Better Nate than Lever

Filed under: @ 9:26 am

My dad used to tell an old joke about a village of people who couldn’t figure out how to use a lever to lift things.  It would repeatedly break, fall apart, whatever, until they figured out that the best way to lift something was to use the village’s really big dude called Nate.  Thus the statement of the village, “better Nate than lever”.  You had to have been there.

Yes, we’ve been home for a while and yes, this is dreadfully overdue.  Andrew has a book in which the author describes jetlag as the condition that happens when your body travels faster than your soul and the symptoms of jetlag (the listlessness, the difficulty sleeping during normal night time for your area etc.) are the direct result of your body being present in your time zone without your soul.  It’s taken a while for my soul to catch up.  Better Nate than lever.

Andrew will post the photos later on today.
9 June

Our goal for today was to get out to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park. This is another in my list of Durrell History sites and ever since we went to the San Diego Wild Animal Park I’ve been interested in getting to another one for comparison.

I was impressed, but I’ll have to back up and get there first.

Picadilly Line to King’s Cross/Thameslink rail station. City Link train from London to Bedford doing a whistlestop tour through to Luton, which is where we wanted to get off . We first got off at the Luton Airport Parkway station which is where the Whipsnade website told us to get off. Except that no one at the Luton Airport Parkway station could tell us how to get to Whipsnade from there, there was a bus, they said, direct from Luton to Whipsnade. We could get a taxi from the airport, but it would be much easier to get back on the train then get off in Luton and get the bus.
They lied.

First of all, Luton is a dump. Dirty graffiti smeared streets, broken windows, boarded up shops. And about 85 degrees with somewhere around 70 percent humidity.
Today Luton was not only a dump, it was a sticky, gritty, sweaty dump.
Secondly, while there are signs at the train station pointing you towards the Tourist Information Center, they point you directly at a mall and when you get to the mall you walk under a pedestrian footbridge only to find that there’s another sign on the other side of the footbridge directing you to the Tourist Information Center in exactly the direction from which you just came. There is a bus depot outside the mall, but all of the bus schedules list where the busses are terminating and don’t bother to list which stops they’ll take in between (reasonable of course, but annoying for the casual tourist). We gave up finally and went into the mall looking for someone we could ask (heaven forefend) about the Tourist Information Center and ended up finding another sign pointing us towards same. We walked in the direction of the sign and found ourselves overlooking a construction zone. Waaaaaaay at the back, underneath the “Luton Public Library” sign, was a sign that said “Tourist Information Center”. Ah.
So we walked around the construction site and into the library where a set of doors proclaimed “Tourist Information Center” but were not only locked, but blocked. RRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!
Further into the library were the actual doors to the Tourist Information Center. The woman there directed us to the bus timetable rack within the library, but it didn’t have the timetable for the bus we wanted. Sigh.
The guard behind the desk said that the timetables were printed on the second floor and so we hiked up there to find no printed timetables, but a reference librarian who was able to help us. Unfortunately the bus we wanted only runs every few hours and we had, of course, missed the most recent one.
Back to the Tourist Information Center.

A totally random local, for some reason visiting his town’s Tourist Center, directed us to a local cab company and we ended up in a cab driven by a tiny (like shorter than me) East Indian guy who drove like he was in the end stages of hallucinatory syphilis. Which isn’t to say we didn’t appreciate his expertise, he just drove like every other Brit we’ve experienced only shorter. Anyone who ever met my Gram Do when she was in her driving days will recall the sight of this little tuft of grey hair and not much else being visible over the dashboard of the gi-NORMOUS vehicles that she drove. This guy was driving the equivalent of a Toyota Celica and he still had the seat so far forward I was amazed his knees weren’t about his ears.

He dropped us off at what turned out to be the coach entrance for Whipsnade at just before noon. This did give us a chance to find the bus stop and make plans for catching the last bus to Luton (sounds like a Monty Python sketch really), but when we got to the gate the woman selling tickets threw a bucket of cold water on that idea. We asked her how reliable the bus service was, she said “Well…..sometimes it’s reliable. It might show up when it says it will, it was half an hour late this morning.”
We decided to get a taxi back to Luton and take our time at the wild animal park.

Whipsnade Zoo was started on the Duke of Bedford’s estate in the early part of the 20th century. The then Duke of Bedford was an early conservationist and somewhat of a revolutionary for his time in his ideas of how to keep zoo animals. Whipsnade was one of the first zoo parks, i.e. a zoo that keeps animals in large paddocks in more natural settings instead of in cages that make it easy for people to look at them. Whipsnade also has the honor of being pretty much the reason that the Pere David deer isn’t extinct since when Pere David (a Jesuit missionary who managed to smuggle himself out of China just in time) smuggled a few breeding pairs out of China after the Boxer Rebellion it was at Whipsnade that they were first kept and bred. Before the Boxer Rebellion the deer weren’t very numerous and what was presumed to be the last vestiges of the species were all kept within the grounds of the emperor’s palace. During the rebellion, the great majority of them were shot and eaten, but Pere David managed to sneak a few. I find this very cool.
Whipsnade was also the first place that Gerald Durrell got actual zoo keeping experience. My focus on zoos during this trip has been primarily because I’m an animal nut, but also because I’ve wanted to pay my respects to a man who is, in large part, responsible for me being in the animal biz as it were. It was the lure of being able to work with wildlife, of being able to make a difference in the outcome of an individual or (what a goal to aim for!) an entire species that initially drew me into medicine. Some days I really think I should go back to school, get a PhD in zoology and start working at a zoo. Then reason, and my love for getting a paycheck on a regular basis, re-assert themselves and I’m absolutely happy with dogs and cats. A lot of my colleagues have taken pilgrimages to Yorkshire to visit James Herriot sites, some day I’d like to do that too. For this trip, Durrell was it though.

All preaching aside, we were at the entrance gates of the zoo smearing ourselves with sunscreen.
A practically empty double decker bus was sitting at a bus stop a bit up the road from us. Whipsnade is a LARGE zoo and we wanted to see the most of it without having to walk the whole of it since it was, as I have mentioned, HOT and STICKY.
Seeing a zoo from the open top storey of a double decker bus is very fine. There was a bit of a breeze, the view was excellent, we were able to see into the paddocks with ease and there were exactly three other people on the top storey with us until we got to the zoo café and the tiger exhibit where we were absolutely run under with school kids. Remember what I was saying about British school kids, their uniforms, and their self control? Yeah, well these wasn’t them. Kids with soda in one hand and ice cream in the other, kids running up and down the aisles falling over each other, kids standing up, jumping and grabbing at passing trees. Now granted these kids were all in civvies, maybe they only feel the need to control themselves when they’re in uniform.
We got off at the next stop.
Wandered through the bird garden and had a lovely discussion with some Military Macaws. Wandered off and watched a flight demonstration in the amphitheater. Wandered past the petting zoo and the “Jumbo Express” train station. Early afternoonish, the temperature was pretty unreasonable unless you were out in the breeze so we tried to stay so. We wandered a lot. Saw deer in paddocks, dromedary in paddocks, wandered into a lovely tableau where a keeper was giving a rhino her afternoon wash and then passing around through the surrounding paddocks with a bucket full of fruit, vegetables, and a large armload of alfalfa hay. For the record one horned rhinoceros eat bananas.
All through the grounds there are deer of various species, wallaby, and something that I can only classify as a Jackalope (we took pictures, you’ll be able to see!) wandering free. Rhinoceros also don’t like wallaby poaching off their alfalfa since one of the rhinos wandering free in the paddock managed to chase a couple off with only a warning snort. Elephants and tigers, and flamingoes, and non-existent hippos (to be strictly truthful, there was a pile of what looked like boneless hippo sleeping in the sun, but it was so amorphous as to make me question the actual identification). We wandered off crossways along a grassy pathway past the zebras and ended up in the lion enclosure meeting, almost face to face, what has to be the most shameless lioness in the entirety of creation.
Okay it was hot. And granted, the poor little buggers have to wear fur all the time, but for heaven’s sake lady, have some (heh) pride in your species.
Male lion collapsed in the shade under a tree. One lioness wumped out on her side in the sun. And then this second lioness flat on her back and turned slightly so that her delicate pink tummy was pressed against the cool glass of the enclosure shedding as much heat as she could. Well, okay, technically her tummy was fur covered and tawny, not delicate and pink, but you get the idea. Head thrown back, forelegs folded coquettishly over and this enormous expanse of tummy against the glass. It was charming.
Wandered from the lions across to the giraffe enclosure. I’ve decided it’s pretty hard to get a bad photograph of a giraffe. From there we caught the tram again, now refreshingly free of enormous numbers of sugar hyped kids, and hitched a ride all the way around back to the zoo entrance. It was just after 5 p.m. I poked around the gift shop while Andrew called a taxi, this time out of Dunstable (a slightly closer town) rather than Luton, and we sat outside the gate and waited for the taxi to show up. And waited. And waited. And started to get concerned about getting back to the train if the taxi didn’t show up. The taxi finally did show, of course, and the driver was, of course, a mad man. Prone to driving with both hands off the wheel while making expansive gestures and raving about the traffic. I kept my eyes closed a lot.

It also turned out that he was the brightest of all the potential direction givers we had gotten all day. We asked him to take us into Luton or to the Luton Airport Parkway train station whichever was closer so after a while of thinking about it he took us straight to the Airport Parkway station (I wasn’t disappointed to have to miss a second glimpse of Luton) which shortened our trip by about 15 minutes. Flash the rail passes, find the first available train to London and we’re back on our way to air conditioning. The windows on the City Link trains do open which makes them better ventilated certainly, but it was still FREAKIN’ HUMID. Steamy humid, but not badly crowded, thank God, tube from King’s Cross back to Glouster Road.
We stopped at the Waitrose (grocery store) next to the tube station, got some water for tomorrow, then got some takeout from the local organic pizza place and a couple of (yes, I’m ashamed of this, but they were cold!) iced coffees from Starbucks. Then we came back and sat in our air conditioned hotel room. Life is good.
Tomorrow’s goal is the Portobello Market.

Now That’s Not Something You Hear Everyday 6/9/06:

“Tamzin, would you like pizza for tea?” The family that was sitting behind us on the top of the zoo tram the second time we got on had three small (all under 7) kidlings, and this was a question to the middle kidling by the mother. Now granted, I know exactly what she meant by it, but it was still a little odd to hear. Give it a try, say it out loud, it sounds weird,

“Tamzin, don’t chew on the bus dear, the bus doesn’t like being chewed on.” Again, the middle kidling (about 3ish), who was intent on chewing on the railing over the seat in front of her. I just loved this statement.

