On a recent family camping trip my fourteen-year-old reverted to an endearing habit I associate with a much younger age, of saying “tell me a story” at odd and inopportune times, often begging at a time when he’s supposed to be focused on a task like folding up his bed or helping with dinner. One of these times I promised, using delayed-gratification techniques I also associate with a younger child: “I’ve got a great rattlesnake story which I’ll tell you when you’ve finished doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
So here’s the short version of the story:
Some years after my one and only live encounter with a rattlesnake, I was camping along the Deschutes River in the high desert of Oregon with my husband and some friends. One of our friends was so scared of snakes in the area, she refused to leave our campsite. She and her partner and my husband were happy to sit around the picnic table reading, painting, and talking. I was eager for a walk, and so set out along the rocky sagebrush trail along the river. “Watch out for snakes!” were my husband’s parting words. Thanks a lot.
As I walked along, I thought about how terrified I’d always been of snakes. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, who didn’t have indoor plumbing until she came to America at the age of twenty-five, about snakes in outhouses. When I slept in a strange bed, it was always snakes I feared coming out from underneath to bite me in the ankles or worse. When I was eight, a common garter snake sighted from twenty feet away made me run so far and fast I thought my heart would stop. I wasn’t scared of snakes in books, movies, pet stores, or zoos; it was the idea of snakes in the wild that got to me.
So as I walked along the Deschutes that day, I could feel my heart pounding with each beat the temptation to turn back to the campsite. What am I doing? I wondered. Why am I out here all alone? I began to wonder what it would be like not to be afraid any more. I knew what rattlesnakes looked like and I knew how to avoid them. I taught myself, there on that trail, to keep my eyes sweeping from right to left about four or five feet ahead of time, covering a swath three or four feet wide on either side. (Later, when my son was about six, I explained this technique to him, calling it “snake eyes.”) I managed to enjoy the hike while keeping my eyes open for snakes. I’ve never been afraid of snakes since, and the experience has been a parable for me of dealing with certain kinds of fear.
That’s not a rattlesnake story! That’s a facing-your-fears story. I want my money back.
So spake my teenager. I’m not sure what the difference is, I replied.
A rattlesnake story would actually have a rattlesnake in it.
Okay, I get it. Sorry. To me it’s a still a good story.
That’s ’cause it’s you.
So here’s the question:
Do you have a rattlesnake story? Or a facing-your-fears story? Let’s hear it.