Prior to the trip, my exposure to alligator behavior was through documentaries about their cousin – African crocodiles. The kind of creature that can take down an antelope who just wanted to get a drink of water without so much as a warning. The advice to not walk around after dark wasn’t very comforting either.
When I visit a new place, I like to walk and explore – meander through town without any aim or take the slowest possible route to our final destination. This is a great way to travel. Highly recommended.
A spur-of-the-moment side trip led to a wildlife preserve and an unplanned hike through alligator territory.
It wasn’t really alligator territory, but a human-made recreation of alligator territory (aka fresh-water marshland). After an intensive rehabilitation, the only remaining marks of industry were raised pathways. Once they separated rice paddies. Now, they were the only thing between us and the wildlife.
My husband caught a glimpse of scales and alligator on the bank to our left, about ten feet away. He thought it was great and told me to take one step closer. Closer. To a cousin of a n animal that could eat us alive. With the image of the antelope in my mind, I was NOT about to take his suggestion.
American alligators are much smaller than their cousins and rarely attack anything larger than a dog. They are like bees – more afraid of us than we are of them. We needed to be perceptive, not antagonate (my interpretation: do not get any closer than necessary), and avoid any nests.
Thoughts of antelope subsided and my minor freak out ran its course. We kept walking on the hiking path. Turning back meant getting closer to the unseen alligator, and I wasn’t about to even consider that as an option.
The next alligator was safely 30 feet away across a stretch of water. The next was fast asleep. By the time we saw the biggest alligator of the trip (about 12 feet), I didn’t hesitate to stop and get a better look.
Walking back to the car along the driving route, having missed the turn for a return trip through hiking territory, we would pass cars who would smile, wave, and then have this look of “are they crazy!” on their faces.
I jumped and spun around mid-air to see what caused it. The road was elevated about 6 feet from the water and marshes, spanning about 9 feet, so I couldn’t see the alligator even after he went into the water. I didn’t stop to confirm.
My heartbeat returned to normal faster than the first encounter, even though the last encounter was actually more dangerous.
Alligators on sunny banks, not moving, are digesting food. The sun creates an acid in their stomach – they don’t digest without it and can hold food in their stomachs for months (or so the knowledgeable guide on another tour told us). Alligators in the water are hunting and more mobile.
That didn’t stop us from scanning for alligators on every bank, and taking a close look at all floating logs. It became almost second nature.
When I remembered that they don’t live here, I felt relief at being able to put my guard down. And a little sadness. There’s something to be said for an environment where a mid-sized predator can still exist in proximity to humans. Relief quickly won out.
Speaking to an audience of two thousand of your peers, learning that you can no longer have dairy (that means cheese and ice cream too), meeting a great aunt who you know only through terrifying stories … these are all alligators. The anticipation brings out emotion and creates stress before the event even happens. It builds and builds and builds until finally you are on the podium with a heart beating so fast you can barely hear the announcer say your name.
If you tend to ruminate on everything that can possibly go wrong, this may take some effort. It is a habit worth transforming.
It’s like meditation, where the zen woman on the recording says “come back to your breath when you notice you are gone”. It’s just as easy to get a ticket on the runaway thought train as it is to get caught on the worry merry-go-round. Just recognize when you are doing it. Nothing more.
What alligators do you have in your life?
Katie calls Richmond, VA home with her husband and all the furry, four-legged creatures he and municipal code will allow. She has spent years bringing her anxiety under control, learning to trust her intuition, and dreaming of a world where people live in sustainable harmony. She is addicted to popcorn, avoids wearing shoes, should do yoga but doesn't, reads non-fiction for fun, and reluctantly gave up caffeine in search of peace. Just don’t ask her to give up sugar (read: ice cream).