During four years of college in Decorah, Iowa, I got to know the landscape pretty well. It helped to be enrolled in a field biology class, where we explored native prairies, caught frogs in cold freshwater springs, did duck surveys at Cardinal marsh, and performed taxidermy on all sorts of found creatures brought to the lab by helpful locals. I learned how to stuff pheasants, great-horned owls, voles and chickadees, and many other species. We’d peel them all the way back to the eyelids, then sew them back together again.
One day I ran out of time to finish up stuffing a squirrel as a museum specimen. I asked some biology buddies to complete the job, then raced off to work the noon shift at the dish room. My job that day was taking glasses off the trays at the head of the line. Suddenly I heard laughter outside the drop zone, and looked up to see a small plate bearing head of a squirrel outlined with a lettuce garnish. In its big teeth was a bright orange carrot. The plate rolled along like balloon in a Thanksgiving Day parade, causing the girl next to me squeal and faint. I calmly plucked the squirrel head from the tray and heard my biology buddies roaring in laughter outside the dishroom. They got me good.
Yes, going to Luther College was an organic experience on many levels. Our daily training runs took us far out into farm country. Some of the homesteads were neat and well-kept. Others seemed ready to collapse into the dirt. We ran past muddy yards rife with pigs and cattle, sheep and chickens. Outside the pens, the dank pastures on rocky hillsides bore livestock paths between the black cedars and white birches marking the rugged limestone hills. Steep limestone chimney bluffs stood like sentries overlooking the valleys. Through it all ran the Upper Iowa river, a national wild and scenic waterway. This was the Driftless Region, a section of landscape that escaped glaciers during the Ice Age ten thousand years ago. There were petroglyphs carved into rock by native populations eons ago, and the rocks themselves were deposited by ancient inland seass. Every run was an epic journey through time.
Among those hills was a never-ending array of wildlife to find. Even in town and on campus, I’d spot Cooper’s hawks, screech owls, wild turkeys, and sometimes even a bald eagle flying overhead. Our national symbol was extremely rare back in the mid-70s. Yet in recent years, the “Decorah Eagles” became Internet stars.
While the wildlife was always interesting, sometimes it was the local human population that was the most interesting to study. Decorah has long stood as a liberal enclave in a largely conservative landscape of conservative farmers. Both these factions contribute to an odd reputation. During our years in college, that little town had the largest number of bars per capita in the entire state. If I recall correctly, it ranked right up there in total alcohol consumption as well.
I sat in a downtown Decorah bar with friends one night watching a man dressed in an all-white cowboy outfit drink until he literally lurched off the barstool and fell to the floor. That brings me to the story of Snake Eyes, the bloodthirsty killer I met while running during the last two weeks of college at Luther.
One of our go-to running routes in Decorah was a pleasant six-mile loop leading from the campus south past Pulpit Rock, through the Decorah campground to a bluffside road under Phelps Park, across town to a bridge over the Upper Iowa, and back to campus past the Ice Cave geological feature. We ran that route at least once a week for all four years at Luther.
During one run on that route with my teammate Paul Mullen, we moved to the edge of the road to avoid an oncoming car and he popped into the air just like he was hurdling a steeplechase barrier. “What the…?” I asked. He turned around and pointed. There, basking in the dust, was a small snake. I looked closer and identified it as a Massassauga rattlesnake. “Good jump,” I told him. “Those are poisonous.”
On a similar warm spring day I was running Under Phelps-Ice Cave alone thanks to class schedule delay that kept me from making the regular workout time. Fit and fast near the end of the track season, I clipped through town and was climbing the hill leading to Ice Cave when a man in an all-white cowboy getup jumped out from behind a tree. He stopped out in the middle of the road and with both hands gesticulating, pointed toward a big tree, and yelled: “Do you wanna see mah snakes?”
That’s when I noticed a streaked spatter of bright red blood covering the front of his pure-white cowboy shirt. My instincts told me to make a right fake and sprint past him to get away. But he jumped both ways as if to block me. So I figured, “Let’s see what this joker is all about…”
Keeping watch from the corner of my eye in case he tried to stab me with something, I walked over to see what he wanted to show me. Plus, I always liked snakes, so I wanted to see what he’d found. Then came the shock. Nailed to the tree was a ring of snakes. There were several different species including a canebrake rattler, a bull snake, a garter snake and a fox snake.
I couldn’t think of much to say other than “Why?”
“I killed ’em mah-self,” he told me.
“I see that,” then I repeated, “Why?”
He stood staring at me for a moment, so I got spooked and turned to leave. Then he jumped back in front of me, so I did my best football fake and darted around him and went running back to campus. Glancing back, I saw him standing alone in the road, looking forlon, as if I’d abandoned him in some moment of need.
He really didn’t seem to understand the nature of my question, “Why?”
I recall that he had Snake Eyes. Two beady dots of black that looked locked into place. Perhaps he was high. Maybe mentally ill. In any case, I was impressed by his ability to find and kill snakes. That’s not an easy task. But to some these days, it has become a profession.
That fellow could probably find work and be happy down in Florida these days where thanks to the release of Burmese pythons into the wild, there is now a dangerously expanding population of those snakes killing local wildlife. That species of python grows larger than fifteen feet, and are definitely hard to catch in boggy conditions. They can bite and coil around anyone that tries to catch them.
A recent news story documented the problem: “It’s official. An invasive Burmese python captured in the Everglades over the weekend has broken the state record measuring 18.9 feet long. The previous record was 18.8 feet long. Ryan Ausburn, a contracted python hunter with the South Florida Water Management District, and Kevin “Snakeaholic” Pavlidis, a contracted python hunter with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, captured the monster-sized python Oct. 2 along the L-28 Tieback Canal about 35 miles west of Miami.”
No one believed me
There were no such problems in Decorah back when I encountered Snake Eyes. When I got back to campus that day, I told the story to my teammates, who laughed at me and said, “Sure, Cud.” So I told them, “Come on, let’s run back out and I’ll show you.”
It was nearly two miles out to the site. We arrived at the big tree where Snakes Eyes had nailed his prey and they were all gone. Nothing remained but the blood marks where the snakes were nailed to the tree. No one really believed my tale of the encounter with Snake Eyes.
But I know what I saw that day.
Or at least, I think I do. Some events are so strange they defy our notions of reality. I’ve told that story dozens of times over the years, because I’m always curious how people will react. It is often hard to tell what people really think about it. Sometimes it feels like people are judging my mental health and social propriety for relating such a weird saga. But I’m a weird thinker anyway, and I’m used to being judged for thinking differently. My experience tells me that many people would rather live a life of quiet denial than deal with the odd realities of society where the madness of human society and wilderness converge.
In fifty years of running, that where I’ve often roamed. It’s hard to explain to some people why runner or other endurance athletes want to go to places where others choose not to go. We push ourselves until all that’s left is a set of Snake Eyes from the fatigue. That’s how we get a glimpse of the twisted nature of our own internal dialogue.
I couldn’t help myself the day I met the blood-smeared guy in the cowboy shirt that day. I should have run away, but I rolled the dice and it came up Snake Eyes.