Swimming with Snakes - 4/25/11
Below is an excerpt from the Missouri Chapter of the book "States of Confusion"... known to some as the "Moron Drops His Car Keys into a Poisonous Snake-Filled Lake" story.

How my car keys ended up at the bottom of Lake Wappapello is hard to say, exactly.

It seems my quality pair of red running shorts did not come equipped with quality pockets, because somehow they managed to regurgitate my Imposter keys halfway down the dock. I gaped in horror as I watched them bounce - in slow-motion - from slat to slat, before disappearing into the mucky water below with a sickening gurgle.

It was my only set of keys. The nearest locksmith or auto shop was probably 100 miles away, and who knew how long it would take to get another key made? It appeared I would be getting my swim after all.

Okay, no problem, I thought to myself. I'll go up to the campground office and see if they have any goggles I can borrow. I'm sure the water can't be that murky all the way down, and it can't be more than a couple feet deep under the dock. I was feeling pretty swell about my solution as I entered the office.

The gaunt, wild-eyed old man behind the gift shop counter sported bright white hair to match his white moustache. He almost looked like a tall, skinny Albert Einstein, if Einstein had been insane and worked at a campground in Missouri.

Politely, I asked him if he had any advice for fishing things out of his lake.

"Nope, nope, sure don't!" he said, rocking back and forth in his chair.

"Oh," I said, not anticipating quite that unhelpful a response. "Well, do you have any goggles?"

He stood slowly, grabbed a pair of cheap children's goggles from the wall, and plopped them on the counter. "Got these," he offered. "Three dollars!"

I peered at them. They were about three sizes too small for my head, and I seriously doubted that the one-centimeter plastic seal would keep the filthy water out of my eyes.

"Got anything else?"

"Nope, nope, sure don't!" he said. "Three dollars!"

I explained to him that all my money was in my wallet, which was locked in the car, but I would pay him after I found my keys. He just stared at me. This wasn't good enough. He wanted collateral.

"Like what?" I asked. I wasn't even wearing a shirt.

His eyes fell on my laptop.

I rolled my eyes and handed him my computer. Apparently this guy wasn't interested in being tremendously helpful.

"So how deep's the lake, before I try this?"

"Oh, I dunno . . . I reckon a couple inches to about six feet under the middle part o' the dock, where all them frayed cables is at."

Frayed cables. Lovely. And the "middle part o' the dock" was precisely where my keys were. Not good news, but I might as well get to it. I didn't exactly have much choice.

"Uh, all right," I said, turning for the door. "Anything else I should know before I jump in?"

"Uh, nope, nope. Jus' watch out for the snakes!"

I froze. Now, I don't have any particular aversion to snakes, at least not in an Indiana Jones kind of way. Not that I particularly like snakes - the idea of huge water snakes, one of God's creepiest creatures - slithering around my ankles as I treaded through the muck was definitely not a pleasant one. But given a choice between snakes and being stranded in southern Missouri? Everything was still cool; I could handle it. Besides, was this guy even serious? There couldn't really be snakes in this random lake in southern Missouri. At least not snakes that could hurt me.

"What, like poisonous snakes?" I asked, with a smirk.

"Why, yup, yup, sure are. I saw some pokin' their heads up around the dock the other day."

Everything was no longer cool.

Poisonous snakes? Are there really poisonous snakes in America? This isn't the Amazon. The white-haired guy was staring at me, straight-faced. On the other hand, I have heard of water moccasins. 'Moccasin' is a Native American word, isn't it?

I couldn't believe that the etymology of the word 'moccasin' was going to be a factor in whether or not I was about to die in a lake.

My panic continued. And the Southwest! Don't they have poisonous rattlesnakes in the Southwest?

I suddenly found myself wishing I'd watched more Discovery Channel growing up.

Snakes or no snakes, I was now stuck picturing myself being bitten by swimming, venomous reptiles while I sifted fruitlessly through mucky crap trying to find my invisible car keys. This was already going to be a needle-in-a-haystack job, only now the haystack had snakes in it.

But what could I do? I weighed my options:

1) Brave the snakes. I hoped they didn't like the taste of white meat.

2) Break into and hotwire the Imposter, and then somehow get a new key made in the nearest town, 100 miles away in Arkansas. I didn't know how to do any of this.

