The Life Hidden Behind Snakes and Dead-Ends

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A few years ago, Sally and I took a trip to Los Angeles. The City of Angels. A friend played tour guide and showed us around the city. One of our stops was in Griffith Park, home of the famous H O L L Y W O O D sign that we so often see in movies and television shows. The park holds a commanding view of the city, offering stunning 360 degree visibility on almost every landmark you can think of for the area. Griffith Park also holds a staggering number of rattlesnakes.

Oh yes. That massive Hollywood sign also means snakes are present. So present, in fact, that there are warning signs all over the park. Walking from the Griffith Observatory parking lot onto the first trail up toward the peak, we immediately saw our first rattler disappearing into brush lining the path. Startled, we inquired and our host responded, “Yeah, it’s breeding season so they’re really active right now. Don’t worry, they’ll leave us alone.”

A Pit of Vipers

Wow! We were literally climbing into a pit of vipers…well, perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but it was a striking realization. What is it about snakes that frightens us? First of all, they can be dangerous. Most of us work quite hard to ensure that our day-to-day living conditions minimize exposure to potentially deadly animals. Snakes also remain hidden…until they aren’t. Knowing they might be lurking in a bush by a path may be worse than actually seeing them moving about The unknown menace is unnerving and produces fear of what could happen. Fear of the unknown.

One nice thing about rattlesnakes is that they at least give you a warning, though that is also unnerving if you aren’t sure where they are hidden. On a more recent trip through the upper midwest, we came across a rather large snake on a lakeside path – post encounter research suggested it was the northern water snake. This non-poisonous snake was big enough to make an impression even without the threat of mortal injury.

Thinking back, I recalled other encounters with snakes and a broader picture emerged. The encounters always occurred when we stepped out onto paths, known and unknown, to rub up against the outside world. The snakes were typically working to avoid us, though Sally’s sharp eyes have helped me avoid stepping on more than one directly on our path. In every case, they left us feeling a bit exposed and unsure. The paths always look a bit different when the presence of a snake in the vicinity is confirmed. Seeing it, confirms it’s there, but as it slithers into the brush, it transforms into an unseen menace.

The appearance of a snake is a sign. A signal to be aware and prepared. In so many ways, snakes represent the chaos of our lives: the uncertainty of what might happen along a path known, or unknown. As an animal living instinctively in a harsh world, the snake’s reaction to us, or other variables it perceives, could result in what seems like capricious or malicious behavior. Seeing it sends the warning signal that the general unknown of our path has just become a very specific unknown of the snake’s potential behavior.

Going Local

We returned this week-end from a weeklong road trip through Wisconsin and Minnesota. The great thing about a road trip is that it takes us off of the day-to-day paths, forcing a form of disconnection from the routines and patterns of normal life. Suddenly, in the middle of our existence, we shift gears and move out of our norm, onto new roads, into new beds, and across another form of the unknown. We walk away from our home turf, leaving all that is happening behind, inserting a magical break in the action, knowing we’ll be returning to much that lies ahead.

One very interesting thing about a road trip is that it allows us to see places from a very different perspective. New roads lead to unseen places as they take us into the heart of new communities. We experience a locality very differently when we see it up close and personal. Driving 1700 miles in 8 days, we were able to experience people and places much more intimately. Our society likes to bucket people by color, political party, religion, sports team, and sexual orientation but there’s nothing like going local to discover what brings people together and, what separates them.

When we go local, we find the realities of life. The necessities. Relationships. Work. Community. Health. Survival. Do we want a road or not? A new stoplight? A new school? What happened to our hospital? Should we allow a new liquor store, cannabis outlet, or gas station? Do we tear down an old building? Do we give tax incentives to a potential new employer? Do we vote for the person who supports how we want our children educated or do we vote against the person trying to change zoning? Who do we really know, and how do we know them?

When we get local, we get to the heart of what matters for those just trying to exist. Regular people, facing the daily struggles of survival, broken relationships, health scares, accidents, and tragedies. Crime is up close and personal. Loss is real and visible. We see people. We know individuals. We like and dislike for real and perceived reasons – it’s all very, very, personal.

We also encounter other travelers. Passing through. Visiting. Temporarily existing in that locality, becoming part of that community for a time. Work. Recreation. Family. Getting away. We had a chance to do it all. What do we bring? What do we take away? Conversations with locals. Students. Wait staff in a restaurant. Store owners. The travelers leave footprints. The locals keep living. It’s all personal. 

Roads Less Traveled

During our trip, we spent a few days in the Minnesota Northwoods. Exploring some very remote areas, we came across numerous dead-ends. Sometimes, we headed down the unknown road, sometimes we drove past, and sometimes a sign warned us away. Curiously, the dead-ends always presented something unexpected: wildlife, a hidden lake, a magnificent vista, a curious personality. We discovered that the road stopped but the experience went on.

We stayed two nights at one of those dead-ends in a cabin that was literally, off-the-grid. Here, we became acutely aware of our scarcity of resources. Water, electricity, wood, and even food were limited. When was the last time you were paying attention to how often you flush your toilet or how many lights you have on in your house? In the scarcity, we realized that it was still more than enough.

There, at the dead-end, we found many things waiting to be discovered, or, rediscovered. Time slowed and stillness became a tangible thing. Quiet wrapped us like a blanket, making room for other sounds, voices, calls, to break through. Pressed into this dead-end, we also found space for new thoughts to emerge. Peace and clarity hide in the dim, deepening light of a crackling fire, and the sometimes maddening cacophony of real silence. The road less traveled can still make all the difference.

Up Close and Personal

We get caught-up in the great expanses of life. Wide swaths that sweep us away in the big movements. Big buckets. Big decisions. Big deals. They capture our imagination, inspire, and move us. They also label, categorize, and bucket us. The big buckets beyond us can bring fear and doubt – uncertainty that sometimes paralyzes. We can get lost in the great expanses of a big city, in a big country, in a big world, in an overwhelmingly complex universe. Big expanses are frequently foisted upon us by factors beyond our control.

But, day-to-day, we live in the small moments, the small decisions, the small communities, across the little corners of our lives. We live local. We associate local. We move local. One person, an individual, moving in small circles of families, friends, jobs, stores, churches, and communities. One day at a time. Small stories in small dramas emerging on small stages in very, very, personal ways.

Along the way, we realize that this where we find the real snakes and dead-ends.  We feel the menace of what may lurk on paths known and unknown. Threats that are individual. Personal. Close to home. We walk the paths in our own community and still find the dead-ends. Sometimes we stay there for a time, knowing we must eventually find our way out. Often, we see others stuck in their own dead-ends and, if we pause for a moment and consider it, we realize: we’re all in it together, up close and personal.

We also find something else in that small unit of locality. We find connection and purpose. We find community and identity. We find the small steps that lead to a full life. Sometimes they take us somewhere big. But most of the time, they just lead us through our small story. The one in which we live and love and fall and get back up and experience and hope and suffer and, occasionally, thrive. The one that doesn’t get lost in the big sweep but makes a difference for the small community in which we exist.  The story that is very, very personal. Intimate in a way we can never see in the great expanses. One person, one moment, one life. All, one step at a time.

  • Mom & Dad

    Again we enjoyed the journey and thoughts you have shared and appreciate your ability to put it all into the words which make it possible to reflect and make them truly “up close and personal”!

    Nice piece Phillip

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