Animal Kingdom

When I was four, my family moved to Farmington, Utah. Nowadays, there’s not a lot of farm left, but back then, the name was apt. Our ‘bench,’ as it was called, was built on the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, with the lower sections given to wide fields and fenced pastures, and the upper reaches still covered in sage and dirt and occasional groves of twisted scrub oak.

utah foothills

The foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, before we came along and prettied them up with our subdivision

We put a house right down in the middle of all that. There wasn’t a fence, and there weren’t any immediate neighbors, except for the one house on the west side. At the property line, the grass just ended, and the adventure began. All that empty mountain expanse was crawling with displaced nature, and we were there to master it. While Davis and Braden (the two with the grandiose, competing visions of themselves as masters of the wild domain) had their seasonal turf wars and power struggles, I was just out running up the hills and pulling down dead trees and digging up snake holes. Sometimes I’d come back and there’d be a new king, but the frequent political upheavals never seemed to have much impact on daily forest living.

Whenever he took a break from fending off the usurpations of younger brothers, Braden showed a knack for tracking down and making use of the local wildlife. Not in the way a hunter would. More in the way a slightly malevolent wizard would. Like the time when he showed me, to my utter amazement, how to hypnotize an army of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers were by far the most common creatures to be found in our area. In the dusty summer months, you couldn’t walk through the crisp fields without dislodging hundreds of crackling dry grasshoppers in all directions. They could jump huge distances, and were tough to hold on to. Unless they were hypnotized.

Braden and I would capture twenty or so of these, and then he would render them to his hypnotic water chamber. It was a large plastic bowl with a few holes poked in it. He would then fill the chamber half-full with water, put a lid on it, and shake it violently for a few minutes, until most of the water had leaked out. When you have shaken several handfuls of grasshoppers in a bowl full of water for a few minutes, you can take the lid off and they won’t hop away. They just sort of stumble around for a while. Because they’re hypnotized. It was all very wizardly.

grasshopper

When you wake up, I want you to bark like a dog whenever I say ‘Margaritaville!’

A kid who’s aiming for the ‘Dark Warlock’ aesthetic needs the right kinds of animal companions. Braden wasn’t interested in the frequent rabbit sightings or deer tracks that fascinated the rest of us. He favored things like ferrets, and salamanders, and had a few of each. He told me about this kid who could lift up a grate somewhere and pull out salamanders on demand, which could be brought to reside in Braden’s swampy window-well, presumably to add to the macabre aura of his lair. I’m not kidding– Braden had a salamander guy. No one ever thinks about it, but half of wizarding is getting your supply lines in place.

I think it was this taste for the slightly off-beat that led Braden to first bring home a snake—another of the common creatures in the area. The one I remember best was bigger than the usual garters and blow snakes we’d see. He had it wrapped over his shoulders like a stole, the better to show it off to the nervous neighborhood kids. They were gathered under the big tree in the back yard when I came out to see his new pet. He handed the snake to me, his most trusted minion, and it promptly bit me on the forehead. Although it didn’t break the skin, it was quite odd, since blow snakes usually don’t bite you.

snakebite

A very faithful recreation of the incident

I took it again, a few minutes later. This time it broke the skin—sinking its fangs hard into the flesh of my forefinger. I handed the snake carefully back to Braden, and then ran crying into the house. My dad surprised me by being sincerely agitated. He examined the multiple punctures in my finger and wiped the drizzling blood away. After a minute of hesitancy, he took me over the laundry room sink and began sucking on my finger. Suck and spit. Suck and spit. He didn’t explain, and he didn’t have to. I knew the kids were still in the back yard playing with that snake, but I couldn’t distract him by telling him that. He was sucking venom out of my hand.

We went out later and examined Braden’s snake. Its tail had clearly been chopped off. Whether that meant we had a rattler disguised as a blow snake or just an abnormally aggressive blow snake, I’ll never know. Whatever it was, it liked the taste of my blood. My dad didn’t seem to enjoy that taste quite as much, but he took it like a man (though he rinsed his mouth out pretty well afterwards). Braden was forced to send his snake friend back into the wild, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to hold himself out as sort of the mystical neighborhood beastmaster.

My parents told him if he got his Eagle badge, they’d give him something nice. He told me secretly that he planned to ask for an aviary, or maybe a full menagerie. That’s why I was just as disappointed as they were when he never got it.

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18 Responses to Animal Kingdom

  1. Braden Bell says:

    Great post, Ry. Yeah, sorry about the snake thing. Although, I’m not sure what Dad was thinking. If Rex had been bitten by a potential rattlesnake, would you just do a do-it-yourself venom removal or would you at least call the doctor?

    Can we just assure everyone that I didn’t end up wearing black trench coats and cursing/shooting people? That I’ve gone on to live a reasonably productive, normal life and today the only animal we have is an elderly German shephard?

    Also, there was only ever one king. Dave’s paltry insurrections never got anywhere.

  2. Eliza says:

    Wow this was such a funny trip into your childhood, makes me a little sad I wasn’t a part of that, but maybe good because “Queen Bee” wasn’t taking any orders. Thank goodness for you and Ange being willing to be humble followers of your dictator brothers. Man, that is funny.

  3. Andrea W. says:

    Wow, I’m dying right now. First of all, why when I read these posts do I feel like I’m hearing these stories for the first time. How do you guys remember all these things so vividly? Now, I’ll grant you if I’d had my face bitten by a snake I’d probably remember that, but you’d think I would remember my brother’s face being bitten by a snake? Weird. Anyway, I cannot believe that it bit you twice and that Dad actually sucked your finger, that is just insane. Where was Mom, I feel like she would have been all over a trip to the ER. It is kind of funny that Braden had held the thing for awhile without incident and then it went after you. Crazy. Those were some good days though, we had the perfect situation nestled perfectly between civilization and wildnerness.

