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Snakes Alive! The Rattlesnake Derby is like a bass-fishing tournament, except you really don't want a bite

Photo: Dave Martin/AP

In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories in the magazine's history. Today's selection is "Snakes Alive!" by Jeff MacGregor, which ran in the July 27, 1998 issue.

You can taste the mean.

Even when it's battered and seasoned and deep-fried, every rubbery, molar-binding cheekload of barbed rib bones and fast-twitch-muscle meat resists, bites back. This is one oily, ornery little tenderloin. It's an angry flavor, metallic and full of resentment--like having a tiny jailhouse machine shop in your mouth.

Everybody tells you it tastes just like chicken. Maybe, but only if the chicken in question had a neck tattoo, took hostages and died in a police shootout.

Rattlesnake. The mutha white meat.

FRIDAY

WELCOME, SNAKEHUNTERS! A greeting you might reasonably expect to go your whole life without seeing, is papered all over town. The two-pump gas station/micromart, the motel and the drive-in burger 'n' shake stand all have signs up: COORS LIGHT @ $12.99/CASE FOR YOU SNAKEHUNTERS! and HOWDY! SNAKEHUNTERS! and GOOD LUCK, SNAKHUNTER'S! (sic), etc. There's a cockeyed sandwich board hand-lettered red-on-white in front of the barbecue shack too, and big banners draped across the streets, and billboards out along the highway.

The 33rd Annual Mangum Rattlesnake Derby, a celebration of local herpetological superabundance, western diamondback variety, is under way, and I am circling Mangum, Okla., looking for a place to park. I can't imagine it being much of a problem on any other Friday morning, what with Mangum being plenty small and, like a lot of five-stoplight towns in the rural Southwest, a little down at the boot heels lately. Downtown parking is probably the one thing Mangum has plenty of. Today, though, it's every moderately herpetophobic writer for himself. There's no parking anywhere because over the next three days Mangum (pop. 3,200) will entertain 10 times that number of visitors. Not counting the snakes. (Although we'll get around to that, too.)

Picture the Rattlesnake Derby as sort of a county fair grafted onto a giant flea market next to a carnival midway, all of it operating contemporaneous to and under the auspices of what amounts to a potentially deadly bass-fishing tournament. Like most American regional festivals (honoring cherry/apple/orange blossoms, crawdads or catfish, dairy or spuds, or Ole King Coal) this one attracts every mobile vendor in a five-state radius: 80-some-odd booths and motor caravans for corn dogs, funnel cakes, freshly squozen lemonade and various somethings that aren't corn dogs but are still fried up on a stick. More than two-score clattering rockabilly thrill rides and games of hand-eye coordination manned by ominously polite carny teens; many hundred wobbly card tables and flapping tarps necessary to house and market the native arts and crafts, solemn velvet portraiture, semismutty novelty T-shirts and discount bric-a-brac integral to such a day. Plus a full-sized circus-tented snake pit. At ground zero, across the corner from the ancient and eroding county courthouse, is the main stage, a canopied flatbed trailer, carpeted with AstroTurf, upon which the most important snaky doings will unfold. There is a snake-meat-only restaurant and butcher shop, too. This is an awfully big deal.

Before I left my motel this morning, the TV weatherkid on the station out of nearby Wichita Falls, Texas, said it was going to be a pure-D late April sizzler today and Saturday. Sunday's a crapshoot. The local forecast calls for potent spring thunderstorms by then, a serious threat here in southwestern Oklahoma, the business end of Tornado Alley. The prospect of this has my apple-cheeked weatherboy grinning in a happy panic. (None of these guys has been the same since Twister premiered.) Now I've got to tote sunscreen, rain gear and the tallest, thickest boots I own.

Rooms being impossible to get in Mangum proper during the festivities, I'm billeted two towns over from Snake Central, about 25 miles as the rental car flies. But the drive up is an easy one--feed-calendar pretty farm/ranch country, tall, stark cottonwoods, hawks above the alfalfa, etc.--and gives me plenty of time to nail down my itinerary for the next 72 hours. On the first page of my notebook I write, "Find out how." Next page, "Find out why."

I finally finesse a sweet parking space right behind the American Legion Hall, just yards from the flatbed stage. Even this early it's hot as a blacksmith's belt buckle. The media credentialing process is quick, though. I leave a note on the dashboard that reads SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESS CAR so maybe I won't get towed.

