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We were originally going to Asheville, but got a phone call that the pumpkin carving had been moved to today.

L, my girlfriend, and I deliberated, before changing the destination in the GPS. It took us in a back way, with an absolutely beautiful drive.

Got to see more of the Upstate than usual – passed through Pumpkintown, Table Rock, and others hamlets before getting to Walhalla, and continuing on to Mountain Rest.

We stopped at the most unusual business on the way up, Oconee Reptiles. The Snake Man. L had told me about him before: people take snakes they catch there, and he releases them, keeps them, whatever. He also does regular education-type things, with field trips coming in and teaching loggers about snakes.

Pulled up to the front – he’s not very far off the right-of-way. A young teen was in the door – probably about 15. The beige cinder block storefront had a piece of printer paper, printed on it were the words: “Educational Tours, $3 per person” I had no cash, L paid. The “Snake Man” himself took her money. He was shorter than me, 5’ 6” or 8,” and starting to get on in years. He looked a lot older than I’m sure he was, because of the very large, very thick bifocals he wore, as well as his very long, full white beard. He wore a short sleeve plaid shirt and some twill workpants. He was heavy set, and walked with a slight hunch. His hairline had receded, but there was proof of a once-dark mane on him.

Entering the snake man’s lair, I was transported. Step up to the bare concrete floor, and enter to the slightly musty realm of reptiles. The entire back wall – 30’, probably, was lined with terrariums, each holding at least one snake. Most cases had an understated red “Poisonous” sticker, the kind you see on lab chemicals. There were perhaps 25 cases from end to end, and 8 from top to bottom, just on the back wall. They were all built into a well-designed structure, probably constructed decades ago. L notices one case has several snakes in it, all the same and piled on top of each other. She asks about them, and he says the get along fine, you just have to separate them for feeding. L says that they’re very beautiful. He replies: “Well I think all snakes are beautiful, really.”

He had more snakes to my right, about two more columns in the same structure. Right of that was a door to the back, where he kept his “rat and mouse colonies,” about 60 of them, in arcane looking structures of plastic tub and an inverted jar of water inside.

Continuing, there was a counter running around the corner, to under a window, where he had a larger aquarium, within which lived a juvenile American Alligator.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked, and he responds: “It was a rescue”

“I didn’t know you had them around these parts”

“Oh no, it’s from the coastal areas. I got a license that lets me keep a limited number of endangered species, for educational purposes. They can’t survive around here.”

This was all behind a store counter, which was full of snake skin memorabilia. Knife cases, belt buckles, belts, fang earrings, and even a set of barbecue equipment with snake skin handles. There were several taxidermied snakes around the building. Despite the windows, the place was dim.

Continuing, there was the front door, then a pile of cases, a huge bucket of paper shredding, and an aquarium full of at least a dozen very very young turtles, all swimming around. Adorable.

Past the turtles was a really large case with an albino python. It was quite large. L asked how old it was, and “there’s no way to tell” but he had had it for years. There was another case with another albino python above it. This is all tucked into the other front corner, around which we will continue.

Next was a stack of more old cases. On top was a bleached cow skull, with horns and teeth. I really want it.

Then there are more cases. Four or five, I think. Most are covered up. I ask. “A lot of ‘em it’s because they get stressed out seeing people, so they hit the glass over and over, trying to bite.” The sound of rattling is constant at this stack.

The main attraction here is a Western Diamondback rattlesnake – it’s labeled, like most everything else, with a little sticker from one of those digital labelers. It’s in its cage, curled up, facing off a white rat. The rat is crouching behind a stone in the case – it’s never seen a snake before, I’m sure, but it sure as hell knows what’s up. The rat adjusts it position, and the snake strikes, a hit. Snake withdraws, and a bead of blood draws up on the rat’s nose.

The snake is not pleased that L and I are watching. It stops paying attention to the rat, not a threat, and faces us, rattling. We don’t leave for a few minutes, asking questions about the bite, any poison injected, what effects we might see, is he going to eat it?

Snake man responds, basically, that anything could happen. A lot of snakes, it seems, don’t like to be watched while they eat.

L’s the same way.

Above this snake is one named “Hollywood” It was in a movie. I forget which.

In the middle of the left hand side of the building is a round of display cases, as well as a rack on top. This is where he keeps more of his snake skin stuffs. I see a particularly beautiful belt buckle, and note it for later. Also in this collection is a tall, well lit cage made of chicken wire and plywood, containing several tortoises and a large iguana. There are two rather large tortoises, and L points out that their shells don’t seem real – more like someone carved them from wood and put them on them. I agree, seeing the rich coloring, layered like the rings of a tree, and the fact that there is just so much shell, sticking out so far. Snake man seems displeased with this, but it may have just been displeasure that we were so naïve about his beloved reptiles.

I ask him about the snakeskin products, and he is quick to point out that he has never killed a snake for its skin, instead uses the freshly dead. I ask about the knife cases, saying I might come in for one soon. He custom makes them. Everything snake skin there he made. Amazing, considering the huge amount of stuff he had. Probably a hundred snakes worth, if not more.

He also points out that it’s a losing business running this place. The fact that he had us two, and maybe another couple come in that day, at most, I’m sure.

We spend another several minutes at the place, and I’m very impressed. I see he has a cottonmouth, and tell about a time I went fishing with my dad and found out, after that fact, that I was standing right over one for probably close to 40 minutes, before he moved and we noticed. I had always thought that I was lucky I didn’t step to close and get bitten, but snake man says that they’re scared of me, and definitely don’t want to try and bring me down for food. The thing’d probably shoot away before towards me.

When we leave, I mention again I plan on coming back about a knife case, and remember that the belt buckles are also awesome. I was incredible impressed with the place. L’s amused at my excitement. Snake Man seemed displeased that he had to stoop so low as to let people get close to his snakes and stress them out, but even if that’s the case, he kept up a pretty welcoming and helpful façade. I love the snake man.

From there, we proceeded to L’s home, to carve pumpkins. The leaves are turning now, and the tree cover is a picturesque patchwork of all of the fall colors. It turns out to be a disarmingly beautiful drive, winding up the mountain, and I cannot stop raving about the snake man. I still am, today.