By Brady Crain
Last week on one of my hikes, I got neck deep in some poison parsnip. I don’t believe that I am particularly allergic to this plant, because the only places it broke out was on my legs, which were covered with fresh bleeding scratches from scrabbling through raspberry and blackberry, not to mention my road rash from the week before. The scratches provided an ingress for the toxin.
The parsnip rash was pervasive and a pain in the ass, but I didn’t get any parsnip rash on any part of me that wasn’t scratched, and I had walked shirtless through it, got it on my hands, etc. (meaning that it also made it to my face for sure).
Now poison ivy, that I am allergic to. Some of the most miserable episodes of my life have been at the oily, succulent hands of poison ivy. Once, when I was 22, in the summer of 1993, I was out in an abandoned orchard on Memorial Day weekend doing some “landscaping” (I’ll let you figure out what I mean by landscaping).
In the course of doing this “landscaping,” I wound up handling a whole bunch of vines … whole big tangles of them. It was a very hot day, humid in the way that only Memorial Day can seem to be, and so I was sweaty, working without a shirt, wiping sweat off my face, taking a leak in the woods, swatting mosquitoes off myself, etc.
I’m sure that you see where this is going, no?
When I got home that evening, I took a shower (evening showers are not my habit, but it was really hot and I was messy), which was very, very lucky.
I woke up in the morning experiencing some very strange sensations on most of my body, and noticed that my face was a little sticky. I got up to take a shower and noticed in the mirror that my face was swollen, and so were other parts of me. I looked like a baboon in heat. If you catch my drift.
It turns out that all of those vines were poison ivy plants that had not leafed out yet. I had no idea that the stems, and even the pollen of poison ivy are also poisonous.
To put it plainly, within 24 hours of my “landscaping,” I had full-blown poison ivy on almost every part of my body but my feet (thank goodness I had not yet developed my habit of year round bare-footedness … poison ivy between your toes is almost the worst). I had showered, so I was no longer at risk for spreading it around. I made sure that my socks and clothes and boots went into the wash with my sheets for good measure.
Now the way poison ivy works (you don’t spread it by scratching unless you haven’t bathed properly) is that it comes up on the most sensitive skin first, and it comes up in the toughest places last. First comes the face, the neck, the nether regions, the arch of the foot, between the fingers, and the wrist. Over the course of the following week, on came the shin, the forearm, the thigh, the upper arm.
This was, however, the nuclear option of poison ivy infections. I got my final breakout after three weeks, and that was under the callouses on my fingers and palms. It was truly awful. Crazy making.
I would wake up in frenzied ecstasies of scratching, the kind of itching that was only approached by sleeping in a tent infested with sand fleas on the beach in the jungles of Panama. My skin was one giant, itchy blister. I experimented with everything, even resorting to scratching myself with a wadded up ball of tin foil.
My face and ears were so swollen with poison ivy blisters that the flesh wept clear fluid as if I was sweating. Calamine lotion, Benadryl, oatmeal baths, nothing made a dent. I would wake up from naps sweating, dreaming of robbing drug stores:
“Give me all your money! Wait … to hell with your money, give me all your Benadryl spray! No, not the 1 percent, I want the 2 percent. The good stuff!”
Unable to take it any more, I called a dermatologist in tears (me, not the dermatologist). They tried to make my appointment later in the week, and after negotiating for what seemed like 10 minutes, I literally yelled into the phone “Please just schedule the appointment today, I have poison ivy on my (expletive deleted)!” They scheduled the appointment for an hour later. …
The doctor, surprised by the horrible condition of my face and the rest of my body said “Alright, take off your pants, let’s see what we are dealing with here.”
When I removed all my clothes he said, without expression (and I quote): “Holy sh*t.”
He gave me a menthol skin cream and 80 milligrams a day of Prednisone for a month, which is enough to kill a horse, every day for a month.
My father took that kind of horse dose of Prednisone for a decade, and I have no idea how he did it. It was almost as bad as having the poison ivy. It too was crazy making. I tipped my hat to him then, and I tip my hat to him now. I would not survive that much Prednisone.
At that point, in addition to running a little painting business and being a professional stage hand, I was working running a paper cutter at a fairly large press company, trimming the edges off Rossignol posters of Picabo Street, and things like that. Under the influence of poison ivy and Prednisone, I managed to cut an entire job of Merrill boot posters right in half, nearly losing my job.
A friend of mine pulled me aside and told me how to get rid of poison ivy in no uncertain terms: “Draw a bath and pour a gallon of bleach in it, and get in and soak for an hour.”
Not having a bathtub, but desperate to not itch any more, I got a sponge, wet it, poured bleach on it, wet it again, and stood in the shower with the water off and rubbed my body down with bleach. It hurt, a lot. I might as well have been pouring lemon juice in my eye. It left my skin feeling dry and stretched (I showered after to dilute it), but it immediately dried out all of the blisters. It worked like a damned charm, frankly, and made the poison ivy far more manageable.
So when I turned out to have the parsnip, I immediately bleached it, and then modified the treatment. I washed daily with colloidal silver soap, and then covered my legs with a diluted solution of bentonite clay (which dried thin enough that you could barely see it). So aside from looking like my legs had the German measles, I was in good shape. My legs barely itched at all.
Other than that I have been having great training rides (East Mountain Road, Killington Road, Route 4), and got in two really nice runs this week, a quick eight-miler from Sherburne to the Pico Spur, out another mile on the Long Trail, back to Pico Peak and down, and then that same run but going all the way out to Killington Peak, back down to the hut, back up (what I call the Devils Staircase) to the peak again, back down, up the Pico Spur, and back down to Route 4. The run was just shy of 14 miles, just shy of 4,400 vertical feet, and about four hours and 15 minutes of trail time.
Luckily I brought water (I went through about 90 oz., had to refill my 64-oz. bladder at the Killington hut), or I would have seized with charleyhorses on the trail. I barely avoided it. As it was, my right hip flexor seized when I got in the car to drive home, and stayed that way until I was out of the car. I didn’t drink enough on the way up. Despite its being under 70 degrees, I still sweated through 90 oz. of water and barely needed to pee. Humidity is a killer … and this summer, Vermont has been about as humid as the inside of a glass of water. It’s not the heat … it’s the humidity.
On that run, I experienced something really itchy. I got stinging nettle on top of poison parsnip, on top of the deep itch of healing road rash. For a normal person, that would be considered damned itchy. I almost bitched about it, and then I remembered what it was like to have poison ivy. I felt better and kept running.
The extents of itchiness
By Brady Crain