And then I Stopped Breathing

But only for a moment.

We were driving up the road to Sepphoris when George, my favorite driver, began stammering:  “Dr. Mark! Dr. Mark!” (George insists on such formalities, even in the midst of crisis.)

George, Mark, Greg, and some Druze fellas (right to left). Lunch spot near Caesarea Philippi. George is an affable member of the Palestinian Christian community. He used to drive limos in Washington DC, but now drives busses for George Garabedian’s Tour Company (GGC) in Jerusalem.

I awoke from my drooling slumber, oddly enough, still lecturing on the finer points of the Middle Bronze Age. I looked where he was pointing.

“Holy smokes!”

A Whip Snake, easily five feet long, slithered down the asphalt. He glided effortlessly ahead of our wheels, doing a horizontal version of the grand slalom. Every so often he twitched his tail in a way that suggested that his present speed was altogether casual, and that he could, at any moment, burst into a sprint capable of outdistancing our Mercedes coach, three galloping dromedary camels, and one middle-aged backpacker all put together. We watched his glossy black form with thoughts that bounced between admiration and horror. Finally, seemingly annoyed by the game, the reptile slipped into the ditch to our left. There, he swelled, stood up full length, and gave George the blast of an unblinking red eye. He then proceeded to dance on his tail as the length our bus passed, his serpentine hips swaying impishly. He continued this display until we disappeared over the rise as if to say, “wait until next time.” George swears he saw most of this in the driver’s side mirror although I can’t confirm it; my glasses had jumped off my face in the midst of the fright.

George’s eyes were as big as saucers. “Did you see that?” He was clearly shaken by the experience.

I was incapable of response. I sank back into my seat and nervously preened some ear hair. George and I were thinking the same thing.

Finally, he turned and looked at me. “Are you sure you want to do the Jesus Trail?” His head was tipped to one side in a “you-are-indeed-stupid” kind of way.

George and I had talked of this proposal at length during our month of work together. He was of the opinion that the exercise was silly. It was too hot. The ground was too hard. Nature was too non-urban. And now we both knew that there were Very Large Snakes with Attitudes out there.

Large Whip Snake or Syrian Black Snake (Dolichophis jugularis asianus). This species is found across the Middle East. It can grow to a length of more than two meters, has a robust body and red pupils. It is virtually harmless, but can act aggressively (and bite) if threatened. It can also move FAST! Image from here.

It is curious. In 25 years of hiking, digging, and tramping around the Middle East (much of this, off-road), snakes have never been a issue. Apart from this Sepphoris surprise, the only other encounter I ever had was years ago, while cutting through a field at the base of Tell Dothan (north Palestine). There, two snakes fled as I approached. Their rapid movement caught my eye. I suspect they were also Whip Snakes. Let me tell you: I was wary of every black plastic irrigation pipe between that field and my car!

Note of interest: the snake that is genuinely feared in this region is the Palestinian Viper (Vipera palaestinae), referred to by some supersessionists as the Israeli Viper. These chubby little guys are quite venomous and can inflict a nasty bite. Fortunately (?), unlike Whip Snakes with Attitudes, the Palestinian Viper is pokey slow (relatively speaking) and prefers to hunker down when it perceives danger. The majority of life-threatening snake bites in Israel-Palestine-Jordan come from this creature. They are found across the region.

(Suddenly I am thinking of Bible stories with snakes. That must become a blog entry for another day.)

Palestinian viper. Never seen one of these in the wild and my goal is to maintain that perfect record. Image from here.

Now, as I step up to the asphalt road for the final few hundred meters to the gate of Zippori (Sepphoris) National Park, these memories rush in. I think of Tell Dothan and its sinuous irrigation pipes. I look down the road, think of George and remember the Very Large Snake with Attitude. I wonder where our racer is today?

I reach back and feel the pocket of my pack for my phone. George’s number is on speed-dial, just in case. In fact, several years ago George handed me this phone as a gift. “Call me anytime, Dr. Mark. I’m here for you.” I am pleased to say George has never failed me. And I have been in a few pinches. He is a dear friend.

Of course, given the fact that George is now in Jerusalem and I am alone in Galilee means that there will be no immediate rescues in case I encounter any tail-dancing Whip Snakes with Attitude. Still, it is nice to know that someone might hear if I holler.

Approaching Sepphoris.