The three-hour drive down to Crews country twice this week was dotted with billboards for western boots, bacon, pecans, peaches, plantations, and adult superstores. Signs advertised the Jefferson Davis capture site, the Tubman Museum, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the Allman Brothers, and a "Gone With the Wind" tour off exit 228 on 75S. Not to mention, "Jesus asks, have you made your decision yet?" He asked a few times. He also tried to tell me there was a Chick-fil-A in Cordele.
I passed endless "road gators," what insurance companies refer to as dangerous tire tread lying in wait, and yet another supine armadillo as I snaked along I-16E onto Hwy 301 and pulled into Claxton, Georgia, fruitcake capital of the world. The kind girl at the Shell station with an outside restroom (no toilet paper, no thanks) pointed down Main St. and told me the round-up was just down the road that way over in Hagan. I was simultaneously giddy and apprehensive. My bow-tie is really a cam-era. Here it is 40 years since Harry Crews published A Feast of Snakes, and I was minutes away from the 49th Annual Rattlesnake Round-up in Evans County, the very seed for Crews's serpentine novel, set in Mystic, GA.
An awful lot like the tale of St. Patrick driving all of the snakes out of Ireland, towns in Georgia and throughout the South, dating back to at least 1960, sought to reduce venomous snake populations through rattlesnake round-ups. Maybe a little boy really did die from a snakebite in the late '50s, and the proceeds for the annual round-up were seriously going to fund anti-venom. Or maybe the snakes embodied evil in all the land, and it felt a bit like salvation to wrangle them. Needless to say, there were no barrels of slippery snakes there Saturday, no Pentecostal snake handlers, nor snake delicacies at this year's round-up (plenty of pork rinds, cotton candy, and funnel cake), not since the Department of Natural Resources stepped in years ago to protect the snakes on behalf of all wildlife and used the occasion to teach the community about habitats and practicing snake safety (alternate theory: maybe Harry Crews was really a secret operative for the DNR all along, and A Feast of Snakes contributed to driving all the snakes back into Georgia).
But there was a surreal enough Snake Master! Notwithstanding the original Snake Master, St. Patrick himself, enter Steve Scruggs with the dramatic delivery of an auctioneer and the charisma of a preacher ("he'll make a believer outta you!", referring to a snake) calling on the crowd to give each snake a round of applause for striking his Rocky brand boots and losing fangs (Rocky was a sponsor, and the program sure did promote the hell out of those boots, which dripped with diamondback rattlesnake venom by the show's end).