I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Robert Lowell, Skunk Hour
One night when I went out to the dumpster, I rounded the corner and saw a large black tail perched atop a white striped body ripping open a plastic bag. It took me less than a second to back out and run over to another dumpster. The garbage raider missed my presence and did not take aim.
We have plenty of skunks about in the summer. Sometimes I smell the rotten, nutty scent on a summer night or when I am driving down a highway. Mephitis mephitis roams the neighborhoods and country roads looking for fresh trash or road kill. Though I do my best to make sure that the trash bag gets into the dumpster, neighbor kids who are too short to reach the lid or too scared to stay long in the dark sometimes drop their loads on the concrete pavement inside the enclosure. This is where the hazard comes.
My dermatologist had me strip down to my underwear while her nurse watched, then had me lie down on the examination table while she scanned my skin with a black light. The white spots on my well-tanned arms gave her no cause for concern; the moles on my extremities seemed normal. But then she took out a can of freon and sprayed an area on my left cheek bone.
“There was only one pre-cancerous area,” she announced. “It’s gone now.” She went on to explain that it wasn’t unusual for basal cells to form on the left side of the face because that is the unshaded side when we drive. After she told me to make an appointment for next year, she told me to get some sunblock and use it.
Now there is another test that I routinely get: my endocrinologist measures my Vitamin D levels. A few years ago, they were lower than they should be, so she urged me to start taking supplemental doses to bring them up. The main symptom that I felt was a sustained, moderate depression. Weeks after I began taking the extra gel tabs, I started feeling better. I also started wearing shorts when I walked so that a larger area of skin would be exposed to the sun.
We get our Vitamin D from two sources, primarily: fortified milk and the sun. Vitamin D production is our version of photosynthesis. This is why psychiatrists and other doctors recommend that we get enough sunlight. But the recommendation clashes with what the dermatologist wants of us. Too much sunlight gives us skin cancer.
Never underestimate a little dog. Once I saw a small poodle following its master up the trail to Cucamonga Peak in the Cucamonga Wilderness of the Angeles National Forest. The trail was rocky and steep, and we were about two miles up it, but there was the little guy keeping up with his owner who was moving at a steady clip. The only problem that I had was that the dog shouldn’t have been in a federal wilderness area (we had stopped with our Boston Terrier at the boundary). Like many dog owners, his master presumed that his dog was well behaved enough that he could snub the rule.
One of the sports of my childhood was the capture of lizards. Horned toads were common prey until the pet trade made them scarce: few were able to keep them in the ants they craved, so most died in captivity. Alligator lizards invited a special challenge because they fought back. One fellow I knew bragged that he caught them by getting them to bite him. But most of us were content with what we called blue-bellies or the Western Fence Lizard, a little gentleman that we found underneath rocks and large pieces of wood. (How we never bumbled into a rattlesnake is a minor miracle.)
Lynn at West Pinnacles, circa 1990
Uphills strain my heart. I struggle up inclines listening to the pound of my jugular vein. On especially hot days, I have to stop once or twice to drink water, eat, and regain my senses. I call the dizziness that I feel when I stop the “white blindness” because for a second or two my vision fades behind a speckled curtain of receding blood pressure.
Lynn has little trouble getting up hills. She passes me easily, her walking poles clicking in sync with her effortless ascent. Downhills are another matter. I zip to the bottom, waiting or turning back to see what is taking her. She struggles. The reason for this is a rare bone condition. She recently wrote to me:
Ten feet separated the canyon wall from the railing. Ten feet. But a busload of Chinese tourists crowded the asphalt. A surge of electric panic chilled me. My shoulders shook. My heart thudded. A deep unease roiled in my gut. Every time someone touched me I jumped. A ripe odor worse than a rancid cheese concentrated in my armpits. My fingertips led the rest of my body in a terrified creep along the cliff. A pair of tourists walked towards me along the wall. Unable to speak to them directly, I waved my hands frantically. They saw my terror and conscientiously gave me space.
You’ll never see me doing this!
