Scenes from Silver Creek: The Hemlock Viper
When we were in high school the popular make-out spot was up along Tyler Ridge Road, along the reservoir. There you could actually get away from lights to the point where you could see stars – that is if the windows weren’t too fogged up.
But it was also a popular space to just go and “be.” The spot seemed to be the sole province of the high school. We’d go up there after school with ice cream to look at the water and dream about the future. We’d go up there at night in groups to star gaze, tell stories, or drink wine we’d stolen from our folks.
Now it’s closed off to traffic and a walking trail, but back then it was a quiet spot, perfect for doing things you didn’t want your parents to see. Not necessarily “wrong” things like making out with Mike Columbo or trying your first cigarette (for the record, I didn’t like either of these two activities), but also perfectly innocent things, like talking.
Sometimes I think that we use our brains more between the ages of 17 and 20 that we do any other time of our lives. Forget college, or the rigors of the work world. But those last few year of high school and those first few years of university are when you tackle the problems of the world. Politics. Religion. Equality. You debate the responsibilities of citizenship and the importance of arts. You find yourself discussing all the serious topics of life with such gravity that you’re convinced your generation will be the one to save the world.
At that age, we were the future. And we were determined to make our mark. But you don’t want adults to hear you, because they’d only laugh. So you go up to Tyler Ridge Road with your best friends and you talk about how you’re never going to take things for granted and how you will spend a year in Africa helping them end starvation. And you eat an entire package of Oreos doing so and come away convinced you are a magnificent person.
One night I was there with the two people I was closest with in the entire world, my friends Sean Logan and Carmen Martinez. We were in the midst of an early fall heat wave. It was a Saturday evening, one of those delicious nights where the sun seems reluctant to set and it’s light until nearly nine. We were high school seniors, with all the answers to every question in the universe, plus a large vegetarian pizza and a 6-pack of Coke.
One of the reasons why Tyler Ridge is now closed to cars is because of the wildlife. There’s a lot of it up there. Deer. Raccoons. Skunks. Squirrels boing-boinged through the leaves and possums skulked shyly among the eucalyptus. And then there were the snakes. None of them poisonous, mind you, but there. And many people, including Sean and Carmen, have a horror of these critters.
Well on the night in question I was sitting opposite the two of them when I noticed their eyes straying from me to something about five feet to my right. Sean actually screamed. Carmen, if I recall correctly, started reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. “Oh God,” I thought, “it’s the Zodiac killer!”
Nervously I look over my shoulder….and see absolutely nothing. “What?” I ask as they continue to stare past me. Then I follow their gaze and saw The Snake That Ate Silver Creek.
The creature couldn’t have been more than six inches long, but Sean and Carmen reacted as if a giant boa constrictor with three heads had just slithered out of its den and was about to swallow one of us whole. I honestly thought they were kidding, so I started laughing. But no, they weren’t kidding…they were honestly terrified.
I knew what it was, a striped racer. These are dark, slender snakes with a white racing stripe down their backs. Perfectly harmless and, in fact, now endangered in California. At this point it had done nothing more than appear out of the leaf cover and make for the road and was at least 10 feet from them. We were more in danger of heartburn from devouring a large Cimino’s Pizza than we were from this poor little guy. But to my friends it was as if Cerebus had come from the underworld to slay us.
Apparently stunned into stupidity by our visitor, Sean and Carmen sat immobile for a minute starring in horrified wonder before suddenly remembering that they, unlike the snakes, had legs. So they collected their legs and ran. This just made me laugh all the harder because it was such a cartoon reaction.
“Hey!” I called after them, “come back, it’s harmless.”
“How do you know?” Sean asked. “You’re not Marlon Perkins.” But he stopped running anyway.
I walked over to the snake and picked him up. Sean screamed again.
“Put it down before it bites you!” yelled Carmen.
“Uh oh…” I said.
“What? What is it?” Sean called out in concern.
“Well, I thought it was just a harmless racer, but it’s not. The markings are wrong. I just picked up….” I paused dramatically while I thought up a name. “…a Hemlock Viper!”
This time Carmen screamed.
By now the little guy had wound himself around my hand, not too alarmed and pretty sure I wasn’t going to eat him. He was actually very cute.
Sean asked if he’d bitten me. Carmen asked if they should go for the cops. Not even my desire to tease them could survive the question. The cops? She thinks I’m holding on to a poisonous snake and her idea is to have it arrested? My sense of the absurd won over my sense of evil and I had started to laugh again. I put down our visitor and he went back to the leaves, no doubt eager to tell his pals about his adventures.
My two friends came back slowly, cautiously. And when they were close enough to gang up on me, they did.
The phrase “Hemlock viper” remained in our personal lexicon as a shorthand trigger to a wonderful memory.