10 June (Saturday)

We have fallen into a pattern in the last few (very hot) days. We get done with whatever touristing we’re going to do for the day then, as we’re leaving the tube station, we drop into the Waitrose right next to the tube station and purchase 4-5 liters of water. We get back to the hotel room, drink some water, take a shower and then go and get dinner. This way we’re sure to have plenty of water to take with us the next morning.
Last night the air conditioning started to punk out on us a little. Not that it was particularly hot in the room, just that it wasn’t as cool as we would have liked. I woke up very early. It still took us a while to get going so that by the time we had finished our croissants, croques, and juice from the Forum Cafe, it was 11:30ish and hotter than stink. And humid. Have I mentioned humid? Saw a headline on the news stands this morning that the London Transit Authority has started to place emergency medical crews at the tube stations because people on the tubes are starting to drop like flies. It’s hot.

Circle Line tube to Notting Hill Gate and then a quick (HOT) walk from the Notting Hill tube station to the Portobello Market. This is a Paddington Bear pilgrimage rather than a Durrell pilgrimage for once. I was thrilled when I figured out we could actually go to Portobello, I looked on it rather as a piece of literary exaggeration, but as it turns out the market is absolutely bigger than life real. Saturday is the day to do it. Once. After that if you want to go to the Portobello market I’d recommend doing it on some other day because Saturday is the day when the antiques dealers are out and it’s more crowded than usual.
The Portobello Market defies (or at least strongly resists) description. If Joan hasn’t been there yet, she really needs to go, but Tony should look upon it as an opportunity to sit somewhere with a good book (a long one) and a (big) cold drink because if Joan does end up there it’s going to take days to get her out. The Portobello road is not closed down because of the market. There are people living in row houses along both sides and traffic is allowed down the streets when the market is active. For the record, people who attempt to drive down the Portobello road when the market is open don’t go very fast or very far, but people can, in fact, drive down there (shudder).
You start with the antiques dealers. Booths and shops lining both sides of the road. Narrow little side alleyways lined on both sides with booths making hot, claustrophobic little aisles absolutely crammed with people a la the worst Hollywood “Middle Eastern Bazaar” images that you can think of. People buying and selling anything. Stamps, silver, books, clothing, collectibles of all sorts, the (very hot) booth selling telescopes, binoculars, and magnifying glasses, antique (and not so antique) coach horns, crystal, china, military collectibles. Blocks and blocks and blocks of antiques dealers and people wandering aimlessly looking at everything.
About a quarter of a mile down, you start in with the food vendors. Booths with produce, meat, fish, spices, Halal meat markets in the buildings. Bakeries, dairies, carts selling ice cream and Italian ices. One enormous booth in the middle of the street (yes, vehicles are still allowed) with barrels and barrels of olives, brined cheeses, and other pickled vegetables that smelled absolutely divine. Small cafes, Starbucks (of course), numerous pubs advertising their big screen TVs and the World Cup. A couple of head shops selling (amongst other things) hemp products, and, enigmatically, a hair dresser (insert your head shop joke here).
We pulled into a cafe to get a snack and something cold to drink. In conversation with the waitress we discovered that the first match of the World Cup was going to be starting as of 1400 and that since England were playing every British person on the street was going to magically evaporate as of the start of the game. We drank juice and ate our gazpacho QUICK to get away from their big screen TV before the game started.
At the tail end of the food vendors (about another quarter mile) you start in with the flea market vendors. Bolts of cloth. Weird clothing, several booths full of scarves, booths with junk jewelry, booths with old, sun faded, dusty, but “new in box” electronics that look like they’ve been sitting on the shelves at Radio Shack for the last 20 years, booths with cosmetics, household goods (dish detergent, shampoo, paper products, toothpaste) that look like they could very easily have “fallen off the truck” or in some other creative way been disappeared from the inventories of legitimate businesses before showing up here. Booths full of car stereos and speakers that I’m sure were hot, booths full of ugly crafts projects, booths with shoes (new and used), booths with luggage, booths with knock off fashion clothing. Basically a mix of every garage sale that Joan has ever been to in her entire life (no, that isn’t exaggeration, the place is huge), a large proportion of those side of the road vendors of any sort of (very likely stolen) products of all types, and a stiff shot of the Tacoma Discount World. For the non-native (or for the native that hasn’t had the questionable pleasure of the Tacoma Discount World) TDW is in an old Costco warehouse and you can purchase all sorts of, absolutely legitimate of course, odd lot products ranging from toothpaste to small appliances. You come out of the place feeling like you need a shower. This end of the Portobello market was much the same up to and including the shower. At least another half mile of flea market vendors. Woof.

To be able to say that we’d done it, we walked the entire length of the market. And then turned around and walked right the hell back again. The return journey was much more direct than the outbound trip since we were able to resist the urge to rubberneck, but we did have to detour to investigate the possibility of a closer tube station. We saw a sign, but didn’t manage to find the tube station so in the end we just walked back through the flea market, the food stalls, and the incredible press of people at the antiques dealers and headed back for the Notting Hill Gate tube station.

We stopped at Starbucks before we got to the tube station. Now I would like to mention that, while we seem to have spent a good deal of time in various Starbucks while we’ve been in London it has primarily been for two things. One: air conditioning, and two: free internet access while we’re away from our hotel. I’m terrified at the idea of someone reading this and thinking that we’ve sought out Starbucks on purpose because of the familiarity, because of our deep seated need to have some island of American culture to cling to. No. We have continually sought out Starbucks because it’s bloody damn hot outside and we get lost so frequently that we have often needed to stop, pull up the map software that Andrew has on the computer and figure out where the hell we are.
Disclaimer over.

We had plans to go from Portobello to a local (okay local-ish) comic and collectibles mega-store in the hopes of finding cool omiyage and just to check it out. It took a bit of tube juggling (Central Line from Notting Hill Gate to Tottenham Court Road) and starting out from the tube station in entirely the wrong direction, but we did eventually find the place. It was stunning. Two floors of weird collectibles (you can purchase a remote control Dalek for instance), action figures, science fiction/fantasy/anime themed Lego sets, and more comics, graphic novels, and books than you can shake a stick at. Now for the record we didn’t actually go downstairs into the book section because the store wasn’t air conditioned and at that point I was so hot and sweaty that being outdoors in the heat and humidity was more appealing than being indoors where it was hotter and moister. We found some really cool toys though, then hopped it back to the tube station. Central Line to Notting Hill Gate, Circle Line back to Glouster Road. Stop at the Waitrose for more water then the inevitable collapse in the hotel room.
Except it wasn’t as cool as we remembered.
We turned the AC down as low as it would go and we both took a cold shower.

Dinner at The Prince Regent around the corner. We’d talked about going to Yailousa, the Greek restaurant that my family and I had patronized extensively on our trip in 1985, but we were both so wiped out from the heat and the humidity that we just couldn’t face the tube again. And since we started out from our hotel relatively late, it was at least a little cooler walking around the corner.
Why is it that restaurants that have non-smoking sections in this town have the non-smoking section in the back? The food was good, but getting to and from the street was a smoke bath. Andrew wanted to check out a place near the South Kennsington tube station that advertised itself as selling “cookies” which he thought was odd for the area (since every other cookie we’ve seen has been called a “biscuit”), but I was tired so I just came back and collapsed.
The hotel room is absolutely not as cool as I remember.

Tomorrow is for the London Zoo.

11 and 12 June (Sunday and Monday)

There is definitely something not right with this air conditioning. Woke up this morning hot. Not overwhelmingly hot, but still too damn warm for a room with the AC set to 15C (no, I don’t know what that is fahrenheit). Tepid shower, minimal clothing and a trip to the Cafe Forum for our morning OJ and croques in some lovely air conditioning. Long discussion about whether we are going to brave the zoo or if we’re going to punk out and find a nice air conditioned museum somewhere. I don’t know about the Victoria and Albert, but I’m convinced that the British Museum would be air conditioned.
The point is moot, we decided on the zoo anyway. The Picadilly Line is closed today (essential engineering works, please pardon my French) so we took the Circle Line to Euston and then got the Northern Line to Camden Town. The week long transit passes have absolutely proved their worth. One sweaty walk from the Camden Town tube station to Regent’s Park which is where the London Zoo is. Once again, the Great British Heritage passes won’t let us in.
By far, the London Zoo is the most commercial of all the zoos we’ve seen this trip. This is absolutely set up to be a tourist draw and is a little disappointing actually. They’ve made huge improvements over what I remember from 1985, there’s a lot less of the “concrete pit with an island in the center surrounded by a moat” type exhibit and a lot more in the way of natural environments, but the exhibits are still primarily designed to show off the animals instead of being comfortable living quarters. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself. Our first stop was the reptile house where we were enchanted by the Egyptian tortoises, these cute little wind up toy critters all of about 3 inches across. It was tortoise feeding time and they stick their tongues out when they eat. Really hard to get good photos inside the reptile house, the light just isn’t right. I did end up with a photo (I’m not sure how well it’ll turn out) of the enclosure featured in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone where Harry first talks to a snake. Absolutely impossible to get a photo of the enclosure without people in front of it, but I’m sure they keep the python amused.
Lovely walk through aviary. Scarlet Ibis sharing space with several Australian species because they’re re-doing their African small animal exhibits and they needed a place to keep the Scarlet Ibis (I guess the Scarlet Ibis count as African small animals in this case).
Really hot.
Really stinkin’ hot.
Drinking LOTS of water. Ooo! Small mammal house! An enormous concrete barn of a place, dim inside with just the noise of a few pigeons and other bird like trills coming out of the doors. No sounds of other humans. Shade!
Actually almost deserted building. Open doors on all four sides, but these lovely thick concrete walls made it very cool inside. And since there weren’t any animals easily visible, there were only three or four other people. Quick rest on the cool concrete benches then a wander about to find that the bird like trills are coming from a display chockablock with a small species of monkey (I don’t remember the type) and another exhibit with Gentle Lemurs. Obviously temporary exhibits, but the critters were the most active of any that we saw all day since they were also the coolest.

Asian lion exhibit (I didn’t know there was an Asian subspecies of lion) where the lions were notable for their lack of activity (to the dismay of the general public) and then another quick bench in the shade stop outside the bug exhibit. No interest whatsoever in going into a building that contained approximately half the current child guests of the zoo (also no indication that the building was air conditioned) so we wandered past the bugs to the butterfly garden exhibit (a lovely garden) and past the British Field Cricket pen. No kidding. Little sign on the fence thanking Volvo for sponsoring that particular section of garden and the British Field Crickets. You think I’m kidding. Go look at the photos then.
Hah! Dude wandering on the trail ahead of us in the butterfly garden noticed me watching him as he was trying to get off the path and pick the ripe seed heads off the poppies. They were standard field poppies i.e. they weren’t opium poppies which is, I am convinced, why he was trying to rip them off. As I said he noticed me watching him, stopped what he was doing abruptly then stepped back onto the path and walked briskly elsewhere shooting one or two glances back over his shoulder at me. I’m POSITIVE he was trying to sneak the seed heads off those poppies in the hopes that they contained raw opium. Did he really think that they’d have planted opium poppies without knowing what they were? There I go again, assuming that most people think on a regular basis.

