Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Big Pete

Or...To DNF or Die, That Is the Question*
This is not Big Pete, but possibly one of his little baby relatives. Pete was like 50 feet long.
He was the biggest, rudest, most belligerent specimen of Agkistrodon contortrix I had ever encountered on the geocaching trail. And he stood — or, more accurately, coiled — between me and a long-sought-after geocache. (I call him “he” because he had particularly masculine shoulders.) Big, big snake, this copperhead, and he clearly had no intention of allowing me to pass. Indeed, the cache lay deep within his territory, and I'm sure, from his perspective, I was the rude one, especially since he had not bitten me when he had the chance. Still, rude or not, I intended to reach at least the first stage of this reputedly compact multi-stage cache. There was nothing for it but to trespass deeper into Mr. Snake’s domain.

I had set out after the cache on a warm spring afternoon. Despite its three-and-a-half-star (out of five) terrain rating, I figured the hunt couldn't be too long or difficult, as the location was a relatively small wooded area behind a shopping center on the edge of town. Ground zero for the first stage appeared to be a couple of hundred feet behind the parking lot, somewhere beyond a barrier of dense foliage. Once parked in a handy, nearby location, I grabbed my gear and set out toward the waypoint indicated on my battered but trusty old Garmin.

I had barely gone a hundred feet when the terrain descended sharply toward a small stream, and I could see, some distance away, the gaping mouth of a dark culvert — the very spot to which my GPS pointed. As is my custom whenever I know I’ll be leaving pavement, I had come prepared for such a venture: waterproof boots, long pants, gloves, flashlight, hiking stick. The steep hillside leading down to the stream was strewn with rocks of all shapes and sizes, creating a series of stairsteps that appeared easy enough to negotiate. As yet, I could not determine the depth of the water at the culvert’s mouth, but I hoped it wouldn’t be so deep that I’d end up getting my feet soaked.

I had just set foot on the first rock at the top of the hill when something shot out from beneath it like a bolt of dark lightning. Only for a brief flash did my eyes lock on that bolt, but that was enough for me to identify it as a very large copperhead — four to five feet long, and as big around as my forearm. At least he had been neighborly enough to vacate the premises rather than chomp on one of my extremities.

“Sorry, snake!” I called, hoping this might placate him if he were still lurking about. “Good snake,” I muttered to myself. “Nice snake.” At that moment, I decided to name him Big Pete.

Now, snakes don’t bother me a bit. In fact, I’m quite fond of them — at least the non-venomous variety. On my thousands of geocaching outings over a decade or so, I’ve encountered countless black racers, rat snakes, garter snakes, corn snakes, king snakes, and others, including a handful of copperheads and once a rattler, but these more dangerous specimens have always preferred to either go the other way or simply lounge about so I might easily avoid them. Something told me that Pete, the biggest such beast I had ever encountered, might decide to get ornery. After all, I had stepped on him, or at least on his shelter of choice.

Okay. Big Pete is somewhere down yonder. The cache, also, is somewhere down yonder.

The water was flowing out of the culvert, so I thought, well, maybe Big Pete ventured downstream, since that would be the more relaxing course. After all, if I were a snake who had just been trodden upon, I would by all means prefer the more relaxing course. So, down the rocks to the stream I went. Happily, the water appeared only a few inches deep. I figured I could venture into the dark tube, which was large enough to enter at a crouch rather than a crawl, without getting my socks and/or drawers wet. I moved cautiously, still uncertain as to the direction Big Pete had taken. As I reached the opening to the pipe, I saw no sign of him and began to breathe a little easier.

I bent down and took my first step into the cool darkness. And just ahead in the dim light that filtered into the pipe, I glimpsed something long and large wriggling through the water toward me.

I stumbled and splashed back into daylight. Big Pete came rocketing out of the culvert, jaws spread wide, maneuvering close enough for a single good lunge to have me dead to rights.

Tempting fate, I spun around, taking my eyes off my pursuer, and spied a rock the size of a football a short distance away. I lurched toward it, grabbed it, spun around, and chucked it at Big Pete. SPLASH!, went the rock, right in front of our charging viper, hurling him backward into the pipe. Once again I had spoiled Big Pete's relaxing afternoon.

Now mad, pissed, livid, and bent on chomping my leg, Pete gathered himself and came at me again. But my counterattack had served to put a few more feet of distance between us. I picked up another good-sized rock and heaved it at him. This time, the impact sent him flying, twisting and writhing, high into the air, and when he plummeted back into the water, he coiled up to regroup and rethink. I could see his little gears grinding as he considered his best angle of attack. But by now, I was moving as fast as I could in the direction I had come. I finally regained the rocks and scrambled toward high ground. Blessedly, Big Pete remained coiled in the stream, his bright, beady viper eyes shooting daggers at me.

There is a time for persistence and a time to cut one’s losses. At this point, soaked and enervated, I opted to post a DNF ("Did Not Find") log and ignore this cache's existence until hibernation season. “Adios, Pete!” I called. I’m pretty sure that if he had arms, he would have waved a not-so-fond farewell.

To my dismay, before I could return to that cache, it was archived due to — of all things — the second stage going missing and the cache owner deciding not to replace it. So, my adventure with Big Pete ended up being for naught, other than providing me one of the most intense adrenaline rushes of my life.

All this was a few years ago, so I don’t know whether Big Pete is still around. If he is, I hope he finally managed to get some much-needed relaxation without being trodden upon. I reckon he deserves it.
*This recounting was initially written for a geocaching-themed publication, which has apparently fallen into eternal limbo. Thus I am posting it here. I hope you find it gripping, mortifying, and fun. At the time, I was not having so much of the fun, no sir.

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