I’ve spent the better half of the last two days washing everything I own and bathing with Dawn dish soap like an oil-covered sea bird after an oil spill.
If I’ve learned nothing else over the last four months walking in the woods of the Eastern United States, it’s that I’ve got a knack for coming into contact with plants that make my skin burst into itchy red patches that bubble and ooze. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there about self-sabotaging tendencies — something else I’ve learned I have a knack for over the last year.
Luckily for my raw and blistered skin, I was close to home when my most recent outbreak appeared just a few days from the Vermont border. Turns out poison sumac makes poison ivy look like an absolute delight.
I hadn’t been back on the trail long when the blistery rash appeared. Just a few days before, I had gone home for a weekend to attend a family funeral and a barn party for friends visiting from France. It felt strange slipping into a sleek black mourning dress and brushing my hair straight after so many months wearing worn-out spandex and holey socks with my hair pulled lazily into knotty braids.
The visit home allowed me the chance to see family I hadn’t seen in some time — aunts, uncles, cousins and the growing tribe of my cousins’ toddlers. One little fella tottered across the grass to tug on the hem of his grandmother’s dress as she spoke of her departed older sister. He later “pinballed” between his mom and his grandmother as distant relatives quietly mulled about in the silence that comes when the bagpipes stop blaring.
The day after the funeral, I strung lights through the barn my brother built for my aunt and uncle. I picked flowers from my aunt’s garden and placed them in old copper tea pots I found in our garage as my brother finished installing the railing to the second floor and my uncle built wooden benches in preparation for the party. That night, I saw faces from my childhood — guitar teachers, math teachers who had the unfortunate task of trying to help me understand trigonometry and childhood friends I used to ride in red Radio Flyer wagons with back when we could both fit inside one together. I wound up falling backward into a wheelbarrow full of iced beers after a David vs. Goliath thumb wrestling match with an old friend. I stayed with a dear friend who lived down the road that night and returned to the trail the next day.
Soon after getting back to the trail in Massachusetts, I met up with a group of hikers I hadn’t seen in months — three childhood friends from New Zealand and a handful of others who had all been travelling together for hundreds of miles. The Kiwis tossed a massive tree branch onto the fire and bottles of whiskey were passed around. One by one, the hikers around the fire pointed to my arm, which just had an odd scab surrounded by a swollen red bump on it at the time. Their diagnosis: a spider bite or Lyme disease.
“Can I poke it?” asked Dusty, the long wavy haired New Zealander. The taller Kiwi, Bear Bag, asked me to hold my hand out like Spider Man to see if I had the ability to shoot a web out of my wrist yet. I took a swig from the bottle and went to my tent.
In the morning, I was alarmed by what I felt through my longsleeve shirt. The spot in question had raised significantly into a protruding lump. Had I been bitten by some mutant spider? Once I worked up the courage to uncover my arm, it was a gruesome bubbly sight. It was raining and everyone but Switchback, the New Zealander with a red beard and piercing blue eyes, had left camp. We sat under his tarp and shared some bread as the rain poured down. I couldn’t help staring at my oozing arm. “We don’t have plants that attack us in New Zealand,” he said, looking at my arm with a mixture of fright and pity.
I stepped lightly onto slick wooden bog bridges that sat beneath an inch of water and through pits of deep dark mud. We walked through a town and a man outside a church asked if there was anything we needed. By then, I had realized the rash consuming the skin on my arm wasn’t a spider bite but a plant-induced reaction instead. “Do you know if there’s a store nearby where I could find something to treat poison ivy?” I asked. The man drove to the store and came back with poison ivy treatment for me. The kicker — he wouldn’t accept any money and instead insisted on giving me and Switchback $50. The kindness nearly made me cry but instead I ran across the street to Switchback and got my pack hung up on a tree in all the excitement.
After another itchy night in the woods, I could feel the blistery rash spreading down my legs and onto my face. The old saying “just rub some dirt in it” came to mind and in a moment of itchy desperation, I did just that. Mud abounds in Vermont so I scooped some up and slapped it on my legs and arms. I even put some on my face. Slogging through the rain and the mud, I thought about just how ridiculous I must look and realized there must be a better option than slapping mud on myself.
I decided to pull a 22-mile day into Bennington and go home to wash the oils out of my clothes, my sleeping bag and my pack. I’d do my best to catch the kiwi crew with a few high mileage days once my skin began to heal.
The air was heavy with the smell of rain and thick green weeds reaching at my limbs as I walked the last day into Bennington. Finally the rain stopped. The sun came out just in time for it to set atop Harmon Hill where raspberries burst into their sweet ripeness before being quickly plucked by hungry, mud streaked hikers.