It was feeding time at the bird house. The Hyacintihine Macaws were making one heck of a ruckus and there was an African Ground Hornbill snorking down on a pile of dead rodents much to the disgust of the little girl that was watching him. I love going to zoos for the animals, I also love watching the responses of my fellow animals to the natural behaviors exhibited by the critters in the exhibits. People can be remarkably amusing (irritating, dumb, and painfully mindless, but amusing nonetheless) sometimes.

The butterfly exhibit is housed in an inflatable caterpillar. We sadly didn’t get any photos of the caterpillar itself, but you walk in the mouth end and walk out the other end. It’s green with black mouth parts, big red eyes, and little spikes around the mouth……. a very passable imitation really. Looked a lot like the caterpillar from the children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. And signs outside the door noting that it will be hotter and more humid inside. Man, they weren’t kidding. We got some great photos, but it was a challenge keeping the camera lens from fogging up and it was wringing wet in there. On the whole I think Woodland Park puts on a much more impressive butterfly exhibit, there are a lot more species involved at Woodland Park but this one was still pretty neat.

Came out of the butterflies and ended up stopping to change camera lenses in front of the pond where they keep the pelicans. Overwhelming smell of fish and a dozen or more grey herons (plus a couple of cormorants) without leg bands. All the pelicans had leg bands. None of the herons or cormorants did. I absolutely hope that they were opportunists poaching a free meal.

Really hot.

Boneless, aimless walking through the gift shop and into the African exhibit. River otters and a woman banging on the glass just above a sign saying “please don’t rap on the glass it hurts my ears” trying to attract the attention of the otter swimming around in his pond. Meerkats in their desert exhibit and the same ninnyhammer whistling and clapping her hands at one of the meerkats that was taking a nap in the shade by the wall. The next time she takes a nap I hope her phone rings about seventeen times. A beautifully dim and relatively cool exhibit with Aye-aye, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet and this same wonderful specimen of humanity whanging on the glass trying to attract the attention of one of them who was much more interested in an orange than looking at her. I hope the next time she sits down to a quiet dinner the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to her door.
Did I say I occasionally enjoy my fellow humans and their behavior at zoos? It’s only very occasionally. Most of the time I want to kick people in the shins.
But I’m cranky, it’s been hot.
And humid. Did I mention humid?

Wandered out past the zebra and giraffe exhibit. They’ve got a wonderful walkway over the exhibit that has giraffe feeding stations on some of the support poles. Has to be pretty cool to be able to look up from a footbridge and have a giraffe feeding just above you.
Around the bend to the (sleeping in a cool mudhole) warthog exhibit and the complaint that I heard from a pair of tourists with heavy southern (American) accents “Why are they all asleep? Why aren’t they doing anything?” Well really. If you were covered in hair at this temperature and you were given the opportunity to sleep in the cool shade or dance around “doing something?” wouldn’t you take the opportunity to nap in the middle of the afternoon? Honestly.
Really, really humid.
I am my mother’s daughter. For years, until remodeling projects improved the airflow through the upstairs of their house a good deal, when the heat of summer would hit my mother would retire to the basement to wait out the heat in the relatively cool basement and be grouchy. Mom has never gotten along well with extreme heat or humidity, and as I mature I can see a good deal of the wisdom in that position. I was REALLY grouchy at the London Zoo.

The African hunting dogs were also doing a quite remarkable impression of being dead. Big pile of them, all blissfully asleep in a huge gangly tangle of ears and legs, in the corner of their pen that was in the shade. Some really great photos.

Crossed the footbridge over the Prince Albert canal to the flight cage with storks and kites and peacocks (for some odd reason), then along the far side of the zoo past their owl exhibits and a pair of kookaburras that had a sign on them for the staff noting “These birds are known to be aggressive, helmets and eye shields are available.” Looking at the beaks, I would have chosen the helmets and eye shields thank you very much.

Then out the turnstile and to the bus which, I discovered, would take us to the Baker Street tube station which meant that we didn’t have to transfer trains another time and it meant that we didn’t have to walk back to the Camden Town tube station in the heat. Altogether a desirable thing except that when the bus showed up and we got on we discovered that the seats were so close together front to back that Andrew literally couldn’t sit down.
Our last day touristing.

We were grateful to call it a day, but when we got back to the hotel we discovered (shudder) that the room was NOT cool. It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t air conditioned. Muggy at best. Humid.

I wasn’t really hungry so I showered, napped, and started to get stuff packed up while Andrew showered, napped, and then went out in search of something to eat. We called the front desk and complained about the air conditioning.
When Andrew got back with his burger and a bottle of milk for me, housekeeping came by and asked if there was anything we needed. Since we hadn’t gotten any response from the front desk about our AC, we complained to him. He said he’d send someone right up.
An hour later we called the front desk again and were told we would talk to someone in maintenance who said he’d be right up.
An hour after that we called the front desk again and finally got some sort of flunky who said he’d send someone right up to fix the AC or he’d put us in another room. This call actually produced a real person who came in and agreed that it wasn’t 15C in our room. When we told him that the front desk had said they’d put us in another room he seemed a bit taken aback, but went to go talk to the night manager while we packed. It was now about 10:15 p.m.
By 11 the flunky was back, we were mostly packed and on our way to a room at the end of a dead end stairwell which, as it turned out, wasn’t any more air conditioned than the room we had just left.

It was a hot night.
A hot, damp night interrupted at 0545 by the television turning itself on with some sort of weird welcome message for us. I was too out of it to call the front desk and complain and I don’t think it would have done any good anyway so we shut it off and went back to sleep.

The plan was to wake up about 0930, finish packing and check out at the required 11 a.m. then go and get breakfast and find somewhere close that was air conditioned to wait for our taxi which was scheduled for 1445. Up. Humid.
Packed. Hot. Too damn many clothes planned for the trip. Strip down the layers, shed the socks and sneakers, trade out for the sandals.

Haul the bags downstairs, complain at length to the desk clerk about the air conditioning. He said that it wasn’t just us, that the whole hotel had been having problems. It seems that their AC system isn’t designed to handle the requirements of 100 plus rooms when it’s 87F outside with 70% humidity.

Note to self: When planning future trips, be sure to plan the time of year quite carefully, but also check on the availability and overall health of the hotel’s air conditioning systems.

We dragged ourselves to the Cafe Forum for breakfast. Andrew got another croque, I couldn’t stand the idea of anything hot so I stuck with croissants and OJ. We discussed where we were going to go to spend almost 4 hours and decided to wander back to the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum. It’s a lovely little section of the grounds that they’ve terraformed into representative regional environments of Great Britain. They have fens, a pond, meadowland, chalk heaths, the works. It’s lovely. It’s shaded, and while there’s a good deal of traffic noise it’s really quite a pleasant place to be. It isn’t air conditioned, but we didn’t feel right about walking into Starbucks and leeching their air conditioning for four hours so we figured that this would be the best alternative.
It was closed. Or, to be more accurate, when we got there, it wasn’t open yet so we colonized a bench in the deep shade of some lovely mature chestnut trees on the grounds of the museum and just sat. Nice shade, nice breeze. So long as we weren’t doing anything particularly active it was very pleasant.
Pigeons to watch, a gardener along the front of the building to pity, and groups of school kids providing entertainment by wandering out into the grounds for their lunch and then discovering that someone had put a sprinkler on the lawn about twenty feet down from our bench. The first batch of kids were very (barely) restrained, only looking longingly at the sprinkler as they walked past. There was a second group sitting on the lawn behind us lunching and a third group wearing uniforms and, for some odd reason, pith helmets, walking past in front of us towards the wildlife garden (which was open by then). It was the kids in the pith helmets that broke everyone down. One kid just skirted the splash zone of the sprinkler, a second ran under it briefly, then it was a free for all. Kids in and out of the sprinkler, kids filling their pith helmets with water, kids sliding on the wet grass and their poor harassed teachers trying to round them all back up and get them to the wildlife garden for some further education. All the while this group of middle eastern-ish (lots of dark complexions, lots of girls in head scarves) looking group behind us sitting on the grass very demurely eating their sandwiches. Until the very last of the pith helmet kids walked past and then it was all over. Splashing, squealing, kids holding other kids in the spray and the comment of one woman walking past us who had been taking her lunch under a tree “I wish I could join them!” Their poor, poor teachers trying to keep all those white shirts from getting mud and grass stains as kids were flying over the sprinkler and making huge squashy bellyflops on the other side.

We packed up a little after 1 p.m. and went to the Starbucks for some air conditioning. Cooled down enough that we were at least comfortable by the time we got back to the hotel for the taxi.

Another lunatic behind the wheel of a (fortunately) mini-van. He said that the company had sent a Mercedes driver for us at 2 p.m. but we weren’t at the hotel so the Mercedes driver had come back and he had been sent out when the hotel called again at 2:30. I can’t imagine why the car company sent someone out at 2 since the concierge that called was very specific that we needed to be picked up at 2:45, but it worked out better anyway since we would have been distinctly uncomfortable in a Mercedes with all our luggage.

Quick zip to the airport, juggle at the check in to be able to upgrade to “World Traveller Plus” tickets and get wider seats on a bulkhead so we had MUCH more leg room. And then we sat. And sat. And sat.

Now for the record, I’m grateful that we sat in the air conditioned airport rather than having the airline stuff us on the plane to sit on the HOT tarmac, but sitting in an airport for 4 hours is one of my least favorite things to do. Turns out that when our plane came out of the hangar it was, for some reason, routed to the maintenance shed instead of the boarding gate. When maintenance figured out that there wasn’t anything to do to that plane they turned it around and started pushing it back to the departure gate. Then the tractor that was pushing the plane overheated and died leaving the plane stranded on the tarmac while they went to look for another tractor. By the time they found another tractor and got the airplane to the gate it was 43C inside the airplane and they couldn’t let us on until it was cooled down.
Two and a half hours.

We got our British Airways meal vouchers, five pounds to be used to purchase “light refreshment” which translated into two baguettes with brie, tomato and basil and two soft drinks for us and only one drink at the pub for the dude in line behind us who missed his connecting flight to Edmonton. Airports are particularly uninteresting places to be when you’ve spent the last three days overheated and you’re trying not to spend any money that will result in you getting any coins in change (the money changers will only purchase bills, not coin).

