Dad doesn’t understand me anymore, so he volunteered us both for the last remaining slots on the Python Patrol. That’s what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission calls it, and each month it hosts a free workshop to help people in the Everglades identify and capture the python population mushrooming in our own backyards. “You imagine, Toby?” he asked me a few weeks back. “A hundred thousand Burmese pythons slitherin’ around out there! That animal guy on the radio, Kip whatever, he says they caught one 16 feet long—sixteen!—just last month. You picture that?”
We drive in silence to the workshop. Dad’s truck smells like brine and bad coffee, and something loose rattles beneath the dash. In the distance, the oak hammocks begin to show themselves, their outlines taking shape beneath a leftover moon. I lean my forehead against the glass and sigh louder than I mean to. My mom told him not to worry, that boys had a way of turning inside themselves. She called it a phase, said I wasn’t the first to go through it. “How’d you feel at 15?” she asked him. Dad conceded the point, but I can tell he’s not convinced. Sometimes he lowers the morning paper to look at me, then starts counting something on his fingers. He’s spent the last few months performing a strange courtship dance, offering unnecessary gifts—ice cream after school, a new Gerber multi-tool—trying awkwardly to fix whatever it is he thinks is broken.
My mom told him not to worry, that boys had a way of turning inside themselves.
We park below a sign for the Laxahatchee Wildlife Refuge. A small group has gathered beneath the picnic shelter, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. A woman with long gray hair sits alone in the corner, a ball of yarn in her lap, knitting something in burgundy and smiling wide at newcomers. She’s wearing a bumper sticker on her T-shirt that says, “Floridians Against The Atomic Bomb.” A few feet away, a fat man preaches to his friends. “Burmese, Chinese, Japanese—shit, I just want to grab one of these suckers,” he says between laughs. He spots me watching him.
“Ain’t that right kid?”
“Well, ain’t it?”
“I guess,” I say.
“Yea, I guess.”
“You ever see a python?”
“In real life?”
“Hell yeah, in real life. What you think I mean?”
“No,” I say. “TV though.”
“Thick as you and your pops combined,” the fat man says, tilting his chin at dad. “I seen one yesterday, down by the spillway. Thought it was a phone pole fell on the road. Jumped out the truck and damn thing started movin’ on me!”
“Well, I suppose that’s why we’re all here, right?” dad says. “So we can tell the difference between a snake and a telephone pole.”
The old lady smiles.
“Name’s Jack,” he says, offering the fat man his hand. “And this here is my son Toby. We’ve never done this before, but if there’s so many out there, we figure we oughta know how to wrangle one.”
The fat man starts to respond when the park ranger yells, “Gather up!” He’s wearing dark sunglasses and a Python Patrol T-shirt stretched clumsily over his uniform. “Keep in mind, this is not about strength,” he says. “So often people come out here puffing their chests, ready to throw a snake in a chokehold. Make no mistake about it: to safely wrangle a python—key word here being safely—it’s a matter of technique.”
The ranger pauses a minute to let the words sink in, rests a hand on his belt. “You try to overpower one of these things, I guarantee you’ll be the sorry one. Course, y’all are smarter than that.” He winks at me. “You already know that to safely capture a python, you have to really know it. You have to study its personality, its habits. You have to know what it wants, and how it moves. In other words, don’t force it.”
You try to overpower one of these things, I guarantee you’ll be the sorry one.
The ranger passes out the snake hooks. One by one, he teaches us how to pin the snake behind its head. “Just make sure you’re ready to commit,” he warns my dad. “If you half-ass it, he’s gonna know, and he’s gonna turn on you.” He lectures on their breeding habits and how to discriminate between a python and Florida’s native species. He pulls a small deck from his back pocket, hands each of us a license. “Can’t imagine eating one myself, though some people do seem to have a taste for it. Word of caution, though, the pythons around Laxahatchee tend to have especially high mercury levels.”
The fat man stares at his boots.
“We survive the best we can,” the old lady says.
We leave with two free T-shirts and a seasonal permit for Burmese pythons. Dad takes the back roads home. I don’t protest. Out past the levee, the clouds gather like sailboats at the starting line. He doesn’t move his fingers, but I can tell he’s counting, so I point to a cluster of cypress trees out in the marsh and say, “If I was a python, that’s where I’d sit. Right out there in the sun.” A few miles later dad hits the brakes and parks alongside the road, staring up at the clouds.
“Rain’s gonna hold for a bit,” he says after a minute. “Wanna give it a try?”
I don’t answer, just open the door, and with the permit in my hand, jog up the side of the canal. We know they’re out there, all around us, hidden just beyond sight. Dad follows me, but not too close. He doesn’t want to force it.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer from central Nebraska. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Travel + Leisure, and more. He currently writes a travel series for USA TODAY, and lives with his fiancee in a renovated 1968 travel trailer.
Illustrated by Jazzmyn Coker.