You can taste the mean.
Even when it's battered and seasoned and deep-fried, every rubbery, molar-binding cheekload of barbed rib bones and fast-twitch-muscle meat resists, bites back. This is one oily, ornery little tenderloin. It's an angry flavor, metallic and full of resentment—like having a tiny jailhouse machine shop in your mouth.
Everybody tells you it tastes just like chicken. Maybe, but only if the chicken in question had a neck tattoo, took hostages and died in a police shootout.
Rattlesnake. The mutha white meat.
Friday welcome, Snakehunters! a greeting you might reasonably expect to go your whole life without seeing, is papered all over town. The two-pump gas station/micromart, the motel and the drive-in burger 'n' shake stand all have signs up: COORS LIGHT @ $12.99/CASE FOR YOU SNAKEHUNTERS! and HOWDY! SNAKEHUNTERS! and GOOD LUCK, SNAKHUNTER's! (sic), etc. There's a cockeyed sandwich board hand-lettered red-on-white in front of the barbecue shack too, and big banners draped across the streets, and billboards out along the highway.
The 33rd Annual Mangum Rattlesnake Derby, a celebration of local herpetological superabundance, western diamond-back variety, is under way, and I am circling Mangum, Okla., looking for a place to park. I can't imagine it being much of a problem on any other Friday morning, what with Mangum being plenty small and, like a lot of five-stoplight towns in the rural Southwest, a little down at the boot heels lately. Downtown parking is probably the one thing Mangum has plenty of. Today, though, it's every moderately herpetophobic writer for himself. There's no parking anywhere because over the next three days Mangum (pop. 3,200) will entertain 10 times that number of visitors. Not counting the snakes. (Although we'll get around to that, too.)
Picture the Rattlesnake Derby as sort of a county fair grafted onto a giant flea market next to a carnival midway, all of it operating contemporaneous to and under the auspices of what amounts to a potentially deadly bass-fishing tournament. Like most American regional festivals (honoring cherry/apple/orange blossoms, crawdads or catfish, dairy or spuds, or Ole King Coal) this one attracts every mobile vendor in a five-state radius: 80-some-odd booths and motor caravans for corn dogs, funnel cakes, freshly squozen lemonade and various somethings that aren't corn dogs but are still fried up on a stick. More than two-score clattering rockabilly thrill rides and games of hand-eye coordination manned by ominously polite carny teens; many hundred wobbly card tables and flapping tarps necessary to house and market the native arts and crafts, solemn velvet portraiture, semismutty novelty T-shirts and discount bric-a-brac integral to such a day. Plus a full-sized circus-tented snake pit. At ground zero, across the corner from the ancient and eroding county courthouse, is the main stage, a canopied flatbed trailer, carpeted with AstroTurf, upon which the most important snaky doings will unfold. There is a snake-meat-only restaurant and butcher shop, too. This is an awfully big deal.
Before I left my motel this morning, the TV weatherkid on the station out of nearby Wichita Falls, Texas, said it was going to be a pure-D late April sizzler today and Saturday. Sunday's a crapshoot. The local forecast calls for potent spring thunderstorms by then, a serious threat here in southwestern Oklahoma, the business end of Tornado Alley. The prospect of this has my apple-cheeked weatherboy grinning in a happy panic. (None of these guys has been the same since Twister premiered.) Now I've got to tote sunscreen, rain gear and the tallest, thickest boots I own.
Rooms being impossible to get in Mangum proper during the festivities, I'm billeted two towns over from Snake Central, about 25 miles as the rental car flies. But the drive up is an easy one—feed-calendar pretty farm/ranch country, tall, stark cottonwoods, hawks above the alfalfa, etc.—and gives me plenty of time to nail down my itinerary for the next 72 hours. On the first page of my notebook I write, "Find out how." Next page, "Find out why."
I finally finesse a sweet parking space right behind the American Legion Hall, just yards from the flatbed stage. Even this early it's hot as a blacksmith's belt buckle. The media credentialing process is quick, though. I leave a note on the dashboard that reads SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESS CAR so maybe I won't get towed.