Having lived in the "Big Country" now for five years, and having nothing better to do this past weekend, I thought it behooved my family and me to visit one of the local, annual attractions in a nearby town.
Sweetwater, TX. has been home of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup for longer than I can remember. I'm sure there is some history to be found on the internet but I'd rather not relive my experience. Suffice it to say, it is a big attraction- to locals and out-of-towners. In fact, while we were there I saw a few foreigners with large cameras ogling everything in sight.
Snakes don't bother me. But they do bother my bride- a lot! So I thought this might alleviate some of her fears. NO WAY...I assumed incorrectly. The Jaycees put on this event at the Nolan County Coliseum. Part of the event revolves around public education of reptiles in general, but especially the nemesis of Texas folk- diamondback rattlesnakes. Folks from miles around are paid $5/lb to bring in their snakes. They deposit them in a large, 5 foot high pit made of CDX plyboard and plexiglass. The plexiglass is to give the youngsters an upfront show of the snakes slithering around the floor. Usually there is a snake 'handler' in the pit with a short, alumimum stick not unlike those used to pick up trash on the highway. This stick, though, has a crook that comes to a blunt point on the tip. The crook is for picking up snakes and basically handling them from a distance so as not to get bit. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
We took off for Sweetwater around 10:45 AM. It was a Saturday and I figured a few folks would show up early and leave to go eat lunch which would keep any lines from being too long to get into the coliseum. (Mistake #1) When we arrived, there were cars parked for blocks and blocks long before we saw an entrance to the fair grounds. What we saw took my breath away. A massive horde of humanity all scrambling to get a good look at whatever was waiting inside that coliseum. Not only were there thousands of people, but there was a full blown carnival complete with rides (for all ages) and dozens of booths selling various carnival food and drink (Blech!).
After paying $2 to park on the grassy noll (at this point I was wishing there was a sniper to end my misery) we started walking towards the coliseum. With the mass of folks headed in a singular direction you would have thought that Claudius of Rome himself had been ressurected to resume the Games in of all places, Sweetwater, TX. !
We walked for about 750 yards, got to a chain link fence with two gates (with no signs to tell people where the main entrance was located), and proceeded to make our way into the commons area to see about getting inside. Everywhere are people walking, running, shuffling back and forth stuffing their faces with all kinds of food. Food wrapped in paper, food speared on large, overgrown toothpics, food in cups, food on paperplates. It was a nightmare for someone who doesn't like being in large, unknown crowds for an unknown event. (Mistake #2)It really unnerved me. I'm always checking people out when in public. It's something I've always done. Maybe its self preservation, maybe its reading too many stories about kids getting kidnapped in these venues, but my radar was up and humming and getting overwhelmed while trying to keep my family together.
Finally, we see something that resembles a kindergarten line-up at some entrance. We patiently wait another 15 minutes to edge closer to the front door. At this point we see a sign that says Adults pay $7/each, kids between 5-12 pay $4/each. (Mistake #3) The guy taking my money stands near a sign that says in large, block letters: "NO GUNS ALLOWED". Yet, he is standing there in the middle of this throng holding hundreds of dollars in cash, and a huge semi-automatic weapon on his belt complete with two spare magazines. No where on his person is there anything to identify this guy as a patrolman, sheriff, deputy, constable, policeman, security agent...nothing! No badge, no uniform, no name tag. Yet, he's allowed to stand there with a loaded weapon. (Now I'm wishing I had remembered to carry mine-Mistake #4)
$22 bucks later, we are headed inside.
We are literally shoulder-to-shoulder in this place the whole time we are inside. Their are dozens of vendors on the entry level concourse and there are dozens more down on the lower, center floor of the coliseum. 90% of the vending revolves around snake anatomy. Snake heads, snake skins, snakes placed in mason jars with alcohol, snake printed clothing, snake anatomy jewelry- rings, earrings, bracelets, hatbands - even walking canes made of dried, stuffed snakes shaped into a stick with a crook on one end. Anything someone can think of to use a piece of dead reptile for, someone here had it proudly on display - and for sale. One older gentleman had a full length, taxidermied rattlesnake in a long wooden display box tilted up on one end for everyone to see that it was about 6 feet 7 inches in length. Of course, it was for sale - for $500!
Wanting my kids to see a real, live rattlesnake we made our way to the huddled mass of people encircled around the plyboard pit filled with vipers. In the middle of the pit was a cowboy with his name printed proudly on his shirt pocket, his Jaycees chapter embroidered on the back, and a microphone stuck on his lapel so everyone within 500 yards could hear what he was saying about the Western Diamondback Rattler. The kids enjoyed it and I enjoyed hearing him give his nature talk and watching them 'milk' the rattlers over a large collection jar half-filled with venom. You see, one of the reasons for this gathering is to collect fresh snake venom to be used for anti-venom for those unfortunate enough to get bit. The guy would mash the snake's head on the demonstration table with his aluminum stick and get his thumb and forefinger behind the head. Then he would lift the snake over the jar, and squeeze the head hard enough to pop the jaws open and place the upper plate (with exposed fangs) over the lip of the glass. The minute the fangs came in contact with the jar, a yellowish fluid quickly exited and slid down the face of the jarlip. Some of these snakes emptied about 2 teaspoons of venom at once! It was pretty impressive and gave me proper respect for these critters.
We stayed around the pit for around 15 minutes and the kids decided to look around the tables. Since all the stuff was snake related they were interested- until they saw the prices. You see, they had brought their own money in hopes of picking up a souvenir or two. Well, when a $2 Wal-mart T-shirt goes for $15-$18 you can guess what happened. No money was ever produced and no merchandise left with us to return home. (Thankfully!)
I looked at my spouse, the throng of people crushing around us, then at my kids and asked that fateful question: 'What now?"
In unison, I hear "Let's get out of here." Not that anyone was scared, but we had all come to the conclusion that this was all there was to see and experience. Not wanting to ask again, for fear of a differing opinion we made our way slowly to the stairs and exited the coliseum. By this time it's that part of the day when we eat lunch. We see nothing appetizing nor under $7 so opted to leave the grounds, go into town and see about lunch elsewhere. So we hike the 1,000 yards (or was it 5,000?) back to the car and we are now experiencing the migration of the Alaskan Salmon...we are swimming upstream among an even larger crowd hurrying to get to the snake pits, snake charmers, and snake hawking vendors....
Whew! I'm glad it's over, I'm sorry I wasted $24 plus gasoline but I can finally say we've been to Sweetwater to see 'them snakes'! Been a long time since I was scammed so efficiently and effortlessly...