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Arches and Rattlesnakes, essay by Christopher Crossen

In this essay Christopher T. Crossen ( takes us on a hike in Arches National Park.

This essay first appeared in Manoa, A Pacific Journal of International Writing, Volume 6, Number 1, Summer 1994, Published by the University of Hawai'i Press.

There was a call on the walkie-talkie today from Arches National Park in Moab regarding a man pinned beneath a boulder in the backcountry.

Apparently, the man was walking along a trail when a large slab fell from the base of an arch, crushing one of his legs. A freak occurrence. This is a land of eroding rock, yet seldom do you see any of it move. This man just happened to be in the wrong spot. Or the right spot, depending upon how you look at it. It's not often that one gets the chance to see a six ton boulder fall. You just don't expect it.

Arches National Monument has changed a great deal since Edward Abbey wrote about it in Desert Solitaire. It has become a national park, and the roads that were being planned and surveyed while Abbey was a seasonal ranger there have all been paved. Visitors can now see the majority of the arches without ever leaving their cars. Some of the land has been left for the more stalwart, however. Backcountry does exist, though the majority of visitors never see it.

This man was one of the brave. He heeded Abbey's advice. He left his car and went out into the woods, ventured out into the roadless land of hoo-doo rocks and had one fall on top of him. Ed would have been proud. He would have gone out to that man himself, laughed a great bearded laugh and helped him out from underneath the slab, set his leg, then carried him back to Moab to buy him a beer. Having a rock fall on top of you is what it's all about.

The landscape here appears still, looks as if frozen in time, but really it is eroding relatively quickly. Everywhere there are fallen boulders, broken cliffs, talus slopes, collapsed walls and pillars. Landscape Arch, in Moab, is crumbling away rapidly, an old arch in the process of dying, about to go any day now. Exactly when the center span will come tumbling down, no one can say. But it will collapse eventually and someone may be fortunate enough to see the rock actually fall, hear the explosion as tons of stone break away and crash to the earth.

It takes a great deal of effort to make an arch. Those surrounding Moab were formed over hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering and erosion of huge Entrada Sandstone walls, or fins, as geologists refer to them. Frost, rain, snow, and freezing water, aided by gravity, all find their way into fissures and cracks in the stone causing pieces and slabs to flake off. When the flaking breaks through the fin an arch is formed.

Arches National Park has the greatest density of natural arches in the world, more than 500 within its boundaries.

I spend a good deal of time watching the arches in Moab and also some of the lesser known ones found throughout the Canyonlands of southeastern Utah waiting for something to happen; I have yet to be so graced. It's always the same, a long hike into the backcountry to see the arch, the bewilderment and smile, the impossibility of it all, finding a hole in the sky surrounded by sandstone.

Each arch is enormous, most hundreds of feet high, magnificently huge. They stand complete, an arch through and through, silent, sculpted, as if on display. But watching from across the canyon, waiting, I always have the feeling that I have missed something.

We move too quickly. When something as dramatic as having a piece of cliff fall on top of us occurs, we attribute it to blind chance, to fortuna, which in some sense it is. But to see the landscape move, to be in the right place at the right time, you have to be open to the possibility.

We spend most of our energy fumbling about, missing much while we do so. If only we could sit and watch for days, months, years. If only we had the patience.

After about six hours, the park service managed to haul a few hydraulic jacks into the backcountry and lift the slab off the man, who suffered nothing worse than a broken femur and a great deal of pain. Well worth it Ed would say.

Yesterday, I was walking down the Lost Canyon Trail when I came across a snake. It was blind luck. The trail came up out of the dry creek bed to a bulge of slickrock. I was pushing along, back home to camp, staring at the harsh afternoon light on the rimrock, when I came to a cairn. I saw the cairn, but something else caught my eye, and I froze in mid-step. I had that feeling that something was out of place. My sixth sense smacked me across the head, and I looked down to find a snake stretched out across the dusty sandstone inches below my next step. I brought my foot back slowly, placed it gingerly on the stone, and tip-toed backwards three feet. I had that rush of adrenaline surging in my heart and gut.

He was beautiful. Yellow sand-colored with a black diamond pattern running from the tip of his mouth down to his mid-section where the markings faded to maroon, then scarlet, then back to black on the last six inches of tail. He was small, two feet long at the most, slightly fatter than a garden hose in the middle. His tail was black and his head shaped in a V. He didn't budge.

The only snakes that supposedly inhabit the region are gopher snakes, garters, and the occasional faded midget rattler. This snake looked like a viper, had the distinctive Crotalus head and patterned markings, but I could see no rattle, and this snake didn't look anything like the faded midgets mounted in the Visitor Center's glass display case. The markings were all wrong. Faded midgets are supposed to be the same creamy yellow with dark brown to black diamond patterns, but nowhere did red enter the picture. And faded midgets had rattles.

I waited for the snake to do something, but he just lay stretched across the hot rock, sun beating down. I was sweating. I scraped my foot across the stone. His black tongue flickered about, and he brought his head quickly back beside his neck, coiling his body like a whip. Cocked and ready. Definitely a rattler. I didn't want to step over him so I took a deep breath and waited. Slowly, after a minute or so, with a heightened sense of caution, the snake rippled his body and glided down past the cairn, across the slickrock toward the reeds and brush in the wash below.


When he was almost to the grasses I took a step. Immediately he hissed, coiled, head bobbing away, and fired a machine gun rattle that spiked my spine. I froze. He hissed again, then calmed his rattling to a purr and backed his way into the reeds.

I later read in a field guide that he was a Hopi rattlesnake, not indigenous to this area, and seldom seen outside of his native Arizona. I feel fortunate to have almost been a victim.

Most people believe that rattlesnakes, scorpions, Gila monsters, and other such dangers abound here. They do not. You can spend an entire year deep in the backcountry without coming across one instance of livid fauna. But the thought of them lingers constantly in the back of your mind.

Certain sections of the Lost Canyon Trail run through dry grass and brush and are littered with fallen cottonwood leaves. Lizards dart everywhere. They seem to have the run of the place. When walking, they scatter from their resting spots on the cairns or trail, racing into the leaves just before you arrive, sounding much like a rattler. You don't know what to expect. You know that it's probably only a lizard, but perhaps it is a snake this time. It takes a little while to brush the anxiety aside.

But when one realizes how little there is out here that can really hurt you, it begins to make you wonder about other places.

Only a few thousand people in the United States are bitten by rattlesnakes each year. Of those, only a dozen do not recover from the poison. The number of people who happen to be beside an arch when a slab flakes off most likely isn't known. Dangers abound everywhere, but I believe there are fewer out here. You must possess a certain knowledge of a place in order not to get hurt, but this is a relatively easy thing to learn.

I feel safe here. I'd rather take my chances out in this desert savannah and labyrinth of slickrock canyons before any city or town. People are crazy-canyons are not. The maze may be very hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, and somewhat temperamental regarding water, but it will not try to kill you. If it does, you'll probably be amazed at what you see the moment before you die.

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