I edged towards the rail, remembering a trick that I had learned from a photographer buddy who was also scared of the mere proximity of a sheer drop. The camera went to my eyes and I looked at the world through it. Everything was contained and manageable as long as no one bumped me. But they did. I snapped off a few quick shots and scurried back to the wall. The other travelers paid me no heed as they surveyed the wonders of Bryce Canyon from the head of the Navajo Loop Trail. The Bryce Amphitheater yawned as I scrambled back to what my mind told me was the more solid — and protected — ground of Sunset Point.
The heat of the day is oppressive, but you’ve taken care to bring along a full Camelbak plus a couple of extra bottles of water. A nice apple lines your pack. You’ve been sweating profusely. This does not faze you because you follow the rule of drinking water before you need it. So you know that you are well-hydrated and you still have plenty to drink.
Then it hits you: a headache combined with nausea. Oh, this is easy, you say to yourself. “I’ll just drink more water.” You slake your thirst but the headache and nausea do not go away as they usually do. Hmm. Maybe you need something to eat? You pull out your apple and reduce it to its core. The syndrome is getting worse. You throw up your emergency meal and the water you drank. What is going on?
Photo: Thomas Bresson
File this under “reasons to be glad that I am not an Eastern Woodlands Hiker”:
People have been turning up at Long Island allergists with an unusual complaint: they are suddenly sensitive to eating red meat. A trip to Burger King might cause them serious stomach distress. These people are not vegetarians or vegans on a holiday: they are people for whom steaks, burgers, and roast beef have been a mainstay of their diet. One doctor has seen nearly 200 cases so far this year.
The originator of the autoimmune system going haywire is the Lone Star Tick. Readers of this blog know that I hate ticks. This one scares me because I do consume a weekly steak. My first experiences with ticks happened in the Southeast where this particular species is spreading rapidly.
Mountain Lion Track, July 7, 2014
Few people walk the Edison Road except diehards like me who can face a walk back uphill from a dead end. Few people means many animal tracks.
So the other day I discovered a bonanza in the dust. The mule deer which had been absent for several months were back. Their double half moon footprints crowded the edges of the trail (for some reason they didn’t like walking down the middle). Throw in some coyote and the x-shaped tracks of a roadrunner plus a possible bobcat and it made for a good day for tracking. After I climbed the hill from the cul de sac and started on my way back down the other end, I saw them. The first impressions left me uncertain. The loosness of the dust plus the waffle stompers of another hiker had obscured them somewhat. But after rounding the bend beneath the first electrical tower, I found hard evidence. They were about the size of the palm of my hand and there was no mistaking the rounded, bean-shaped toe prints: A mountain lion had followed the deer. A new apex predator was in residence.
The last rattlesnake I saw was wending its way down the Santiago Ranch Road from Vulture View in Whiting not two weeks ago. I looked up a little from my habitual scan of the trail and saw it, a fine copper-colored specimen with a set of black and white rings separating its diamondback from its bone-colored rattle. It ignored me, but I still had the problem of getting around it. So I scooted to the far side of the broad fire road and ventured a step at a time past it. The serpent would turn at me, flick its tongue, and threaten to rattle. I froze, held my pose for a second, took a picture, and then moved a little more. Once I got in front of it, the snake could contain its wrathful fear no more: it pulled itself into a loose coil and furiously shook its tail.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake, June 14, 2014
My count is up to five since February. I met four of them in Whiting and one in O’Neill. Word is that animal control officers are seeing more rattlesnakes than usual this season. Where there are rattlesnakes, there are snake bites, which is why I scold those who walk through their territory in bare feet, something I never do outside the condo — even on the street where I live.
When I met the first snake along the Vulture View Road, I did not see it until I put my foot down inches from its face. The rattler immediately encircled a deerweed and began its manic percussion. I jumped and scooted several feet away. My wife — who had walked by the spot a minute or so ahead of me — heard my habitual cry of distress which I don’t care to write about here and kept going. She thought I was having a fight with my camera. I immediately aimed and took a picture from a safe distance.