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August 2-8, 2006

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The Byrne Report

The Natural Neurotic

By Peter Byrne


Everybody knows that summer is camping time, but from personal experience, I seriously suggest that you take certain precautions. The wilds of the North Bay are 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 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 to an oak carpeting the freaking woods.

Paths? Forget paths. They are just places that poison oak likes to grow best so it can rub itself on you and turn you into an oozing boil. And what does that do for natural selection? The answer is that once our ancestors chewed some poison oak, man, 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, waiting to rub you and your monkey relatives, making all of our lives hell.

The problem is that, despite several million years of pain and suffering and entire exterminations caused by this little ferny twig-thing--human beings still do not know what poison oak really looks like.

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 a no-no for shrinks, because you are not supposed to know anything about them, not whether they are gay or straight, not where they live, whether they think you have the mental makeup of an axe murderer 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 all over her body, I nearly screamed, because I really do like car camping and to taking swell hikes, but the last thing I want to deal with a hundred miles from the nearest emergency room is a creeping blotch that comes from nowhere, 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.

Let us not forget mountain lions. And ticks! My policy, while hiking, is to avoid touching anything that grows in or walks on soil. Along with your ticks and mountain lions, you have your rattle snakes 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 whilst you slumber.)

When hiking, carry a thick stick and always have a heavy rock. 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 well against a mountain lion. For the best protection, you need a shotgun, maybe a Browning automatic rifle or a box of grenades. I compromise by carrying a can of pepper spray, but it might be hard to spray it while also wielding a 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. Who knows!

Given all this, here is how I hike: dressed from head to toe in reflective white, sealed off from the sun and ticks, banging my rock and my stick together with a satisfying clanging sound. This lets the mountain lions and rattlesnakes and scorpions know I am coming and gives them time to find some other spot in which to lurk. Sadly, clanging is not enough. I also pause every couple of yards and yell out clearly: "Mountain lion be gone! Snake be gone! Ticks and poison oak, I see you! I am coming. I am a human! 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 rattle snake. Your scorpions, being nocturnal, are usually asleep under rocks. But I beg of you, 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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