I’m a sucker for a spiritual experience. Be it as simple and humble as Sunday communion or as logistically challenging as a day trip to D.C. to see the Dalai Lama speak, I enjoy the quest for the higher purpose. That’s what led me to the Enota Camp in North Georgia on July 10th, where they offer the opportunity to experience a Native American sweat lodge, probably the most well known ritual of the Native American people. It was something I’d had on my “Life List”, and I’d heard what a transformative experience it could be. Well, it was. Not in the manner I’d expected, but transformational, nonetheless.
Lakota, a serene Native American elder, was our sweat lodge leader. She took our group of five to build the sweat lodge Friday night. The frame of the lodge was already built, but the lodge needed to be shelled by a collection of blankets and tarps that were kept in a little plastic storage shed, the kind you use to store garden tools and such.
As the blankets were being handed out, I was given a quilt that was frayed around the corners, and seemed to be…moving. It was actually vibrating and, even if it were an electric blanket, there wasn’t an outlet within a quarter of a mile. This should’ve been my first cosmic sign that I was headed for a Wild Kingdom weekend. About a dozen bees emerged from the blanket and began stinging us. I took a couple on the arm. We dropped the blanket and covered it with a larger one so the bees would stay put and the staff could deal with them later.
Next came the tarps. This is where my luck shifted mightily. Perhaps the 2 ½ foot copperhead snake was snoozing in one of the tarps I picked up, or maybe he had wandered over while we were in the middle of our bee dance. Whatever the case, I had unknowingly gotten too close to the very reptile that is aligned with a motto as bold as “Don’t Tread On Me”.
I felt a sharp, piercing pain in the top of my left foot (yes, I was wearing flip-flops, but before you call me a granola munching moron, I have since learned that a snake can bite through most any form of footwear). I have nothing to compare the pain to – it was definitely the most intense pain I have ever felt, and figure it is likely akin to being stabbed with a knife – at least on impact. The kicker is the venom. That initial pulsing of the venom is pretty brutal. I’d like to think that John Wayne might’ve at least winced.
I kicked off my shoe, and saw, just to my right, a coiled up copperhead. I’d love to tell you I said something very Sean Connery-esque, but the fact is, I think my response was “Oh my God, it’s a snake! I was bitten by a snake!” Not Pulitzer winning dialogue, to be sure. My tongue went numb for a few seconds, so for a moment, everyone just stared at me as I hopped and drooled in hope of some aid.
I was helped over to a gathering of stones, where my foot was elevated while Lakota went to kill the snake. I later learned that the elevating of my foot actually helped the venom race toward my heart more rapidly, but truly, I was open to suggestions. If someone had told me to sing Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” backwards to reverse the venom, I’d have done it, mandolin solo and all.
Next, and don’t ask me how, Lakota quickly decapitated the snake with a hatchet. Then, for some reason I’ll never understand, the snake was brought over to me and placed on the ground right beside me! The detached head was still moving. For a brief moment, I’m pretty certain I levitated. I’d seen this sort of thing on “Law and Order” before, where they make the perp face its victim, but not usually as the victim was still writhing from the crime. Also, I figured that moving head could still bite, and I’d had my fill of venom.
There was a little girl there – think the lead in “Little Miss Sunshine” – who began to cry and plead, “Please don’t die! Please don’t die!” I was hoping for a slightly more positive mantra to see me through. Lakota came over, held my hand and said, “Don’t be afraid. Stay calm.” That helped. Somehow, I was staying calmer than I imagined I ever would under such circumstances. She sang a line or two of a Native American hymn over me. This is when I assumed my fate was sealed. Fear and calm seemed nestled side by side in my heart. I wasn’t sure if this was a tribal version of Last Rites or a healing ritual.
“What’s going through your mind right now?” Lakota asked.
I said, “I want to know what this means.” Perhaps I worded this request poorly, because what I meant was “AM I GOING TO FREAKING DIE????” but she opted for the metaphysical response, saying “Snakes represent transformation. This is your transformation.”
All of you know I’m a pretty metaphysical cat: a spiritual martini of Christianity, Zen, and Emersonian existentialism. But I wasn’t really looking for a sacred metaphor at that juncture. I just wanted to see my wife and kids again. But the term ‘transformation’ had me pretty confident that, in terms of shelf life, my ride was here.
Luckily, my ride was there –not the eschatological one, but an actual lift to the hospital. They loaded me into a wheelbarrow – yes, a wheelbarrow – and raced me across a foot bridge, then hefted me into the front seat of a van. Two Enota employees, whose combined ages probably equaled mine, got me to there in one piece. I am pleased to say that I’ve discovered my true survival instinct, as I did nothing but make jokes the entire way to the hospital. It’s reassuring to know that, when I thought I was facing mortality, I opted to smirk into the abyss.
