Off The Map: Week three – Mercury Rising

What was that thing? Getting out of the Jeep and poking the squirming mass with a stick didn’t help to clarify the issue. I flipped the creature over, identifying it as a kingsnake that for no rational reason appeared to be biting itself – a colossally wasteful activity for such a beautiful July morning. Puzzled, I leaned in closer until I could make out something odd about the snake’s mouth… there was a lizard head inside it. The snake wasn’t actually biting its own tail… it was being attacked by its current meal, an alligator lizard!

Although almost the entire lizard had been swallowed, the wily critter was hanging on with its powerful jaws, refusing to accept the inevitable. It wore the snake’s head over its own as if it were a hooded sweatshirt, and cracked an eye open to gaze nonchalantly in my direction. Its attitude seemed to say, “No big deal. I can keep this up all day if I have to.” Indeed, the kingsnake had certainly bitten off more than it could chew, and this would soon prove to be an appropriate theme for the day’s adventures.

I continued on to the Red Rock trailhead, where I parked and saddled up the mountain bike for a three-mile ride to the Gibraltar Reservoir. Like most man-made lakes in drought-afflicted Southern California, Gibraltar was currently at 30 percent of capacity, and dwindling rapidly. The reservoir lies nestled between the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountains, and a tunnel transports water from its depths to the faucets of Santa Barbara’s thirsty customers. There would be no hope for a recharge until late autumn or winter, when the rainy season began in earnest. Until then, these hills would bake mercilessly in the dry summer heat and water levels in the county reservoirs would continue to drop.

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