  4. Ryan says:

    Did the Ingalls go to the E.R. every time one of their daughters was blinded in a boarding school fire? Did Grizzly Adams go to the E.R. whenever Festus got caught in an avalanche? No. You live on the frontier, you learn to make do, you suck poison from your kids’ veins. It comes with the (wild) territory.

    As for whether I’d do the same for Rex, yeah. If there was a way to suck the peanut juice from his veins instead of spending a full day in the E.R., I’d take that in a hearbeat.

  5. Ryan says:

    And by the way, it’s true, Braden has gone on to be a normal productive member of society, without any warlock aspirations (as far as I know). I will be interested to see if his writing career shows signs that such aspirations have not actually disappeared, but merely been sublimated into his fiction . . .

  6. Benjamin says:

    Excellent, Ry. I, too, lived the life of a wild mountain renegade. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I shot magpies through my bedroom window, caught an owl in a quart jar, and was charged by a behemoth porcupine-and that was just in one typical summer afternoon.

    I wish our kids could have the same. And Braden, I got your back. I, too, loved salamanders, and I’ve had quite a few. Not to mention fire bellied toads, spade foot toads, and basically every other amphibian or reptile native to this state.

    It is strange that that snake bit you like that – I’ve caught countless gopher (blow) snakes, and none of them ever bit. Did your dad suck your forehead as well? That would have made a unique picture.

  7. Davis says:

    “While Davis and Braden (the two with the grandiose, competing visions of themselves as masters of the wild domain) had their seasonal turf wars and power struggles, I was just out running up the hills and pulling down dead trees and digging up snake holes.”

    Every kingdom needs proles and peasants.

  8. Macy Bell says:

    That first picture is gorgeous. Is that really what it looked like? It is really too bad that it is so hard to find that ideal setting for kids anymore unless you move pretty far away from the city. Sad.

  9. Christian says:

    Thanks for displaying what a bunch of fruitcakes I grew up with, which will give context for Davis’ promised expose on what a sucky kid I was, or whatever.

  10. Braden Bell says:

    Hear, hear, Dave. Power is for those strong enough to take it.

  11. Ryan says:

    I heard it a different way. I thought it was “power is for those smart enough to know the difference between power and a tenuous grip over a half-acre forest.”

  12. Ryan says:

    Geez Ben- just living a few hundred feet higher up the mountain gave you a whole different level of available animals. I saw a porcupine maybe twice, but I don’t think we had near the variety you guys must have had. What a great place to grow up. Oh well. At least we live near the zoo?

  13. Braden Bell says:

    They were there, Ry, I just ensorcelled them to be invisible so Stephen couldn’t use them against me

  14. Skewcakes says:

    And I thought the foothills have changed a lot in my lifetime. I didn’t know that the Bell home was once at the edge of the development. Now I curse all the million dollar homes way up on the hill, 40 years ago it was probably the Ferrins, Princes, Piersons, and Gladstones cursing the all the richies moving in between them and the mountains.

    Things I loved (and still do) about the Farmington Mountains:

    The cave at the mouth of Farmington Canyon. I always pictured some 1940’s prospector with his hammer and pick spending months to go 75′ into the hard rock only to give up in despair.

    The Shoshoni Indian burial ground. Interesting fact for those who don’t already know: Chief Little Soldier’s (a big name in Shoshoni history, he formed a peace deal with Brigham Young) daughter was buried in the Farmington foot hills after she refused the advances of the medicine man and married a warrior instead. The medicine man put a curse on her and she died. Typical to Western native american tradition she was buried with the person was closest to, her infant child. Her mother (Chief Little Soldier’s wife) pleaded to keep the infant and spare it the burial with the Chief, she was told it would be either her or the baby.

    The reservoir pipes behind the Christopher’s house. A network of underground culvert pipes that we broke into and explored regularly. One of the more dumb things I’ve done. Because, if they decided to open a valve and let in the water on the wrong day, we would have surely drown, and no one would have ever found us.

    The ponds behind the radar towers. I still smile and laugh thinking of all the great camping experiences we’d had there.

    Cheese Rock. Another famed camping spot, already mentioned by Chris in an earlier post.

    The Matterhorn. A dirt bike hill climb above the present day multimillion dollar homes.

    Sadly the foothills are not the same. I took a dirt bike up there last fall and was disappointed by all the closed trails and residential development. Fences are everywhere. Rich turds.

  15. Molly P says:

    Wow, Ryan…as a mother of boys you are seriously scaring me with all this boy adventure talk. My next talk with Ike may go something like this. “Please Ike, stay clear of Uncle Ryan and his crazy ways. Don’t listen to his childhood stories and all the crazy stuff he did.

    On a side note, its really weird how many grass hoppers there were when we were little…they were everywhere. I think Ike has maybe spotted one in his lifetime. No more gullies to explore, river water to drink…thanksfully, no Rattles to tamper with though!

  16. Christian says:

    Skew, I remember doing the resevoir pipes exploration. What a dumb, dumb thing. Even at the time I knew it was dumb and had some anxiety about it.

    I had no idea about that Native American history.

    Those foothills were a great place to grow up. Do you remember a certain guy with a house up there buying a backhoe and trying to place obstacles on dirt trails far outside his property lines, so that you motorcyclists couldn’t ride in his mountains?

  17. Danica says:

    Love everything in this post and the comments. You guys are killing me.

  18. Ryan says:

    Danica- awesome to have you back. And to watch you tear through these posts with dizzy abandon. Your photography business will be blessed for your blog-loyalty.

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