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For over 20 years I've hiked in Garden of the Gods Park without worries. I enjoy the changing of seasons on the majestic monoliths, discovering flowers and looking for wildlife. The backdrop of the mountains and the open skies lift my spirits and I consider myself blessed to live close to such grandeur.
But, last summer my life changed with the invasion of rattlesnake stories. At the beginning of the season, as I entered my favorite trailhead, a returning hiker admonished, "Be careful, there's a rattlesnake up there."
I had seen only two rattlers in all the time I'd been walking those paths. They hibernate from September to May, and being cold blooded, they don't seek warm, sunny spots until midday, long after I'm home from my early morning treks. I wondered if he had seen a benign garter snake instead of a rattler, as they are common in my backyard. Or maybe a bull snake; they grow to four feet in length but are also harmless.
Later that week, my neighbor along the alley warned he'd seen rattlesnakes four different times that summer while walking his dog in the Garden.
"All that building they're doing is driving them down. And the drought makes it harder to find food." I thanked him for the information, but I found comfort knowing that rattlesnakes usually warn before they strike. I remembered the time back in 2007, hiking in the dam area above Rock Ledge Ranch, I heard tell-tale rattling. Much to my horror, I glimpsed a coiled snake to my right in the grass off the trail. I hurried past, not looking back, a part of me wondering if this was really happening. My Welsh Corgie, "Bess," trotting on a tight lead ahead, was oblivious.
Later in July, I met a friend from Colorado Mountain Club returning from the reservoir area, my favorite for circling two or three miles.
"Caroline, you better stay on the main paths and avoid the high ridge. The rattlers are thick today. It's getting hot earlier than usual, and they're out there." I followed his advice, but I felt angry scrapping plans to enjoy the lookouts above. I knew over the years hundreds of rattlesnakes have watched me pass while they hid behind rocks, in crevices or among the mountain mahogany. The small, western rattlesnake, common to this area, retreats from possible encounters, and strikes only when surprised. The few times I took Bess off her leash, I demanded she stay on the trails, never allowing her to venture into the alluring smells of the grasslands.
The last straw came in August when a teen bragged about his experiences.
"I saw a rattlesnake lying across the trail shortly after seven in the morning. The weather was still cool, so it was sluggish. I threw rocks at it and it finally crawled away." I didn't need another snake story and I thought tossing rocks at a rattlesnake to get it to move was asking for trouble.
All these testimonials prompted me to take a good look at fear and the line between proceeding with caution and becoming debilitated. I'm determined not to let the stories spoil my routines. Nothing is achieved without taking risks
With long pants, sturdy shoes and my cell phone securely pocketed, I venture out early. I watch the path around my feet and if I feel anxiety building, I use self talk. I haven't seen "breaking news" stories about hikers killed by snakes. I imagine the headlines: West Side Senior Dies from Rattlesnake Bite. I sing to myself and talk loudly to Bess to announce our presence. I am reassured when others along the way are making noise-a cyclist whizzing by, a jogger listening to loud music, and two women laughing. I avoid trails with rocks for hiding or sunning. I am relieved when the "snake" stretched out ahead of me is only a gnarled twig.
Now that spring 2009 is here with dormant plants and animals returning to intrigue us, Bess and I look forward to many beautiful hours hiking the Garden.