Watering the Concrete


by Alpine — Jul 05, 2010

Rattles, fangs and a shovel.

The head was a flattened, almost diamond shaped; eyes small and dark; the black, forked tongue flickering and smoothly scaled body slowly coiling. Rattles buzzed loudly. What was I doing down in this hole with a rattlesnake?

Far up a wooded canyon, four miles from the nearest neighbor, we had a view down our little creek and across the river canyon to a large mountain topped by a fire lookout. The first couple of years there was no phone line. This was long before cell phones. Later, my spouse, who worked an office job for the phone company, climbed trees to put in a #9 wire phone line. We became part of a party line where anyone could listen in, if they chose to do so. But it was contact with the outside world.

The cabin sat at the lower end of a meadow, each log dovetailed into place, sides squared off and sturdy. The porch extended all the way around the building. Downstairs was one room and up the narrow, steep stairs was another room where we slept. Each step was curved in the center from wear. There was a wood-burning Monarch stove, a gas refrigerator, gas hot-water heater, a 2-plate gas stove and a large wood-burning heater. When the generator functioned, we had lights. When it didn’t, we used kerosene lanterns and candles. Running water for the sink came from a spring at the top of the meadow. An old bathtub, just below the spring, served as a settling tank and every few weeks we would pull the plug, drain out the sand, wipe the walls and were good to go.

Our first summer there we put a shower out on the back porch and were still using it when the first skim of snow fell in late fall. The outhouse was about 50 feet away. We tried to live there a full year, me commuting to teach five grades in a one-room school, four miles down our winding dirt road and a couple of miles to the little town to the east and my husband driving to work in Weaverville. But heavy rains in the winter of 1964 washed out our bridge and the Canyon Creek bridge on Highway 299. We moved in with my inlaws for a few weeks. With one of my brothers and his wife we drove downriver to Canyon Creek, crossed in a cable car and were picked up by friends on the other side. They gave us a ride to our road where we hiked the three miles up to our creek, crossed the one log remaining across the water, hiked the last mile to the cabin and brought out a few items plus the cat. I was four months pregnant. We rented an an apartment in town and I commuted to the school, first crossing on a converted railroad bridge, then the new bridge. After our daughter was born we rented a house in a small village closer to the property for a year or so before moving to Weaverville.

From then on we began staying at the cabin most of the summer and on weekends during spring and fall. The shower was installed upstairs. By the time our third child was born I was more than ready to have indoor plumbing. With shower and sink we just let the water run off far below the house but now we really needed to get modern with a septic tank and leach lines.

Things take time at the end of a dirt road. We hired a backhoe to dig the hole to specs but it was some time before my husband actually had time to start putting in the tank. After the cement was poured I was supposed to wet it down every day help it cure during the hot summer days. One day, ready to start spraying with the hose, I looked down to see a rattlesnake in the bottom of the hole. I grew up with a lot of rattlesnakes around and we were raised to kill every one we saw. But as an adult living out in the middle of a forest, I’d opted to kill only those near the house and let any others go their own way. Obviously the snake had crawled across the lawn during the night and fallen in. Not a problem, right? It’s in the hole and we’re not. But I thought about it and decided the snake need to be disposed of. Children are very curious and, even with warnings, would be tempted to look in to see whether the snake was still there. I worried that one of them might fall in.

So down the ladder I went, shovel in hand. A septic-tank sized hole is a bit claustrophobic even without a rattlesnake for company. I took a deep breath, raised the shovel and cut off the snake’s head, then the rattles. I’d always been told to bury the head because a hornet might eat it, get venom on its stinger and then sting someone. Kind of a long chain of circumstances but it was part of the proper snake disposal ritual so I climbed back up the ladder with the head and rattles on the shovel, leaving the still twitching remains for later removal.

This has to be my strangest encounter with a place in the West.