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Today, I am going to explain how to snake hunt in West Texas -- my way. It begins on Thursday, with Dad asking suddenly, “What are your plans for this weekend?” And if luck prevails, nothing is going on. Then he says casually, “Want to go to snake-hunting?” And the fun begins.
The first thing to do before leaving for a snake-hunt is to pack the essentials. Since we are going to be spending at least three days in a hot desert that gets pretty cold at night, we need to pack as though vacationing in both the desert and Antarctica at once. Along with clothes, it is important to bring a really good flashlight, snake bags, a snake hook, a couple of buckets, a pocket knife, a gun (to fend off the mountain lions!), water, blankets, pillows, Dr. Pepper, some extra cash for tall, Mexican Cokes, two “Hank the Cowdog” tapes, Roll Ups and Oreos. Those last three there are very, very, important; trust me, I know. I survived an entire weekend on nothing but soda, Oreos, and Roll Ups. But alas -- that is another story.
Once the necessary items are packed, the next step is to take all of it back out of the bag and double check to make sure the Oreos are not being crushed, and are located at the very top. The gun/knife also needs to be readily accessible. This is so fundamentally important because the time of day to hunt for the snakes found in West Texas (dusk) is also the time of day for mountain lions, also found in West Texas, to hunt for dinner. Additionally, huge black bears (so large, in fact, that two very knowledgeable - and very tired - wildlife enthusiasts, my dad and I, thought that either gorillas or Dad’s prankster friends dressed in gorilla suits had invaded the Texas desert) have been sighted. Hmmm. But again, that is a story for another day.
Next, find a decent car to drive in. From my part of Texas, the drive is about ten hours, and if tired Daddy drives an uncomfortable car, the ride is not going to be as fun. Usually a smaller car will work just fine, as it saves on gas money. But if Mom, five year old Sister and three year old Brother come along, or if there has been an unexpected rise in lunatic antlered-animal sightings, a very large SUV (equipped with a DVD player for the kids) is essential!
The next step is to load the car. Make sure the sodas, guns, and Oreos are easily within reach. It would be a good idea to bring a tent and sleeping bag as well, if staying in a hotel isn’t an option. However, I highly recommend staying in a hotel unless sharing a bed with the various scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, and deranged birds and rabbits that haunt West Texas is more to taste. Oh, and of course the snakes…
Before hitting the road, a stop by Starbucks is a wonderful idea. Don’t forget, the ride is ten hours, plus however long the hunt lasts that night, and any extra caffeine helps.
Then, get in the car and go! There isn’t much to say about this step -- I usually alternate between sleeping, listening to music, reading a book, sleeping, munching on Oreos and Roll Ups, sleeping, and trying to keep Dad from snoring (well, he doesn’t normally snore while driving). Between random bathroom breaks, convenience store breaks, and breaks to clean the bugs off the windshield, I often write a few lines in my diary. I try to do this every time I go to the desert -- it’s fun to go back and read about our adventures!
Eventually, we arrive at our destination -- Ft. Davis, Texas. If it is still fairly early in the day, it is a good idea to go by the hotel/campsite and drop off all the supplies brought that don’t have anything to do with snake-hunting. (Oreos and Roll Ups are not included in the list to drop off.) But if it is already night, as it normally is when we arrive, set out immediately. The snakes we are searching for are non-venomous reptiles called Gray Banded Kingsnakes, and are actually collected, not “hunted.” They are only found on the Texas/Mexico border, and collectors come from all over the world to hunt for these special snakes. Collected mainly for breeding purposes, Gray Bands are popular, although some hobbyists just keep them as unique and rare pets. Since they are fairly small in size, reaching about three-and-a-half feet when full grown, they are very easy to maintain. Currently we have dozens of adult, sub-adult, and baby Gray Bands in our collection.
Now I will go into the details regarding the actual hunting of the snakes. The first step is to drive way out into the desert. Sometimes we are so far out that for miles and miles there aren’t any other signs of civilization. Then, slow down to 20mph, turn on the bright lights, and get the flashlight and snake bags ready. Normally, my dad and I would “road cruise” for nearly the entire trip. Sometimes we actually get out of the car and walk up and down huge rock cuts, shining the rock crevices with the flashlight, searching for a very elusive snake. Oftentimes I shine the nearby land as well, in continuous circles, searching for pouncing mountain lions. It doesn’t help that one time, the evening before I walked the cuts with Dad, we quite accidentally watched a very gruesome documentary on mountain lion and bear attacks.
Rattlesnakes occupy the region as well, and we have to be careful where we step. In fact, we only use snake hooks (a miniature version of a shepherd’s staff) on venomous snakes, like rattlesnakes or copperheads. It’s much easier that way -- simply pick the snake up with the hooked part and deposit it into the heavy-duty bucket we always carry, or, for more experienced herpetologists, using the hooked end to pin the snake’s head while carefully grabbing the snake behind it’s head is also an option. For non-venomous snakes, we carry “snake bags,” which are pretty much like small pillowcases, and a zip-tie to secure the bag. Occasionally we catch toads, lizards, millipedes, and tarantulas as well, so bringing along a few deli-cups with air holes punched in the side is convenient.
Next, climb back into the car (if we “walked the cuts”) and turn on Hank the Cowdog. Or, if we decided to “road cruise,” by four in the morning, it’s high time for a little Hank the Cowdog therapy. The directions state: turn on the tape and laugh hysterically! It’s a great way to scare off the deer, as well as the predatory animals nearby…
Before I conclude my “How To” paper on snake-hunting, I would like to mention something else. The animals in West Texas are really dumb. In other words, if we hit about 25 rabbits and 30 birds, (these are actual statistics -- I counted one night!) and unknowingly get a few stuck in the grill of the car, we will quickly be notified by the odd looks received while driving through the little towns late the next afternoon. To restore order, simply remove them, or better yet, get Dad to remove them. Personally, I prefer the latter.
The deer in West Texas also have strange behavioral problems -- while snake-hunting at 5am, they will occasionally decide to run along side the car, randomly charge the open window, and dent the car. (Now this is when it comes in handy to have an SUV -- not only is it safer, but it leaves a smaller dent.) Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about the deer because the time of year to hunt snakes is not deer season.
Eventually, we wearily drive back to the hotel, without a snake. Yes, that’s usually how it ends. My dad and I hunt twice a year, every year, and my dad hasn’t caught a Gray Banded Kingsnake since before I was born. I, however, love to tell all about my first successful snake-hunting trip, when I caught a beautiful Gray Band in 2005.
Making sure Dad stays awake the entire time he is driving is vital to continuing life. The most efficient way to do that is to keep him steadily supplied with caffeine, Roll Ups, Oreos, and Hank the Cowdog. Stumble into the hotel room as the sun comes up, drop into bed with dirty, wrinkled clothes on, and turn off the light. And always retire happy, content, and satisfied.
Finally, the last step: repeat.