And for the record, British Airways World Traveller Plus is probably the way to go. Really considerably less cattle car than their coach section and not that much more expensive.

It took checking into a four star hotel for me to get a washcloth. Now granted, this four star hotel had faulty air conditioning, but washcloths there were a’ plenty. On the whole I think I’d rather have had better AC and no washcloths. Perhaps there’s some sort of mathematical formula.

If you bring canned haggis through US customs you will be subjected to agricultural inspection. Really. They were also interested, to the point of confiscation, in Andrew’s bacon pannini which he purchased for the flight but didn’t end up eating.

Sleeping 4 1/2 hours of a nine hour plane trip is one of the best ways I know to make it less painful. I wiped out after they fed us the not entirely inedible chicken casserole and while Andrew swears that he woke me up to drink something every time the stewardess came by with drinks, I only remember him waking me twice. I can’t say it was a great way to sleep, I remember a lot of jerking my feet around looking for someplace that was comfortable to put them, but since, when I woke up, we were less than two hours out from SeaTac I can’t really complain.

Our king size pillow topped mattress with the right number of pillows, the correct number and size of blankets, and a room around it with a window that opens and a ceiling fan, has got to be the most comfortable bed on the planet. It’s good to be home.

One Response to “Better Nate than Lever”

  1. Moncef Says:

    So, there’s a man crawling through the desert.

    He’d decided to try his SUV in a little bit of cross-country travel, had
    great fun zooming over the badlands and through the sand, got lost, hit a
    big rock, and then he couldn’t get it started again. There were no cell
    phone towers anywhere near, so his cell phone was useless. He had no family,
    his parents had died a few years before in an auto accident, and he had just
    relocated to the area after graduating from college.

    He stayed with the car for a day or so, but his one bottle of water ran out
    and he was getting thirsty. He thought maybe he knew the direction back, now
    that he’d paid attention to the sun and thought he’d figured out which way
    was north, so he decided to start walking. He figured he only had to go
    about 30 miles or so and he’d be back to the small town he’d gotten gas in

    He thinks about walking at night to avoid the heat and sun, but based upon
    how dark it actually was the night before, and given that he has no
    flashlight, he’s afraid that he’ll break a leg or step on a rattlesnake. So,
    he puts on some sun block, puts the rest in his pocket for reapplication
    later, brings an umbrella he’d had in the back of the SUV with him to give
    him a little shade, pours the windshield wiper fluid into his water bottle
    in case he gets that desperate, brings his pocket knife in case he finds a
    cactus that looks like it might have water in it, and heads out in the
    direction he thinks is right.

    He walks for the entire day. By the end of the day he’s really thirsty. He’s
    been sweating all day, and his lips are starting to crack. He’s reapplied
    the sunblock twice, and tried to stay under the umbrella, but he still feels
    sunburned. The windshield wiper fluid sloshing in the bottle in his pocket
    is really getting tempting now. He knows that it’s mainly water and some
    ethanol and coloring, but he also knows that they add some kind of poison to
    it to keep people from drinking it. He wonders what the poison is, and
    whether the poison would be worse than dying of thirst.

    He pushes on, trying to get to that small town before dark.

    By the end of the day he starts getting worried. He figures he’s been
    walking at least 3 miles an hour, according to his watch for over 10 hours.
    That means that if his estimate was right that he should be close to the
    town. But he doesn’t recognize any of this. He had to cross a dry creek bed
    a mile or two back, and he doesn’t remember coming through it in the SUV. He
    figures that maybe he got his direction off just a little and that the dry
    creek bed was just off to one side of his path. He tells himself that he’s
    close, and that after dark he’ll start seeing the town lights over one of
    these hills, and that’ll be all he needs.

    As it gets dim enough that he starts stumbling over small rocks and things,
    he finds a spot and sits down to wait for full dark and the town lights.

    Full dark comes before he knows it. He must have dozed off. He stands back
    up and turns all the way around. He sees nothing but stars.

    He wakes up the next morning feeling absolutely lousy. His eyes are gummy
    and his mouth and nose feel like they’re full of sand. He so thirsty that he
    can’t even swallow. He barely got any sleep because it was so cold. He’d
    forgotten how cold it got at night in the desert and hadn’t noticed it the
    night before because he’d been in his car.

    He knows the Rule of Threes – three minutes without air, three days without
    water, three weeks without food – then you die. Some people can make it a
    little longer, in the best situations. But the desert heat and having to
    walk and sweat isn’t the best situation to be without water. He figures,
    unless he finds water, this is his last day.

    He rinses his mouth out with a little of the windshield wiper fluid. He
    waits a while after spitting that little bit out, to see if his mouth goes
    numb, or he feels dizzy or something. Has his mouth gone numb? Is it just in
    his mind? He’s not sure. He’ll go a little farther, and if he still doesn’t
    find water, he’ll try drinking some of the fluid.

    Then he has to face his next, harder question – which way does he go from
    here? Does he keep walking the same way he was yesterday (assuming that he
    still knows which way that is), or does he try a new direction? He has no
    idea what to do.

    Looking at the hills and dunes around him, he thinks he knows the direction
    he was heading before. Just going by a feeling, he points himself somewhat
    to the left of that, and starts walking.

    As he walks, the day starts heating up. The desert, too cold just a couple
    of hours before, soon becomes an oven again. He sweats a little at first,
    and then stops. He starts getting worried at that – when you stop sweating
    he knows that means you’re in trouble – usually right before heat stroke.

    He decides that it’s time to try the windshield wiper fluid. He can’t wait
    any longer – if he passes out, he’s dead. He stops in the shade of a large
    rock, takes the bottle out, opens it, and takes a mouthful. He slowly
    swallows it, making it last as long as he can. It feels so good in his dry
    and cracked throat that he doesn’t even care about the nasty taste. He takes
    another mouthful, and makes it last too. Slowly, he drinks half the bottle.
    He figures that since he’s drinking it, he might as well drink enough to
    make some difference and keep himself from passing out.

    He’s quit worrying about the denaturing of the wiper fluid. If it kills him,
    it kills him – if he didn’t drink it, he’d die anyway. Besides, he’s pretty
    sure that whatever substance they denature the fluid with is just designed
    to make you sick – their way of keeping winos from buying cheap wiper fluid
    for the ethanol content. He can handle throwing up, if it comes to that.

    He walks. He walks in the hot, dry, windless desert. Sand, rocks, hills,
    dunes, the occasional scrawny cactus or dried bush. No sign of water.
    Sometimes he’ll see a little movement to one side or the other, but whatever
    moved is usually gone before he can focus his eyes on it. Probably birds,
    lizards, or mice. Maybe snakes, though they usually move more at night. He’s
    careful to stay away from the movements.

    After a while, he begins to stagger. He’s not sure if it’s fatigue, heat
    stroke finally catching him, or maybe he was wrong and the denaturing of the
    wiper fluid was worse than he thought. He tries to steady himself, and keep

    After more walking, he comes to a large stretch of sand. This is good! He
    knows he passed over a stretch of sand in the SUV – he remembers doing
    donuts in it. Or at least he thinks he remembers it – he’s getting woozy
    enough and tired enough that he’s not sure what he remembers any more or if
    he’s hallucinating. But he thinks he remembers it. So he heads off into it,
    trying to get to the other side, hoping that it gets him closer to the town.

    He was heading for a town, wasn’t he? He thinks he was. He isn’t sure any
    more. He’s not even sure how long he’s been walking any more. Is it still
    morning? Or has it moved into afternoon and the sun is going down again? It
    must be afternoon – it seems like it’s been too long since he started out.

    He walks through the sand.

    After a while, he comes to a big dune in the sand. This is bad. He doesn’t
    remember any dunes when driving over the sand in his SUV. Or at least he
    doesn’t think he remembers any. This is bad.

    But, he has no other direction to go. Too late to turn back now. He figures
    that he’ll get to the top of the dune and see if he can see anything from
    there that helps him find the town. He keeps going up the dune.

    Halfway up, he slips in the bad footing of the sand for the second or third
    time, and falls to his knees. He doesn’t feel like getting back up – he’ll
    just fall down again. So, he keeps going up the dune on his hand and knees.

    While crawling, if his throat weren’t so dry, he’d laugh. He’s finally
    gotten to the hackneyed image of a man lost in the desert – crawling through
    the sand on his hands and knees. If would be the perfect image, he imagines,
    if only his clothes were more ragged. The people crawling through the desert
    in the cartoons always had ragged clothes. But his have lasted without any
    rips so far. Somebody will probably find his dessicated corpse half buried
    in the sand years from now, and his clothes will still be in fine shape –
    shake the sand out, and a good wash, and they’d be wearable again. He wishes
    his throat were wet enough to laugh. He coughs a little instead, and it

    He finally makes it to the top of the sand dune. Now that he’s at the top,
    he struggles a little, but manages to stand up and look around. All he sees
    is sand. Sand, and more sand. Behind him, about a mile away, he thinks he
    sees the rocky ground he left to head into this sand. Ahead of him, more
    dunes, more sand. This isn’t where he drove his SUV. This is Hell. Or close

    Again, he doesn’t know what to do. He decides to drink the rest of the wiper
    fluid while figuring it out. He takes out the bottle, and is removing the
    cap, when he glances to the side and sees something. Something in the sand.
    At the bottom of the dune, off to the side, he sees something strange. It’s
    a flat area, in the sand. He stops taking the cap of the bottle off, and
    tries to look closer. The area seems to be circular. And it’s dark – darker
    than the sand. And, there seems to be something in the middle of it, but he
    can’t tell what it is. He looks as hard as he can, and still can tell from
    here. He’s going to have to go down there and look.

    He puts the bottle back in his pocket, and starts to stumble down the dune.
    After a few steps, he realizes that he’s in trouble – he’s not going to be
    able to keep his balance. After a couple of more sliding, tottering steps,
    he falls and starts to roll down the dune. The sand it so hot when his body
    hits it that for a minute he thinks he’s caught fire on the way down – like
    a movie car wreck flashing into flames as it goes over the cliff, before it
    ever even hits the ground. He closes his eyes and mouth, covers his face
    with his hands, and waits to stop rolling.

    He stops, at the bottom of the dune. After a minute or two, he finds enough
    energy to try to sit up and get the sand out of his face and clothes. When
    he clears his eyes enough, he looks around to make sure that the dark spot
    in the sand it still there and he hadn’t just imagined it.

