The Road to the Big Bend

June 16, 2021

Wild Horse Station
Cabin number one

The day-long drive set the stage for our arrival in the Big Bend country. The land became flatter and more arid, and the stretches between towns lengthened. We began to see dust devils spinning across short distances among the mesquite and cactus. Somewhere south of Pecos, the shadowy line of the Davis Mountains gradually emerged from the haze. We were now far from the big cities, and we were leaving the desolate world of Permian Basin oil and gas extraction. Our travels from here would bring us into the Chihuahuan Desert, passing through mountain ranges and dropping down into desert basins.

Finally, south of Alpine, the two-lane road cut through a landscape with no town ahead for nearly a hundred miles. The sun was sinking toward distant mountains and buttes, and the road threaded through hills and rocky ridges that gradually flattened into huge expanses of gravelly desert dotted with creosote bush and yucca. Here was wildness and remoteness such as you rarely find in the United States, and opportunities to be unplugged from the modern world. 

There was no way to fully prepare Barbara and her kids for this place and its disconnection from the rest of the world. There was no phone service and little traffic. For nearly a hundred miles there are no gas stations, no stores, no fast food. There are occasional small structures – a cabin or a trailer – scattered among the brush and cacti or nestled at the foot of a hill, and occasionally a car or a pickup truck passes you. Nothing else disturbs the sense of being completely alone from one horizon to the other.

Sunset, south of Alpine

We stopped to photograph the sunset, and the deepening orange behind the layered mountains and hills was beautiful. For me it was a welcome return to a place whose openness and enormous scale has always offered peace and endless fascination. The isolation was probably a plus for fifteen-year-old Dani, who is often seeks out quiet moments with a little distance from others. Nicholas, who just turned thirteen, is outwardly an easygoing guy with an infectious smile. Barbara is an artist and media designer whose attention was drawn to this beautiful sunset, while at the same time her attention is never far from Dani and Nicholas. We were all filled with anticipation of the wildlife we hoped to see and hear, and as long as Barbara could get a text to the kids’ dad, telling him that we were OK, she would be fine. 

We stayed at Wild Horse Station, a collection of several cabins and mobile homes perched in different places on a hillside. I knew that cabin number one at the top of the ridge would be a good place to stay, but to get there we had to climb a rutted dirt road up the hill in the dark. There were sharp turns and a section where the path dropped off sharply to our right, but we made it.

It was dark, despite the light from this night’s nearly half moon. This part of Texas has traditionally had little light pollution and the dark skies make it a good place for the McDonald Observatory, in the Davis Mountains. With no blazing lights from cities and limited traffic, the nights are often clear and very dark. When there is no haze, the Milky Way stretches overhead just as it might have looked when it spanned some prehistoric landscape, and the sky seems like a limitless depth of black, with an infinity of stars. This was a moment to shake car-cramped muscles free and let go of thoughts and plans about tomorrow. It was a time for standing quietly under the night sky, surrounded on this hilltop by miles of desert, cool night air, and little else but a few friends and a welcoming shelter.

In mindfulness terms, it would seem to be easy to stop doing something on this night and in this place. How natural to just be still and notice the quiet, correct? But with darkness hiding much of what would catch the eye and hold our attention during the day, sometimes our internal thoughts, judgments and plans push the door open and insist on being heard. To practice mindfulness while the mind tries to smother our awareness under a thousand different things, we must observe ourselves having the thought, decide to let go of it rather than get caught up in it, and return our attention to that dark night in the desert as well as to our internal feelings and perceptions. It does take discipline to keep our attention in the present moment!

If we have enough of that discipline, what can result is a longer and deeper immersion in that night sky and the quiet desert around us. Any of us could stand there outside the cabin and notice the vast scale and the depth of the dark night, getting a short peek into that experience before the mind carried us off somewhere else. Mindful attention lets us live in those moments longer, continuing to be present for the full story of the stars, the sense of height on the hilltop, the soft breezes, the dimly seen desert plants around us, and much more.