3) ...? I didn't even know what option three would be. Have the car towed to a locksmith? There wasn't one for 100 miles. And the money I had in the car would barely be enough to cover the $3 goggles, to say nothing of a $300 tow job.

I tried to sound stoic as I faced the white-haired guy. "If I'm not back in twenty minutes, can you... come look for me or something?"

"I got a pocket-knife. I can cut an X!"

I froze again. "What?"

"Ain't that what you're supposed to do? Cut an X where the bite is?"

This had officially become the worst thing ever.

"Yeah, uh, I'm leaving now. Thanks for the help."

"Oh," he chuckled. "I didn't really help ya that much!"

Some people graduate from college and get jobs. Other people dive into muddy, snake-filled lakes to find their car keys.

I stripped to my boxers and gazed down from the dock. I had never been so freaked out to jump in a lake. I recalled the words of Ms. Arasim: It's okay to be afraid of something, as long as you do it anyway. Somehow I highly doubted this was what Ms. Arasim had in mind. But this trip was supposed to be about adventure, right? I took a deep breath.

Fear forward.

I jumped in.

The horrible squishing feeling I experienced as my feet plunged six inches deep into mushy lake bottom sent me scrambling halfway back up onto the dock. I envisioned baby snake eggs and protective snake mothers recoiling at this attack on their homes and preparing a counterattack, and I clung to the underside of the dock for a full minute. But I'd come this far. I slipped on the children's goggles, let go, and sank underwater.

Barely controlling my panic, I paddled down to the bottom and tried to get a look around. The goggles were completely useless. The water was about as translucent as root beer, and rushed right past the worthless seal into my eyes. I couldn't even see the front lens of the goggles, much less the bottom of the lake. I tossed the goggles back up onto the dock - I would have to do this blind. I was still facing a needle in a snake-filled haystack. Only now I was blindfolded. And I had to hold my breath.

Under normal circumstances I can't hold my breath for terribly long, and I can hold it for even less time when I'm completely wigging out. I would dive down and sift blindly through the sticky bottom for about six seconds before my leg would brush against one of the frayed cables - or worse, a snake-head-sized bubble would ooze from the bottom, tickle up my leg and into my boxers - and I would promptly lose my mind and scramble gasping to the surface. Each time I dove, I could cover only a few square feet - probably the same few square feet - and I had no idea whether I was making progress or burying my keys deeper in the muck. I was panicked, discouraged, smelly from the lake, and getting absolutely nowhere.

After about ten minutes of this misery, I discovered a better method. If I held on to the dock, I could sift through the mud with my feet and keep my upturned mouth barely above water. This meant removing my sandals, which I had kept on to protect me from the serpents of the deep, but by this point I figured I was a goner anyway. I shed the sandals and sifted frantically with my feet through the muck like a hopeless, armless gold-miner... and prayed.

Yes, I prayed. I've always thought that in a world full of suffering, there must be tons of people with problems a lot bigger than mine, so I've tried not to bother God with frivolous requests for help on math quizzes or good luck on the upcoming blackjack hand. But that day I prayed. I prayed for the snakes to have mercy on me and that, by some utter miracle, my digging toes would strike gold.

Heaven must have felt bad about denying me the Spacemobile, because a miracle happened. My feet touched something small and hard and somehow, by some grace, a guy who regularly loses his cell phone in his own pockets was able to find a set of car keys under a cable in some mud at the bottom of an opaque lake. I dove down and wrapped my fingers around my salvation.

I must have launched out of the water Flipper-style and landed in a victory dance on the dock, judging by the way the few other people at the campground gawked at me. I didn't care. I ran to the Imposter, unlocked it, grabbed my wallet, and charged up to the office. The white-haired old guy nearly fell out of his chair as I - a shirtless, soaking, ecstatic, muddy mess - whipped open the door, slammed a $10 bill down on the counter, grabbed my laptop, held up my keys, and proclaimed, "Screw the snakes, screw you, keep the change, I'm out of here!"

I only spent a total of about twenty minutes in mucky Lake Wappapello, but the boxers I swam in reeked like toxic ass. I threw them out the window and rode commando for a few miles before fishing another pair from my laundry bag. And that's how I got the heck out of Missouri: dripping with muddy water, radiating stink, looking frightening enough to scare children. But my prayers had been answered. I was on the road again.

"States of Confusion" is now on sale!

Click here to see all blog posts so far.

50 State Stereotypes (in 2 Minutes)!