It is not often that one has the opportunity to actually bear witness to a phobic reaction being played out right before one’s very eyes. (Had I know it was going to happen, I would have brought appropriate recreational refreshments and video recording devices.) Most times, people actively avoid their phobias, thus eliminating the possibility of examining them from a spectator-sport perspective. Those suffering from acrophobia avoid heights, so rarely do we get to observe acrophobics shitting their knickers while tiptoeing along the edge of a precipice.
That, or else reaction to phobic situations gets played out at a more-glacial/less-captivating pace — the gradual sweating and loosening of the neck tie by one experiencing agoraphobia. It’s rare to witness the actual freaking out, like someone experiencing a bad acid trip at an Iron Butterfly reunion concert.
There were four of us ingressing a vehicle on our way to a dayhike. As the packs and water bottles were being placed into the back, a fair-sized spider — doubtless a hitchhiker picked up from a previous backcountry foray — jumped out from between the seats, directly into the psychic view shed of a young lady who, come to learn, suffers from the most-common phobia known to man: arachnophobia. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as arachnophobia is almost exclusively a fear experienced by women. As many as half of all females suffer from arachnophobia, while less than 10 percent of males enjoy that particular mental malady.
I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the notion of phobias in general or arachnophobia in particular. I myself suffer bit of claustrophobia (seems to be getting worse as I get older), as well as pteromerhanophobia (which seems to be getting a bit better). And my long-gone mother, who otherwise boasted a very stiff upper lip, suffered terribly from arachnophobia. When I got bit by a black widow when I was 13, my mom, who generally handled emergency situations pretty well, froze solid with fear, as though she were reluctant to so much as touch someone who had coursing through his veins spider venom, even though that person happened to be her eldest offspring. It was as though she feared that the result of the spider’s bite might be somehow contagious.
Anyhow, during the drive to the trailhead following that young lady’s reaction to having a spider in her immediate vicinity, I got to pondering my own favorite spider stories.
You’ve already heard the first one. We had just moved to our farm in the fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia. (Lordy, why on earth would anybody voluntarily live there?) This marked the third of a holy trinity of I-HATE-this-place experiences that befell my swamp-country-loathing self that summer. The first: While mowing a section of side yard that had not seen a blade in many years (the jungle-like foliage was more than three feet high), the old John Deere hit something so significant that it stopped the motor dead in its tracks. Upon further investigation, I realized that I had just run over a copperhead so big it managed to terminate a lawnmower engine going full tilt, and, worse, I realized that I was now covered from the waist down with snake viscera.
The second experience: While under the old farmhouse tacking up insulation (remember my previous reference to claustrophobia?), I got bit on the face by an adult black snake, one of the largest and most-aggressive species of serpent in the country (though, thankfully, they are not venomous, a reality I believe adds to their shitty disposition, like, they try to make up for their venomlessness by being extra ornery). It was such tight quarters under that house that I could barely move. And I was under the exact middle of the house. And it was about 100 degrees. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw the snake strike just below my left eye. That was quite a tense moment. I had no idea what kind of snake it was as its fangs sank into my cheek, but, in the tumult of my thought processes at that particular juncture, taxonomy was not much on my mind. It took me a full 15 minutes of frantic, desperate wiggling to get out from under the house, and my bellowings fell upon deaf ears, as my mom was inside, standing scant inches from a noisy old air conditioner, as she was canning veggies. She did not hear my anguished howls. When I finally entered the house and related my tale of reptilian woe, my mom skeptically eyeballed the bleeding puncture wounds on my face, probably thinking that I would do anything to get out of finishing the insulation job, and said that, if the snake had been poisonous, I probably would already be dead. She pointed me back under the house. I considered right then beginning a surreptitious spider collection, which I would one day loose upon my arachnophobic madre’s bed.
The fact that I got bit on the left forearm a couple months later by a black widow while stacking firewood was almost anti-climactic compared to the copperhead guts and the face bite. It did require a trip to Dr. Brown’s office and I believe some antibiotics of some sort, along with an admonition to stop being such a pussy. On the drive back home, I thought to myself, well, at least this negative interaction with a hideous member of the animal kingdom wasn’t with another snake!
My last year living in the aforementioned fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia, I had a summer job working for a local land surveyor. It was early one muggy morning with both the temperature and the humidity levels rising fast. Robert White and I were tromping along the edge of a copse looking for a long-lost property marker, which was doubtless buried beneath century’s worth of poison ivy vines, honeysuckle vines, kudzu and blackberry brambles. In that sub-tropical part of the country dwell many varieties of nightmarish creatures, such as Japanese hornets, snapping turtles that can top 100 pounds and these lovely little animals called, innocuously enough, garden spiders, a name that would seem to fit alongside some sort of Miss-Muffet-ish poem. Garden spiders are among the largest arachnids known to man. They are not just long and wide, but they are also beefy, kinda like pit bulls of the arachnid world. They build webs of steel about three-feet-by-three-feet between trees in the shadow land of the Southern hardwood forests. These webs are designed to catch not usually spider fare, such as flies or moths or butterflies. No, they are designed to catch birds, mice, lizards and occasionally hapless dogs. They are near-bouts strong enough to take a man off a horse.
And the garden spiders, often large as a man’s hand, sit not on the edge of the web awaiting their next meal; rather, they sit in the middle of their death traps, jaws oozing poison, daring anyone or anything to fuck with them.
I was walking at a purposeful pace through the woods, and I had just turned my head to the right at the exact second that I yawned one of those deep, long yawns that partially dislocates your jaw and exposes your entire uvula to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. My mouth was still wide open as I turned my head forward. And just at that instant, I walked into the biggest garden spider web ever constructed. I mean, this was the Empire State Building of spider webs. And, was it my chest that contacted that web? No! Was it my arm or my leg? No! I hit that web as directly face first as though I was aiming my nose at the bulls-eye of a target, which, in this case, happened to be the ass end of a giant garden spider. The web covered my suddenly very flustered mug with perfect symmetry, to the point that it looked as though I were trying on for size a Spiderman Halloween mask. Which would have been bad enough on the potential insanity front. But there was more. As I mentioned, garden spiders hang out in the middle of their two-dimensional death lairs. Laws of probability gave me a 50-50 chance that the spider would have been located on the far side of the web, the part that did NOT make contact with my face. So much for the laws of probability. Not only was the spider on my side of the web, but, with my mouth wide open in mid-yawn, it suddenly found itself trapped inside my gaping maw, resting directly on my tongue, a situation from which it could not possibly escape, given the fact that its own web, now stretched fully and firmly across a face that I can say with full journalistic accuracy had assumed something of a frantic visage, was serving as a barrier to its escape. This, I determined instinctively, was not a good moment to close my mouth. So, I stood there, looking like something straight out of a very bad horror movie, with a steel-cabled spider web stretched across the entirety of my face, with the resident monster-sized spider in my mouth trying frantically to escape, but, every time it tried, it was bounced back by the strength of its web back onto my tongue!
This was indeed a quandary. After what seemed like 14 hours of primordial fear, I just took two big steps backward, and the entire web removed itself from my face, fully in tact, with the garden spider sitting right where it had been before I walked directly into a scene that pretty much made Frodo’s encounter with Shelob seem tame by comparison. I spit/gagged a couple times, swished some water around in my mouth and said to Robert White, whose eyes were at that point as big as saucers, “Kinda tasted like chicken.”
Next time: Part two: Wherein I encounter even more spiders along the Yangtze River in China, in the heart of the Dominican Republic, along the Arizona Trail and in the depths of Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.