Monday, January 19, 2009

My Birthday Camping Trip

Now that I am back home, I can reflect back on the drama of the past two days with some perspective. Three hours ago, all I could do was stare vacantly into space on the drive home, every now and then flipping down the mirror to gaze in morbid fascination at the red, puffy face staring back at me. But let me start at the beginning…

It was my idea to go camping for my birthday. I wanted to do something different and “get away,” even if only to Belton Lake. The company comprised me, Richie, the dogs, my cousin Matthew, and my brother Bryan who would join us later. Richie went to the store and stocked us with everything from the typical hot dogs and beer to not-so-typical milk, cereal, eggs, and even snack foods from cheetohs to a cheese ball and crackers. We had four huge containers of food and drinks. We even took our lap top, as the campsite had electricity and I envisioned nights of sitting round the campfire watching some good sci-fi under the stars.

And that’s exactly how the first night went: Richie, Matthew and I sat round the campfire with our drinks and watched a Roswell episode. I had a Corona, the guys had Scotch and cigars, and even the dogs got an extra “Beggin Strip.” My allergies were starting to kick up a little (cedar is in bloom) but I had brought Zyrtec and even Afrin, if I got desperate.

Soon after Matthew retired to the tent, the park ranger drove up and ordered us to put out our fire. Apparently, there is a burn ban in effect and the only fire allowed must be off the ground. We had somehow missed the “signs everywhere,” but we apologized and complied, and soon went to bed ourselves.

As soon as we entered the tent, Salem scrambled under the covers with Matthew, the person whom she loves, and I had to dig her out twice before she finally gave up and resigned to sleeping with us. (Matthew isn’t used to sleeping with a small dog and I was afraid he might roll over on her.) I lay there sneezing and blowing my nose for a good spell before finally getting to sleep, then awoke in the middle of the night to feel the hard, bumpy ground beneath me: our air mattress had deflated. We pumped it back up, took the opportunity to let the dogs use the bathroom so we could sleep in.

I took the opportunity to use the bathroom as well. It was dark enough to allow for squatting on the ground, and before I was even halfway through, I heard the distant jingle of a dog tags. I knew, with a sinking heart, that Tiberius had slipped out of the tent. I could hear him running aimlessly around the grounds, and there was nothing I could do at this moment. As soon as I was finished, I somehow managed to round him up in the dark. When I returned to the tent, we couldn’t find Salem. We searched until we finally found she had sneaked back under the covers with Matthew, whom she loves. This time I gave up.

I slept in the next morning while Matthew went to mass and Richie went to teach Sunday school. (I had thought we might all pretend we really were on a far away camping trip, but apparently I was pretending by myself.) Minutes after I emerged with the dogs from the tent, the park ranger drove by, and Salem tore off after his truck. He would have hit her if he hadn’t seen me running up the hill, draped in an army blanket, waving my arms frantically. Tiberius had come along too, of course, and as I awkwardly bent down to pick them both up, still trying to keep my blanket on, the ranger rolled down his window. “They need to be on a leash,” he said gruffly. I hastily apologized and agreed, slinking with self-loathing back to the campsite. I was now one of those irresponsible dog owners whose dog had nearly been killed because of my failure to either train her or confine her. I tied both dogs, with a liberal lead, to a post with their food and water.

Since I could not make a fire, and taking the dogs to the showers would be too much trouble, and my cell phone was nearly dead so I couldn’t call anyone, I decided to read until the guys returned. But my allergies were getting worse, the Texas sun was now beaming mercilessly into my eyes, and I had lost my sunglasses. I thought I should at least make coffee, but after reading the absurdly complicated instructions on the Coleman stove, I abandoned that idea. So now I sat, just feeling sorry for myself. It was my birthday proper, and I was alone, increasingly ill, and the park ranger hated me and my undisciplined dogs.

Having nothing better to do, I decided to go ahead and brave the showers with the dogs. I managed to tie them up at the one end of the long shower, where they were well out of reach of the water. They sat very tensely, pulling their leashes taut, while they waited. Well into the shampooing of my hair, I happened to glance at the floor and found I was not alone: several spiders and a couple other crawling somethings were in there with me, one very close to my feet. While I certainly don’t have a phobia of bugs, I don’t enjoy showering with them. By the time I found a clear spot to stand, I was arched sideways just to keep my head under the stream. I thought of my friends with phobias and felt very brave, like the Crocodile Hunter.

When I returned to the campsite, several crows and two squirrels hurried away from where they had been eating the dog food. Richie returned soon after to find me sneezing and crying and sniffling from now one of the worst onset of allergies I’ve ever had. We walked around the campground and discovered that numerous cedar trees had been cut and shredded, the pieces covering the ground like carpet. We could only assume the pollen had spread far and wide from all that activity.

I knew that I should go home, but I was determined to ignore my body and have a good time. I thought if I just put up with it long enough, my body would adjust. I took another Zyrtec, because obviously the one I had taken earlier that morning hadn’t worked. Well, this second one succeeded in stopping me up so completely that there was not even room left in my ears to allow me to swallow. Since we had no Liquid Plumber, I used Afrin. That worked for about six hours, and I had to use it again at dinner. By this time the congestion was moving into my chest. My face was swelling from inflamed sinuses and turning red with irritation from my constant tears and nose blowing. I was starting to itch on the outside of my throat, and my jaw line. It was like my body was running out of allergy symptoms to display and was making up new ones.

By now I was staying at the campsite only because I had no energy to pack up and go home. I thought it could not possibly get worse. Besides, our friends Paul and Jillian and their kids had joined us and brought pizza! And I thought between a good social time and maybe enough beer, I wouldn’t notice how I felt. Plus, my brother had brought his fire bowl on a stand, so we now had a legal fire going. We had a good evening, but I remained ever aware of my physical condition. (Paul, who is a pharmacist, could only stare in shocked silence when I told him of my Zyrtec/Afrin cycle. He, however, later left the campsite in an allergy fit as well.)

Between our (again) deflated mattress and being entirely unable to breathe (I refused to abuse the Afrin again), I barely slept that night. I lay listening to the raccoons rifle through our things. The previous night, they had enjoyed the Pistachios and Trail Mix we had forgotten to put away. This night, I would later discover, they or something else would climb the pole of the shelter to the hanging tote bag and tear open the zip-loc bag of dog food.

By the next morning, I was forced to hold a tissue to my nose while I tried to help pack up for home. My tongue even burned. I don’t know if I had burnt it the day before with coffee or pizza, but whatever the case it greatly compounded my misery.

Within minutes of being in the truck, my symptoms began to subside. We stopped at Walmart so I could get some 120 mg Sudafed to counter the effects of the overlapping Zyrtec (what’s one more medicine?), and then we went home.

Since then, I have soaked in a hot tub while listening to Vivaldi, and now I am in my study sipping hot tea. I am still swollen and dazed, but I am recovering. I am not saying I will never camp again, but it will probably be in my living room.

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