I was perched on the edge of a large boulder, trying to take a picture of a pretty yellow flower tucked into a crack, when I heard a horrible grating noise that at first made me think of a burned out motor in a portable drill. Or an agitated wasp, if the wasp was as big as my shoe. At first I didn’t understand what it was, but when I looked down to maybe a foot-and-a-half below from where I was perched, I spotted an angry rattlesnake. Its coiled body was as thick as a beer can and its pink mouth was wide open revealing revealing fangs the size of large nails. Not only was it shaking its rattle, but it was hissing at me.
“Grab Melo and Pix!,” I screamed at Kat.
Melo and Pix were off leash and running freely on the rocks. Kat, who was standing between some other boulders only a short distance away, quickly grabbed onto the dogs’ collars and held them firm. As soon as I knew they were safe, I glanced down at the snake between my legs and quickly hopped out of striking distance. My only thought was, “Damn. I should have taken a picture.” I did go back to see if I could get a photo of the snake a few moments later, but when I carefully peered to the spot between the rocks where it was coiled, it was gone.
Thinking about it afterwards, we were very lucky to have escaped without being bitten. It was probably dumb of me to have gone back to try and get a pic, although isn’t danger something National Geographic photographers encounter every day? Probably what surprised me most was that at first I didn’t register that I was hearing a rattlesnake. For some reason, I always thought that rattlesnakes sounded a bit like baby rattles or smaller versions of maracas in a Mariachi band. I remember years ago coming across some real rattlesnake tails selling in a tourist shop and the gentle swishing sound they gave off when shaken was nothing like the virulent buzzing coming from a live rattlesnake. The next day Kat would have her own meeting with a rattler in a completely different area and maybe a four or five kilometres from my encounter.
We are camped at the Hanning Flat Recreation Site near Lake Isabella in the Sequoia National Forest. Although there was another boondocker in the distance on our first night here, they left the next morning and we now have the entire flats to ourself.
Both Kat and I are surprised to find ourselves completely alone in such a beautiful setting. Before us we can see Lake Isabella, with about thirty or so white pelicans in the water near the shore. Yesterday, when we hiked along the shoreline, the pelicans took to the sky and swirled above our heads, impressing us with their graceful aerial dance. The land surrounding us is aglow with multiple shades of green interspersed with patches of yellow flowers and purple clover from the many recent rains. After spending three nights in the cramped and crowded Hole in the Wall and Mid Hill campgrounds in the Mohave desert last weekend, we find it hard to understand why so many other RVers avoid remote camping spots like this one. Not only is the camping free, but the scenery is stunning.
Maybe most people don’t know about boondocking and dispersed camping. It’s not the easiest to find some of the more remote spots like Hanning Flats and Kat has to hit a few different apps and websites to locate them.
Or perhaps the bigger reason why more people don’t camp remotely is because they are afraid. In a way, I can’t really blame them. If one of us would have been bitten by a rattler yesterday, it would have been a long time before we could have found medical aid. Fortunately, we do have cell service here, but we’ve stayed at other sites where cell service has been poor.
And, of course in addition to wild animals, when you’re all alone in a remote setting there’s always the fear of being robbed or assaulted. Being Canadians, we don’t pack guns (although I can probably wield a mean walking stick) and, it’s true, when we see other vehicles approaching us — usually locals out to let their dogs run loose — we’re vigilent. A couple of days ago a black pickup pulled up near us. A tired looking woman got out of the passenger side with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. A couple of kids came out from the passenger seats and four or five pit bulls were waiting in the bed of the truck. I walked around the truck and approached the driver, a man probably in his early thirties. He reminded me of one of the backwoodsmen in Deliverance. I warned him about the rattlesnakes. He briefly looked up at me before turning away and walking to the back of his truck to let his dogs out.
“My husband saw one on the other side the other day as big around as the end of a baseball bat,” the woman yelled over from the other side of the truck. I wondered why She was the one talking to me and not her husband. I sensed anger coming from him. Kat later suggested that maybe they had just gotten into an argument. My thought was that he probably resented the “tourists” who came to pee in his own backyard. People can be territorial, like dogs. I walked up to the thin but tough looking woman and told her of my own encounter with the snake earlier that day, and that I was checking the area for more snakes (the truth is that they pulled up just as I had stepped out to go pee). She was polite and thanked me. But I sensed that when we parted, I wasn’t the only one who was glad.
