The rattlesnake incident happened July 4th, 1986, but in the clarity of my memory, it was yesterday. I left camp at 6:00 o’clock that morning and traveled deep into the woods along a remote but well-known local trout stream, Thompson Run. The day grew warm as I walked and fished. By late morning a bright sun blazed above the cool hemlock branches overhead. In five hours I’d caught and released eight colorful wild brookies and three fat brown trout, holdovers from an earlier spring stocking. It was time now to turn back. Annie, always afraid I’d fall and break a leg way back in the forest, planned to meet me at the Althom bridge at noon.
     I broke down my fly rod and started downstream, savoring in my memory the morning’s pleasures: the hike along the shaded stream, the slash and tug of brook trout on the line, the three deer spotted crossing at a bend in the creek, the aromatic breezes whispering through the white pines, the music of the flowing waters, the soft cushiony feel of pine needles underfoot, the familiar woodland sights of leafy hardwoods, gray squirrels, chickadees, and mountain laurel.
     Maybe I walked too fast or became distracted by my daydreaming. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. But I stepped past a trio of young white pines and there he was, all six terrible feet of him, a black phase timber rattlesnake on the ground in front of me, so close I could have bent over and touched him with my fingertips.
     I froze in my boots and witnessed. The athletic coil of the body and rise of the head, level with my waist now, deathly close, ready to strike, the tiny eyes furious and wild, and the horrible high-pitched sizzling song of warning rattles going right to the top of my skull with unbearable sound and terror.
     I stood motionless, scared to the bone. A minute passed and then another, each second lingering like half of forever, while I stood there, stared at those penetrating snake eyes, listened to the sizzling sounds, and stopped myself from screaming out loud.
     Part of me knew I had to do something, though. I could not wait this snake out without dying of fright. But still I hesitated, scared shitless, unable to move. And then a knowledge came to me, as if from some ancient, deep remembering, some ancestor’s troubled dream. I knew this snake would not strike. It lay poised and ready, but I understood that its posture was defensive. I knew, as a primitive man would know, that the snake and I would disconnect, that we would both live.
     I took one excruciatingly slow step backward then, a centimeter of motion per second, my leg muscles straining, my heart on fire. Then another step, and then one more, and now I saw that I was out of range. The snake stayed poised in striking position, but the sizzling of the rattles ceased, and my heart subsided. I noticed I was breathing then, and I counted my breaths, in and out, one, two, three, four.
     I looked at the reptile again and tried to see it for what it was, a beautiful rare creature of the forest, magnificent in its stone-age simplicity of design. Pure survival this animal was, from the tip of its warning rattles to the ends of its weaponry fangs, nothing wasted in the musculature in between.
     But I had no intentions of staying around any longer to admire the beauty of the rattlesnake. I’d had enough of him and enough of the forest for one day. I yearned for the macadam road, the bridge, the truck, the comforting woman, the safety of camp.
     The snake relaxed its coil and lowered its head, and I moved quickly, laterally, away from stream and snake and danger, a good safe distance, twenty yards or more. Then I fled downstream in a rush.
     A hundred yards down I stopped, stood by the stream, and shivered from pure elemental fright. No one dies from a rattlesnake bite these days, I told myself. You get sick as hell but you live. You survive. You’ll laugh about all this tomorrow. About being scared out of your wits by a snake that didn’t even strike. But my heart was unconvinced and did not listen. That snake had scared me as deep as my soul. I closed my eyes and opened them, breathed deeply, clenched and unclenched my fingers. Finally I made up my mind to move on. But first I reassembled my fly rod and extended all nine feet of it in front of me.
     I started moving again, the rod tip swishing ahead over leaf litter and pine-needled ground with every step. No matter that the ground was open and obviously safe. No matter that the chances of a second rattlesnake encounter in the Pennsylvania forest in one day were slim to none. I swished and walked for forty-five minutes and three miles, until I made the macadam road and stepped up onto Althom bridge.
     Annie saw me, started forward, then stopped and stared. “My God,” she said. “What happened to you?”

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