Sunday, October 11, 2009

Of rattlesnakes and ruins

This morning we went for a hike on the David Yetman trail in the Tucson Mountain Park west of the city (and less than 5 minutes from our house!). The trail signs have been refurbished and there are some new ones, so there's no risk of wandering off in another direction, unless, of course, you want to. There were several tiny butterflies, like miniature Painted Ladies, but they refused to land in any place with good light or to hold still long enough for me to  take their pictures.
         We met a mountain biker coming the opposite direction (there are trailheads at each end) and he told us to be careful because he'd seen a couple of rattlesnakes. I respect rattlesnakes and think they're beautiful, but of course I also exercise a healthy caution.  I'd just been wondering how long it will be before the snakes go into their dens for the winter - a while yet, since it's still so nice and warm.
      I had what I guess you'd call a close call with a rattler a few years ago.  Joe and I were out walking one morning in that lovely strange light that comes just before dawn, in the desert a few blocks from the house. It was cool out, and we were walking along and talking when I heard an odd rustling sound, like a breeze in dry leaves.  I looked down to see the toe of my sneaker about three inches from the biggest, fattest rattlesnake I have ever seen.  Time seemed to stop as I stared at the contrast of my bright white sneaker against the dark ground and the even darker rattlesnake, then I jumped to one side as the snake lazily uncoiled itself and slithered off into the brush in the opposite direction.  For the rest of the morning I felt intensely alive, and grateful to have come so close to something so magnificent and deadly and to have nothing to show for it but a memory.  The snake didn't rattle, and I imagine the rustling sound was the rubbing of his dry scales as he moved.  No doubt the cool weather protected me; he probably just wasn't awake yet. But I certainly was after our enounter!  I thought immediately of Emily Dickinson's line that describes the feeling of suddenly seeing a snake as "zero at the bone."

I wonder what Ruby Bowen would have thought of my meeting with the rattler? These are the ruins of the Bowen house, about 20-30 minutes in from the trailhead. In the late 1920s, Sherry Bowen, a typesetter who eventually became the city editor of the Arizona Daily Star, moved to Tucson with his wife Ruby, who had a serious heart condition. They hoped the climate here would improve her health and built this house on a 2,000 acre homestead, moving into it in 1931.        
        In her diary, Ruby recorded watching mountain sheep come down to the base of the cliffs to graze, along with deer and a herd of wild horses.  A mountain lion once tried to climb in the window when she was cooking meat.  The desert did indeed prove salutary for Ruby, and her house is a lovely place to stop and imagine what her life must have been like.  It's not hard, with the clear air and the quiet that must be much like what she knew.  The roof is gone and the exposed beams are charred from a fire, but there's a feeling of peace there, and maybe a lingering bit of the love that went into the building of  this house.

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