In the sandpits of a big Archaic site we came upon a golden bull snake, thick-bodied, almost six feet long. We approached it cautiously. It did not move except to flick its black tongue, smelling us.
When we had looked at it long enough, we spoke and moved more normally. It wove toward us, aggressing; then gracefully, unhurriedly, it turned along its body and slipped back into the brush. For all its length and girth it left scarcely any mark in the sand.
Early in the day we saw a bright, limber young bullsnake, the diameter of a thick pencil, its body many tiny wiggles instead of the sober curves of an adult. And late in the day I almost stepped on a two-foot Western diamondback.
Its coon-tail and coon-mask were a dustier color than the bright scales in the middle of its back. It didn’t buzz, and seemed quite unbothered by our admiration. No wonder—halfway down its fat, spread-flat body was a mouse-sized bulge.
Though it didn’t react much, it knew we were there: its tongue was busy, tasting our airborne molecules. In spite of this “tongue smelling,” a rattler hunts largely by heat detection. On a summer evening, how does it tell a warm rock from a warm mouse?
Hiking the canyon of the Rio Santa Fe, over our heads the stone-cribbed hairpin turns that carried Spanish wagons, Civil War soldiers and Model Ts up this section of the Camino Real. The eroding pale strata of the canyon walls were capped by tumbled, slightly columnar basalt.
At the cliffs’ feet the rio’s busy water looped and twinkled. It smelled chemical; it was runoff from Santa Fe’s sewage treatment plant, equal parts groundwater from Buckman Wells and bottled water from Fiji that had been filtered through wealthy Santa Feans. Winding down that river was, no doubt, a lot of cocaine.
In the sedge at the brink I nearly stepped on a bull snake. We left, abruptly, in opposite directions.