Dreams of pink rattlesnakes are fulfilled on a rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon for my last week in North America on my blog exploration of nature on the seven continents. If you’ve missed the journey to date, check out recent posts from Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe.
A tree caught my eye along Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail, just below Indian Garden Campground. It was large and shady, a lush contrast against its rocky backdrop. I lifted my camera and moved around for a better angle. My hiking buddy watched me a moment, then smiled and trudged ahead. This was day four of our rim-to-rim hike and by now she knew I’d be awhile and I knew I’d find her waiting patiently around the next bend or two.
But, I’d barely begun my battle with mid-day’s harsh lighting when my friend hollered from up the trail, “Rattlesnake! Quick, there’s a rattlesnake!”
Pack bouncing on my back like a bundle of bricks, I bounded up the path camera clutched at the ready. I hoped beyond hope that this would be the Grand Canyon Pink Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus abyssus). Any of the Grand Canyon’s six rattlesnake species would of course be exciting but I had my heart set on the Pink, the one that occurs nowhere else in the world. I slowed my pace as I neared my friend, sneaking alongside as quietly as I could and peering over her shoulder. Spread across the trail ahead was exactly what I hoped for, a snake with a prominent rattle, lifted slightly from the ground; it was light tan in color with pale patterning down its back.
Unfazed by our presence, the snake slinked along the pathway before disappearing into the scraggly grasses alongside. I eased my pack to the ground and tip toed to the spot where the rattler had abandoned the trail. The snake was still meandering along, seeming at once to be both randomly exploring and on a specific tongue-guided mission. Movement on the ridge just beyond my rattler grabbed my attention and I looked up in time to watch a second Pink Rattlesnake emerge. I held my breath as the snakes converged. I expected an impressive interaction, or at least some behavioral acknowledgement of the other’s presence, but they seemed barely to notice one another as they passed. The second rattler departed from view and my original snake continued following its flickering tongue through the grasses.
A group of hikers trudged by my friend and me. They stared fixedly at the ground, not even glancing at us nor the thing we were so clearly amazed by. Minutes later, a second group did the same. Perhaps they were too tired to care, but I marveled at the lack of curiosity nonetheless. Part of the point of the rim-to-rim hike for me was taking time to explore the canyon’s myriad layers and the life within but as a jogger rushed by, panting a greeting but not breaking stride, I was reminded that others had their own reasons to be there.
I took a couple of tentative steps into the grass and knelt to ground level for a different photographic angle. From this low perspective, it was hard to see the snake clearly in the grass. I cautiously adjusted my height up a bit, then from side to side. The rattler was a good eight feet or more away and seemingly oblivious to my activity. As I watched though, it began wrapping its body in tight zig zags. I decided it must have spotted a meal toward the ridge it faced. I froze and poised my camera for the shot. The last zag, however, snapped the rattler’s head to directly face me. I recognized the strike position even before hearing the warning rattle. Adrenaline shot me out of harm’s way and my friend proclaimed she’d never seen anyone move so quickly, nor leap so far. Its point made, the snake returned to its nonchalant rambling and I obediently respected the requested buffer zone.
I’d been an annoyance in the rattler’s day, the rattler wasn’t even on most hikers’ radars, but for my friend and me, this snake was the Grand Canyon Pink Rattler of our dreams. Giddily, we glided over the final stretch into Indian Garden, my tree all but forgotten.