A desert kingsnake with a stubbed tail, found later that night, photographed the next morning and released the next night.

We made this trip to introduce friends to the Big Bend region, to look for and photograph reptiles, and find some opportunities for mindfulness. More to come!

Our Venomous Snakes

Avoiding Encounters and Enjoying Them When They Do Occur

(I wrote this for The Post Oak, newsletter of the Arlington Conservation Council. It appeared in the June, 2021 issue.)

It is spring, and now we’ve had rain, and so the abundance of life is particularly evident. People are reporting wildlife sightings everywhere, including plenty of snake encounters posted to social media. Some reflect delight and appreciation, or even boasting about lucky finds in exactly the way a birder would report a new “lifer.” Others are nervous pleas to identify a photograph of a snake that is feared to be a threat to the lives of humans and pets. 

Venomous snake bite is an uncommon event in the U.S., although it is a potentially very serious medical emergency when it does occur. Cases of venomous snake bite from ten states were reported to the North American Snakebite Registry for three years from 2013 through 2015 (Ruha, et al., 2017). Most of the 450 cases were from Arizona and Texas, and 19% of the bites resulted from intentional interactions (with captive snakes, showing off, attempting to kill the snake, etc.). Almost all the bites came from pit-vipers – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Only three coralsnake bites were reported. There were no deaths among these 450 cases.

Western diamond-backed rattlesnake from near Austin

The small field guide by Andy Price, Venomous Snakes of Texas (Price, 2009), includes a table showing annual deaths in Texas from 1997 to 2005. Most years there were no deaths from snakebite, and only five deaths were reported for those nine years. Deaths from venomous arthropods (spiders, wasps, etc.) far outnumbered those from snakebite. If you are interested in, or worried about, Texas’ venomous snakes, get this guide. Price discusses how venom works, what to do in case of snakebite, and he provides information about where each one is found, what its habits are, and what it looks like. Alternately, you can download my pdf guide to venomous snakes in north Texas.

A Texas coralsnake seen in the Piney Woods

Coralsnakes are often thought of as among our more deadly snakes, but a 2009 article in Toxicon reported the first U.S. death from coralsnake bite in over 40 years (Norris, et al., 2009) It is also instructive to note that this death occurred when some men who had been drinking discovered the snake, captured it, and then tried to kill it. The person who died used a broken beer bottle to try to stab the snake, was bitten, and then did not pursue treatment. Unfortunately, carelessness, attempts to kill the snake, and failure to seek treatment were pivotal factors in this man’s death.

The point of all this is to say that venomous snakebite – especially the risk of dying from one – is low among the risks we face in daily life. The majority of snakes in Texas are nonvenomous, and all of them (venomous and nonvenomous) want nothing to do with us. Great care must be taken when we encounter a venomous snake, and that is the subject of the rest of this article. 

Someone whose position about snakes is generally “live and let live” may still believe that a snake near their house must be killed in order to prevent future encounters. It is hard to argue with someone who says “if I find a rattlesnake in my yard, I’m killing it.” Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt that argument, not because I value snakes over people, but because I think there’s a better solution. Let’s look at the points in my argument:

  1. If you live in an area where snakes show up from time to time, then killing that snake creates an opening for another snake to move in. If you live in an area that has recently been cleared for homes to be built, or if your house adjoins “wild” property, chances are that that will not be the last snake you see. What if you sprayed the snake with a garden hose from a safe distance, frightening it and running it off your property? Snakes learn about their surroundings, and that snake may learn that people and houses are scary and it’s best to stay away. 
  2. By the way, when threatened by a human, a snake experiences fear and agitation – it may look “mad” but it is really frightened; it will not hold a grudge and go on the offensive if it sees you again.
  3. Do you have loose items stacked outside your house, wood piles, or an old shed with a space underneath it? A wandering snake will think of these as shelter and a place to hunt a mouse or lizard to eat, and it may settle in and stay a while. You can minimize encounters with snakes by clearing out these items.
  4. The most dangerous encounter with a venomous snake is the one that you stumble into, unprepared and unaware. That happens when people walk barefoot at night in places where a snake might show up. It also happens when people reach down with bare hands to pick things up without being able to see what’s nearby. Better to use a stick or a tool to probe around the hidden nooks before putting your hand there. The same principle applies when you are hiking or camping – watch where you step or put your hands.
  5. Many snakebites occur when someone tries to kill the snake. You may be more careful and better organized than the guy who tried to kill the coralsnake with a beer bottle, but you are still going to have to get close to the snake. As you attack it, the snake will make frantic attempts to defend itself or get away, and this is a high-likelihood situation for you to be bitten.

