When was the last time you made something happen with your mind? As a child of the Harry Potter generation, I came upon magic early. Even before I was 11, curled up at our stone fireplace of Normandy Pl., Evanston, IL, reading that first chapter book, waiting for an owl envelope that may still come. When I first could write, I began with tales of witchcraft, magic, and young girls who just knew there was something out there they couldn’t see.
Nowadays, I tend to call this magical sensation intuition. I don’t believe in coincidences. Ever. Different cultures and practices, like Ayurvedic medicine in India, believe there to be a 6th sense through the skin–an ability in the tingles to feel something that may happen, to inhale and exhale. I have found that there is power in opening up to the sensory perception of willing something to happen. Dreaming up a date with a new love interest. Focusing on some object that you desire. All that books like The Secret espouse, but not quite in the same way. I think it’s all about energy, and it comes most alive in nature. This weekend, I was channeling this power toward something specific. I wanted to see a snake.
Snakes, according to many cultures and traditions, from the Mayans who worshipped the Quetzalcoatl as a great, feathered serpent, to the Pima Native Americans (the Akimel O’Odham) who have genesis story of death that involves a snake receiving its fangs and causing the first mortal wounding. I came to pay more attention to snakes when I was in Ecuador, living with a man who envisioned himself to be a serpent in some ways. A Scorpio–the scorpion–he also identified with the Mayan astrology that linked him to the serpent, the creature of change, renewal, and reinvention.
Snakes are transformation. From their skin to the ways they create babies– either birthing out live babies or through the actual laying of small or large eggs that hatch into babies already full of venom. Snakes cause emotional reactions in folks. In the Sonoran desert, we have lots of snakes. Western diamondback rattlesnakes. Blacktailed rattlesnakes. Sidewinders. There are the less venomous as well–the black king snakes and the gopher snakes that look eerily similar to rattlers. I’ve seen a handful from the years I visited the desert as a child to when I moved here at age 14. This desert has always held mysteries. I’ve held the rattle of a baby diamondback in my hand. I’ve held snakes in Costa Rica, watched green slippery things slither across my tent in South Africa. Vipers have lurked in trees and full-grown diamondbacks have come hunting for something. But since returning to the desert a few months ago, I haven’t seen one, and I wanted to. Especially last Sunday.
So I walked through the desert. I was trying to alleviate my funk of a mind–it was one of those mornings when you wake with a buzzing in your brain that doesn’t seem to shake. I’d sent out the intention of snake finding ahead of me, like sending forth a reiki symbol. I stepped over prickly pear and fishhook barrel cacti, and watched families of quail play tag under ocotillos, and prairie dogs scampering over thorns. I startled a rabbit. For 20 minutes I walked, and yet, there were no snakes to be found.
I tried other forms of “cooling down.” Meditating. Yoga. A trip to the Sunday farmer’s market. Nothing seem to shake the mood. In fact, it was becoming infectious. I was my own ticking bomb of frustration, and had to remove myself from the equation before all around me burst. I turned to my bicycle, my trusty companion these last few months of carless living. Rolling down Craycroft and turning on the River Loop, I abandoned thoughts to the wind. The Loop is a 100 mile circuit of roads for Tucson riders. It offers a quick, flat way to move the energy around in your body. I paused at the entrance to prepare my proper angry-riding music: Pink. About to slide in my headphones, I was interrupted by a voice.
“Do you want to see a rattlesnake?” The voice, gravelly and low, reminded me of my Grandpa, a large man we’d called Papa Bear, who wore suspenders and turquoise bolo every day and fed the doves every morning at 4AM. Slowly, I turned my head and saw, indeed, an old man. No big belly nor suspends. Just a sweat-stained shirt and a big, puffy dog. The two of them were looking down over the railing into a cement drainage pipe about 10 feet below.
“Yes,” I said without pause or hesitation. I set my bike aside and walked over. Leaning over the ledge, it didn’t take more than a second to zero in on the quivering head of a rattler. The head of snakes looks like an inverted heart and judging by the size of this one, as well as the thickness of its neck, this snake was definitely on the larger side. Rattlesnakes can range from 1–8 feet. We could only see the head, though, of this guy–and we guessed it was close to 5 ft in length.
