Snakes Don’t Scare Me… But a Freeway Might

I went hiking yesterday, which I do for exercise, even though I don’t always like it very much.

When you’re going on a long hike by yourself, sometimes your mind gets a little bored, and you forget to watch where you’re going, and you almost step on a snake. Anyway, that seems to happen to me a lot.

This time, it was a type of snake that I didn’t recognize (as in, it wasn’t similar to the snakes I’ve previously almost stepped on). I stopped to get a good look at it so I could check my snake field guide when I got home.

Then I remembered that you’re not supposed to stand in a snake’s striking range.

I moved back very quickly.

And kept peering at the snake. Turns out, it’s very difficult to determine whether a snake has elliptical or round pupils from several feet away. I wish they would make it easier to identify venomous snakes.

So I gave up on snake identification and kept hiking. I spent the next half mile contemplating the snake, which I’m absolutely certain must have been a venomous copperhead, despite the fact that I have no idea what one of those looks like.

Then it occurred to me that I should have been scared of the snake. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

I think I’m missing the scared gene. I always get myself into crazy situations and forget to be scared. Afterwards, I’ll look back and wonder what I was thinking.

People are generally scared of things that are beyond their control. That’s why we tend to be more scared of being in a plane crash than a car crash, even though the latter is far more likely. We feel like we have more control in a car, even if we aren’t the one driving.

But there is one time I felt truly scared while in a car, and it was because the situation left me with almost no control over the outcome.

About 11 years ago, I was driving to Chicago, where I lived at the time, from DC. It’s about a 12 hour drive on a good day, but I’d left fairly late, so at 10 p.m. I was still almost an hour east of Indianapolis, four hours from home.

I was cheerfully driving along on the freeway, and all of a sudden I blew a tire.

But that wasn’t a big deal, I knew how to change a tire. No problem. I pulled off the road — I couldn’t pull off very far because there was a deep ditch, but at least the problem tire was on the passenger side of the car, away from traffic.

I got the spare tire out out of the trunk, along with all the necessary tools and my flashlight. I turned on the flashlight, and… nothing. Of course the batteries were dead. Of course.

Did I mention I didn’t have a cell phone with me? My contract had expired a couple weeks earlier, and I didn’t want to renew another year because I was about to move to DC (and this was before you could go month-to-month or get an affordable disposable phone).

And thus the phoneless me was left standing on the side of the road on a moonless night with a worthless flashlight and a car that couldn’t move. I wasn’t stupid enough to attempt changing the tire without any light, because if I did the jack wrong, the car could have fallen and hurt me.

But it still seemed like everything would be okay. All I had to do was wait for another car to stop, and they could shine their headlights on my car so I could see to change the tire.

I got back in my car — it had started to rain by this point — and waited, confident that someone would see my blinking hazard lights and stop.

Time went by, and after an hour it occurred to me that perhaps nobody would stop. What if I was stuck there all night?

I couldn’t remember how far it had been since I passed the last exit — at least a couple miles, but possibly several, and I didn’t know how far until the next exit. The map didn’t help because I didn’t know exactly where I was. I couldn’t see building lights in any direction.

Walking an undetermined number of miles along a freeway with almost no shoulder at 11 p.m. didn’t seem like a great idea. I would need to stay in the car.

The only problem was that I couldn’t leave the hazard lights on indefinitely, because the car battery would run out and leave me with an even bigger problem.

I pulled my car as far off the road as possible, which meant the car was at about a 30 degree angle partway into the ditch, but I still wasn’t all that far from the traffic lane. And then I turned off the hazard lights.

This is the point at which I was actually scared. Semi trucks were whizzing by at speeds far greater than the posted 65 mph. By now it was absolutely pouring rain, and pitch black. Could they see me? Probably not very well, if at all, until they were right on top of me. All it would take was one semi or car being a few feet onto the shoulder.

But, as you can tell, it turned out okay. I eventually fell asleep in my car, and awoke when the sun came up around 6 a.m. The rain had stopped, and I quickly changed the tire and continued on my way.

I still can’t believe nobody stopped the entire night — don’t they have state highway patrol in Indiana? It could have been an abandoned car with a dead body in it or something, but apparently nobody cared.

It turned out I had been at least a few miles from an exit in either direction. I’m not sure if I made the best decision by staying in the car, but that was the last time I drove across the country alone without a cell phone.

There are only a few other times I can think of that I’ve been scared while something was happening, rather than afterward.

A good story for some other time is when I missed the last bus for the day after crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border, and had to spend the night in a weird “hotel” in CuauhtĂ©moc, Chiapas, with doors that didn’t lock and chickens wandering around everywhere. Oh, there is certainly more to that story, but at least there aren’t any moving vehicles in it.

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