Skinning a snake
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 jackets congregate.

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 skin.

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.







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