May is always a bittersweet month. Spring grows full and lush. Buds swell, then burst. Summer rushes into the landscape like a flood, while the freshness and hope of May wash away.
On one late May afternoon, during a run on a favorite loop that followed the course of a national wild and scenic river, I took the final hill toward home in something of a sprint. The road was gravel and rutted from recent rains, so it took a bit of agility to climb the grade and crest the hilltop where the road passed under a series of limestome bluffs.
This was the Driftless Region. Never glaciated. Old canyons formed by rivers crawled to the north and west through mixed woodlands of bur oak, white birch and dark cedars. Rugged country. Vertical sections remain untamed, because nothing can grow but moss and hepatica.
Wildlife was abundant. Ruffed grouse and wild turkey, bobcat and deer roamed the woodlands. Half the roads in the area were dirt. Northeast Iowa. Home for wild souls.
And snakes. They loved the craggy limestone bluffs. Cool, stable dens of even temperature within the rock made the bluffs an ideal place to overwinter. Come spring, snakes of a dozen species climbed out on the rocks to sun themselves, then spent all summer hunting mice and other foods in their vertical worlds of mossy limestone and craggy outcrops.
There were canebrake rattlers, thick and mean looking, with cinnamon stripes down their backs. And Massassauga rattlers, tiny but just as dangerous. Milks snakes and corn snakes and fox snakes and bull snakes, thick as black and white ropes.
There were everywhere, those snakes. But you did not see them often. Snakes keep to themselves, mostly. Except when they are being hunted.
The cowboy in white boots, pants, shirt and hat stood at the top of the hill where I was running, waving his hands and brandishing a hammer. I slowed and began to swerve far to the left of the thin dirt road along the river's edge. The cowboy stepped in front of me, blocking my path. I came to a complete stop and looked him up and down. There was blood splattered down the front of the cowboy's shirt and pants. Bright, wild patterns of blood. His hammer now hung loosely in his hand. He stepped closer and asked, "Wanna see mah snakes?"
I didn't know what he meant. I knew there were plenty of snakes in those hills, but the blood on his white cowboy outfit was freaking me out. Then he pointed at a tree where at least six snakes were nailed to the trunk just below their heads. Blood oozed down the bark, and several of the snakes looked as if they were still close to alive, mouths agape and pale. Their eyes were bright. A tail twitched. This cowboy appeared to be working fast, killing snakes.
As a biology student, curiosity got the best of me and I stepped over to identify the species of his victims. It was tough to think logically though. I was warily afraid he might hit me in the back of the head with the hammer and nail my carcass to the tree as well.
Turning around to face him, I asked, "Why?"
He gave a crazy shrug and took a couple steps back. "Don'tcha like 'em?"
"It's not a question of what I like," I told the cowboy. "It's just crazy. This killing. A couple of these are protected species."
The cowboy looked disappointed. I took that as a cue to get out of there. Feinting one step to the right toward the hill, I bolted left and took off running down the dirt road, back toward the college campus.
The cowboy gave no chase. I glanced back to see him finishing off the process of nailing one more snake to the tree. "Oh, my, God," I whispered to myself. "Wait till the other guys see this."
Back at campus I gathered a group of six or seven guys to run back to the cowboy's lair. No one believed the crazy story about the blood-soaked cowboy killing snakes. When we reached the spot where the cowboy had been, he was gone. All that was left of the carnage was a ring of blood around the tree. You could see the nail holes too, and bits of snake meat or scales on the ground.
"Okay, Cud," one teammate said. "You've had your fun. This is a little weird you know."
"He was right here!" I insisted. "Look at the blood ring around the tree. How else would that get there?"
"Snakes, I'm sure of it," one of them said cynically.
We ran back to campus. One by one the group took turns making fun of my crazed request tto show them the cowboy and his snakes.
But my roommate, who once had to jump over a Massassauga rattler coiled in the dirt along that road, turned to me quietly and said; "I believe you Cud. Sometimes you just have to jump a snake to believe they're really out there."
And that goes for cowboys, too.