Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Donna Kuust
At eight, almost nine years old, the driving vacation our family took to visit relatives my brother and I had never met was a grand adventure. Lynn and I were born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, but the folks moved to Oregon when I was too young to remember anything about my birth state, so I was naturally curious.
My parents had described New Mexico as hot and dry, with nothing much interesting to see for miles upon miles. For the most part, that turned out to be true. However, White Sands, New Mexico proved not only very interesting but became a mystery as well.
“Mama, will there be rattlers, like on TV? And scorpyuns?”
While Mama just shuddered in answer, Daddy made my eyes bulge with fear as he told me, “People have to check their beds before sleeping, in case a rattler or big hairy spider has crawled in. And you check your shoes in the morning before putting them on.” That made Lynn squeal with glee that he would find some and stick them in my hair, which naturally got me to feeling things crawling on my head.
New Mexico was very much like what I’d seen in the TV western shows and movies. Sparse, scrubby grass and prickly bushes covered the sandy ground. Cacti of every size, shape and color formed weird botanical guards, some wearing pretty flowers.
It was so hot and dry, a camel would have cried for mercy. Sweat rolled down our faces, our sides and backs, even with the water cooler attached to the car window. I was very glad to be riding in a car on a paved highway, not on a horse over rough ground. That black ribbon of tar, mushy from the heat, seemed to stretch on for forever.
As I watched the monotonous scenery go by, our car suddenly swerved to the left, throwing Lynn and I both onto the floorboard with bruising force. I hit my head on the door handle, but I didn’t cry. Instead, I shouted, “What was that for?” at Daddy and scrambled back onto the seat while Daddy pulled the car over to the side of the road. He heaved a deep sigh of relief and told me he’d just missed hitting a large rattlesnake.
“Ya shoulda just run over the icky ol’ thing,” I shouted, watching out the back window as the snake slithered on its way.
Daddy kind of chuckled and said, “A rattlesnake that big can flatten a car tire with one good bite. Then we’d be stranded out here until I could change the tire, which I’d have to wait to do until the snake left.”
As Daddy pulled us back onto the road, I asked, “Mama, is the sand at White Sands really white? I only seen gray sand before, at the beach.”
“Yes, Dear. It’s pure white.”
“Oh, my goodness! Look at that! Mama, there’s mountains of snow out there! In the desert!” I shook my head and rubbed my parched eyes, thinking I must be seeing one of those mirage things.
Daddy stopped the car and we all piled out, me and Lynn in our bare feet. I dug my toes in and grabbed handfuls, truly expecting it to feel like icy snow. Instead, it felt like I’d stepped into and grabbed hot coals. I ‘ouched’ all the way back into the car, while Mama scooped some of the white sand into empty jars for us to keep. I still have my jar to this day.
A short ways farther down the road, surrounded by a circle of large sand dunes, a building appeared. It looked like one of those old, run-down miner’s shacks in the TV westerns, only bigger. Even though it clearly had been there a long, long time, both of my parents claimed, “I don’t remember this place being here.”
“Connor’s Critters,” I read the small wooden sign, feeling very proud of my reading ability.
“Can we stop and look, Daddy?” Lynn shouted while smashing his nose against the car window.
Daddy parked next to an equally old and run-down rusty pick-up truck and we all piled out. “Gggrr. Khah…khah.” I whirled around at that menacing sound. Two glowing green eyes stared into mine from the dark inside of a huge metal cage. Out of the shadow appeared a gigantic, black cat with huge white fangs and rippling muscles. It hissed at me and I froze, watching that long tail twitch back and forth. I felt like a mezmerized mouse, unable to even move, much less run away.
When Mama took my hand to go inside the building, I was able to break away and then noticed two other huge cages. Each had its own cat, one a tawny mountain lion like in the TV westerns, the other a spotted cat with white fur that stuck straight out from the sides of its face. I couldn’t figure out why these cats were on display in a desert, when they didn’t normally live in deserts. I was glad to see the cages were shielded from the sun by being set into their own little dunes and the cats had big, full water bowls. Still, I felt sorry for them, being all cooped up like that.
The inside of the building, what could be seen of it, was in much better shape than outside. Visitor pathways twisted through rows and rows of glass display cases, each with its own heat lamp and pretend environment for whichever critter it housed. It was eerie, walking through, feeling watched by all those eyes.
There were hairy black spiders as big as my hand, crawling over sticks and rocks. There were tiny brown spiders, who seemed to be there mainly as food for the lizards. I saw green lizards as long as my arm and a gray one with spikes all over it. I would have missed that one, if someone hadn’t got it to move by putting some flies in the cage. I thought it was a strange rock or small cactus until its pink tongue shot out to snag a fly.
I’ve always been fascinated by and wary of snakes, any kind of snake. The hair stood up on my neck as I stood nearly with my nose against the warm glass cases, eyeing each different one, watching them slither over rocks and sand, creep out from under twigs. Many were curled up, maybe sleeping, but I watched to see if they would do something. There was an odd smell around the snake cases, kind of like a dead moth’s wing when you find it on the windowsill.
One case was way bigger than all the rest. It had a big sign on it, “Do Not Tap On Glass”. I wondered why, when all I could see in it was yucky green-brown water that smelled like dusty rotten eggs.
As I stared and stared, looking for any sign of life, a man’s hand came through the top of the case holding a dead mouse. “EYEW!” The mouse was swished around in the water. Slowly, the water started to quiver, then it churned and splashed up the sides of the glass. An enormous green snake’s head rose slowly up out of the water, mouth open wide, and the mouse disappeared inside. The snake slowly sank back into the water and once again couldn’t be seen.
I stood there with my eyes bugging out and my mouth gaping like the snake’s had done. Then, a high, squeaky voice made me jump almost out of my skin. A white-haired, old lady had come up behind me and said, “That’s cuddles, our family pet for nearly twenty years. We raised him from a baby. He’s twenty-five feet long now.”
The lady smelled like the old photographs Mama had brought out before we left home. She pointed out the darker splotches in the water, which were Cuddles’ coils. “Looks like he needs a bigger case,” I said, awed by the size of him.
Like someone stepping on a cat’s rubber mouse, the old lady laughed. “Cuddles likes to sit all wrapped up. Since he doesn’t have to swim around and hunt for his food, he can stay coiled all the time. We take him to our friends’ house sometimes, and they let him exercise in their swimming pool.”
“Don’t he get all slimy, being in water all the time?” I was imagining twenty-five feet of writhing snake brushing against me in a pool.
“Uhm, I don’t kn…”
“Donna Lou? Come on now. We need to get to your Aunt Rena’s before dark.”
“But Daddy, she’s gonna let me…”
“Now, Donna Lou. Time to go.”
As our car left the little hidden zoo, all that could be seen was desrt and mound after mound of sparkling white sand. The building just disappeared behind the dunes as though it had never been there at all. It was as if the whole place had been a dream. Perhaps it had been, since I’m the only one of the family who remembers going there. To this day, they all deny we ever stopped at any such place. Perhaps I did take that nap after all. Someday, I want to go back there and see.