Road trip leads to unexpected
adventure in road kill
This story is about skinning a snake. There
is no moral, point or lesson. Sometimes you just have
a story you need to get out of your head.
We first see the snake on Highway 160 between Bayfield
and Pagosa Springs, just past the slight rise in the land
called Yellow Jacket Pass. The snake, already dead, stretches
in mid-slither across the westbound lane. As quick as
his brain can register “road kill snake,”
Dan pulls over and is out the door. I wait in the truck
and am not alarmed or surprised when I see a small figure
in my side mirror that is my husband jogging toward the
truck with a dead 5-foot snake draped across his arms.
Perhaps I’ve been broken in by the elk rib bone
resting against metal spatula, ladle and salad tongs in
our kitchen, used by Dan to stir pots of food. Maybe it’s
that the deer and elk legs that sat drying on our shed
roof for a month – later stripped for sinew to apply
to his handcrafted bow for strength – have become
commonplace. It barely fazed me when, on the day we showed
the house to a potential roommate, Dan boiled down a pot
of elk hooves and rawhide into a foul smelling “hide”
glue. Surely this dead snake will have a logical purpose.
After depositing limp snake body in a crate in the truck
bed, Dan returns to the driver’s seat breathing
heavy, both from his quick jog and the excitement of this
lucky find. Turns out Dan has been hoping to come across
a snake, pining for the skin the way others might wish
for a good job. As we roll past rain-fed fields, Dan explains
that snakeskin is a traditional material used to waterproof
primitive bows. A wet bow backed with sinew and hide glue
can become sticky, attracting pine needles and dirt, and
can lose some of its speed. Furthermore, snakeskin is
excellent camouflage and, for American Indian hunters,
imbued the bow with the power of the deadly snake.
“That’s nice honey,” I say. “Maybe
when we get to Boulder, we’ll have enough time to
take a walk and skin a snake.”
We had a wedding rehearsal dinner to make at 6 p.m.
In Boulder, we swing by King Soopers to purchase rubber
gloves, kitchen scissors, paper towels and a bag of chips.
Dan’s requirements for the task at hand are a picnic
table, water and, preferably, shade. Having once lived
here, I get us to Eben G. Fine Park, creekside, treed
and full of people. We slide into a parking spot amongst
the sleek commuter cars, heavy with thoughts of what lay
ahead, this sultry Friday afternoon beginning to take
on unexpected proportions. The snake, coiled in a crate
filled with bungees, ropes and other serpent-like apparatus,
looks no worse for the eight-hour drive, though it has
begun to omit a faint, ripe aroma.
Like our own park picnic basket, we pack the crate with
our snake-skinning tools, chips included, and with a seriousness
thinly applied over absurdity, we set up on a picnic table
under the calming shade of an old locust tree.
“Perfect.” Dan smiles.
Dan unfurls the creature across the wooden table, and
we admire the natural garment of the half dollar-thick
bull snake. Its scaly skin is a black-and-tan checkerboard,
perfect black squares bigger across the widest parts and
shrinking into less uniform black splotches as the body
narrows at head and tail. Ruptured and ragged in spots
where car tires contacted the body, red flesh and slippery
white bones are exposed. We smooth out the twists in its
body and place the snake is on its back, face up. Its
red tongue permanently tastes the air.
With the small scissors just purchased, Dan cuts into
the snake’s belly and begins snipping up the abdomen
all the way to its head. The yellow jackets are on us
immediately and, like the man skinning the snake, seem
to dance in celebration of such a find.
Bent over the table, Dan breathes short and quick. Forehead
furrowed, jaws slack and eyes narrowed to the small dimensions
of this picnic table, he is in a deep concentration that
I quickly recognize, easily blocking out the swarms of
people and dogs that are flying by us on the Boulder Creek
Path. As snake-skinning assistant with duties that consist
of tearing paper towels, cleaning tools in the creek and
the occasional repositioning of the long animal, I have
the freedom to take in the scene: sky cloudless; kids
loud in the creek; color-coordinated athletes taking their
exercise by bicycle, rollerblades and high-tech jogging
shoes. Dan scrapes the flesh, spine and ribs away from
the skin with his Leatherman’s blade, flinging the
light pink meat to a corner of the table where the yellow
The people of Boulder sprint right out of a Nike ad,
everything in the right place; they glide by effortlessly
tossing a quick glance in our direction before returning
to their conversations. But then something registers.
I don’t know if it’s the growing pile of snake
guts, the knife-wielding man bent over a long serpent
or the strange smell in the air, but they turn back. This
time their gaze lingers – though their bodies never
halt – searching the table for some logic, something
familiar, an explanation perhaps. It is only the dogs
and children who allow themselves to slow and stare, drawn
by the mystery in the air.
As the pile of snake meat grows, the reptile loses its
shape and soon is simply a flayed skin, collapsed against
the wooden table. Dan goes over it several times, separating
every last piece of flesh from the slightly transparent
Like most things, skinning the snake takes longer than
planned, and we forego the walk. We toss the snake guts
in the bushes, hoping a raccoon, skunk or squirrel will
enjoy them. We clean our tools, pack up the crate and
carry the snakeskin together in a procession up to the
truck, where we lay it on a tarp in the covered truck
bed to dry.
After a quick change of clothes in the Wild Oats parking
lot, we make the rehearsal dinner on time. At the posh
restaurant we devour prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, clink
glasses of red wine, laugh with friends and occasionally,
only occasionally, forget that there is a snakeskin drying
in the back of our truck.