    So, seeing the large, flat, dark spot on the sand is still there, he begins
    to crawl towards it. He’d get up and walk towards it, but he doesn’t seem to
    have the energy to get up and walk right now. He must be in the final stages
    of dehydration he figures, as he crawls. If this place in the sand doesn’t
    have water, he’ll likely never make it anywhere else. This is his last

    He gets closer and closer, but still can’t see what’s in the middle of the
    dark area. His eyes won’t quite focus any more for some reason. And lifting
    his head up to look takes so much effort that he gives up trying. He just
    keeps crawling.

    Finally, he reaches the area he’d seen from the dune. It takes him a minute
    of crawling on it before he realizes that he’s no longer on sand – he’s now
    crawling on some kind of dark stone. Stone with some kind of marking on it –
    a pattern cut into the stone. He’s too tired to stand up and try to see what
    the pattern is – so he just keeps crawling. He crawls towards the center,
    where his blurry eyes still see something in the middle of the dark stone

    His mind, detached in a strange way, notes that either his hands and knees
    are so burnt by the sand that they no longer feel pain, or that this dark
    stone, in the middle of a burning desert with a pounding, punishing sun
    overhead, doesn’t seem to be hot. It almost feels cool. He considers lying
    down on the nice cool surface.

    Cool, dark stone. Not a good sign. He must be hallucinating this. He’s
    probably in the middle of a patch of sand, already lying face down and
    dying, and just imagining this whole thing. A desert mirage. Soon the
    beautiful women carrying pitchers of water will come up and start giving him
    a drink. Then he’ll know he’s gone.

    He decides against laying down on the cool stone. If he’s going to die here
    in the middle of this hallucination, he at least wants to see what’s in the
    center before he goes. He keeps crawling.

    It’s the third time that he hears the voice before he realizes what he’s
    hearing. He would swear that someone just said, “Greetings, traveler. You do
    not look well. Do you hear me?”

    He stops crawling. He tries to look up from where he is on his hands and
    knees, but it’s too much effort to lift his head. So he tries something
    different – he leans back and tries to sit up on the stone. After a few
    seconds, he catches his balance, avoids falling on his face, sits up, and
    tries to focus his eyes. Blurry. He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands
    and tries again. Better this time.

    Yep. He can see. He’s sitting in the middle of a large, flat, dark expanse
    of stone. Directly next to him, about three feet away, is a white post or
    pole about two inches in diameter and sticking up about four or five feet
    out of the stone, at an angle.

    And wrapped around this white rod, tail with rattle on it hovering and
    seeming to be ready to start rattling, is what must be a fifteen foot long
    desert diamondback rattlesnake, looking directly at him.

    He stares at the snake in shock. He doesn’t have the energy to get up and
    run away. He doesn’t even have the energy to crawl away. This is it, his
    final resting place. No matter what happens, he’s not going to be able to
    move from this spot.

    Well, at least dying of a bite from this monster should be quicker than
    dying of thirst. He’ll face his end like a man. He struggles to sit up a
    little straighter. The snake keeps watching him. He lifts one hand and waves
    it in the snake’s direction, feebly. The snake watches the hand for a
    moment, then goes back to watching the man, looking into his eyes.

    Hmmm. Maybe the snake had no interest in biting him? It hadn’t rattled yet –
    that was a good sign. Maybe he wasn’t going to die of snake bite after all.

    He then remembers that he’d looked up when he’d reached the center here
    because he thought he’d heard a voice. He was still very woozy – he was
    likely to pass out soon, the sun still beat down on him even though he was
    now on cool stone. He still didn’t have anything to drink. But maybe he had
    actually heard a voice. This stone didn’t look natural. Nor did that white
    post sticking up out of the stone. Someone had to have built this. Maybe
    they were still nearby. Maybe that was who talked to him. Maybe this snake
    was even their pet, and that’s why it wasn’t biting.

    He tries to clear his throat to say, “Hello,” but his throat is too dry. All
    that comes out is a coughing or wheezing sound. There is no way he’s going
    to be able to talk without something to drink. He feels his pocket, and the
    bottle with the wiper fluid is still there. He shakily pulls the bottle out,
    almost losing his balance and falling on his back in the process. This isn’t
    good. He doesn’t have much time left, by his reckoning, before he passes

    He gets the lid off of the bottle, manages to get the bottle to his lips,
    and pours some of the fluid into his mouth. He sloshes it around, and then
    swallows it. He coughs a little. His throat feels better. Maybe he can talk

    He tries again. Ignoring the snake, he turns to look around him, hoping to
    spot the owner of this place, and croaks out, “Hello? Is there anyone here?”

    He hears, from his side, “Greetings. What is it that you want?”

    He turns his head, back towards the snake. That’s where the sound had seemed
    to come from. The only thing he can think of is that there must be a
    speaker, hidden under the snake, or maybe built into that post. He decides
    to try asking for help.

    “Please,” he croaks again, suddenly feeling dizzy, “I’d love to not be
    thirsty any more. I’ve been a long time without water. Can you help me?”

    Looking in the direction of the snake, hoping to see where the voice was
    coming from this time, he is shocked to see the snake rear back, open its
    mouth, and speak. He hears it say, as the dizziness overtakes him and he
    falls forward, face first on the stone, “Very well. Coming up.”

    A piercing pain shoots through his shoulder. Suddenly he is awake. He sits
    up and grabs his shoulder, wincing at the throbbing pain. He’s momentarily
    disoriented as he looks around, and then he remembers – the crawl across the
    sand, the dark area of stone, the snake. He sees the snake, still wrapped
    around the tilted white post, still looking at him.

    He reaches up and feels his shoulder, where it hurts. It feels slightly wet.
    He pulls his fingers away and looks at them – blood. He feels his shoulder
    again – his shirt has what feels like two holes in it – two puncture holes –
    they match up with the two aching spots of pain on his shoulder. He had been
    bitten. By the snake.

    “It’ll feel better in a minute.” He looks up – it’s the snake talking. He
    hadn’t dreamed it. Suddenly he notices – he’s not dizzy any more. And more
    importantly, he’s not thirsty any more – at all!

    “Have I died? Is this the afterlife? Why are you biting me in the

    “Sorry about that, but I had to bite you,” says the snake. “That’s the way I
    work. It all comes through the bite. Think of it as natural medicine.”

    “You bit me to help me? Why aren’t I thirsty any more? Did you give me a
    drink before you bit me? How did I drink enough while unconscious to not be
    thirsty any more? I haven’t had a drink for over two days. Well, except for
    the windshield wiper fluid… hold it, how in the world does a snake talk?
    Are you real? Are you some sort of Disney animation?”

    “No,” says the snake, “I’m real. As real as you or anyone is, anyway. I
    didn’t give you a drink. I bit you. That’s how it works – it’s what I do. I
    bite. I don’t have hands to give you a drink, even if I had water just
    sitting around here.”

    The man sat stunned for a minute. Here he was, sitting in the middle of the
    desert on some strange stone that should be hot but wasn’t, talking to a
    snake that could talk back and had just bitten him. And he felt better. Not
    great – he was still starving and exhausted, but much better – he was no
    longer thirsty. He had started to sweat again, but only slightly. He felt
    hot, in this sun, but it was starting to get lower in the sky, and the cool
    stone beneath him was a relief he could notice now that he was no longer
    dying of thirst.

    “I might suggest that we take care of that methanol you now have in your
    system with the next request,” continued the snake. “I can guess why you
    drank it, but I’m not sure how much you drank, or how much methanol was left
    in the wiper fluid. That stuff is nasty. It’ll make you go blind in a day or
    two, if you drank enough of it.”

    “Ummm, n-next request?” said the man. He put his hand back on his hurting
    shoulder and backed away from the snake a little.

    “That’s the way it works. If you like, that is,” explained the snake. “You
    get three requests. Call them wishes, if you wish.” The snake grinned at his
    own joke, and the man drew back a little further from the show of fangs.

    “But there are rules,” the snake continued. “The first request is free. The
    second requires an agreement of secrecy. The third requires the binding of
    responsibility.” The snake looks at the man seriously.

    “By the way,” the snake says suddenly, “my name is Nathan. Old Nathan,
    Samuel used to call me. He gave me the name. Before that, most of the Bound
    used to just call me ‘Snake’. But that got old, and Samuel wouldn’t stand
    for it. He said that anything that could talk needed a name. He was big into
    names. You can call me Nate, if you wish.” Again, the snake grinned. “Sorry
    if I don’t offer to shake, but I think you can understand – my shake sounds
    somewhat threatening.” The snake give his rattle a little shake.

    “Umm, my name is Jack,” said the man, trying to absorb all of this. “Jack

    “Can I ask you a question?” Jack says suddenly. “What happened to the
    poison…umm, in your bite. Why aren’t I dying now? How did you do that?
    What do you mean by that’s how you work?”

    “That’s more than one question,” grins Nate. “But I’ll still try to answer
    all of them. First, yes, you can ask me a question.” The snake’s grin gets
    wider. “Second, the poison is in you. It changed you. You now no longer need
    to drink. That’s what you asked for. Or, well, technically, you asked to not
    be thirsty any more – but ‘any more’ is such a vague term. I decided to make
    it permanent – now, as long as you live, you shouldn’t need to drink much at
    all. Your body will conserve water very efficiently. You should be able to
    get enough just from the food you eat – much like a creature of the desert.
    You’ve been changed.

    “For the third question,” Nate continues, “you are still dying. Besides the
    effects of that methanol in your system, you’re a man – and men are mortal.
    In your current state, I give you no more than about another 50 years.
    Assuming you get out of this desert, alive, that is.” Nate seemed vastly
    amused at his own humor, and continued his wide grin.

    “As for the fourth question,” Nate said, looking more serious as far as Jack
    could tell, as Jack was just now working on his ability to read
    talking-snake emotions from snake facial features, “first you have to agree
    to make a second request and become bound by the secrecy, or I can’t tell

    “Wait,” joked Jack, “isn’t this where you say you could tell me, but you’d
    have to kill me?”

    “I thought that was implied.” Nate continued to look serious.

    “Ummm…yeah.” Jack leaned back a little as he remembered again that he was
    talking to a fifteen foot poisonous reptile with a reputation for having a
    nasty temper. “So, what is this ‘Bound by Secrecy’ stuff, and can you really
    stop the effects of the methanol?” Jack thought for a second. “And, what do
    you mean methanol, anyway? I thought these days they use ethanol in wiper
    fluid, and just denature it?”

    “They may, I don’t really know,” said Nate. “I haven’t gotten out in a
    while. Maybe they do. All I know is that I smell methanol on your breath and
    on that bottle in your pocket. And the blue color of the liquid when you
    pulled it out to drink some let me guess that it was wiper fluid. I assume
    that they still color wiper fluid blue?”

