environmental Center in High Point.   About 5 minutes into our walk on a narrow dirt trail, my mother spied what she thought was a gleaming black rubber hose to the left of us in some brush.  A moment later we realized it was in fact a live snake, expertly coiled and looking as it if were about to launch a strike in our direction.  Complete pandemonium ensued with my mom shrieking that “we should never have come here, we’re going to get killed by a snake!”  As she charged helter-skelter down the trail, I frantically called the 20-something park ranger to come and get us or else” (or else what???) which she summarily did.  She tried hard to calm my mother down but unfortunately let slide the remark “snakes are all over this park, that’s how it is, we even have copperheads and they are venomous! And water moccasins in City Lake, they’re venomous too, and that’s just a few yards away!”   At that exact moment my mom , already overcome with hysteria and begging to be Medi-vac’ed out of the preserve, looked to her right and said “what’s that over there?”  The ranger stared at the object in question and said excitedly “wow!  That’s a huge black rat snake!  It’s a good snake, don’t worry, you’re fine!” Both of us bolted for the car leaving Snake Land and a puzzled park employee behind. After that incident, things only got worse.  It seemed like every person we met had their share of “snake stories” which they felt an obligation to share.  A New York transplant girlfriend in Burlington had gone out on her patio to get ready for a cook-out and found two black snakes having a Saturday date night under the BBQ.  An acquaintance, living several blocks from Guilford College, arrived home on an unremittingly hot afternoon to find “some kind of huge marbled snake” sunning itself on her front porch.  She ran over to her neighbor’s home and the guy there grabbed a shotgun and apparently dispatched the interloper to Kingdom Come.  Someone in Summerfield told us they found a copperhead in their back yard and smacked it with a shovel and ran back into their house.  Jeff Kinard, a History professor friend of mine, said he opened the classroom door at Greensboro College and there was a nest of copperheads lounging about on the floor, apparently none too happy to have their reptilian congress disturbed.

I wish I could say this snake phobia thing has gotten better.   It has not. My mother has become obsessed with learning everything she can about snakes. She can quote you chapter and verse on the 37 species of snakes,  six of which are venomous.  She knows the names of all six of those and what they look like and the fact that the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the deadliest snake in the U.S. and shares its homicile with us. She’s dismissive of the claim that there are good snakes and bad snakes. To her mind, they are all the same so why worry about petty distinctions?  She doesn’t buy into the generally accepted idea that if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.   Her hysteria has continued to reach even greater heights since she found out that the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (at which I intern) has copperheads on its grounds whose existence is protected by federal law.  The only good thing that has come out of all this aggregated fear and loathing is the fact that she wants to take me to Purgason’s Western Wear and buy me a pair of $599.95 Tan Gator tail and calf  thirteen inch shaft leather-soled Luccese boots to protect me from the copperheads in case they get it in their minds to throw themselves against my feet and legs  while I’m conducting a possible tour in the Park.  Who wouldn’t fancy a pair of these beautiful western boots under any condition?  I’m definitely good to go on the boots, I want them today!

I finally thought this snake thing had calmed down. But no, my close friend Yesenia, went and told my mother that the other day she had walked into the Office Depot on Battleground Avenue where she works and there was a snake rolling around on the floor. My mother yelled “what is a snake doing in Office Depot?  Checking out the sales? They are everywhere, there was even a snake behind the Harris Teeter Market in the Friendly Shopping Center that an employee told me about!”   It pains me to see the fearful and agitated state my parent now lives in – everywhere she goes she is on high alert, afraid to even enter our own back yard lest she runs into one of those terrifying creepy crawlers. The fear continues to grow in its magnitude.  Last week the trip to Pilot Mountain was more theoretical than actual since the woman at the front desk of the visitor center told us “there are snakes everywhere, just watch out.”   So much for the long hike I was hoping for. (We hadn’t bought the Purgason’s boots yet).   My mother’s protestations allowed for only this:  jumped out of the car, checked out the view, and quickly got back into the car.  I’ll admit that all this preoccupation with snakes has even gotten to me as well so much so that I’ve committed to memory the protocol for snakebite treatment (stay calm, call 911, try to identify the snake by sight and whatever you do, do NOT try to kill the snake – it could bite you again!).  And since two set of Lindley Park neighbors casually alluded to the “big snakes” they had seen while walking in the Bog Garden, I’m reconsidering where I take the dog for his evening constitutional.

I became an official resident of North Carolina on August 1st but admittedly I’ll never have the easy familiarity and take-it-for-grantedness that y’all have with snakes.  I just hope that I don’t ever run into any more of them in my lifetime irrespective of whether they are “good” or “bad” and if I do that the Lucchese boots were well worth the money we paid for them.

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