Trying to muscle my car door closed against the breeze, I realize that Rodgers and Hammerstein were mostly mum about the genuine Oklahoma wind. It surely does come right behind the rain, but it also precedes and accompanies it. It's the OK State mantra, a white-noise constant that blows grit up your skirt at 10 or 20 or 30 mph all day, every day.

Through that wind just now I hear the frantic, countertenor shouting that we he-men usually reserve for imminent forklift tip-overs or industrial-solvent accidents. The bottom, I see, has fallen out of a packing crate a couple of guys were unloading at the foot of the stage. I can't make out the words, but a few early gawkers nearby are now moving very purposefully away from the truck. Very purposefully. It takes a few seconds to register that the crate is, or rather was, full of live rattlesnakes. Now they're all over the street. Seventy or 80 of them. Snakes. One poor guy seems suspended in flight, pedaling midair for all he's worth like a cartoon half-wit. That would be me. The ensuing 30 seconds answer my first question re snake hunting, though. Under the word How on page 1 of my notebook, I write: "A) Find a snake; B) Pick it up fast with a stick." I'm sure there's more to it than this, but it's hard to write when you're leaning into a hard wind while standing on the hood of your car.

Let me take this moment, while the Derby organizers and city fathers try to talk me down, to explain how the competitive part of the weekend works. It's like a bass-fishing tournament in that there are cash awards for the hunters who bring in, alive, the longest snake and the most snakes and the most (ugh) pounds of snakes. These hunters are mostly semipro types who've been stalking the wily serpent daily since the Oklahoma snake season opened back in early March. That's the best time for 'em, I'm told, because, having just come out of hibernation, they're apt to be out on the rocks in front of the den, lying on their bellies, taking their ease in the warming sun (the snakes, not the hunters).

The best of the best hunters nab rattlesnakes by the hundredweight during these few weeks, box them up with a pan of water in the barn or the basement and then load 'em into their trunk and drive into town for the Derby. There are no time or geographic limits for snake-taking. A few of the most serious hunters, the real Ahabs, will range as far south as Mexico, where the longer "growing season" can produce blue-ribbon rattlers the size of NBA power forwards. There's also a tournament within the tournament: Weekend hunters, mostly tourists and day-trippers, compete for daily awards. (Consensus among the experts is that it'll be slim pickin's this weekend because it's hotter 'n refried hell out here, so the snakes might all be hiding in their dens. This strikes me as a very good thing, but I make a sad face anyhow when I receive the news.)

All of which begs question number 2: Why? A pocket poll of the crowd coaxing me off the hood of my rental car reveals little: Hale fellowship, good exercise, communion with the out-of-doors, thrill of the pursuit, fresh air, etc. Most of which can be had lawn bowling or quail hunting or shopping the sidewalk liquidation sale, but with a greatly reduced chance of being bitten comatose by a pit viper. A red-bearded bear of a man with a baby-sweet smile and hands the size of smoked hams pipes up with the first answer that makes real sense. Ernie Adams has been snake hunting around here off and on for more than 20 years. Why? "Cuz I don't like 'em in the house."

Funny as that is, it's also a tidy summation of the complex chain of links between local economies and ecosystems. When subsistence farmers started pulling out of here in the '30s (see Depression, the Great), the homes, barns, sheds and untended land they left behind provided a housing boom for the rodents upon which rattlesnakes feed. With fewer folks to keep either in check, both populations grew explosively. Furry Stuart Little in the pantry is one thing, but a poisonous snake in the cupboard is another, and by the early '60s Mangum residents saw an opportunity to formalize what they were already spending a lot of time doing freelance: hunting snakes to keep them from showing up in the feed bin or under the porch glider or in the kids' sandbox.

The just-dropped and jaywalking snakes have been corralled by now, rounded up by the hunters who brought them in and the staff of wranglers who man the stage all weekend for the weigh-ins and flashy/spooky snake-handling demos. Jes' a little hitch in the morning's gitalong, I'm assured as I step gingerly to the ground, but the phrase "I think we got 'em all" becomes a real knee-slapper for the next few hours.

In any case, it's time for me to go snake hunting with the governors' wives. (I told you this was a big deal.) We meet up at Mexicali's Restaurant on the main drag outside town. Over the devil's own platter of glowing, 500-rad quesadillas I'm introduced to Cathy Keating, first lady of Oklahoma, and Janet Huckabee, first lady of next-door neighbor Arkansas. Pleasantries and chunky green salsa are exchanged.