    “Yeah, they do,” said Jack.

    “I figured,” replied Nate. “As for being bound by secrecy – with the
    fulfillment of your next request, you will be bound to say nothing about me,
    this place, or any of the information I will tell you after that, when you
    decide to go back out to your kind. You won’t be allowed to talk about me,
    write about me, use sign language, charades, or even act in a way that will
    lead someone to guess correctly about me. You’ll be bound to secrecy. Of
    course, I’ll also ask you to promise not to give me away, and as I’m
    guessing that you’re a man of your word, you’ll never test the binding
    anyway, so you won’t notice.” Nate said the last part with utter confidence.

    Jack, who had always prided himself on being a man of his word, felt a
    little nervous at this. “Ummm, hey, Nate, who are you? How did you know
    that? Are you, umm, omniscient, or something?”

    Well, Jack,” said Nate sadly, “I can’t tell you that, unless you make the
    second request.” Nate looked away for a minute, then looked back.

    “Umm, well, ok,” said Jack, “what is this about a second request? What can I
    ask for? Are you allowed to tell me that?”

    “Sure!” said Nate, brightening. “You’re allowed to ask for changes. Changes
    to yourself. They’re like wishes, but they can only affect you. Oh, and
    before you ask, I can’t give you immortality. Or omniscience. Or
    omnipresence, for that matter. Though I might be able to make you gaseous
    and yet remain alive, and then you could spread through the atmosphere and
    sort of be omnipresent. But what good would that be – you still wouldn’t be
    omniscient and thus still could only focus on one thing at a time. Not very
    useful, at least in my opinion.” Nate stopped when he realized that Jack was
    staring at him.

    “Well, anyway,” continued Nate, “I’d probably suggest giving you permanent
    good health. It would negate the methanol now in your system, you’d be
    immune to most poisons and diseases, and you’d tend to live a very long
    time, barring accident, of course. And you’ll even have a tendency to
    recover from accidents well. It always seemed like a good choice for a
    request to me.”

    “Cure the methanol poisoning, huh?” said Jack. “And keep me healthy for a
    long time? Hmmm. It doesn’t sound bad at that. And it has to be a request
    about a change to me? I can’t ask to be rich, right? Because that’s not
    really a change to me?”

    “Right,” nodded Nate.

    “Could I ask to be a genius and permanently healthy?” Jack asked, hopefully.

    “That takes two requests, Jack.”

    “Yeah, I figured so,” said Jack. “But I could ask to be a genius? I could
    become the smartest scientist in the world? Or the best athlete?”

    “Well, I could make you very smart,” admitted Nate, “but that wouldn’t
    necessarily make you the best scientist in the world. Or, I could make you
    very athletic, but it wouldn’t necessarily make you the best athlete either.
    You’ve heard the saying that 99% of genius is hard work? Well, there’s some
    truth to that. I can give you the talent, but I can’t make you work hard. It
    all depends on what you decide to do with it.”

    “Hmmm,” said Jack. “Ok, I think I understand. And I get a third request,
    after this one?”

    “Maybe,” said Nate, “it depends on what you decide then. There are more
    rules for the third request that I can only tell you about after the second
    request. You know how it goes.” Nate looked like he’d shrug, if he had

    “Ok, well, since I’d rather not be blind in a day or two, and permanent
    health doesn’t sound bad, then consider that my second request. Officially.
    Do I need to sign in blood or something?”

    “No,” said Nate. “Just hold out your hand. Or heel.” Nate grinned. “Or
    whatever part you want me to bite. I have to bite you again. Like I said,
    that’s how it works – the poison, you know,” Nate said apologetically.

    Jack winced a little and felt his shoulder, where the last bite was. Hey, it
    didn’t hurt any more. Just like Nate had said. That made Jack feel better
    about the biting business. But still, standing still while a fifteen foot
    snake sunk it’s fangs into you. Jack stood up. Ignoring how good it felt to
    be able to stand again, and the hunger starting to gnaw at his stomach, Jack
    tried to decide where he wanted to get bitten. Despite knowing that it
    wouldn’t hurt for long, Jack knew that this wasn’t going to be easy.

    “Hey, Jack,” Nate suddenly said, looking past Jack towards the dunes behind
    him, “is that someone else coming up over there?”

    Jack spun around and looked. Who else could be out here in the middle of
    nowhere? And did they bring food?

    Wait a minute, there was nobody over there. What was Nate…

    Jack let out a bellow as he felt two fangs sink into his rear end, through
    his jeans…

    Jack sat down carefully, favoring his more tender buttock. “I would have
    decided, eventually, Nate. I was just thinking about it. You didn’t have to
    hoodwink me like that.”

    “I’ve been doing this a long time, Jack,” said Nate, confidently. “You
    humans have a hard time sitting still and letting a snake bite you –
    especially one my size. And besides, admit it – it’s only been a couple of
    minutes and it already doesn’t hurt any more, does it? That’s because of the
    health benefit with this one. I told you that you’d heal quickly now.”

    “Yeah, well, still,” said Jack, “it’s the principle of the thing. And nobody
    likes being bitten in the butt! Couldn’t you have gotten my calf or
    something instead?”

    “More meat in the typical human butt,” replied Nate. “And less chance you
    accidentally kick me or move at the last second.”

    “Yeah, right. So, tell me all of these wonderful secrets that I now qualify
    to hear,” answered Jack.

    “Ok,” said Nate. “Do you want to ask questions first, or do you want me to
    just start talking?”

    “Just talk,” said Jack. “I’ll sit here and try to not think about food.”

    “We could go try to rustle up some food for you first, if you like,”
    answered Nate.

    “Hey! You didn’t tell me you had food around here, Nate!” Jack jumped up.
    “What do we have? Am I in walking distance to town? Or can you magically
    whip up food along with your other powers?” Jack was almost shouting with
    excitement. His stomach had been growling for hours.

    “I was thinking more like I could flush something out of its hole and bite
    it for you, and you could skin it and eat it. Assuming you have a knife,
    that is,” replied Nate, with the grin that Jack was starting to get used to.

    “Ugh,” said Jack, sitting back down. “I think I’ll pass. I can last a little
    longer before I get desperate enough to eat desert rat, or whatever else it
    is you find out here. And there’s nothing to burn – I’d have to eat it raw.
    No thanks. Just talk.”

    “Ok,” replied Nate, still grinning. “But I’d better hurry, before you start
    looking at me as food.

    Nate reared back a little, looked around for a second, and then continued.
    “You, Jack, are sitting in the middle of the Garden of Eden.”

    Jack looked around at the sand and dunes and then looked back at Nate

    “Well, that’s the best I can figure it, anyway, Jack,” said Nate. “Stand up
    and look at the symbol on the rock here.” Nate gestured around the dark
    stone they were both sitting on with his nose.

    Jack stood up and looked. Carved into the stone in a bas-relief was a
    representation of a large tree. The angled-pole that Nate was wrapped around
    was coming out of the trunk of the tree, right below where the main branches
    left the truck to reach out across the stone. It was very well done – it
    looked more like a tree had been reduced to almost two dimensions and
    embedded in the stone than it did like a carving.

    Jack walked around and looked at the details in the fading light of the
    setting sun. He wished he’d looked at it while the sun was higher in the

    Wait! The sun was setting! That meant he was going to have to spend another
    night out here! Arrrgh!

    Jack looked out across the desert for a little bit, and then came back and
    stood next to Nate. “In all the excitement, I almost forgot, Nate,” said
    Jack. “Which way is it back to town? And how far? I’m eventually going to
    have to head back – I’m not sure I’ll be able to survive by eating raw
    desert critters for long. And even if I can, I’m not sure I’ll want to.”

    “It’s about 30 miles that way.” Nate pointed, with the rattle on his tail
    this time. As far as Jack could tell, it was a direction at right angles to
    the way he’d been going when he was crawling here. “But that’s 30 miles by
    the way the crow flies. It’s about 40 by the way a man walks. You should be
    able to do it in about half a day with your improved endurance, if you head
    out early tomorrow, Jack.”

    Jack looked out the way the snake had pointed for a few seconds more, and
    then sat back down. It was getting dark. Not much he could do about heading
    out right now. And besides, Nate was just about to get to the interesting
    stuff. “Garden of Eden? As best as you can figure it?”

    “Well, yeah, as best as I and Samuel could figure it anyway,” said Nate. “He
    figured that the story just got a little mixed up. You know, snake, in a
    ‘tree’, offering ‘temptations’, making bargains. That kind stuff. But he
    could never quite figure out how the Hebrews found out about this spot from
    across the ocean. He worried about that for a while.”

    “Garden of Eden, hunh?” said Jack. “How long have you been here, Nate?”

    “No idea, really,” replied Nate. “A long time. It never occurred to me to
    count years, until recently, and by then, of course, it was too late. But I
    do remember when this whole place was green, so I figure it’s been thousands
    of years, at least.”

    “So, are you the snake that tempted Eve?” said Jack.

    “Beats me,” said Nate. “Maybe. I can’t remember if the first one of your
    kind that I talked to was female or not, and I never got a name, but it
    could have been. And I suppose she could have considered my offer to grant
    requests a ‘temptation’, though I’ve rarely had refusals.”

    “Well, umm, how did you get here then? And why is that white pole stuck out
    of the stone there?” asked Jack.

    “Dad left me here. Or, I assume it was my dad. It was another snake – much
    bigger than I was back then. I remember talking to him, but I don’t remember
    if it was in a language, or just kind of understanding what he wanted. But
    one day, he brought me to this stone, told me about it, and asked me to do
    something for him. I talked it over with him for a while, then agreed. I’ve
    been here ever since.

    “What is this place?” said Jack. “And what did he ask you to do?”

    “Well, you see this pole here, sticking out of the stone?” Nate loosened his
    coils around the tilted white pole and showed Jack where it descended into
    the stone. The pole was tilted at about a 45 degree angle and seemed to
    enter the stone in an eighteen inch slot cut into the stone. Jack leaned
    over and looked. The slot was dark and the pole went down into it as far as
    Jack could see in the dim light. Jack reached out to touch the pole, but
    Nate was suddenly there in the way.

    “You can’t touch that yet, Jack,” said Nate.

    “Why not?” asked Jack.

    “I haven’t explained it to you yet,” replied Nate.

    “Well, it kinda looks like a lever or something,” said Jack. “You’d push it
    that way, and it would move in the slot.”

    “Yep, that’s what it is,” replied Nate.

    “What does it do?” asked Jack. “End the world?”

