Idaho, Mountain Lions and a Rattlesnake Friend

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Hunter Gray

WE MOVED TO Pocatello, Idaho three years ago. And there are certainly some mighty friendly people hereabouts.  But from the very moment we first arrived, we’ve been subjected to bizarre harassment—coming obviously from Federal, state, local “lawmen” and vigilante types, and just as obviously stemming from my traditionally Left Native rights/civil rights/labor affiliations and beliefs and history and contemporary activities.

Surveillance, blatant interference with our mail, very weird telephone experiences—including hate calls, people taking photos of our house, intricate garbage searches, mounting indications of sub-rosa vilification—and much, much more have been a consistent part of our scenery.

We are, of course, fighting back and will keep right on keeping on doing so. To quote the old Mississippi saying: “Our enemies can go straight down to Hell and wait there for us to change our minds.”

My boyhood Western catechism from old and very old-time members of the Industrial Workers of the World and, later, many rich and positive experiences from in and around the old Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers—and a myriad of other activist organizing feathers of mine as I’ve grown through the decades: All of this adds up, among other things, to “It’s better to be called Red than be called Yellow,” and all of this flies high and boldly in my full consciousness.

But this is a social commentary that is really, in many ways, about a rattlesnake—a rattlesnake friend.

I grew up in the wild and rugged mountains and canyons around the then quasi-frontier Northern Arizona town of Flagstaff.  Early on, I was an avid hunter—had my first rifle at age seven—and soon enough distinguished myself as a trapper.

Most of Arizona is rattlesnake country.  I killed my share of them before I hit my mid-teens.  Somehow, more or less consciously, I believed it was my duty to do so. Most people—but not I any longer—still feel that way.

My very first invasion of the news media involved a rattlesnake situation.  This, from the Arizona Daily Sun [Flagstaff/Coconino County], late June, 1948:


“John Wood, 13 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Wood, residing south of Flagstaff, got introduced to an Arizona rattlesnake Wednesday of this week while exploring Grass Canyon, near Schnebley Hill, but suffered no ill effects because of the quick thinking of John Salter, Jr., his companion, age 14.

“The snake was coiled within striking distance when the Salter boy killed it with an accurately aimed .22 rifle bullet.  Wood must have felt he was carrying with him one of the four leaf clovers his famous song-writing father composed, “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover’…”

In that situation, I had to do what I did—and I have no apologies.

I didn’t kill every rattlesnake I encountered.  When our wide-ranging high school hiking club plunged into the Grand Canyon (half a day down to the bottom) and trudged up (two days), we’d frequently pass rattlesnakes camped by the trail in the shade of a rock or a bush. We were far too preoccupied and trail-focused to take them on.

Then came a very abrupt shift in my generally violent anti-rattlesnake attitude.  I was 18, my 45/70 Winchester in hand—taking an obscure game trail down into the vast Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, southwest of Flagstaff.  Suddenly I saw a tiny rattler—very tiny, only a few inches in length, a minute rattle at his tail tip—coiled by a rock, right in the middle of the trail.  It was so absolutely small that, if it rattled, I couldn’t even hear it.

The still-coiled, near-baby snake looked feistily up—right at me. His message was, however telepathically conveyed, sharp and crystal clear.

And I began to laugh.  With my big-bore 45/70 I could have, in a split instant, eliminated every physical vestige of my brave—hell, admirable—little adversary.  But how could I have ever done that?

For a long moment more, we looked at each other.  And then the tiny entity—his point made very well—uncoiled in leisurely fashion and moved slowly away. For my part, in a gesture of respect and deference I, too, stepped away.

And from that point on, I never killed another rattler.  When I encountered one, I simply gave him his space.  But I never felt the warmth of friendly empathy with one—until very recently indeed.

We live on the far far up western “frontier” of Pocatello—right on the very edge, only a few other houses around us, and with almost all of the town well below.  From our door we can walk a few feet and be in open country: high steep hills shooting up almost out of our back yard. We often walk up into the rugged hills and ridges—way up and far into the back country.  Wild “critters” of all kinds abound and we frequently see mountain lion (cougar) tracks in certain special settings that we’ve located.

Even many of our very nice neighbors are worried about the lions.  We are not worried.  Northern Arizona is certainly lion country and they’ve never bothered any humans of whom I’ve heard.  Lions are curious, and skittery humans often mistake that quality for predatory, stalking hostility.

I remember, always with real pleasure, a very large lion (by its size, obviously male), that followed my father and myself for a long time in the rough Rim country, south of Flagstaff.  We were hunting but it never crossed our Native minds to kill such a magnificent manifestation of the Creator’s Wilderness.

The lion stayed about twenty-five yards behind us and, when we stopped and looked back at him, he too stopped.  Then we all continued until, finally, my father and I dropped below a ridge.  For the longest time, the lion, profiled on the very top, gazed down at us until we faded into the pines and scrub oak.

