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June 7-13, 2006

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Car Culture

Tecnu Car

By Novella Carpenter

THE SUMMER is off to a good start if I've already been camping. Dropping all responsibilities, I headed to Point Reyes for backpacking, aching views of the sea and a hippie diet of nuts and berries. My camping partner, Willow, made me carry the heavy stuff, because she is used to car camping, and I had scoffed mightily at this notion. Oh, no, we would go out into the bush for days, filtering our own water, rationing food and cultivating our wild side, I thundered. We did have a great time "out there" and saw an amazing waterfall, met fun fellow campers and didn't rough it too much. But by day three, I knew I was in deep trouble.

I have a terrible reaction to poison oak. Now, before you all twitter and giggle and say "Leaves of three" with condescending little nods, I would like to say that without a doubt I know what poison oak looks like. OK? I know. I give every bush, every quivering leaf three feet of clearance. I never go down a trail that hasn't been mowed recently, and I step as gingerly as a goat on a crumbling Andean cliff. I think just looking at Toxicodendron diversilobum causes a rash to break out. Last time I got poison oak (I didn't know it as well back then), my entire leg swelled up to the size of an Iberian ham, and I wanted to amputate it.

So, I'm worried, there in my sleeping bag, regarding the little pus-filled thing on my arm—and worse, the ones on the backs to my legs. I figured it out later—sitting on the toilet! Sitting on the toilet was how I got those! Willow, of course, didn't have any poison oak outbreaks, even though I witnessed her regularly tramping through the stuff.

We had to evacuate. If I knew my body, we had 24 hours before I would go systemic. When we emerged from the trail, I almost cried on the hood of my trusty car. Back home, I doused myself with Tecnu and rubbed vigorously for what seemed like hours. I even got the Tecnu Xtreme, a heavenly concoction that you rub on the outbreak, and it exfoliates the urishol, the Satan-made chemical found in poison oak, out of your skin.

Then I went to the doctor because, who's kidding, Tecnu or not, I was going to get it and get it bad. The doctor reminded me that I had to clean everything that had touched me—including my car. I don't have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but suddenly I imagined that every surface of my car had microscopic urishol particles floating about, ready to inflict more pain and suffering on me.

I did what anyone would do: I spent five hours at the car wash. According to Palo Alto's Trail Center's poison oak safety tips, I should have washed my car's steering wheel and door handles on the inside and out when I got home from a camping trip. They also recommend placing a few newspapers on the car seat in order to save washing it later. But I'm shortsighted, and now I had to pay the price, because there was certainly poison oak oil everywhere in my car.

I started by putting on vinyl gloves—purple ones that we usually do dishes with. Then I sprinkled the entire interior with a custom blend of Dawn dishwashing soap, mineral oils and Tecnu. After the mixture soaked in, I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed—wet vacuuming and then repeating. Even the clean-car freaks started to stare at me—what invisible stain is this woman trying to efface?

Then I soaked towel after towel in Tecnu and ran them along the surface of the car. The dash, the glove box, the sun visor, the arm rests. Then I did it again. Then I did it again, but this time wiping down inside the glove box and underneath the seats. Machiavelli was right—fear is a real motivator.

I've never felt so crazy in my life, and all this was done under the hypnotic power of an elixir known as Prednisone. It reduces your immune system and somehow convinces you that you might be Jesus. Hallelujah!

Contact Novella Carpenter or send a letter to the editor about this story.

Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.