A bit later, I would observe that it was the most beautiful copperhead I’d ever seen. All of the others were the dull, dark color that I usually associate with the species, pretty much the deep tarnished hue of an old penny that’s been lying around for a few decades. This one was the color of a brand new coin, except for the trademark pattern. I’ve never seen color that bright on a copperhead before and I speculated, later, that it must have just shed its skin very recently. My keen appreciation for the viper’s beauty and speculation on explanation were somewhat delayed by one simple fact.
The fact was that at the precise moment when I first became aware of its existence, my left foot was no more than four inches away from its mouth. Sometimes the manner of discovery has quite an impact on our level of appreciation for the beauty of the beast.
I was hiking with a good friend along something like a logging trail winding its way down the long slope of Cardiac Hill at Camp Horizon in south central Kansas. The space between the two worn and bare wheel tracks was grown up with grass about six inches high and sprinkled with recently fallen autumn leaves from the trees lining either side of the trail. Mark was walking along the left side and me on the right, enjoying our conversation and the beauty of an October afternoon. Neither of us noticed the snake woven into the grass and leaves in between us.
Mark’s awareness followed mine pretty closely. I’m not sure if it was my sudden exclamation or unexplained leap forward that garnered his attention. Maybe it was the combination. I’m pretty sure it was the expression on my face that most affected him.
“You were about five feet in the air,” he hyperbolated a bit later, making little effort and with even less success to mask his amusement.
It’s not my first close encounter with poisonous snakes. My oldest son’s quick warning kept me from stepping on the largest copperhead I’ve ever seen about thirty years ago in Bluff Woods near Saint Joseph, Missouri. In the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky, I discovered a small timber rattler at fairly close range but slightly out of striking distance.
On this most recent encounter, the lack of a strike probably owes to a combination of factors. The last few nights previous, the temperature had dropped into the low thirties and the afternoon temperature was in the fifties that day. We were walking at a brisk pace, giving the snake little warning of our presence until my foot suddenly landed and soon disappeared from right in front of it. The snake was not coiled but when we stepped back for a closer look, its neck was pulled into that classic S-shape that allows for a very short strike.
When Mark probed one of his hiking poles near the serpent’s head, it moved slightly but made no attempt to strike. Maybe the combination of cool temperature and the recent skin-shedding had left it a bit lethargic. If lethargic is the only option between the snake being dead or a hundred miles away, I’ll happily settle for lethargic. Mark slipped the end of his aluminum staff under the snake’s middle and flipped it about ten feet away and off the trail. It landed with a bit of a thud and made no effort to move. We did, in our original direction but with considerably more attention to the path immediately ahead of us.
Not all of the dangers that we encounter come with vivid marking and obvious fangs. Sometimes we find ourselves in a relationship that turns inappropriately romantic. A friend or business partner makes a proposal that skirts the shady side of a thin line. A single small lie gives us an advantage in a job interview or financial deal. We become too preoccupied with our own concerns to notice the warning signs in an adolescent child or a decaying marriage.
In a world filled with constant temptation and dark forces that seek our emotional if not physical destruction, we can hardly be too careful. We can sometimes seek a safer path but there are times when our calling takes us into the proximity of the occasional serpent. Prudence and Providence can lead us safely through those times and places but God expects to keep our eyes open. Sometimes, too, it’s a good idea to wear leather boots.