Now, when we see the large, rounded paw prints in the high-up hills west of our far-up house—always hoping to see a lion in the flesh—we feel kinship.  For we, too, are having our problems with some of the humans hereabouts.

But a rattlesnake?

Not very long ago at all, my oldest daughter, Maria, and I—accompanied by our Sheltie, Hunter—once again wended our way up into the ever higher brush-covered hills, following a bare trace of a trail.  I went first and Maria was some distance behind.  Suddenly, she yelled, “A snake!”

I turned and walked a few feet down toward her. She pointed to a bush slightly below me and to my left.

“It’s in there.” She then explained quickly that, when I walked up past the bush, no snake was visible; but, just before she got to it, a snake started to emerge, then withdrew.  I went cautiously to the bush.

And it was indeed a snake—and a rattler at that! A young desert-type, light gray with interesting designs and about three rattles, was moving slowly back, edging away from us, deeper under the bush and into tall grass.  We stared at him and his graceful movement, fascinated.

Hunter arrived and, from deep in the bush and grass, came a perfunctory rattle.

We moved on, then, further up and away—checking our special places, studying the new lion tracks.  But the rattlesnake was much on my mind. I realized that, unlike every prior rattlesnake sighting of mine, I had felt not an iota of aversion or revulsion.

For Maria—ever the faithful friend of all creatures—this was not unusual.  But for me this was, frankly, extraordinary.  And then, away up on a super high ridge, looking down and to far off Pocatello, I suddenly realized that, in some completely inexplicable fashion, the snake and I had bonded.

“Let’s go back the same way,” I told Maria.  “Maybe we’ll see him again.”

Now, going down slowly, I in the lead, we came to the Land of the Snake: high brush, the trail now extremely faint and narrow—and then the Bush!

The rattler was not visible therein.  I felt a sharp cut of genuine disappointment.  “Not here,” I said to Maria—and we moved slowly on down.

And then! Then suddenly—there he was in all his splendor, lying literally in the trail immediately ahead of me: dusty gray, designed, graceful.  And even as I stopped, abruptly, with a warning note to Maria, he coiled in a split instant and faced me, head held high.

He didn’t rattle because he didn’t have to: Our eyes were locked together! “Take it easy, amigo,” I thought to him. “We’re buddies.”

In a twinkling, he uncoiled and moved away into the brush and grass—in the same leisurely fashion as my long-ago feisty baby-snake at Sycamore.  We watched him for a moment; then, in deference again, we moved to the other side of the trail and continued onward.

As we tell no one beyond the family and a couple of close friends the whereabouts of the lion tracks, Maria and I pledged never to reveal the rattler and his home area.

But residing in the full consciousness of my mind the rest of that day and into the late evening, was the question: “Why in hell have I bonded with a snake—and a rattler at that?” I went to bed.

And, as it always does, my mind worked things through as I slept.  Arising at 4:30 a.m. and sipping my first cup of strong black coffee, I had my answer:

“Call me Ishmael,” Melville wrote, a long time ago. And while we have many friends in this Pocatello and general Idaho setting—and certainly many indeed across the country and into Canada and Mexico—it has been a tough experience for us these past several years in this southeastern Idaho town.

But, of course, I’ve followed the trail of the radical organizer ever since I was a teen—listening to the drum of History, and with others helping make a little—and it’s always been this way. Hard not to see ourselves as Ishmaelites of some sort, perceived by all kinds of so-called “lawmen” and many “respectables” as outcasts on the edges.

But there are many of us, many indeed—and there will be many many more.

It takes an Ishmaelite to recognize an Ishmaelite—even one to whom the Creator gave another shape: my good friend, my doughty buddy under the bush against whom virtually every human hand would hurl rocks and bullets, even though all he wishes is to be left in peace to pursue his Vision to the Sun.

That’s what I realized at 4:30 that morning and I know it now and forever: He was ready to fight.  We fight on.

HUNTER GRAY [John R. Salter, Jr.], “Hunterbear,” a half-blood Micmac/St. Francis Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk, grew up at Flagstaff, Arizona.  Since the mid-1950s, he has been deeply and consistently involved in grassroots organizing: Native rights, radical labor, civil rights, anti-poverty , urban multi-issue.

His trail has extended from the Southwest to the Deep South, Pacific North-west, Chicago, up-state New York, Navajo Nation, Northern Plains, and Rocky Mountains.  Trained as a sociologist, he has occasionally taught—while organizing still—at such places as Tougaloo College, Goddard College, University of Iowa, Navajo Community College [now Dine’ College] and University of North Dakota.

His written work has appeared over the decades in numerous journals and books.  He is the author of Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism [Krieger, 1987.]  He presently lives at Pocatello, Idaho, with coyotes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes among his friendly neighbors and is, as always, a committed organizer and socialist.

ATC 90, January-April 2001