Our planned weekend getaway started with the usual New York mad rush, in this case to catch the lone Saturday morning express train from Penn Station. Once safely aboard and having taken stock of our provisions — water, check, map, check, cash, check, wallet, check (twice) — we relaxed into our seats for the one-hour ride to Tuxedo, NY and the trailhead for Harriman State Park.
(Harriman State Park was, incidentally, land donated from the family of politician and former New York State Governor, W. Averell Harriman, famous for his support of George Kennan’s Long Telegram and service as ambassador to Vietnam during the tumultuous ramp-up of the war in Vietnam.)
Having arrived at picturesque Tuxedo station, and properly dressed for such an occasion in non-formal wear, we filled up on clean and tasty public bathroom water, rubbed the white blotches of sunscreen properly onto each other’s noses, necks, and ear crevices, and turned ourselves around a few times before deciding the proper northerly direction towards the trail head.
In reverence to our wilderness retreat, we “offed” our cellphones and headed out, reaching down a dead-end road, past the edge of a few suburban lawns, and up into the trees. We were newly sans-GPS for the first time since the last time our cellphone battery ran out after too much texting and Googling — our map, our wits, and several miles of painted tree-swatches would now be our guide.
Self-reliance in the digital age, Ralph Waldo Emerson would have no doubt noted, begins when your extra appendage loses its 4G signal. In our case, we were voluntarily neutered, hoping to thus commune with nature. This digital exile was my bright idea, until, barely out of earshot of downshifting tractor trailers on the highway far below us, I heard an unmistakably loud rattle under my outstretched foot.
Paola had bounded ahead obliviously, as I too would have done had I stepped a few inches to the right. Instead, I was now standing around two paces from the largest rattlesnake I have ever seen. My first step was the one that nearly landed on top of the camouflaged Crotalus horridus. There, no more than six feet away, was the answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask: yes, New York has rattlesnakes.
(This has been thoroughly researched from the safety of home. I did not, as in the classic Yahoo.com Super Bowl spot, open a search engine in the wilderness to figure out what poisonous reptile almost bit me).
In my formative years as a Boy Scout, I never as much as saw a rattlesnake, bear, or other stereotypical forest-based threat. Now here I was, face-to-face with one very lengthy one, and after several thoroughly enthusiastic yelps of “Hoooooooly shit!”, I needed a digital photo to confirm this mythical “big fish” story.
From a few snake-lengths away, adrenaline still pumping, my concern shifted from fear to whether anyone besides Paola, my lone witness, would ever believe it without verifiable documentary evidence, so out came the camera, Emerson be damned. With the threat safely at bay, we took a few snaps and continued on down the trail.