There are some truths that cannot be disputed. Day follows night. Death and taxes are inevitable and never argue with a rattlesnake on date night.
As a painter, I am always looking for that special corner of earth to set up an easel. And one of my favorite places is along a stream or pond. (Not many rivers in Southern California – So streams are a treasure to find.) And I found a great running stream leading from Lake Hodges on the south side of Escondido, California. Nice hiking-maintained trails, and beautifully shaded water ponds falling into each other under Live Oak trees. Perfect for a Spring Painting, or a dangerous reptile meeting.
As my friend and I unloaded our vehicle of painting supplies, we noticed the posted signs warning hikers that rattlesnake mating season was in full swing. The signs posted that hikers were to stay on the cleared trailed and be on the lookout for traveling snakes. I scoffed. It’s the middle of the morning and too hot for snakes to be out. We just needed to be gone before it started to cool down in the late afternoon. Before snakes started to slither out to the clubs to pick up lady snakes. My experience with the courtship habits of snakes was based on my 20-year old daughter’s Saturday night preparations for going “out”. And therefore, I knew nothing was going to begin to happen late in the afternoon, when young people rose from their undead slumber to begin their nightly primping. How different could it be for snakes? Given snakes are cold-blooded, I figured we had another 4-5 hours before it was cool enough for snakes to begin their pruning process and hit the trails and parties.
So even though my painting buddy was a little apprehensive about my Richard Attenborough wild nature education and decided to stick to the marked trails and went off on her own, back up the path to a cleared gravel area she felt lacked incentive for snake travel. And what it made up in reptile free zone, my destination made up for in atmosphere. I wished her “good painting” and agreed to meet back at the car in 2 hours to have lunch.
I found a shady spot, slightly off another marked path, overlooking the running stream by a rock outcropping. The sun was illuminating a large grey and orange boulder on the far side of the hill and dappled sunlight and shadows speckled the pond foreground. I couldn’t wait to get started. While I set up my easel and paints, got my sketchbook out and worked out thumbnail drawing composition. I turned to my rocks and water for inspiration. Then I took a few moments to breathe in the sights and sounds. Birds chirping, wind softly blowing through the trees, water bumping into river rocks – you know – those nature sounds that bring your blood pressure down. Yeah, I was standing in “the Zone”.
Just started my background wash of dark shapes; when something beyond the leaf-breeze rustle moved to the right of me. Saw the tail end of a moving snake scuttle away under a bush. OK, so maybe it was a girl snake coming home from shopping for that perfect rattle cream. Maybe the she-snake was on her way home to primp for her coming party tonight. No worries, she was moving away from me and seemed to be on a mission to paint her nails. I’ve got plenty of time.
So I moved on to fill in the background foliage and mid tones to water and rocks. Just add a few more strokes of Cadmium Orange and Burnt Sienna to the rocks and… another rustle. Oh look, another snake slithered off to my left. Well, it was heading in the same direction as her girlfriend. Probably planned a pre-party primping session with the other she-snake. Checking outfits – wait, snakes don’t have outfits. Sharing blow dryers and curling irons, nope, no hair. Maybe to try on false eyelashes or purple mascara – no again, snakes don’t have eye lids. At least I don’t think so? Don’t remember Richard Attenborough ever mentioning eyelids. I know, checking to make sure all rattles were shiny and tuned to perfection. Yeah, that’s what rattlesnakes do.
I had a couple more hours before the dude-snakes showed up. Ample time to finish the highlights on water and focal rock. When I happened to notice a squiggling form hanging from the top of my focal rock. Hanging further and further out over the edge of the rock, glistening in the focal sun with his big flat head handing in midair. Then, before I could say, “they went that way” he leaped off the rock into the water pond below. Attenborough never mentioned rattlesnake suicide. I don’t think suicide was on his mind. Because after what looked like a very long belly flop, he-snake floated on the top of the water and started water-wiggling my way. Not a gentle curve around me or down the stream from me. No DIRECTLY at me. And he didn’t look very happy to be wet and blocked from his docking point by a plein aire painter. No time to clean brushes, put paints away and secure wet canvas, other than the brush in my hand, all was left behind as I ran as fast as I could back the 20 feet up the brush to the gravel trail. Didn’t want to go too fast that I couldn’t see which way Godzilla was rising from the water. Found him making a beeline in the same direction as the earlier lady snakes.
Then I began to put it together… girls called Godzilla to come party at their place. Decided it might not be a good idea to continue painting in the same location in case he-snake invited a buddy to come join the party and slither the same path and make it a foursome. As soon as Godzilla was far enough away; I cautiously tiptoed down to my easel and grabbed stand, paints, trash and backpack, and fought my way through the bushes up the path to the ranger trail. I swear I could hear Donna Summer belting out a disco from a rock pile behind me.
I continued down the trail to the wooden bridge where I found my girlfriend painting in what she thought was not a good place for snakes to hang out. Let her know I had “completed” my first painting (she didn’t have to know it was a forced completion) and was going to paint the bridge and capture the ducks in the ponds below. In order to do that, I would need to set up my easel very close to the car. It was sort of believable. Was a good painting scene, but much too hot with the baking asphalt and no shade. But there weren’t any love-struck snakes anywhere near hot asphalt.