When I ride my bicycle through the
vineyards (my commitment is to do so twice daily, morning and evening,
twenty miles each ride), the secondary benefit is physical fitness. My
experience isn't "I am riding my bicycle". Nor is it "This is an
exceptionally beautiful valley to ride in". Rather, there is ... just
... riding ... In this experience, the bicycle, the exceptionally
beautiful scenery, and the movement are all one seamless space in which
I barely appear. There is ... just ... riding ... Into this space
come some of my best works. It's as if they just pop into that space,
whole and completely formed, grab me by the throat, and demand "Write
I never take notes. Once a work comes to me, I may only write it down
three weeks later, yet when I do, all the original details come back -
as crisp and as accurate as when they first appeared. The primary
benefit of riding isn't getting the specific points, details, and exact
words for what I'm going to write. Rather, it's in this space of ...
just ... riding ... I get the abstract form, shape, and direction for
what I'm going to write. Three weeks later (or whenever I do write it
down), the specific points, details, and exact words may no longer be
there. However, what's still there, and what doesn't go away once it
has come to me is the abstract form, shape, and direction for what I'm
going to write. The specific points, details, and exact words come
right back (as if they weren't forgotten but only temporarily hidden)
once I start expressing the abstract form, shape, and direction I got
earlier while ... just ... riding ...
That's the context for one very hot summer day as I was halfway through
my evening ride. Up ahead of me on the side of the road which follows
the east side of a one hundred acre vineyard, I saw what looked like a
discarded offcut of vineyard hosepipe. At first, I didn't pay much
attention to it. Then, as I got closer, I had another thought: that it
wasn't an offcut of hosepipe after all, but was rather a piece of thick
rope. And still I didn't pay much attention to it. Only when I was
about ten feet away from it did I realize it was a large snake which
was about to crawl onto and across the road, and if he did crawl onto
the road, he would surely be killed by a passing car. I dismounted from
my bicycle, a healthy distance from the snake.
Something very visceral and primal caused the hair on the back of my
neck to rise up. I was immediately afraid of that snake, yet he hadn't
done anything to threaten me. I had two conflicting drives at that
moment: one, to save the snake; the other, to save myself.
Not wanting to handle the snake, and yet not knowing what to do to stop
him from crawling onto the road, I gingerly pushed my bicycle so that
its front wheel stopped in front of the snake's head, preventing him
from going any further and getting onto the road. And there we were, in
a stalemate: me, panic stricken, holding my bicycle by the saddle,
standing as far back as I possibly could, preventing the snake from
getting onto the road, and the snake, casually lying still, flicking
his tongue in and out, tasting my bicycle's front tire (or was he
smelling? don't snakes smell with their tongues?), not moving, not
retreating, but now not attempting to cross the road either.
It suddenly occurred to me I had started something for which I had no
idea how it would end. I was afraid of that snake. I didn't know how to
deal with him. I didn't know if he was venomous or not. And yet it was
clear to me I held his future - whether he lived or died - in my hands.
And I had no notion of what to do next.
I thought of something: using my cellphone (which I always carry with
me when I'm riding), I called the Yellow Pages operator and asked for
telephone numbers for pet shops and vivariums in Napa. Perhaps I could
locate someone who would know what to do and who would tell me what to
do. There were a few wrong numbers, and the ones which rang had voice
messages saying the businesses were closed for the day. Frustrated, I
called the operator again, this time asking for telephone numbers for
animal hospitals in Napa. I got through to the guy at the answering
service for one of them. The hospital, he told me, was closed, so I
asked him if he could refer me to a snake expert. He couldn't, and he
asked me if I had a hurt snake. I told him no, but I might have one
soon if I couldn't contact a snake expert!
Then I called the Napa Police, the best idea I'd had all evening so
far. I told the dispatch sergeant about the situation. She listened
intently, then with a smile in her voice, said: "Now I really HAVE
heard everything!". She told me to hang up, and she said she'd have an
animal control officer call me back.
The snake was still flicking his tongue at my front tire, not
attempting to go around it. He was truly a beautiful creature. In spite
of the deeply subconscious fear which coursed through me as I watched
him, I realized I was now committed to him, even without knowing how
the saga was going to end, or how long it was going to take. I realized
I would be there for him for as long as it took.
