The American West

           It started out as a simple and straightforward thing to do. Lou took off, leading our group of British mountain bikers back to camp. Just seconds after beginning the ride, he rounded a corner and rode up on a four-foot Rattlesnake stretched out across the trail. Instinctively, he hit his brakes extra hard, which caused him to crash. When the dust settled, he was lying on the side of the trail, penned between a cactus and the rattler. The Brits had quickly stopped and looked on in horror as their guide and the viper were suddenly face to face, and only a couple of feet apart.

Here are the details:

            The trail wove it’s way between boulders and rock outcroppings and stitched the whole place together. The midday sun muted the colors. Nonetheless, the reds of the rocks and sand contrasted vividly with the greens of the Prickly Pear, Bluestem, and juniper brush. The Brit mountain bikers weren’t disappointed. It was their vision of the west, come true. Since it was early May, the Texas heat wasn’t yet brutal. It had only been a few weeks since the last frost, and Palo Duro Canyon was still trying to decide if it was winter or summer. The Englishmen and one Scot continually commented about how unpleasant the 80-degree temp was. But as I led them along, I kept thinking about how cool it was, given the fact that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. If they only knew what 100 degrees felt like, I mused.

            From the start that morning, I had done my best to help fulfill their visions of riding a bike through the desert. I was sure that the rocky desert terrain of the canyon would meet their expectations. And as a bonus, I decided to add local color in the form of rattlesnake tales. We discussed protocols for snakes getting jammed up in derailleurs, getting hurled into the air by rear wheels, and attacking during snack breaks. If nothing else, I reasoned that their speculation about snakes would keep their minds off of the temperature.

            Miles of single track led right from our campsite to the Lighthouse, a notable rock formation which was an hour’s ride to the west, and that’s where we headed. Our group consisted of 8 men clients, myself, and Lou. Lou was one of our OWA guides, and while he lived in Breckenridge, Colorado at the time, he was from Connecticut and had limited experience with desert riding and none with rattlesnakes. The clients were on a ten-day mountain biking holiday. Like most guides, Lou and I were tending to their needs and striving to fulfill their expectations. We began the ride about mid-morning. Since I knew the way I led, and Lou brought up the rear.

            At high noon, we rode up to the base of the Lighthouse and stopped. Everyone leaned their bikes against a tree or rock, and we scrambled a few feet up onto the big slab that kept the rock tower anchored to the ground. After climbing toward the top for a short distance, we turned and went part of the way back down, where we stopped and had lunch. Once there, everyone sat, and we feasted on a mix of cheese crackers, peanut butter, and apples. When we were finished, it became time to ride back to the campsite. Assuming all went as planned, we would get back in time for a mid-afternoon siesta, followed by supper, and then an early evening gravel road bike ride up to a nearby ridge where we would watch the sunset.

            For the post-lunch ride back, I turned the lead over to Lou, since he now knew the route, and to mix up the routine. I was able to linger on the rock for a few minutes while the group members returned to their bikes and prepared for the return. Within a few minutes, Lou took off. One of the Brits fell in right behind, but I noted a hesitation for taking the third position, which may have had something to do with my suggestion that airborne snakes typically landed on the third rider. But eventually, someone “stepped up” and filled the spot, and the others closely followed. Then, it became my turn. I got up on my bike, and just as I began moving and clipped into the pedals, the line of riders came to an abrupt halt. Initially, the start and stop irritated me. I figured that there was probably just some sort of shifting problem or someone had dropped their chain, and just waited for the line to begin moving again.

            But after a couple of minutes, nothing seemed to be happening. Because of the twisty nature of the trail and the abundance of brush, I could only see the two riders immediately in front of me. And so, I leaned my bike against a tree and started walking forward into the line to see if there was any assistance I could provide. I rounded a couple of corners and then saw the line stopped at the very front. Lou’s bike was on the ground, and he was standing nearby, brushing himself off. The was a lot of murmuring, and I kept hearing the word “rattlesnake,” as the lead riders looked intently at something just off in the weeds.

            “What is it,” I asked.

            Lou didn’t seem to be in a talking mood, but answered, “a rattlesnake, come see.”

            “What happened. Did you get struck?”

            His first response was a simple “no.”

            But after a few moments of silence, he offered some more details. He said that he’d come around the corner and saw a giant snake stretched out across the trail. He tried to stop but ended up crashing and falling right next to it. He thought he was going to fall on top of it. But thankfully, that didn’t happen. Although he did end up landing nearby, stuck in his pedals, tangled up in his bike, and between the pit viper and a nearby cactus. The animal’s head had just been getting to the middle of the trail when he went down. While the commotion did cause some stirring, the animal held its ground and was not in a hurry to get away. Its head rose off the ground and turned. Its cold eyes looked right into his. At that moment, they were face to face, and he knew he was well within striking distance. Flight wasn’t possible, so he resorted to fight. He swatted it in the head and braced for a response, but none came. The snake simply turned back toward the other side of the trail and resumed its crawl. At that, Lou got his feet disconnected himself from the pedals, crawled clear of the cactus, and stood-up to pull himself together, just as I approached.

            I walked on up to the front, and sure enough, there it was. A big rattler, crawling deliberately away from the group and toward a clump of Mesquite brush. I found a long stick lying on the ground nearby and prodded the Diamondback to see what sort of response I would get. I was curious about the whole affair and wanted to see what would happen. It would not strike and seemed interested mostly in getting to the safety of the Mesquite. It must’ve just come out of hibernation, I thought to myself.

            I pondered the situation for a few moments. Lou was shaken but seemed to be physically okay. It made sense for me to take over the lead, so I went back to get my bike and walked it to the front. Lou stood his bike up to the side of the trail and said he would let everyone pass and would then fall into the sweep position. Before proceeding, I looked around and noted a lot of wandering eyes among the group and sensed a good bit of apprehension about the third position. In light of what had just occurred, I couldn’t very well tell everyone not to be concerned about rattlesnakes. And I wanted to allay their fears of flying snakes but was worried they might think I was refuting what I’d previously told them only to get someone to ride third.

            And so, I just rode. I was exceedingly cautious and approached each blind curve with extreme vigilance. I could feel a lot of eyes on my back and was aware of the conundrum I’d created where no one wanted to get too far behind, but at the same time, didn’t want to get too close. I realized no one any longer saw the canyon for the spectacularly beautiful place it had been only a few minutes before. It was now a scary place full of poisonous things crawling everywhere, and that even flew.

            We got back to the campsite as anticipated, in the middle of the afternoon. Interestingly, no one wanted to go to sleep, and after supper, there were no takers for the sunset ride. Up to that point, the technique of visualization had proven itself effective to me time and again. When used properly, I had always considered it an amazing tool for developing skills and getting the most out of each experience. And once again, it had proven effective, but I realized that in this instance, I hadn’t used it “properly.” Instead of living their desert dreams and experiencing all of the good parts of where they were right then, the eight riders from the British Isles and the one guy from Connecticut had learned, first-hand, where not to go.  

Desert Riding


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

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