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True Stories by Steve Keely
I entered a hole yesterday at noon after a mental checklist of precautions. It's a solid rock mountain with no trace of cave-in, no animal tracks to foretell surprise, and no undermining seepage along the inner walls. It's a safe bet for a desert hare or explorer. The 5-foot high shaft is horizontal, flat, sandy floored and sunlight penetrates twenty yards before there is no more.
A musty animal odor nearly knocks me over and I use a penlight to show the floor again but there are no tracks. However, a squeak and flutter ahead reveals a colony of bats retreating farther into the mine. It's easy to walk upright with head bent to a side and my hands can touch either wall. My rule is proceed at half-speed because, though eager, the floor may drop anywhere into a vertical shaft. A month ago in another mine this nearly caused me a fall. Further on the bore is inky black and warm indicating there's no air vent.
In five minutes the bats -- wingspan a foot -- swarm my ears so I drop to the ground to allow them escape to the entrance. I trust a bat in a tight place but want them, and me, to remain calm. Suddenly, while still seated in the sand, a clicking starts in the wall next to me -- rattlesnake. I pride myself on in .25 second being able to estimate the distance, species and number of rattles, and in the next .25 second acting. He's about 6 feet away, a sidewinder due to the high frequency and pitch, and possesses about 10 rattles. The odd thing today is his noise echoes throughout the cave so I can't fix a location. Then the light falls on a beautiful chocolate-diamonded sidewinder in tight coils on a perch across from me. (I have one, Sir, living under my woodpile in the desert.) Snake savvy says it strikes 2/3 its body length but here textbook knowledge can get one's nose tagged because while situated against the side wall he can push out as well as up. I crawl deeper into the cave as the noisemaker continues.
Minutes later the penlight flashes against the cave end where a dozen bats hang upside down over old machinery. Some zip by my ear as I turn to exit the wonderland. In a ways the stack of rocks I made to mark the rattler's position is underfoot, but no rattler for he's moved. Rattling resounds just feet ahead in possibly a crack in the wall. I grab a nearby barrel slat with wood peg and use as a sword to draw fire and location but there's no strike. For five minute I study the wall ahead in the 4-feet wide mine and don't find the nervous fellow. So I mentally rehearse a bite and hurry by safely. Near the entrance the bats have gathered to avoid sunlight, and flit past again. The hole opens to the California desert.
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