You may or may not be convinced, but I think the best strategy is to prevent snake encounters around the house and to safely frighten away any unwanted snakes that you find. There’s one additional thing: snake “repellents” are not going to help. Wishful thinking and good salesmanship sells a lot of bags of stuff based on ingredients similar to mothballs or some other chemical scent-based substance. One snake control company in Arizona posts photos of rattlesnakes they find resting on top of the stuff or sheltering behind a bag of it. That speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the product.

What about the naturalists and wildlife-watchers among us? What if we find a snake and want to watch it or photograph it – can that safely be done? The answer is “yes,” and it depends on our dispelling the myth that venomous snakes chase people. I don’t mean to insult anyone who came across a rattlesnake that crawled toward them in a way that looked like it was chasing them. That has happened to a friend, actually, but a lifetime of experience and study tells me that he was just in the way of a snake trying to escape to safety. I describe this encounter in Herping Texas (Smith & King, 2018) and I will briefly re-tell it here.

A western massasauga like the one Steve and I saw

Steve and I found a massasauga rattlesnake one night years ago, and we crouched around the snake to admire it. The snake was still as a statue, probably confused by our lights and hoping we would pass on by. I wanted to see it in a different position and so I touched the snake with my snake hook. At that point, convinced that hiding had failed and it was now under attack, the little rattlesnake flew into action, coming straight at Steve. That caused Steve to fly into action as well, practically back-flipping out of the way. The snake kept on going, past us and into the roadside vegetation. That’s all it was – no attack, just a blind attempt to get away. However, when something like that happens, the natural assumption people make is that the snake was attacking or chasing. 

A northern cottonmouth, another venomous snake that will not chase you

With that in mind, let’s think about how you can safely observe a snake. When you first spot it, think about how close you are and what it is doing. If the snake is very close, check your footing and step away or to the side until you’re about ten feet away. If the snake is moving, don’t get in its way and remain still so that you can watch what it does. You may get a great opportunity to observe how the snake’s amazing body moves among rocks and branches, or see it swim (a beautiful display of graceful curves). From a safe distance, it doesn’t matter if you are able to identify it, because even if it is venomous it cannot hurt you from ten feet away. If the snake moves in your direction, just remember that this is just a navigation error on the snake’s part and move out of the way. 

A Broad-banded copperhead from Wise County

I do not mean to suggest to anyone that venomous snakes are no big deal. Just as these snakes are not “mean” or “bad,” they are also not “friendly” and they do not know if our intentions are benign. They are simply wildlife – fascinating, often beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous if we don’t keep our distance. What I have learned is to respect them without undue fear and to understand their habits well enough to watch them in the field without incident. 

Norris, R.L., Pfalzgraf, R.R., & G. Laing. 2009. Death following coral snake bite in the United States – First documented case (with ELISA confirmation of envenomation) in over 40 years. Toxicon, 53, 693-697.

Price, A.H. 2009. Venomous Snakes of Texas: A Field Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ruha, A., Kleinschmidt, K.C., Greene, S., Spyres, M.B., Brent, J., Wax, P., Padilla-Jones, A., & S. Campleman. 2017. The Epidemiology, Clinical Course, and Management of Snakebites in the North American Snakebite Registry. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 13:309-320.

Smith, M.A. & C.R. King. 2018. Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles and Amphibians. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.