I have been lucky enough to have the time and resources to take modest trips in recent years. Last year this time, I took a fantastic trip to Savannah to get a look at the location where I’d set my historical novel, Channing. This year, I went to Charleston just because it seemed like a lovely place to go. Both times, I drove down to Butler Island, Georgia, which is the specific spot that inspired Channing. Between those two trips, I had the distinct pleasure to visit Skyline Drive, along the Blue Ridge overlooking the Shenandoah. I even took a hike down to the ruins of a few cabins that belonged to inhabitants of the area before the National Park Service took over the land. I wrote a novella set there during the Civil War–it was inspired, in part, by my ramblings along Skyline Drive.
What did these two trips have in common? Reptiles.
I mean, that and history and writing, of course, but mostly reptiles. This isn’t particularly apropos of anything, but I thought I’d share the stories.
In both cases, I should make clear, I was venturing out of my own. That becomes important to my reactions to said reptiles.
Last summer, I parked my car near mile marker 38 on Skyline Drive and started down the mountain, towards the ruins of the Nicholson family cabins. It’s something like a mile and a half down (and I mean down; it’s steep). I reached the cabins, looked around a bit, rested by the river, and then started back. At one point, the path crossed a big, flat rock that overhung the river. I was merrily traipsing across this boulder when something made me stop and look to my left. And there it was, three feet away: a big old snake, the same dusty gray as the rock, maybe four or five feet long, stretched out in the dappled sunlight, its mouth open to hiss at me.
My reaction? A very melodramatic gasp, accompanied by a sudden dash for safety.
A hundred or so yards away, panting for breath, I started laughing. That snake hadn’t been interested in attacking me, but it hadn’t been interested in having me around, either. It was a little bit of adventure to spice up my hike, nothing more.
Now, fast-forward to this March, and I was on Butler Island, in Georgia. To set the scene, it’s a very small, coastal island that’s as much water as land. 1-95 soars across the island on a 50-foot-high bridge and at 75 miles an hour. Below, its mostly swamp and a waterfowl refuge. Route 17 also passes through at ground level, right by the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mills, but it’s just a two-lane road passing through; there’s nothing much on Butler Island. Once you get off 17 and head west, towards where 1-95 passes overhead, the land turns very quickly into sandy swamp. Now, I happened to know that the rice fields used to be there and that from the air you can still make out the line of the ditches and dikes (holla, Google Maps). So I took the windy dirt road as far as I could go (to where I-95 passes overhead) and got out to take a walk around the larger, uninhabited western end of the island.
It was sandy and deserted, and two miles away from the road. I started off confidently into the sunny day. I heard things plopping into the water, mostly to my left, where the broad dirt path (wide enough for vehicles, but clearly not used often) gave way to still blue water. I told myself it was frogs, though I knew well enough that there are alligators in that part of the world. The splashes are too small for a gator, I told myself. And honestly, I was probably right. But there I was, now a mile away from my car, which in turn was two miles down an unused dirt road, and all alone on a path through a swamp, feeling
more and more uneasy. Then I turned a curve in the road and “plop!”, an alligator does a belly flop into the water about thirty feet ahead of me. I saw his pebbly skin and whip-like tail. He wasn’t a particularly big gator–maybe five feet snout-to-tail. But that was more than big enough for me. I turned on my heel and started walking rapidly back towards my car, making as much noise as possible.
When I got back to the car, my pulse was up, but I couldn’t help laughing. I murmured to myself, “Sorry, Ann!” You see, Ann is a character in Channing who I have running down to the water to look for gators. I didn’t exactly feel like I was betraying her, but I suddenly respected her much more as a character.
And that, my friends, is the story of the alligator and the snake.