Earlier in the week, while camped at the surprisingly grey and drab Red Rock Canyon — we had camped there thirty years ago and I could swear the rocks were actually red then! — we took a walk across the desert to some remote cliffs that interested us. At one point, Melo and Pix raced after a large jack rabbit. At least that’s what I thought it was at first glance. When I looked again, I realized it wasn’t a rabbit they were chasing, but a coyote. Coyotes are known to lure their prey by allowing themselves to be chased and then, at the last minute, turn to snatch their victims. “Melo! Pix! Come!” I yelled, adding “Owie!” because they’ve come to associate the word with the pain they experience when we remove the cactus spines and desert stars from they paws during our hikes. Fortunately, they promptly stopped their pursuit of the coyote came back right away.
Life is full of dangers. Animals and people are injured and die all the time, whether in the cities or out in the wilderness. Maybe we never encountered a rattlesnake where we lived in New Westminster. But I watched as a neighbour’s dog was run over by a speeding pickup on the street in front of our house and, on Halloween night a couple of years ago, the people at Animal Control shot a cougar in our back alley.
A few days ago, we camped for one night at the Calico ghost town near San Berdino to dump, get water, and take showers. Our camping fee included a free visit to the ghost town. Although the town is now a tourist destination, and most of the buildings are fake, the town was once real and has an underlying history of violence and death, everything from miners killed while mining for silver, to people killed while gambling or being robbed or simply drinking bad water.
This morning, while reading about Calico on my iPad, my attention was drawn to a newspaper clipping dating back to 1896. The headline read: Killing of Roland. It was a story about a gambler named Albert P. Roland who was shot in the chest by another gambler after a heated exchange during an all-night card game. I was reminded that even behind the facade of the serene and pastoral landscape we are currently camped in, a bringer of death may lie in wait.
A little over a week ago, we released the ashes of Kat’s parents into Lake Havasu. Sid and Vera had passed from this world a few years ago and we had carried their ashes with us in our truck’s basement since the start of our journey. Although they had a plot waiting for them in Havasu, once we visited that plot, Kat felt that it was more appropriate that we release them into the lake. They were too non-conventional for a traditional graveyard. As Kat poured the ashes into the water, the ashes spread under the surface and formed into a large blot. Instead of merging with the brown muck at the lake’s bottom, the blot stood out, reminding me of one of Sid’s abstract paintings.
“The ashes will eventually be absorbed into the lake, won’t they?” Kat asked, perturbed.
“Of course,” I said. But to myself I thought that maybe they won’t. Maybe the light beige patch of bone and ash at the bottom of the lake will remain for a thousand years, reminding visitors that two unique souls once lived at Lake Havasu. Concerned that we may have been spotted by a resident of one of the hundreds of homes up on the hill though, we didn’t hang around too long afterwards.
Last night a turbulent storm rolled over us and the wind rocked our camper like a ship on the sea. Although I love storms and embrace the energy they bring, when you’re camping remotely with no one within a dozen or more miles, it’s easy for the night fears to enter. Contemplating our recent encounters with rattlesnakes, and our own mortality in wake of our parting with the ashes of Kat’s parents, I understood why some people prefer to camp in groups, surrounded by other RVers. It’s easier to feel more secure. For thousands of years, people have congregated together for security. “There’s safety in numbers,” the saying goes.
And I’m sure most people would also prefer the noises of the living and the sounds of live voices over the strange moaning we hear buried in the wind.
But when we we are all alone, it feels like our senses are sharper. We feel more attuned, more aware than when we’re lulled and distracted by the company of others. Although death may be hiding behind every rock, we feel more alive than we’ve ever felt before. And if I have a choice between the safety of a crowded campground and the solitude of a more remote setting, even if it comes with rattlesnakes and coyotes, I’ll always take the rattlesnakes.
Kat talks a bit more eloquently and comprehensively about our parting with her parent’s ashes here: