Life on the Real Desert: Snakes Alive

Snake crossing the road, @4ft
On the way to town today I came across a lady on the “main road” out of the estate. Standing by the side of the paved surface, clutching a hoe, she moved toward the center of the street and waited for me to approach on my bike.

“You could have crossed over,” I said, “It will take me ages to get to you.” This as I slowly moved toward the stationary gardener. It was my impression that she was heading to the desert on the other side of the road.

“Is that a rattler?”

The question caused me to turn, as I had passed her already, and head back to where she stood. “Careful, he’s right there,” she pointed to the rock and cactus frontage of the lot to my right. I looked but saw nothing that resembled any sort of desert creature. Stopping and dismounting I walked to where she was and turned to follow her pointing finger.

In the shadow of the property’s boundary fence, the long serpent was contentedly stretched out and occasional flicks of its tongue tested the air as it relaxed in the shade. It was well over four feet in length and unperturbed by all the attention. Whilst we discussed what sort of snake it was, the thing began to slowly move along in the shade.

Several attempts were made to photograph the placid creature but the shadows he, or she, stubbornly clung to, made it difficult. While we stood about taking snaps with mobile phones (cell phones) and deciding that the lack of rattles meant that it was not a rattlesnake, other folks from the area congregated to look at the traveler.

Snake in the shade
Do I look bovvered?

The calm snake, which a friend has guessed might be a Pacific gopher snake, moved into the hard pan after traversing a long stretch of fence line.

Snake in the shade.
The Snake-Fence.

This is the first live snake I’ve come across. The only other one was dead hit, apparently, by a car on the road running parallel to the highway. Red and grey and not rattles either, I still have no idea what sort of snake it was. The visitor also was the first creature that moved slow enough for me to take a picture of.

Yesterday I saw a kangaroo rat nimbly hopping across the vacant lot across the street from my home. It was huge and, for a rat of any kind, cute. Bold as brass, it ignored me completely and headed for a huge cactus with yellow “roses” on it. He, or she, disappeared as I got closer and despite standing there for a while it did not reappear.

Not counting the time spent living in Las Vegas, Nevada, the last time I lived in a desert setting was in 1980 – 1982 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I cannot remember too much about colors of flowers or seeing too many creatures scurrying about, but I do recall falling in love with the desert itself. White Sands was just down the road from my trailer and my first wife, along with our son, went out a few times to that amazing gypsum land.

The entire time I lived in England, the question of returning stateside was continually cropping up. I said, at the time, that only if I could live in the desert…

Yellow flowers on huge prickly pear cactus.
It’s the yellow rose of…Arizona…

Well, here I am. Living in the great Southwestern desert. The land of Billy the Kid, Apache warriors, the Navaho and Mojave. Each time I ride my bike into town my imagination runs riot. Reading about days gone by in the state, and the local area, fuels my trips of fancy. Wild west outlaws, larger than life characters and prospectors searching for personal riches reside in my mind.

I have been talking to a neighbor about looking for gold and he has relayed some marvelous tales of robbery and mining. I will be sharing some of these stories soon. In the meantime, I shall be researching this land that features so heavily in literature and film.

23 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Reborn on the Fourth of July

RAF Mildenhall
RAF Mildenhall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The USAF sent me to the United Kingdom in 1982. It was not problem, I had volunteered to go. My first marriage had died a pretty messy death and the airbase I was at held too many harsh memories. My unit commander had suggested I put in a transfer request. He said that he happened to know there was still a place or two left open in England.

Alamogordo Air Force Base in New Mexico was my first assignment in the Air Force. I had just changed jobs and my new commander was a “re-tread” an officer who had been promoted from the enlisted ranks. He was one hell of a guy.

He had been stationed at RAF Mildenhall years before and had loved it. His idea was to get me away from the memories that were making my life a misery. I put in for a transfer and got it. We were a small career field  so it was a bit easier to get ‘choice’ assignments.

I drove my immediate superior’s car to Dover AFB. She was being reassigned to Germany and wanted to ship her car. On my way I stopped by and visited with my son, my parents and the rest of my family. Sad, bitter thoughts kept me from enjoying anyone’s company too much and I was anxious to “get going” and start forgetting.

I flew into England via the “Freedom Bird.” The Freedom Bird was usually a stretched commercial aircraft, stretched meant that it had moved the seats closer together so they could fit more military personnel on the flights. It was cramped and uncomfortable. This commercial aircraft was dubbed the Freedom Bird because it, or another one like it, would be the aircraft that would take us back to the USA when our assignment was over.

The minute my feet hit the tarmac in England I fell in love. Instinctively I felt that I this was the place I had always been looking for. I had conflicting emotions running through my head. I was excited, relieved, expectant, and sad all at the same time.

I was also jet lagged.

England was a welcome change for me. I got the chance to ‘live’ my life again. After a few years I fell in love with a girl from Cambridge. We tied the knot and we moved to The Netherlands for four and a half years. While we were there she gave birth to our beautiful daughter. And we made plans to move back to England when our stint in Holland was over.

Then I got out of the Air Force in 1993 (under the downsizing drill in 1992) and made England my home. I became a British citizen and my visits home had to stop due to lack of funds.

Fast forward to 2011. My second marriage was over. Thankfully for different reasons than my first one, I’d learned that much at least, but it lasted a lot longer than my first marriage. The first thing I knew I had to do was to go home and visit.

My daughter and I flew over for a two week ‘rest period’ and as luck would have it, we would be in the USA over the Fourth of July.

English: Downtown Miami on July 4, 2007
English: Downtown Miami on July 4, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We spent the holiday at my brother’s house with his family. He went all out for my daughter’s first 4th of July in America. She saw her first baseball game and saw her first firework display at the ripe old age of 21. She fell in love with ‘live’ baseball and America. She will be coming back to live and work there.

She also saw her first Rodeo and got to see a lot of the places I’d lived and visited when I was a whole world younger. She also got to visit family she’d either never met before or she’d only met when she was too little to really remember.

Something else happened on that flight home. Something important.

It started on the flight over. I sat (watching one of the in-flight movies) and my eyes started watering and I got a lump in my throat. I was going home. I hadn’t been there since 1990. It was a little overwhelming. The culmination of this feeling came on the 4th itself.

As we sat watching the brilliant firework display put on by the town of Coppell, Texas tears ran down my face as I ‘taped’ the colourful explosions. I suddenly remembered that I was an American.

It was like being reborn.

I had spent so many years ‘overseas’ that I had forgotten what I was, where I was from, and who I was deep down. I had begun to think of myself as a citizen to of world and of course I was an British citizen as well.  I think that visit helped both my daughter and me a great deal.

We still live and work  in England but life has changed. We both discovered our ‘roots’ last year. My daughter for the first time and I got back in touch with mine. So while I’m setting here writing this, I am reliving last years 4th of July celebrations. The smell of the popcorn and other delicious foods at the ballgame and the sounds and smells of the fireworks.

So even though I was born in September, I was reborn on the 4th of July.

English: A chocolate cake during the 4th of July
English: A chocolate cake during the 4th of July (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snow

About two-thirty in the morning, after dozing on the couch, I went into the back garden to have a cigarette. Half-asleep, I opened the back door and stepped out, lighting my smoke. I was instantly jolted awake by the sight of snow drifts. I was standing in one that covered my back door step. There was a veritable blizzard outside and it had apparently been going on for some time.

I got so excited about the snow that it took me ages to drop off to sleep when I then went to bed.

Snow has the capacity to both magically transform me into a child again and to excite me beyond reason. No other type of weather has this power over me. In fact, the only thing that even comes close is the power of smell. I know that scientists have said that a scent can trigger the most amazing memories. Amazing enough that you feel as though you have travelled back through time. This “time travel” experience has happened to me a few times. I can count on the fingers of both hands the amount of times it has happened. Snow, however, always instantly affects me.

I remember vividly travelling back from Sacramento, California with my parents at the age of five.

*Coincidentally I also remember, equally as well, travelling out to California, aged four. I played in the foot-well of the passenger seat. With a bed-sheet as my tee-pee, I played Cowboys and Indians as we crossed the desert during the day. I played in the foot-well because of the oppressive heat. My mother who was driving our 58’ Chevy had to endure it.

On this momentous trip, we drove through a blinding snow storm in the mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona. The flying snow was so thick, it froze and then broke our wind-shield wipers and my father had to brush the snow off the wind-shield (while he drove) with his arm.  We finally our-drove the snow and arrived in Alamogordo, New Mexico in the late afternoon. Alamogordo is right at the edge of the White Sands Missile Range. It is in the desert. It has sand, cacti, sagebrush, mesquite and tumble-weeds.

White Sands, New Mexico. A little hard to see if it's snowed or not...
White Sands, New Mexico. A little hard to see if it’s snowed or not…

And on this memorable occasion, it also had snow.

As we all slept in our Rocket Lounge motel room, the snow had caught up with us. When the morning arrived my parents woke me up and told me to open the door and look outside. In the night the snow had transformed the desert into a world of white. Everything was covered in the stuff. Even the tumble-weeds were white. I was ecstatic. It made an everlasting impression on me, that forty-eight years later, is still fresh.

So this morning when I stepped out into the snow in my back garden I was transported. I “time-travelled” back to Alamogordo, New Mexico. I re-lived that excitement of seeing the snow covered desert and the memory was as fresh as the snow covered world outside my window and as crisp as the air surrounding it.

Some memories don't need a time travel machine to re-live them.
Some memories don’t need a time travel machine to re-live them.