When my cellphone rang about ten minutes later, I was almost surprised,
shaken out of my reverie. Totally focused on the snake, I'd forgotten
the animal control officer was going to call. He asked what kind of
snake it was. I told him I knew very little about snakes. I described
the snake's markings. He told me it sounds like a rattlesnake. He said
it could be dangerous ("Thanks very much!" I swallowed, hoarse ...). I
asked him if I should try to move the snake, and the more I asked the
question the more my stomach tightened into a tiny ball. He said he
could come by in about an hour if I would care to wait for him.
Clearly, I had a choice. I could wait for the animal control officer
for an hour - just me and the snake waiting at the side of a road on
the edge of the vineyard - or I could simply ride away. Invariably, the
snake would then cross the road and be killed by a passing car. No, I
didn't have a choice after all. Or I did have a choice: to
stay or to stay! Chocolate or chocolate: choose!
The animal control officer asked if I'd touched the snake. I hadn't,
but since the snake seemed so calm and relaxed, I carefully reached out
and touched his tail. He coiled up and raised his head, and I didn't
have to be the Crocodile Hunter to figure out he was hostile. And
again, that primal rush of adrenalin pumped through my veins. The fear
he invoked in me by doing nothing at all, just by being a snake,
fascinated me. "Laurence, you ARE on automatic!", I said to myself
I asked the animal control officer if he had any other good ideas! He
said I could find a long stick and try to move the snake with it.
("Yeah! A really REALLY long stick!" I thought ...). I told him I'd go
and look for a stick, then call him back.
Leaving my bicycle at the side of the road in front of the snake, I
went looking for a long stick. I didn't find a long stick, but I did
find the next best thing: a six foot length of sturdy wire, discarded
there, no doubt, from some erstwhile vineyard project. And then I had
an original, creative idea. I bent one of the ends of the wire into a
noose and, standing as far from the snake as possible, I slipped the
noose over his head. Surprisingly, he allowed me to. Did he know my
intention was to protect him? Was he allowing me to save
him from being killed?
Now almost squinting with fear yet realizing I had no other choice, I
lifted the snake up in the noose. He immediately fell out and onto the
side of the road again. My breath was heaving. I tightened the noose
somewhat, then slipped it over his head again. Again he allowed me to.
This time I got the noose about a foot down onto his body.
And then - as if a stick of dynamite had exploded behind me - I burst
into a run. I ran and I ran as hard as I could with that snake on that
wire into that vineyard. The snake seemed to coil tighter around the
wire and did not attempt to uncoil himself. Was he ... holding
on? I ran and I ran and I ran away from the road, deeper and deeper
into the vineyard, wanting to get that snake away from the road and
back to a safe place, and I wanted to get him there fast and leave him
there before he changed his mind and bit me. My breath was coming in
gasping sobs. I ran, ducking under overhanging vine canes, some
smacking me in the face, stinging. When I was about a half mile into
the vineyard, I stopped and put down the wire and the snake.
The snake, ever so casually, uncoiled himself from the wire, crawled
away from it, turned around, and looked at me. Then ... in the depths
of my being, in the very center of my soul ... I heard
that snake say to me Goodbye, and Thank You!
I could almost not believe what I'd just heard, and yet I immediately
responded - out loud and in English: "No. Thank YOU! Thank You for
allowing me the
serving you. I apologize to you for being afraid of you. I Love You.".
The snake flicked his tongue at me, then turned and slowly slithered
away, raising puffs of dust from the bone dry dirt on the vineyard
floor, then disappeared behind the chardonnay vines.
It was then I realized exactly how out of breath I was. I sat down,
hard, on the ground, heaving in oxygen, my head between my knees.
After catching my breath, I began a slow walk the half mile back to the
road, wondering if someone had stolen my bicycle.
No one had. It was still there, lying exactly where I'd left it at the
side of the road. I called the animal control officer on my cellphone
and told him what had happened. I thanked him for coaching me. I told
him I considered what had just occurred - that extraordinary encounter
with the snake - to be a total and absolute
He was silent for a long time, and then that animal control officer
said to me: "No one ever gets it like that. Thank You for sharing that
I got back on my bicycle and started to ride home. The sun was setting.
The evening air felt cool against my face.