“There’s a rattlesnake up ahead,” the man said, eying the camera I’d slung around my neck before I set off on my hike. “Just thought you’d want to know.”

“Really?” Wow. That hadn’t taken long. I’d been in Tucson about four hours, and already people were warning me about snakes. I adjusted the brim of my baseball cap so it blocked the afternoon sun, then tugged one of the straps of my backpack, sliding it off my shoulder. “I’d better change lenses, then. Where is it?”

The man’s wife grinned in understanding, her eyes mirroring the enthusiasm that must have been in my own, while the guy half-turned away from me and gestured up the narrow gravel path. “Up there about a hundred feet. On the left.”

I thanked them and nodded goodbye as they passed, then dug my telephoto out of my day pack, which was now hanging from the crook of my arm. I pushed my discarded lens into a thick sock to protect it, then gently rolled it into the bag.

Camera clutched in my hands tourist-style, I crept along the trail, alert for any movement, heart hammering in a rhythm that was half nervousness, half excitement. I passed several statuesque saguaro, then a cactus flower blooming a cheerful hot pink in the April sunshine, and made a mental note of both. I’d come back after I found the snake.

Only, there was no snake. I went my hundred feet, more, and…nothing. Disappointed at missing such an opportunity, I changed to my macro lens (for closeups) and strode back to the flower I’d seen. At least it had stayed put for me, posing prettily all the while.

Once on the trail again, I paused often for pictures. One such stop required a few illicit steps off the path, but the flowers were worth it. And just ten to fifteen feet further were more, clusters of huge lavender thistles and delicate cactus blossoms.

Already planning how best to photograph the flowers, I picked my way through the shrubs and rocks, then stopped short — three steps from a Western diamondback. It was coiled behind a paddle cactus, its tail hidden and silenced, its slitted eyes watching me warily.

Adrenaline washed through my paralyzed body in a cold tide. A cacophony of unprintable words screamed in my mind. Slowly, steadily, keeping one eye on the snake, I backed up, foot by careful foot.

Around a bend and out of sight I slid my pack off my shoulders, pulled it open with trembling fingers, and located my telephoto lens.

Pit viper or not, that snake was mine.

Excitement, fear, adrenaline — something had my hands quaking so violently I knew I’d never get a clear shot without help, so I yanked my tripod out next, opened it at top speed, and fastened my camera into place. I lowered the pack to the ground and swiveled back toward the bushes where the snake hid, then slunk forward, hoping that the rattler hadn’t fled, that I was not too late.

It hadn’t, and I wasn’t.

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Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
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