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August 16-22, 2006

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Are We Having Fun Yet?

How to protect yourself from the very outdoors you came to enjoy

By Peter Byrne

EVERYBODY knows that summer is the time to go camping with the fam. But, from personal experience, I seriously suggest that you take certain precautions, because the wilderness areas are extremely dangerous and fraught with natural perils.

Take poison oak, for example. I have but one botanical goal in life: To tell the difference, at a glance, between poison oak and laurel, manzanita, grape vines, blackberry bushes, benign ivy, etc. This is not as easy as you might think. First of all, it's called oak, which is disarming because it is supposedly very small and looks nothing like an oak. Second, it has three leaves and is shiny with red undertones. Well, so does just about every other little, thorny, slick second cousin carpeting the freaking woods.

Paths? Forget paths. They are just the place that poison oak likes best to grow so it can rub itself on you and turn you into an oozing boil. Which, like, wow, what does that do for natural selection? The answer is that once our ancestors chewed some poison oak, they never did it again, if they could remember what it looked like. Which means that poison oak has never evolved. Its just stays the same, cute little three leaves waiting to rub you and your monkey relatives, making all of our lives hell.

I want to be clear: I, myself, have never had poison oak, but my shrink caught a dose, and she actually revealed this to me in our weekly session, which is like a no-no for shrinks because you are not supposed to know anything about them, not whether they are gay or straight, where they live, or whether or not they think you have the mental make-up of an ax-murderer, Republican PR flack or whatever. When she told me that she had poison oak—and she actually bared her leg to show me it, and then said it was, like, all over her body. I nearly screamed, because I really do like to car camp and to take swell hikes, but the last thing I want to deal with 100 miles from the nearest Emergency Room is a fungus that comes from nowhere, and maybe a tiny smear gets on your trouser cuff, and later you are tying your shoe and fungus jam sticks to your hand and then you wipe your lips and, wow, poison oak in the lungs and you gag to death.

So, this is where my portable camping shower, which heats up in the sun, and hangs in a tree, comes in. After a hike, I take off all my clothes and seal them into an airtight plastic bag for eventual disposal by burning or Goodwill. Then I take out my $15 bottle of Poison-Oak-Be-Gone Antiseptic Soap and I shower in the open air, scrubbing my whole body, even between the cracks and the toes. Which reminds me: Shoes are a problem. 'Cause you can't wear the same pair on more than one hike. Poison oak loves sticky shoes. So take them off before your shower, seal them in a plastic bag, too, and use a stick to put them in the laundry (hot cycle) when you get home. Which means you can't buy expensive hiking boots—you need camping sneakers, lots of 'em.

And let us not forget mountain lions. These vicious cats are an even greater danger than poison oak. And ticks, which suck your precious bodily fluids and give you Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. My policy, while hiking, is to avoid touching anything that grows in or walks on soil, because you never know, maybe a deer rubbed poison oak serum on a cute little dandelion which is also throbbing with hungry ticks ready to sting your veins as you tromp by stupidly blissed out by the clean air, which is probably full of poison oak spores. Did I mention that you cannot wear dark clothing? Ticks love dark clothing. You have to dress from head to toe in the brightest, most glaring white, and stop every 10 feet or so to have your partner check you inch by inch for the bloodsucking little monsters.

Along with your ticks and mountain lions, you have your rattlesnakes and scorpions and horned elks and vicious male cows. (Never put on a shoe without shaking it and shaking it to knock loose the scorpions; better yet, do not take off your shoes while sleeping, so no spiky little poisoner can crawl in while you slumber.) When hiking: Carry a thick stick and always have a heavy rock in your other hand. This serves several purposes. If you stumble across a viper or a scorpion, you can keep the monster at bay with the stick, while crushing its diamond-shaped (or is it oval-shaped?) head with the rock.

Alas! Neither stick nor rock will serve you well against a mountain lion. For the best protection against a mountain lion, you need a shotgun, maybe a Browning Automatic Rifle and a box of grenades. I compromise by carrying a can of pepper spray, but it might be hard to spray it while also wielding the rock and the stick. Besides which, a hungry mountain lion might consider pepper spray to be a form of spice, rendering his or her meal more delectable. However, that pepper spray will serve you well if you come across a band of terrorists, or escaped sex offenders.

So, here is how I hike: dressed from head to toe in reflective white, sealed off from the sun and ticks, I bang my rock and stick together, making a loud noise such as "clang!." This lets the mountain lions and rattlesnakes and scorpions know you are coming and gives them time to find some other spot in which to lurk. Clanging is not enough. You must also pause every couple of yards, or less, and yell out clearly: "Mountain lion be gone! Snake be gone! Ticks and poison oak, we see you! We are coming. We are humans! We have no qualms about incinerating our own kind with nuclear weapons! You are nothing to us but potential trophies staring with dead eyes upon our families as we rip into store-bought meats." Admittedly, this makes the going a bit slow, and sometimes other hikers look at you askance, but it works. I have never seen a mountain lion or a rattlesnake! Your scorpions, being nocturnal, are usually asleep under rocks. So, do not hike at night and never, ever pick up a native rock. Bring your clanging rock from home.

Or, better yet, stay there.

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