    “Oh, no,” said Nate. “Nothing that drastic. It just ends humanity. I call it
    ‘The Lever of Doom’.” For the last few words Nate had used a deeper, ringing
    voice. He tried to look serious for a few seconds, and then gave up and

    Jack was initially startled by Nate’s pronouncement, but when Nate grinned
    Jack laughed. “Ha! You almost had me fooled for a second there. What does it
    really do?”

    “Oh, it really ends humanity, like I said,” smirked Nate. “I just thought
    the voice I used was funny, didn’t you?”

    Nate continued to grin.

    “A lever to end humanity?” asked Jack. “What in the world is that for? Why
    would anyone need to end humanity?”

    “Well,” replied Nate, “I get the idea that maybe humanity was an experiment.
    Or maybe the Big Guy just thought, that if humanity started going really
    bad, there should be a way to end it. I’m not really sure. All I know are
    the rules, and the guesses that Samuel and I had about why it’s here. I
    didn’t think to ask back when I started here.”

    “Rules? What rules?” asked Jack.

    “The rules are that I can’t tell anybody about it or let them touch it
    unless they agree to be bound to secrecy by a bite. And that only one human
    can be bound in that way at a time. That’s it.” explained Nate.

    Jack looked somewhat shocked. “You mean that I could pull the lever now?
    You’d let me end humanity?”

    “Yep,” replied Nate, “if you want to.” Nate looked at Jack carefully. “Do
    you want to, Jack?”

    “Umm, no.” said Jack, stepping a little further back from the lever. “Why in
    the world would anyone want to end humanity? It’d take a psychotic to want
    that! Or worse, a suicidal psychotic, because it would kill him too,
    wouldn’t it?”

    “Yep,” replied Nate, “being as he’d be human too.”

    “Has anyone ever seriously considered it?” asked Nate. “Any of those bound
    to secrecy, that is?”

    “Well, of course, I think they’ve all seriously considered it at one time or
    another. Being given that kind of responsibility makes you sit down and
    think, or so I’m told. Samuel considered it several times. He’d often get
    disgusted with humanity, come out here, and just hold the lever for a while.
    But he never pulled it. Or you wouldn’t be here.” Nate grinned some more.

    Jack sat down, well back from the lever. He looked thoughtful and puzzled at
    the same time. After a bit, he said, “So this makes me the Judge of
    humanity? I get to decide whether they keep going or just end? Me?”

    “That seems to be it,” agreed Nate.

    “What kind of criteria do I use to decide?” said Jack. “How do I make this
    decision? Am I supposed to decide if they’re good? Or too many of them are
    bad? Or that they’re going the wrong way? Is there a set of rules for that?”

    “Nope,” replied Nate. “You pretty much just have to decide on your own. It’s
    up to you, however you want to decide it. I guess that you’re just supposed
    to know.”

    “But what if I get mad at someone? Or some girl dumps me and I feel
    horrible? Couldn’t I make a mistake? How do I know that I won’t screw up?”
    protested Jack.

    Nate gave his kind of snake-like shrug again. “You don’t. You just have to
    try your best, Jack.”

    Jack sat there for a while, staring off into the desert that was rapidly
    getting dark, chewing on a fingernail.

    Suddenly, Jack turned around and looked at the snake. “Nate, was Samuel the
    one bound to this before me?”

    “Yep,” replied Nate. “He was a good guy. Talked to me a lot. Taught me to
    read and brought me books. I think I still have a good pile of them buried
    in the sand around here somewhere. I still miss him. He died a few months

    “Sounds like a good guy,” agreed Jack. “How did he handle this, when you
    first told him. What did he do?”

    “Well,” said Nate, “he sat down for a while, thought about it for a bit, and
    then asked me some questions, much like you’re doing.”

    “What did he ask you, if you’re allowed to tell me?” asked Jack.

    “He asked me about the third request,” replied Nate.

    “Aha!” It was Jack’s turn to grin. “And what did you tell him?”

    “I told him the rules for the third request. That to get the third request
    you have to agree to this whole thing. That if it ever comes to the point
    that you really think that humanity should be ended, that you’ll come here
    and end it. You won’t avoid it, and you won’t wimp out.” Nate looked serious
    again. “And you’ll be bound to do it too, Jack.”

    “Hmmm.” Jack looked back out into the darkness for a while.

    Nate watched him, waiting.

    “Nate,” continued Jack, quietly, eventually. “What did Samuel ask for with
    his third request?”

    Nate sounded like he was grinning again as he replied, also quietly,
    “Wisdom, Jack. He asked for wisdom. As much as I could give him.”

    “Ok,” said Jack, suddenly, standing up and facing away from Nate, “give it
    to me.

    Nate looked at Jack’s backside. “Give you what, Jack?”

    “Give me that wisdom. The same stuff that Samuel asked for. If it helped
    him, maybe it’ll help me too.” Jack turned his head to look back over his
    shoulder at Nate. “It did help him, right?”

    “He said it did,” replied Nate. “But he seemed a little quieter afterward.
    Like he had a lot to think about.”

    “Well, yeah, I can see that,” said Jack. “So, give it to me.” Jack turned to
    face away from Nate again, bent over slightly and tensed up.

    Nate watched Jack tense up with a little exasperation. If he bit Jack now,
    Jack would likely jump out of his skin and maybe hurt them both.

    “You remember that you’ll be bound to destroy humanity if it ever looks like
    it needs it, right Jack?” asked Nate, shifting position.

    “Yeah, yeah, I got that,” replied Jack, eyes squeezed tightly shut and body
    tense, not noticing the change in direction of Nate’s voice.

    “And,” continued Nate, from his new position, “do you remember that you’ll
    turn bright purple, and grow big horns and extra eyes?”

    “Yeah, yeah…Hey, wait a minute!” said Jack, opening his eyes,
    straightening up and turning around. “Purple?!” He didn’t see Nate there.
    With the moonlight Jack could see that the lever extended up from its slot
    in the rock without the snake wrapped around it.

    Jack heard, from behind him, Nate’s “Just Kidding!” right before he felt the
    now familiar piercing pain, this time in the other buttock.

    Jack sat on the edge of the dark stone in the rapidly cooling air, his feet
    extending out into the sand. He stared out into the darkness, listening to
    the wind stir the sand, occasionally rubbing his butt where he’d been
    recently bitten.

    Nate had left for a little while, had come back with a desert-rodent-shaped
    bulge somewhere in his middle, and was now wrapped back around the lever,
    his tongue flicking out into the desert night’s air the only sign that he
    was still awake.

    Occasionally Jack, with his toes absentmindedly digging in the sand while he
    thought, would ask Nate a question without turning around.

    “Nate, do accidents count?”

    Nate lifted his head a little bit. “What do you mean, Jack?”

    Jack tilted his head back like he was looking at the stars. “You know,
    accidents. If I accidentally fall on the lever, without meaning to, does
    that still wipe out humanity?”

    “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it does, Jack. I’d suggest you be careful about that
    if you start feeling wobbly,” said Nate with some amusement.

    A little later – “Does it have to be me that pulls the lever?” asked Jack.

    “That’s the rule, Jack. Nobody else can pull it,” answered Nate.

    “No,” Jack shook his head, “I meant does it have to be my hand? Could I pull
    the lever with a rope tied around it? Or push it with a stick? Or throw a

    “Yes, those should work,” replied Nate. “Though I’m not sure how complicated
    you could get. Samuel thought about trying to build some kind of remote
    control for it once, but gave it up. Everything he’d build would be gone by
    the next sunrise, if it was touching the stone, or over it. I told him that
    in the past others that had been bound had tried to bury the lever so they
    wouldn’t be tempted to pull it, but every time the stones or sand or
    whatever had disappeared.”

    “Wow,” said Jack, “Cool.” Jack leaned back until only his elbows kept him
    off of the stone and looked up into the sky.

    “Nate, how long did Samuel live? One of his wishes was for health too,
    right?” asked Jack.

    “Yes,” replied Nate, “it was. He lived 167 years, Jack.”

    “Wow, 167 years. That’s almost 140 more years I’ll live if I live as long.
    Do you know what he died of, Nate?”

    “He died of getting tired of living, Jack,” Nate said, sounding somewhat

    Jack turned his head to look at Nate in the starlight. Nate looked back.

    “Samuel knew he wasn’t going to be able to stay in
    society. He figured that they’d eventually see him still alive and start
    questioning it, so he decided that he’d have to disappear after a while. He
    faked his death once, but changed his mind – he decided it was too early and
    he could stay for a little longer. He wasn’t very fond of mankind, but he
    liked the attention. Most of the time, anyway.

    “His daughter and then his wife dying almost did him in though. He didn’t
    stay in society much longer after that. He eventually came out here to spend
    time talking to me and thinking about pulling the lever. A few months ago he
    told me he’d had enough. It was his time.”

    “And then he just died?” asked Jack.

    Nate shook his head a little. “He made his forth request, Jack. There’s only
    one thing you can ask for the fourth request. The last bite.

    After a bit Nate continued, “He told me that he was tired, that it was his
    time. He reassured me that someone new would show up soon, like they always

    After another pause, Nate finished, “Samuel’s body disappeared off the stone
    with the sunrise.”

    Jack lay back down and looked at the sky, leaving Nate alone with his
    memories. It was a long time until Jack’s breathing evened out into sleep.

    Jack woke with the sunrise the next morning. He was a little chilled with
    the morning desert air, but overall was feeling pretty good. Well, except
    that his stomach was grumbling and he wasn’t willing to eat raw desert rat.

    So, after getting directions to town from Nate, making sure he knew how to
    get back, and reassuring Nate that he’d be back soon, Jack started the long
    walk back to town. With his new health and Nate’s good directions, he made
    it back easily.

    Jack caught a bus back to the city, and showed up for work the next day,
    little worse for the wear and with a story about getting lost in the desert
    and walking back out. Within a couple of days Jack had talked a friend with
    a tow truck into going back out into the desert with him to fetch the SUV.
    They found it after a couple of hours of searching and towed it back without
    incident. Jack was careful not to even look in the direction of Nate’s
    lever, though their path back didn’t come within sight of it.

    Before the next weekend, Jack had gone to a couple of stores, including a
    book store, and had gotten his SUV back from the mechanic, with a warning to
    avoid any more joyriding in the desert. On Saturday, Jack headed back to see

    Jack parked a little way out of the small town near Nate, loaded up his new
    backpack with camping gear and the things he was bringing for Nate, and then
    started walking. He figured that walking would leave the least trail, and he
    knew that while not many people camped in the desert, it wasn’t unheard of,
    and shouldn’t really raise suspicions.

