Start Here: Snake Oil

By Joe Parkin
Photo by Kevin Lange

In Southern California it is snake season, the time when the slithering reptiles breed and seem to become more comfortable out in the open—and on mountain-bike trails.

My own experience with reptiles has pretty much been limited to what I've seen at the zoo, the odd specialist pet shop and alligator-hunting reality television shows. And I'd be happy to keep all of my reptile encounters separated by at least a quarterinch of tempered glass.

But since I live in Southern California, and since the local animal control sees fit to relocate problem snakes near the trail system that connects my
house with Bike's office, chancing uncomfortable confrontations with the long, scaly belly dwellers is unavoidable—if I want to ride my bike to work on singletrack, that is.

On a recent morning, I set out for work, my body waking up on a bit of asphalt before the trail entrance. As usual, I approached the first dozen-or-so blind turns as nervously as I would a trip to the dentist, certain that I would be coming face to face with a coiled-up rattler. And as usual, once I began to settle into the trail's flow, the notion of snakes demanded less of my attention.

The last little section of uphill singletrack didn't feel as steep as it had just a couple of days earlier, and I started wondering if it would be alright for me to skip work for another hour or two. And then, as I internally justified the need for more riding, I noticed a stick on the trail that seemed a bit out of place. As I came closer, I thought it seemed strange for the stick to be moving like it was. Just inches from running it over, I saw that this stick had a head.

I'm sure I uttered some sort of unintelligible noise as I grabbed the brakes and unclipped both feet from the pedals. By this time, the snake was coiled up and its tail was rattling.

Certain that this giant beast would be dead-set on chasing me down, I attempted to back down the hill as quickly as possible with my bike between my legs. But in my panicked state, I managed to get my shorts or some other article of clothing hung on the tip of my saddle and I lost my balance, falling backward into a bush. I fought with my pack, my bike and the bush. And I
eventually escaped, cheating a painful death. When I'd collected my wits, I took the shortest, clearest path to pavement and pedaled the rest of the way to the office.

Being new to snake encounters, I've told this story several times. With each new telling, my snake becomes a little bit bigger. And since there wasn't a photographer on hand to capture the evidence, no one's ever going to know the truth.