But if the rattlesnake will not come to me, I most go to the rattlesnake. I hike up the mountain almost every day. So do a lot of other San Diegans. All kinds, from sturdy octogenarians to fresh San Diego State sorority sisters in exercise bikinis, the latest, and in my mind, the most significant breakthrough in workout wear since the Danskin. The mass of people stomping the trail almost every daylight hour keeps the number of snakes on it low, but you still get them. That's why I carry a stick.
Snakes that are not rattlers can be seen on the trail as well, but they account for maybe ten percent of snake sightings. Other species always crawl away when they sense you coming. Sometimes rattlers do, too, rattling all the while, which tells you they are trying to let you know "Hey, while I am slithering away from you, I'm still a rattlesnake, so don't even think about grabbing my tail."
Sometimes they turn into the George Zimmermans of the reptile world, though, and stand their ground. That is what the stick is for. If you are a stick-carrier like me, you don't have to use it right away. You can stare at the snake if you want—it will just stare back at you. You can reflect that it is a lot safer to stare at a dangerous snake than it is to stare at a dangerous person. The snake will never growl "What are lookin' at, bub?" at you, no matter how long you look at it. It will just continue to keep an eye on you, wondering when you are going to make a move. Often I become aware of the presence of a rattler because a crowd of hikers are gathered around, checking it out.
That snake is harmless. Any rattlesnake you see is harmless. It's the ones you don't see that give you trouble. Those are the ones you can step on. Now, while you can't stare at a dangerous person, you can often get away with stepping on one, by groveling and saying something like "I'm very sorry I accidentally brushed the tip of your steel-toed motorcycle boots with my flip-flop, Mr. Heavily Tattooed Mountain of Flesh, sir." and immediately backing away. Try it, if you like.
That will not work with a rattlesnake you have stepped on. They will bite you swiftly and mercilessly before you can take another step. I suppose, out of the seven billion plus humans on the planet, there have to be a few of them that would do that, too, but with rattlesnakes it is a uniform reaction.
So when a snake won't move, I move it. I give it a strenuous poke with my stick. They don't care for this. It's a good way to find out for yourself how loud they can rattle. They don't turn on you, however. They just go rattling off in the direction you have pushed them.
I don't think doing this is dangerous, although it is illegal. Technically, you are not allowed to molest any animal on the trail. If you are in danger from a snake, you can summon a park ranger, who will then poke it with a stick for you. He or she is allowed to do this because they have a badge, and I assume some sort of snake-poking training back in park ranger academy. I take my chances with the law by skipping the middleman and poking the snake anyway. Otherwise I can't get up the trail.
Interesting fact—did you know that alcohol is involved in eighty percent of all snakebite incidents? And did you just think, as I did when I first read this statistic, who is dumb enough to be giving liquor to snakes?
When poking a snake, I trust the folklore on the subject, which is that a snake cannot strike any further than half its body length. I have no way of knowing this is absolutely true—there could be a sidewinder out there capable of using its rattle as a coil to spring fifteen feet in any direction—but so far it has proved out. While the snakes I have encountered range from skinny juveniles less than a foot long to varmints with heads the size of a fist and bodies as thick as a pinch-hitter's forearms, even these big boys are seldom more than four or five feet long. The stick is five feet long, so the math is on my side.
And if I ever come across a ten-foot rattlesnake, I plan to do the sensible thing. Fling the stick away so I won't accidentally trip on it while running away as fast as I can.