Snake (rattle) and gold

In central Idaho, James Draven hikes snaking trails under wide blue skies in Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.

Above, blue skies yawn as wide as a viper’s maw. Ahead, a serpentine trail leads up into mountainous grasslands. A few miles outside the town of Challis in central Idaho, I’m planning to hike to the Wild West ghost towns within Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.

My map is overlaid with a tangle of snaking lines: supposed routes through the property, but none of them correspond with the scant signposting nor the pathways that surround me. One information board warns hikers, in sun-bleached lettering and pallid pictogram, to be mindful of rattlesnakes.

Idaho is an active traveller’s nirvana. From the USA’s largest contiguous wilderness outside of Alaska – the 2.367 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return – to the lush evergreen forest trails of Harriman State Park, the hikes through the Sawtooth Mountains, and the lunar landscapes of Craters of the Moon, you could walk, bike or hike a trail every day for nearly four years before running out of track. I’ve seen these warning signs countless times on my travels, but I’ve never seen a rattlesnake.

There are, however, no placards indicating how I might find the gold-mining ghost towns of Custer, Bonanza, and Bayhorse, which sprang up in the 1860s and ‘70s, when gold and silver were found. They were abandoned in the 1910s, once their veins were bled dry. They must be nearby: the visitor centre is still within view. 

Since the rattlesnake trail before me disappears into the grass-bearded clefts of the Snake River Mountains’ foothills, I decide — with only a little trepidation — to press on through this sweltering October day and see what these peaks may conceal.

A few feet later, I start at a rattling sound — as close as one might expect to hear on the terraces at a 1970s football match. I backpedal, adding to the din by scattering rocks and gravel.

Scouring the ground around me I see nothing, but then I hear it again. I spin around but only see a brobdingnagian grasshopper crash-landing into a thicket. I take a few steps forward along the track and the air fills with a sound like tiny aircraft propellers. Scores of grasshoppers take flight — punch-drunk pilots, clattering around like diminutive dogfighters, rattling miniature machine guns.

I’m glad nobody was there to witness my fright. Even mere minutes from the visitor centre, I’m alone; the dusty trail embossed solely with my trainers’ treads. As the first person to walk this trail in at least a day, I must have startled the insects, so they respond with this clacking warning: a sound they make by snapping their wings shut — a defence mechanism designed to scare predators as they escape.

Heading into territories untrodden, the sound accompanies every step of my hike, masking the potential warning rattles of a viper. It’s all I hear as I trudge uphill. It echoes through lush valleys and clay-coloured canyons so dry that I drain my water bottle before the halfway point of my walk.

Three-and-a-half miles later I reach the nearest peak. Leaving the trail to wade through waist-high grasses to a vantage point, the sound drowns out the zephyrs that ripple through the prairie. As I look out towards the gleaming incisors of the distant Sawtooth Mountains, I see no signs of civilisation, past or present. The afternoon sun makes the grasses radiate an amber warmth and cloaks the valley below in shadow. I’ll find no ghost towns in the gloaming.

I consider staying here until darkness falls. With no signs of human life for miles around, the night sky here is a heavenly spectacle. At 83,569 square miles in size and with a population of just 1.9 million, Idaho has little light pollution, making it home to America’s first gold-tier dark sky reserve. Up here, shielded by mountain ranges, with my face pressed directly against the ether, I’ll see the pearlescent spill of the Milky Way, the needle-pricked constellation of Serpens, and the sinuous tail of Hydra.

I shake my metal water bottle and hear only the faintest of rattling responses: a warning that just a few drops remain. My brow is wet and my mouth is dry: it is time to go. It’s all downhill from here, so I don’t worry too much about my lack of hydration at first, but the rocks still radiate the day’s heat, and the steep trail is tough on muscles. 

As my thirst increases, I take shortcuts, bare ankles disappearing into scrub. I’m not watching my footing while I admire the views, and a few times I slide on the loose track. In a bid to remain upright, I run down particularly slippery inclines, sprinting a slalom to the pervasive applause of hundreds of grasshoppers’ wings.

At the bottom of such a slope, in the path of my very next step, lies a prairie rattlesnake. I freeze, with one foot extended in mid-air. The snake is silent; its rattle, still. I back away, never taking my eyes off the snake’s triangular head. Dark blotches run along its light-brown body. I’m deaf to the grasshoppers and my thumping heartbeat.

There’s no way around it. To the right of the path, the hillside rises steeply; to the left, it drops sharply away. The rattlesnake blocks my only route back, and it moves not one of its 10,000+ muscles. 

Rattlesnakes play a crucial role in Idaho’s ecosystem: controlling rodent populations, allowing vegetation and other wildlife to thrive, and maintaining balance in the food chain. It’s for these reasons that I intentionally miss: the first stone I cast thumps into the ground a good foot away from the snake. It doesn’t budge. 

Rattlers are the fastest striking among venomous snakes: to sink a bite, they can launch five feet in half a second — the blink of an eye. Humans are not a rattlesnake’s prey, however, and they are not generally aggressive towards people. They rarely attack unless provoked, so there are only around a dozen snake bites in Idaho each year, and not all of those are necessarily from rattlesnakes. 

Only around 75% of rattlesnake bites actually contain venom, and even those are rarely fatal to humans as long as they receive medical treatment. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, no Idahoans have died of a venomous snakebite in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to give it cause to attack. I do have to get off this mountain though, so I grab a handful of stones and rain them down on the dirt next to the snake’s head. The last few projectiles thud so close that its face is dusted with powder-dry soil. I expect it to rattle its tail, to hiss, to coil up into its signature defensive pose or, preferably, to slink away into the undergrowth — but it doesn’t move. It lays flat across the track. The snake must be dead.

I decide to take a run up and leap over it. I psyche myself up and begin my sprint for the long jump, but as my first few steps thunder against the earth, the snake springs to life and slithers away, vanishing silently into long grasses, which glow gold in crepuscular rays.

The ghost towns, it transpires, are just a short drive away: off the highway at Sunbeam, along a nine-mile gravel track. I pass a 988-ton gold dredge, which once sifted a million dollars in precious metals from the ground, and visit the partially-restored Empire Saloon, boarded up and dry of either water or whiskey. Parched but not poisoned, I visit Custer’s desiccated wooden cemetery at sunset, where I’m glad I’ll not be staying.