Cathy is a small, pretty brunette, sharp and funny, dressed in a Governor's Wife Casual Day outfit that includes just enough Chanel to remind you who you're out there snake hunting with. Janet is wearing jeans and a polo shirt ("It's what we used to wear when we did this back home") and has about her the gracious, good-humored hoot and holler of a gal-buddy you'd like to spend the day yakking with in a duck blind.

The two women are clearly old friends, cracking wise with each other at lunch, laughing it up while responding gaily to the many civilian heys and howdies. The only metaphorical clouds on the figurative horizon come from the bruisers on their security team, whose furrowed and darkling brows might be read as an absence of enthusiasm for the afternoon's snaky high jinks. Still, the bodyguards have guns with them, something I find profoundly reassuring.

On the way out the door to the snaking grounds, I ask Wesley Webb, Mangum's district chief for the Department of Wildlife Conservation and swami-guide for our group, if he has any last-minute tips on hunting snakes with the first spouses. "Just watch where you put your hands," he says. Excellent advice in any number of contexts.

A couple of miles out on the prairie, in a collapsed formation of chalk-soft rock known locally as gypsink (see gypsum, nicknames for), Wes uses a snake catcher (a tonging device similar to what the grocer uses in Manhattan to get cans of pricey coffee down off the highest antitheft shelf) to snare our first diamondback. He is a little shaver, maybe eighteen inches of hiss and vinegar. Still, the first ladies and I all jump when ol' Wes brandishes him comically at us from about 10 feet away. Janet and Cathy have the better vertical leap; having practiced, I have the superior hang time.

Genial adaptability being part of their job description, the F.L.'s are soon hunting happily away under close official supervision and a brutal afternoon sun. From a distance, snake hunting looks just like golf; people repeatedly poking at the grass with sticks, moving slowly across the landscape in a reverential quiet broken only by suggestions shouted from those nearby as to how one might poke at the grass more successfully. Not much appeal for spectators.

The western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) ranges throughout the desert and semiarid Southwestern U.S. It's a pit viper; pit referring to the nifty prey-targeting heat-seeker apparatus dimpled into its ugly mug just behind the nostrils. Deaf as a retired roadie (no ears), it can't hear its own rattle. It can grow to seven feet in length, attaining the diameter of a salad plate. That big, it'll have a head the size and shape of an antique flatiron, fangs like 10-gauge drapery hooks and a brain the size of a proton. Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded but not murderous, and they prefer the stealthy escape to the lethal confrontation--unless they're peckish and you're a hamster. Stand real still when you meet one and it'll slither off, thinking you're just a rock or at least a thing too large to eat. Of course, if you surprise one by stepping on it, sitting on it (heard this several times; still not over it) or putting your hands where they don't belong (i.e., under rocks, into holes...), you're likely to end up snakebit and off to the hospital, there to experience the complex multisymptomatic wonders of a venom that works at once as a neurotoxin, cytotoxin, hemorrhagic agent and digestive acid. Meaning you'll most likely suffer some pain, swelling, pain, pain, discoloration, pain, bleeding, pain, blistering, nausea, pain, light-headedness, pain and further, persistent acute pain. Statistically speaking, you probably won't die--you'll just want to.

I'm troweling on my sixth coat of sunblock when Cathy K. yelps a well-mannered scream from some nearby rocks. She and Janet have got one cornered. "Grab it right behind the first bend with the catcher," Wes offers. "You don't want to break its neck." The first ladies carefully obey and soon stand triumphant in the howling wind, a bigger-than-average rattler held squirming at twice arm's length. A beat passes. Two. Then Janet gives voice to the question on everyone's mind. "Now what?"

Exactly.

"What" turns out to be a trip back into Mangum with the catch of the day in a locked bucket, there to be weighed and measured for posterity. At 52 inches it is, in fact, Friday's longest snake. Things get extra weird when we all troop over to the butcher shop to learn what becomes of the rattlesnakes rounded up during the Derby. In a stifling garage of a room behind the vacant-storefront Bite-A-Snake restaurant, they've set up bleachers to face a stainless-steel counter behind which is a chopping block and a prefab fiberglass shower stall. Snakes are a cash crop hereabouts--meat (for eatin'), skin (for boots), rattles (for key chains), gallbladders (for amorous Asians), etc., all have their market price, and proceeds are plowed back into the community by the Derby organizers--and the reduction of rattlers to their salable parts is no more or less disturbing to most local viewers than the dismantling necessary to furnish you your osso buco or lemon-roasted chicken.