From here, I’ll just hit some surreal hospital high points:
*The snake was brought, in a Target bag, to the hospital with me, where he was placed on a table in the ER no more than ten feet away from me. Why I had to continue to be roommates with a guy who tried to give me the eternal eviction notice that same night is beyond me. They needed to ID him as a copperhead to insure I got the proper anti-venom, but after that, I really felt he’d overstayed his welcome. I later learned the Hiawassee hospital staff used the beheaded snake to play practical jokes on one another the rest of the weekend. Truly, that place was like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” with a laugh track.
*The staff at the small mountain hospital was very assuring, though none of them had ever treated a snake bite before, which was troubling. I had visions of them checking Wikipedia to see what course of action to take.
*They opted not to treat me with anti-venom that first night, as the CDC told them that copperhead bites are rarely lethal and sometimes an allergic reaction to the anti-venom is worse than the bite itself. So, I went about 16 hours without anti-venom, and as the swelling began to creep up my leg, they realized they’d better rethink things. They readily admitted that they ‘waited too late’, and now the pendulum began to swing back from feeling like I was going to be “good as new” to wondering if, come next July 4th, I’d be running the Peachtree in the wheelchair division.
*The local pharmacist brought over three vials of anti-venom on Saturday. He was the only one who had treated a snake bite before. He was right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel – few words, and none of them cheerful. He told me I’d likely lose my foot, definitely a toe or two. He talked about how the foot turns black, withers, and dies, and how I should’ve been treated hours before. Then he shook my hand, wished me the best, and left. I never knew whether to believe him or not – he wasn’t a doctor, but he was the only one who’d dealt with a snake bite before, so this was where faith and hope really came in. Faith and hope in God, my body’s ability to do battle, in the doctors, and in the notion that this pharmacist might be a ‘glass half empty’ kind of guy who told people with sniffles that they had the swine flu.
*I received one dose of anti-venom in Hiawassee. They called it ‘horse serum’, which really made me wonder if it was going to be administered by Doc Baker from “Little House on the Prairie”. After my initial dosage, I was transported to Northside, where I got three more rounds of anti-venom. Northside gave me Cofab, which is a drug I understand is made from the blood of sheep that have been bitten by copperheads. That I now have sheep and snake inside me makes me think I’ve achieved true yin-yang, for what that’s worth.
*Northside doctors assured me that if my foot were in real peril, then infection, compartment syndrome, or tissue death would’ve taken place by the time they’d admitted me that afternoon. None of those things had seemingly occurred, and the outlook became much more optimistic. Nerve damage is still a possibility, but a full recovery is presumed.
*Since I’ve been home, I’ve been told that ‘full recovery’ could take days, weeks, or months, and that rebounding from a snake bite is as unique as, say, childbirth. Everyone’s is different, and everyone wants to tell you about their experience. Seriously, for a guy who never wants to see another snake, I’ve heard more reptilian tales of peril since I’ve been home than the programming folks at Animal Planet.
*In many cultures, snakes represent transformation and rebirth. Certainly, this incident was a bookmark in the book of my life. Beyond that, I don’t know what it means. I am pretty sure it has something to do with my motto, which I stole from Warren Zevon long before this happened: Enjoy Every Sandwich. Life is very uncertain. Every day’s a blessing, even when it seems like just another cloudy, crappy Monday. I’m sure I’ll forget that a million times more, but this little cosmic reminder has at least given me cause to pause, to be grateful, and to get a better perspective on what matters, and how so many little daily landmines don’t…matter, that is. Not in the least.
*The two greatest ironies in this experience are as follows: 1) I am not an outdoorsman. You could name fifty friends of mine who would seem more likely candidates for coming across a venomous snake. I think this is why no one could believe it at first. It’s akin to hearing Chuck Norris died in a bizarre baking incident. 2) Wendy’s greatest fear is snakes. She can’t look at them on TV or in books, she doesn’t even like the word. The hospital could’ve told her I’d been in a car wreck, fallen down a mountain, or was probed by very thorough aliens and she would’ve taken it better than the news that my flesh had made contact with snake fangs. I’m proud of how she held it together, but can’t believe I was felled by her greatest phobia.
What Have I Learned?
*Next time I go out in the wild, I promise not to do so in near-bare feet. I’m thinking of buying a pair of steel-toed boots like Joe Strummer from The Clash wore, actually.
*I promise if I ever unroll tarps and blankets in the woods again, I’ll use the kind of caution Jack Bauer takes when diffusing a bomb.
*I have the best friends a guy could ever hope for, and your love, prayers, and positive thoughts made a HUGE difference, especially when I was still in Hiawassee, away from my family and home. I can’t thank you enough.
*When it comes to ‘transformative experiences’, sweat lodges have nothing on snake bites.