Facing the Black Adder

The Adder is the only common snake in the north of England and the only poisonous one of the three species in Britain (Stedman 61). 

When I encountered this line in Stedman’s Coast to Coast Path, I quickly got up from the couch, locked the bathroom door behind me, turned on the shower water and began to sob. I’m a lifelong Odiophobe and have been increasing better in the past few years, thanks in part to the renegade Bronx Zoo Cobra whose photo was flashed all over the news without a moment’s warning last spring. I do admit that by the end of the Bronx Zoo Cobra’s odyssey, I was quite enamored with her, from the safe distance of my living room. Walking the same path as a venemous snake, is quite a different matter.

Death by snake is probably one of my deepest, hopefully irrational, fears. When we first moved to the West Coast, several years ago, I was invited by some new friends to hike Spencer’s Butte, a prominent hilltop in the Willamette Valley. The three of us were new to the area and had heard that this was a rather popular day hike, well-marked, with a bit of a scramble near the top. We began on what we thought was the main trailhead and it was the first of several times that we hiked to the Butte’s gorgeous summit with its panoramic views of the contrasting city and wilderness spaces of the Willamette Valley. Although I hiked Spencer’s Butte a dozen times, I always began at this back entrance, never realizing that there was a more prominent starting point with a car park and some informational material on the trail. One day we went hiking with a different group of friends who were more familiar with the area and we began from this main entrance. About two minutes into the trail we were greeted with an enormous sign: BEWARE of RATTLESNAKE.

Fortunately we did not know this group of people very well and my vanity, my desire not to seem like a foolish East Coast city girl in front of our rugged companions, enabled me to press on walking at the fastest pace I have ever hiked. We finished the climb in record time because the constant signage, including detailed color photographs of the Western Rattler,  spurred me to keep walking. Even though I had  hiked this same butte several times, knowing that I could have been bitten by a rattlesnake changed my relationship to the land. I felt that Spencer’s Butte belonged to the rattlesnakes. If I saw a rattlesnake in my bathtub, I would certainly want to have it killed, wouldn’t the rattlesnake want me to die for invading his or her territory?

My irrational behavior is particularly clear when you consider the fact that I continued to enjoy several other popular day hikes in the area, all of which were home to the Western Rattler, but not marked with the same type of signage. This is one of the many reasons why my husband is an ideal walking companion: he often sees the snakes that I either do not see or subconsciously choose to ignore, but he never utters a word.

By the time I had stopped sobbing and dry heaving in the bathroom and returned to the couch to finish my section on Flora and Fauna in Coast to Coast Path, my husband had located some rather reassuring Wikipedia statistics about the English Black Adder:

  • There have only been 14 known fatalities since 1876.
  • The last fatality was in 1975 and it was a 5 year old child.
  • Most of the fatalities are from the very old and the very young.

In much the same way that someone on a diet may post pictures of skinny beach babes on their refrigerator to encourage them to stay the course of their diet, I too have decided to post pictures to my refrigerator. Instead of a buxom tiny waisted woman in a bikini, I have chosen several close-up headshots and full length panoramas of the Black Adder snake to greet me each morning as I prepare my breakfast. According to the About.com page on Ophidiophobia, those with a fear of snakes can try to ease their pain by slowly becoming accustomed to looking at their picture as a way to gain control over their fears. Fritscher writes that in cognitive behavior therapy for Ophidiophobes, “You may also be slowly exposed to snakes, beginning with photographs and gradually building up to a live encounter with a small snake in a controlled environment.” For my own self-instructed cognitive behavior therapy, I will remain looking at photographs of snakes; I’ll save the encounter with the snake for the trail.

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About 30 Ways of Walking

Gina Liotta's writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Slate, The Paterson Literary Review, LIPS, and The Healing Muse, among others. She lives, writes and teaches in New York.
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