There's a strange Vegas-lounge-act, Shirley-Jackson-short-story vibe to the whole thing, though, especially when Robert Ray, the Butcher (sporting a tattoo indicating same), smiles and says "Showtime!" right before the ax comes down. The vivid gutting-the-snake-while-it-hangs-in-the-shower process takes on a Scream3 quality when the first ladies start pitching in. I make my exit when the headless, skinless, innardsless snake carcasses on the counter begin flopping and coiling and generally behaving as though nothing untoward has happened to them in the last 10 minutes. As I'm leaving, I hear the first lady of Arkansas behind me asking the Butcher a question. "Now what?" she says.

Exactly.

There's one more chore I have left to do before I can drag ass back to my motel. I head up the street, tired and sunburned but resigned to my sacred duty as a journalist. I take a table under a fluorescent fixture that buzzes like a tequila hangover, spread a napkin on my lap and, so you won't have to, I eat Southern-fried rattlesnake.

I spend the night dreaming I'm tangled in a closet full of venomous neckties.

SATURDAY

It is way hotter than yesterday. Whole families cower behind fat relatives just for the shade. You could fry a snake on the sidewalk, but it wouldn't taste any better. By noon the crowd is double what it was the day before--there are snake lovers and snake haters here, dudes and thimbleriggers and solid citizens, plowboys and cowboys, big boys and ol' boys (good and bad), biker boys with biker babes, blue-eyed stalwart sweethearts of the rodeo, wranglers and ranch hands and punks and convicts, even some high-mileage motor-coach couples down from Wisconsin. I'm told that somewhere out in the tall grass are first ladies from two of the 50 United States, hunting snakes with the governor of Oklahoma just for the fun of it.

Freud would have gotten a charge out of the knots of 14-year-old girls gathered bug-eyed around the snake pens in front of the main stage. Behind the doubled chicken wire, maybe 500 phallic symbols are rattling and hissing and starting to stink in the sun. "Eeeeeeuw" is the favored comment. The boys watch the girls watch the snakes.

The big news today is that Cody Easley got bit in the snake pit tent while I was out on safari with the first ladies. The premise of the pit is that you pay a buck to stand around a plexiglass pen about four feet high by 20 feet long by 15 feet wide to see what nearly a thousand rattlesnakes look like when piled two feet deep. There are men (Cody's one of them) who are paid to stand in there with the snakes and explain their habits and so forth while not fainting from the fear or the 120[degree] heat. Cody's dad, Rusty, a Richard Boone look-alike and professional snake handler who carries a picture in his wallet of his own "snakebit, swole-up-like-a-kid's-balloon hand" from a while back, tells me his son will be O.K. "He wanted to get out of snake handling about two hours into the pain," Rusty says. "But then this morning he told me he wants to come back. I wish he wouldn't. It's too dangerous." Having so said, Rusty heads back to work in the sweltering tent.

This afternoon, they crowned the 1998 Derby Princess (originally and more euphoniously known as Miss Fang). Her name is Jennifer Ward, a charming, A student high school senior. She receives a sash, a tiara, a plaque and a $400 scholarship to Western Oklahoma State College down in Altus.

Overheard Quotes of the Day: 1) "I can't get the venom off this lens." 2) "Women are attracted to the so-called manly arts. That's probably why I'm divorced right now." 3) "We've never lost anybody dead, far as I know." 4) "Why would I eat it? It's a snake." 5) "Is there a pet shop around here?"

Best Novelty Dessert Name That Would Also Work for the Middle Act at a Drag Club: Strawberry New Orleans.

No-Surprise File: The kids' petting zoo closed today. No takers.

Cody Easley is propped up in bed watching TV when I visit him. The doctors have had him on morphine since yesterday--this snake's venom wasn't very hot, very toxic; maybe a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The doctor told Cody he was lucky because the snake got only one fang into his leg, on the shin. It fanged Cody above the boot. His left leg is the size of a railroad tie. The blister on his shin looks like a plum, and his foot's the size and shape of a catcher's mitt. (When the snake bit him, he was in the middle of a television news interview.) "The pain was pretty incredible. It just throbs mostly now," he says, dreamylike. I ask Cody how he feels about going back to work. "It sure makes you think."

