As I rip around the berm, leaning in to my left, I see it, the epitome of my deepest fears. Did it see me? I know I saw it. I shout out to Crafty behind me, “Rattlesnake!!” His brakes squeal. Profanities litter the air. I hear his body slam into the dusty earth, followed by that blood curdling scream. This is going to be bad, I think to myself…
It was a crisp January day in Flagler Beach, Florida, the home of Graham Swamp. Contrary to its boggy name, Graham Swamp trail is the remains of an old quarry and provides a taste of elevation in an otherwise flat topography. As many Florida riders will tell you, it’s one of the toughest 7 miles you can ride in the state. Flowy singletrack highlighted by breathtaking drops and punchy climbs, Graham is one of my favorite trails, and I visit it as frequently as I can. My best friend Craft had just returned from a month-long stay in an Orlando rehab center, sobering up from a recent bender that nearly cost him his marriage and worse yet, his life. But that’s another story entirely. Craft had never been to The Swamp and I had been talking it up for months; finally I convinced him to make the trip with me. We grabbed my buddy Sam, a St. Louis rider still getting his legs back after years away from the woods, and made the hour-plus ride from my home in Neptune Beach for a day of cold beer, epic riding, and camaraderie.
My 35th birthday had just come and gone, and it brought with it a magnificent 1×11 upgrade to my hardtail Giant. I was eager to test out my new climbing machine and show off the new shine to my bros. We pulled into the trailhead around 9am and already saw a few trucks in the parking lot. “Sweet,” I proclaimed. “They already cleared the spider webs!” We were all bubbling over with the excitement and anticipation that hits you before a ride. If only one could bottle that feeling, I’d need a trip to Orlando!
After several tall coffees, we all were eager to find a nearby tree and empty our reservoirs. As I observe Craft recklessly trample into the woods towards the nearest pine, I caution him to watch out for snakes. He laughed it off. “Seriously dude. They will coil up in the sun on cold days like this, watch your step.” I really don’t think he listened to a word I said. He heard me, but whether he listened was debatable at best.
I’ve been terrified of snakes since I was a young boy. My father, who was also terrified by the scaly reptiles, instilled a “healthy” fear of the creatures in me, early in life. When we moved from Maine, where you will occasionally have a run in with a harmless garden snake, to Florida, it was a topic of high contention. Cottonmouths, pigmy rattlers, diamondbacks, coral snakes, and copperheads all live in Florida. And as a 16-year-old boy at the time of the big move, I had visions of Indiana Jones and dark cavities full of deadly pit vipers. As of the time of this writing I’ve been a Floridian for 21 years and still carry that same heart-beat-skipping panic that I did the day I arrived at the thought alone, let alone an actual confrontation, with a demon serpent.
We hit a few of the warm up jumps on the pumptrack next to the entrance of the trail to get our fast twitch muscle fibers lose and ready to fire. Feeling hydrated and exuberant, I lead our group into the weaving singletrack. We clear the first climb and are treated to a clear descent, free of any rocks or roots, with a kicker at the bottom. I glide down the hill, my rear hub singing out in the early morning silence of the surrounding forest, and I explode over the jump and into the air. Time slows down. The hub becomes white noise. My endorphins are pumping at full capacity and the rush of joy that riding brings flushes over me like a hot shower. I stick the landing and give out the obligatory “Yew!” and hear the same familiar cry of stoke ring out behind me as my friends get their first taste of The Swamp. “We are here,” I think, “living in the now.” The stresses of work and family are nowhere to be found, it’s just the simplicity of a man and his bike and a few of his best mates to share in the experience.
We had cleared half of the trail when we pulled off at the top of a challenging uphill section to catch our breath and wet our parched throats. The stoke is high, fist bumps are flying, and the memory of the day has already been branded into each of us. After a few intoxicating gulps of brisk, salty air, we were back in the saddle and humming along through the woods once again. I’m leading the pack and pushing myself and my newly upgraded sled to the max. I’m hitting jumps faster than normal. I’m taking risks I don’t usually take. I’m feeling amazing! I go tearing around a tall left handed berm when I nearly collapse. My muscles seize up and my jaw clenches, my teeth grinding together like 80 grit sandpaper. My knuckles go white and my dry lips go numb. My eyes water up and my knees tremble. There is a snake in the trail; a big snake. I clearly startled the monster as it rapidly starts to sidewind and slither, and over the chattering of my teeth I hear the distinct rattle that a baby’s toy makes when violently shaken. It’s a diamondback rattlesnake and its bite is not only extremely painful, but deadly. I’m terrified and paralyzed as a result. I roll out of the berm, past the snake, and right off the trail into heavy brush when my instincts come back to me, and I shout out a warning to my brethren. I careened into a tree and didn’t even feel the impact.
Crafty was riding a few dozen yards behind me and, just as before, “heard” me but didn’t listen. In his own account, he saw the snake, jammed on both brakes, jackknifed the front wheel, and took a ride over the bars. He landed on his face in the dirt, not having enough time to react and get his hands up, and laid there about 10 feet away from the now agitated rattler. He did what any grown man would have done at that point and screamed like a teenage girl in the front row at a pop concert.
Sam, God bless his cramping quadriceps, was pulling up the rear and tore around the berm only to see Craft laid out belly down in the dirt. He didn’t realize what was going on and rolled right past Craft, laughing in jest at his misfortune, and nearly rolled right over the snake. It was enough to startle the beast, and the serpent quickly took off into the heavy palmettos that lined the trail.
Craft jumped up, dusted himself off, and began to weave a tale to defend his estrogenic cries. I tip toed back towards the site, still shaken and diligently studying the ground before I took each step. Sam was completely oblivious. “What the hell is wrong with you two?!” he demanded. Unbeknownst to poor Sam, he had slayed the dragon.
We will always remember that ride. But not for sending big airs and not for the lightning speed we took around each turn. Not for the plunges down treacherous drops or the technical climbs around boulders and massive roots. Not for the silky-smooth shifting on the new 1×11 and not for the debilitating cramps in Sam’s upper legs. But for a reason we will all laugh about when we’re weathered and gray, long after we’ve traded in our full suspension for comfort bikes with plush, oversized spring seats.
It was a most epic Day in the Swamp.
This essay was a runner up entry in the #TrailTales contest.