“Hello. I need to hold a big snake.”
This is how my snake holding adventure begins. With a phone call to the Reptile Zoo in Monroe, Washington; with an opening line I’ve never (ever) uttered before. A real ice-breaker.
“The biggest one we’re holding today is the Ball Python. Unfortunately, he’s only three feet long.”
This reply, from the Reptile Zoo Guy answering my phone call is quite a lot for me to digest. Did he just say only three feet long? Also, did he say PYTHON? And does he really have no reaction to my “I need to hold a big snake” demand? Is it par for the course that visitors to the Reptile Zoo don’t just want, but need to hold snakes?
I bring my teenagers with me. They won’t be a source of moral support as Susie was when I ate an oyster or Mary was when I got arrested for a good cause, or Beth was when I hiked the Grand Canyon, or my writing group was when I submitted poems to the New Yorker.
But one of the things I’m realizing about fear is that it limits you as a parent. So my children, who have been otherwise enriched by travel and museums and books have been denied all activities involving reptiles, poor things! I’ve never felt the least bit bad about this until today, when I realize that this will be a first, and that obviously, this puts me in the running for Parent of the Year.
As I pay what seems like the very reasonable $8 per person admission, I re-introduce myself to the Reptile Zoo Guy, and mention that holding a big snake is a pretty big fear of mine.
“We’ve only had four snake bites since I started here.” he says, real mellow-like.
I reach across the counter and squeeze his arm.
“Don’t. Please. Don’t tell me that.”
He shrugs. “Blah blah blah dog bites, blah blah blah statistics blah blah blah people asking for it because blah blah blah bothered the snakes” My ability to hear exactly what he’s saying has narrowed. All I’m thinking about is where are the snakes? When does the holding part happen? How soon can I be done with this?
This is not the attitude I want to have, by the way. When I made my list I told myself that there should be no grinning and bearing it. No squeezing my eyes tight until the experience is over. I want to be in the moment because, I remind myself, the whole idea is to live, remember?
I swagger into the snake exhibition, which, let’s face it, is just a room full of very large glass boxes with logs in them. Just logs, until you suddenly notice the snakes wrapped around or coiled under the logs. The whole room is like one of those dot pictures. You’re just staring at abstractions and then, all of a sudden…
You see a room full of snakes.
And you find that your body is involuntarily melting down, and prickling up at the same time. I’m so clammy and woozy that I wonder if today might be the day that I nail #29.
It turns out that I come by this reaction naturally. Our eyesight has evolved to see snakes so that we can get out of their damn way. Why? Because snakes are very deadly to humans. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 94,000 deaths from snakebite happen every year. The prime locations? South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
But just because I feel justified in my reaction, doesn’t mean I want to wallow in it. There’s an agenda here: I don’t want to cross South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa off my list of possible adventure destinations just because they are (it would seem) crawling with deadly snakes.
What I want is to be brave.
The Reptile Zoo Guy announces that it’s time to hold snakes. He has two kinds on offer: Corn Snakes, or the Ball Python. A small crowd sits in chairs and takes turns, mostly choosing Corn Snakes. They’re long skinny and active. Reptile Zoo Guy lays them over visitor’s shoulders like a hula girl welcoming people to Hawaii. And the corn snakes seem to be in on it, because they instantly tie themselves like leis around the recipient’s necks.
You have to be 16 to hold the Ball Python and so, naturally my 16-year old chooses to hold it. Reptile Zoo Guy emerges with a big shiny ball of what reminds me of a tabby cat. It’s coloring is marled, with browns and blacks and a tinge of cream. The python curls heavily into my son’s lap and starts exploring under his arm and around his hip. Reptile Zoo Guy looks at me, encouragingly and says, “See? This python is very mellow. He’ll just curl up and hang out. He’s used to being held.”
I look at my kids and see one with a Corn Snake macrame’d around his neck. The other with a Ball Python curled in his lap. Both are smiling at me. They cannot wait to see me freak out.
“Just do it. It’s super easy. Look how lazy this one is?”
Does that count as moral support? If it does, it’s tinged with a taunt. And the taunt comes with a side of accusation- that I’m an unjustified snake-hater. Oh well…
I decide to go with my gut. Since I thought of a tabby cat when I first saw the Ball Python. I decide to just keep that in mind. Think tabby cat. I love tabby cats. Comere tabby cat…
But of course, snakes bear very little resemblance to cats, especially when you touch them. When Reptile Zoo Guy places the Ball Python in my hands I’m completely unprepared for it’s the marble-cool smoothness. I’m even less prepared for it’s weight or it’s muscled, undulating movement. I take a step back, and the python responds by wrapping itself around my arm. Yes, I came here to hold a big snake, but now the snake is holding me. It’s too much. I wiggle away, shuddering.
Afterwards, I walk around the parking lot, shaking off the revulsion that has just coursed through my whole body. The kids are enjoying the rest of the Zoo. They briefly show me the crocodile and a bright green 8-footer. But I’m brooding over how horrible that was.
So far, facing my fears has brought terror, yes. But also sweet surprises and actual euphoria when I’ve gotten to the other side of fear. When I got off the ferris wheel or came back to earth after rock climbing or declared myself able to play catch. But this one has undone me. Maybe I really will cross big swaths of the world off my travel list because of snakes. And this thought makes me furious with myself. Even worse is the looming threat that there will be more of this. That riding in a helicopter or having a drink in a dive bar will undo me, too.
“Hey, are you okay?” The Reptile Zoo Guy, crunches toward me, across the parking lot.
“Yeah. I just…really wanted to be better at that.”
“But, um, you did hold a python today.”
It sounds awesome, but I’m not sure my semi-holding a snake should count. Not sure, that is, until Rebecca Mostow naturalist, biologist and recent-college-graduate-neighbor supplies this wisdom:
“When I was working at Camp Colman,” she tells me, “we told kids that the object of doing something brave, should be to leave your comfort zone and go to your adventure zone…not your danger zone. If you go to your adventure zone, your comfort zone will expand. But if you go too far, you’ll end up in your danger zone and that will only cause your comfort zone to get smaller. So take a step into your adventure zone. Celebrate leaving your comfort zone. Because that’s enough.”
It’s possibly one of the profoundest things I’ve heard on this journey so far.