The head of the snake was weaving back and forth, tauntingly, while the rest of its body was still curled inside the pipe, a perfect sleeping chamber for a rattlesnake in these in-between weeks of winter turn spring. It seemed to be deciding whether or not it wanted to come out for the day. Upon sensing my arrival, it rose up, slightly, and swiveled its head even more. We couldn’t hear a rattle, and yet, we stood silent in our own snake trance. After a minute or two, with a final salute, the grand creature folded itself gracefully back into the pipe, retiring for the moment. Or perhaps waiting for an unsuspecting passerby or curious dog to walk by. It was perfectly concealed in the shadows, a deadly hiding place.
The man and I, our trance broken, nodded at one another and proceeded on our way, each in a state of small reverence for bearing witness to one of the sentinels of the desert. A harbinger of death and of life. How can one creature be both a threat and a blessing? Snakes are the cause of fear for those who have to pass the desert on foot, or those hiking the infinite trails out here. And yet, it still holds weight as a symbol of renewal. Perhaps that’s why the snake has such a following. It holds both extremes at the same time.
I continued along, spinning my wheels faster each time the chorus of “Just Like Fire” pumped through the headphones. Moving at my own pace for 5 miles. 10 miles. The bubbles of unnamed frustration were slowly fading and I decided I could turn around. I’d passed families and children as well as miniature pelotons of bikers in their matching neon gear. I rode with a shirt that said, “Let’s Hang Together.” I was trying to invite the good vibes in all ways. Already feeling vindicated in my manifestation power, I was cruising, nodding my own head like that rattlesnake, pumping my legs to the rhythm of the songs. The brown-black-green landscape blurred around me.
In the desert, we’re used to mirages–the way the heat ripples across asphalt makes things sparkle. It was a hot morning, and there were pools of mystical heat that would emerge and disappear while I rode. Up ahead of me, I saw one such slide-of-eye. At first, I thought it was dirt. Then, it appeared to be a palm tree husk, that rough shedding of the tree’s skin. You see them everywhere around here. This one, though, seemed rather large, I noted as I got closer. And…mobile, I realized, as I screeched my tires to a halt a foot away from what turned out to be yet ANOTHER snake, this one, also, with the markings of a rattler. It was sliding across the bike path right in front of me, and no other bikers had yet passed.
Bikers know that bike etiquette is a “thing” and so whenever someone suddenly stops on a heavily-used path, they can anticipate angry yells from the “more experienced” bikers who stick to the code. There’s obviously reason for this. It’s dangerous to stop your bike suddenly without alerting others, especially if people are behind you. And, it just so happened, there were. I first heard the yell, “MOVE!” before I heard the screeching of tires. Just time enough for me to turn around and yell back, “SNAKE!”
They, too, came quickly to a stop, dismounted, and marveled the creature who seemed strangely oblivious to its growing audience.
“Do you think it’s a rattlesnake?” One of the guys asked, staring at the markings. I knew rattlers tended to curl up when threatened, and, of course, rattle. This one hadn’t done that at all. We all zeroed in on the tail, but couldn’t see anything that resembled a rattle. This snake, we decided, must be a gopher snake. And man was it moving lazily. It stretched long, nearly five feet as well, and moved at its own pace, which was proving to be a challenge as groups of bikers approached, screaming, from both sides. Yelling back and forth, the new riders stopped in time rather than riding over the meandering fellow, and we all watched our neighborly fellow continue on his way, onto the dirt and off the path safely.
When I finally hopped back on my bike, I couldn’t help but laugh to no one at all. I wanted the desert to hear my chuckle. Of course, I thought, of course. This has been one of my grand challenges in this lifetime, in this soul body. I have many expectations: of myself, of others, of kindness, of love, of situations. When I was in ayahuasca ceremony in Ecuador over a year ago, the taitas–the shamanic leaders and healers–had told me the same thing: “You have too many expectations.” They told me this when I came up to them, saying that the grand mother healer wasn’t working on me. I thought I was broken, or not “spiritual” enough, or too far in my own head for anything to help pull me back out.
Laughing gently, and with their decades of experience leading the seekers into some form of light, those Colombian men had told me stop expecting and just be. That night. This past Sunday. All days. It’s a lesson hard learned. All around us, there is magic– there are snakes hiding in invisible places, and answers waiting in shadows, and messages tucked into conversations with strangers. Expectations cheat us of being pleasantly surprised by the present. Stop trying and just be, I reminded myself, climbing the last hill of my ride. Time to stop chasing snakes. Clearly, they enjoy surprising me.