Exactly.

The Derby dance that evening in the livestock show barn on Mangum's tattered outskirts draws more than 900 paying two-steppers and boot scooters. None seem to mind the skull-liquefying acoustics of a band playing under a galvanized tin ceiling. Dancing happens and dripping cans of cold beer are passed from hand to hand. It's too loud to talk. Couples wander in and out of the light by the entrance, headed for the parking lot. Music pours out onto the empty prairie. The sky is black and soft as jeweler's velvet, the stars wheel slow in their course, and a warm wind confuses the grass. Nobody says a word about snakes.

SUNDAY

Rain squalls, a ransacking wind, and it's 40 degrees colder than it was 12 hours ago. By the time I get to Mangum some of the vendors are already striking their tents. The schedule for the day's events is being rejiggered, and not many visitors have shown up yet. The snakes in the pens out front of the main stage are listless in the cold, piled elaborately on top of one another. Imagine Medusa on prom night, and you'll see it.

Notes Made in the Rain: The snake has been a powerful, contrary presence in myth and history from the beginning of time, the good/evil ur-symbol of original sin or of infinite, skin-shedding reinvention and regeneration. We loathe its beauty and perfect efficiency yet can't make ourselves turn away. Still, the storied duality of the serpent in ancient mystery cults isn't something anybody in Mangum thinks about every day. Staying afloat in hard financial times is, however, and it's ironic that the much-reviled western diamondback rattlesnake is now an economic agent in the town's struggle to recover.

The environmental effects of the Derby are a topic of conflict too. Only lately was a study begun to determine its impact on the snake population. Argument runs hot on both sides; the enviros (or bunny huggers, in the local patois) say that too much pressure on the snakes will destroy an important link in the food chain, starving the eagles and hawks and owls that feed on them. Rats and mice will run rampant. Hunters and Derby boosters counter by positing snakes as a renewable long-term resource thanks to liability-conscious ranchers who have closed their land to hunting, thereby offering de facto protection and preservation. Lots of opinions, very few facts.

The day is low and gray, and the awards ceremony is sparsely attended. Everyone is tired and puffy from staying too long at the dance. It's something to see these guys stretch a snake to measure it, though. It takes the well-coordinated effort of seven very serious snake handlers to position each entry in a V-shaped, indexed trough and hold it long enough to shout out the dimensions. They do 10 triple-XL snakes this way looking for a winner, and their concentration exhausts you just watching. Nobody wants the bed next to Cody Easley's.

The Derby's longest snake is 78 inches, hauled in by John Townsend of Muldrow, Okla. Melvin Ishcomer, the Mark McGwire of snake hunting the past few seasons, wins for most snakes and most (ugh) pounds of snakes, 706 and 775, respectively. Melvin is from Eldorado, Okla., just down the road. It's something like his sixth year in Victory Lane. He wins $150 in prize money and will earn $3 a pound when the Derby buys his snakes to process. Interviewed, he uses the lazy-intense language of the sports star and sounds like John Elway post-Super Bowl. "You just have to get out there every day," he says, "and work at it." His advice to young snake hunters: "Whatever you do, don't get bit."

What I'm thinking while he talks: You drove here with 700 snakes in your car?

Photo op of the Day: Derby Princess Jennifer Ward has the Longest Snake of the Tournament draped over her shoulders like a stole for some pictures for the local paper. She doesn't get all that loot and attention for doing nothing, apparently. She stands very still. There are several snake handlers gripping Mr. Big as hard as they can so he doesn't move. Teeth are gritted into smiles, and veins bulge. The wind blows. Directly behind Princess Jennifer, crouched just out of the photo, is another snake handler with his hands at her hips. He's poised there to push her off the stage if the snake gets loose. She stands very still. Click. Click. Click. They take the pictures. The snake is taken off her shoulders and put it in a box. People shake hands and laugh and slap each other on the back. In the center of the stage, Jennifer Ward stands very still.

With the twilight gathering late Sunday afternoon, I get the Last, Best Answer to question number 2. It comes from Tony Patterson, 9 1/2-year-old veteran snake hunter, who is standing with his dad on the corner, watching the men dismantle the main stage in the rain. For some reason I'm very sad all of a sudden. Rain patters off my tape recorder. I ask Tony why he enjoys snake hunting. He looks down at the sidewalk. "I don't know," he says. He looks back up at me and narrows his eyes, thinking. "Because it's fun?"

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