    Jack had brought more books for Nate – recent books, magazines, newspapers.
    Some things that would catch Nate up with what was happening in the world,
    others that were just good books to read. He spent the weekend with Nate,
    and then headed out again, telling Nate that he’d be back again soon, but
    that he had things to do first.

    Over four months later Jack was back to see Nate again. This time he brought
    a laptop with him – a specially modified laptop. It had a solar recharger,
    special filters and seals to keep out the sand, a satellite link-up, and a
    special keyboard and joystick that Jack hoped that a fifteen-foot
    rattlesnake would be able to use. And, it had been hacked to not give out
    its location to the satellite.

    After that Jack could e-mail Nate to keep in touch, but still visited him
    fairly regularly – at least once or twice a year.

    After the first year, Jack quit his job. For some reason, with the wisdom he
    ‘d been given, and the knowledge that he could live for over 150 years,
    working in a nine to five job for someone else didn’t seem that worthwhile
    any more. Jack went back to school.

    Eventually, Jack started writing. Perhaps because of the wisdom, or perhaps
    because of his new perspective, he wrote well. People liked what he wrote,
    and he became well known for it. After a time, Jack bought an RV and started
    traveling around the country for book signings and readings.

    But, he still remembered to drop by and visit Nate occasionally.

    On one of the visits Nate seemed quieter than usual. Not that Nate had been
    a fountain of joy lately. Jack’s best guess was that Nate was still missing
    Samuel, and though Jack had tried, he still hadn’t been able to replace
    Samuel in Nate’s eyes. Nate had been getting quieter each visit. But on this
    visit Nate didn’t even speak when Jack walked up to the lever. He nodded at
    Jack, and then went back to staring into the desert. Jack, respecting Nate’s
    silence, sat down and waited.

    After a few minutes, Nate spoke. “Jack, I have someone to introduce you to.”

    Jack looked surprised. “Someone to introduce me to?” Jack looked around, and
    then looked carefully back at Nate. “This something to do with the Big Guy?

    “No, no,” replied Nate. “This is more personal. I want you to meet my son.”
    Nate looked over at the nearest sand dune. “Sammy!”

    Jack watched as a four foot long desert rattlesnake crawled from behind the
    dune and up to the stone base of the lever.

    “Yo, Jack,” said the new, much smaller snake.

    “Yo, Sammy” replied Jack. Jack looked at Nate. “Named after Samuel, I

    Nate nodded. “Jack, I’ve got a favor to ask you. Could you show Sammy around
    for me?” Nate unwrapped himself from the lever and slithered over to the
    edge of the stone and looked across the sands. “When Samuel first told me
    about the world, and brought me books and pictures, I wished that I could go
    see it. I wanted to see the great forests, the canyons, the cities, even the
    other deserts, to see if they felt and smelled the same. I want my son to
    have that chance – to see the world. Before he becomes bound here like I
    have been.

    “He’s seen it in pictures, over the computer that you brought me. But I hear
    that it’s not the same. That being there is different. I want him to have
    that. Think you can do that for me, Jack?”

    Jack nodded. This was obviously very important to Nate, so Jack didn’t even
    joke about taking a talking rattlesnake out to see the world. “Yeah, I can
    do that for you, Nate. Is that all you need?” Jack could sense that was
    something more.

    Nate looked at Sammy. Sammy looked back at Nate for a second and then said,
    “Oh, yeah. Ummm, I’ve gotta go pack. Back in a little bit Jack. Nice to meet
    ya!” Sammy slithered back over the dune and out of sight.

    Nate watched Sammy disappear and then looked back at Jack. “Jack, this is my
    first son. My first offspring through all the years. You don’t even want to
    know what it took for me to find a mate.” Nate grinned to himself. “But
    anyway, I had a son for a reason. I’m tired. I’m ready for it to be over. I
    needed a replacement.”

    Jack considered this for a minute. “So, you’re ready to come see the world,
    and you wanted him to watch the lever while you were gone?”

    Nate shook his head. “No, Jack – you’re a better guesser than that. You’ve
    already figured out – I’m bound here – there’s only one way for me to leave
    here. And I’m ready. It’s my time to die.”

    Jack looked more closely at Nate. He could tell Nate had thought about
    this – probably for quite a while. Jack had trouble imagining what it would
    be like to be as old as Nate, but Jack could already tell that in another
    hundred or two hundred years, he might be getting tired of life himself.
    Jack could understand Samuel’s decision, and now Nate’s. So, all Jack said
    was, “What do you want me to do?”

    Nate nodded. “Thanks, Jack. I only want two things. One – show Sammy around
    the world – let him get his fill of it, until he’s ready to come back here
    and take over. Two – give me the fourth request.

    “I can’t just decide to die, not any more than you can. I won’t even die of
    old age like you eventually will, even though it’ll be a long time from now.
    I need to be killed. Once Sammy is back here, ready to take over, I’ll be
    able to die. And I need you to kill me.

    “I’ve even thought about how. Poisons and other drugs won’t work on me. And
    I’ve seen pictures of snakes that were shot – some of them live for days, so
    that’s out too. So, I want you to bring back a sword.

    Nate turned away to look back to the dune that Sammy had gone behind. “I’d
    say an axe, but that’s somewhat undignified – putting my head on the ground
    or a chopping block like that. No, I like a sword. A time-honored way of
    going out. A dignified way to die. And, most importantly, it should work,
    even on me.

    “You willing to do that for me, Jack?” Nate turned back to look at Jack.

    “Yeah, Nate,” replied Jack solemnly, “I think I can handle that.”

    Nate nodded. “Good!” He turned back toward the dune and shouted, “Sammy!
    Jack’s about ready to leave!” Then quietly, “Thanks, Jack.”

    Jack didn’t have anything to say to that, so he waited for Sammy to make it
    back to the lever, nodded to him, nodded a final time to Nate, and then
    headed into the desert with Sammy following.
    Over the next several years Sammy and Jack kept in touch with Nate through
    e-mail as they went about their adventures. They made a goal of visiting
    every country in the world, and did a respectable job of it. Sammy had a
    natural gift for languages, as Jack expected he would, and even ended up
    acting as a translator for Jack in a few of the countries. Jack managed to
    keep the talking rattlesnake hidden, even so, and by the time they were
    nearing the end of their tour of countries, Sammy had only been spotted a
    few times. While there were several people that had seen enough to startle
    them greatly, nobody had enough evidence to prove anything, and while a few
    wild rumors and storied followed Jack and Sammy around, nothing ever hit the
    newspapers or the public in general.

    When they finished the tour of countries, Jack suggested that they try some
    undersea diving. They did. And spelunking. They did that too. Sammy finally
    drew the line at visiting Antarctica. He’d come to realize that Jack was
    stalling. After talking to his Dad about it over e-mail, he figured out that
    Jack probably didn’t want to have to kill Nate. Nate told Sammy that humans
    could be squeamish about killing friends and acquaintances.

    So, Sammy eventually put his tail down (as he didn’t have a foot) and told
    Jack that it was time – he was ready to go back and take up his duties from
    his dad. Jack, delayed it a little more by insisting that they go back to
    Japan and buy an appropriate sword. He even stretched it a little more by
    getting lessons in how to use the sword. But, eventually, he’d learned as
    much as he was likely to without dedicating his life to it, and was
    definitely competent enough to take the head off of a snake. It was time to
    head back and see Nate.

    When they got back to the US, Jack got the old RV out of storage where he
    and Sammy had left it after their tour of the fifty states, he loaded up
    Sammy and the sword, and they headed for the desert.

    When they got to the small town that Jack had been trying to find those
    years ago when he’d met Nate, Jack was in a funk. He didn’t really feel like
    walking all of the way out there. Not only that, but he’d forgotten to
    figure the travel time correctly, and it was late afternoon. They’d either
    have to spend the night in town and walk out tomorrow, or walk in the dark.

    As Jack was afraid that if he waited one more night he might lose his
    resolve, he decided that he’d go ahead and drive the RV out there. It was
    only going to be this once, and Jack would go back and cover the tracks
    afterward. They ought to be able to make it out there by nightfall if they
    drove, and then they could get it over tonight.

    Jack told Sammy to e-mail Nate that they were coming as he drove out of
    sight of the town on the road. They then pulled off the road and headed out
    into the desert.

    Everything went well, until they got to the sand dunes. Jack had been
    nursing the RV along the whole time, over the rocks, through the creek beds,
    revving the engine the few times they almost got stuck. When they came to
    the dunes, Jack didn’t really think about it, he just downshifted and headed
    up the first one. By the third dune, Jack started to regret that he’d
    decided to try driving on the sand. The RV was fishtailling and losing
    traction. Jack was having to work it up each dune slowly and was trying to
    keep from losing control each time they came over the top and slid down the
    other side. Sammy had come up to sit in the passenger seat, coiled up and
    laughing at Jack’s driving.

    As they came over the top of the fourth dune, the biggest one yet, Jack saw
    that this was the final dune – the stone, the lever, and somewhere Nate,
    waited below. Jack put on the brakes, but he’d gone a little too far. The RV
    started slipping down the other side.

    Jack tried turning the wheel, but he didn’t have enough traction. He pumped
    the brakes – no response. They started sliding down the hill, faster and

    Jack felt a shock go through him as he suddenly realized that they were
    heading for the lever. He looked down – the RV was directly on course for
    it. If Jack didn’t do something, the RV would hit it. He was about to end

    Jack steered more frantically, trying to get traction. It still wasn’t
    working. The dune was too steep, and the sand too loose. In a split second,
    Jack realized that his only chance would be once he hit the stone around the
    lever – he should have traction on the stone for just a second before he hit
    the lever – he wouldn’t have time to stop, but he should be able to steer

    Jack took a better grip on the steering wheel and tried to turn the RV a
    little bit – every little bit would help. He’d have to time his turn just

    The RV got to the bottom of the dune, sliding at an amazing speed in the
    sand. Just before they reached the stone Jack looked across it to check that
    they were still heading for the lever. They were. But Jack noticed something
    else that he hadn’t seen from the top of the dune. Nate wasn’t wrapped
    around the lever. He was off to the side of the lever, but still on the
    stone, waiting for them. The problem was, he was waiting on the same side of
    the lever that Jack had picked to steer towards to avoid the lever. The RV
    was already starting to drift that way a little in its mad rush across the
    sand and there was no way that Jack was going to be able to go around the
    lever to the other side.

    Jack had an instant of realization. He was either going to have to hit the
    lever, or run over Nate. He glanced over at Sammy and saw that Sammy
    realized the same thing.

    Jack took a firmer grip on the steering wheel as the RV ran up on the stone.
    Shouting to Sammy as he pulled the steering wheel…”BETTER NATE THAN LEVER!”

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