I have heard that if someone is allergic to bees, a sting can be fatal. I’ve never been tested for bee allergies. So, when I felt the hot, stealthy needle of pain pierce my forearm while sitting around a campfire a couple of weeks ago, my immediate reaction was to mash the crap out of it with my other hand to kill it.
See, my sleeve was rolled down at the time. Buttoned even. I did not see a bee/wasp/rusty needle enter my shirt from the collar or the sleeve. Didn’t feel it on my arm at all until it violated my skin barrier and left its needle in the center of a puffy red mass of itchy agony. Turns out I’m not allergic to bees but at the moment I was stung, I didn’t know I wasn’t.
Wait. Let me back up.
I made the decision to meet up with a group and go on a camping trip from June 13th to the 15th. They were heading up on the 12th and staying until the 17th, but I couldn’t take that much time off work so I headed up alone into the Arizona White Mountains. The base camp was near Big Lake in the White Mountains of Arizona where the air is cleaner and thinner and not 118 degrees. Thinking myself somewhat of an outdoors guy and having the entirety of my ’76 Scout to myself, I packed everything I could think of: A cot, an ice chest, a mountain bike, a sleeping bag, multiple sets of manly, rugged clothing, lanterns (both battery and burn-y ones), fishing poles, and a kerosene heater.
I was ready. I loaded all my gear the night before and got a terrible night’s sleep.
I decided to make the trip up through Superior rather than through Payson because I hadn’t been that way in years and thought it would make for a more interesting drive. Would have been good to know ahead of time that the mountain passes on that highway are set at 25 to 35 MPH, but it turns out that didn’t make much of a difference. Godzilla, my ‘76 Scout, refused to climb the hills any faster than that, anyway. She sounds mean with her rumbling V8, but wheezes like an asthmatic cow when faced with a 6% mountain grade. I found myself stomping the gas and getting as much speed as I could on the down grades so I could use the momentum on the next upward grade. On that same note, I found out Godzilla isn’t buttoned-down enough to feel safe nor comfortable at 65 MPH. Rattles, shudders, and more squeaks than a box truck full of mice made sure my eyes were peeled and my hands were white-knuckling the steering wheel. The drive was 5 hours. I didn’t even come close to drifting off even once.
She also doesn’t have a working gas gauge, so every small town on that road was happy to see me roll into town and top Godzilla off.
I arrived at the general camp area at 2 pm, but since the actual site was off the main highway by a few hundred yards, I failed to connect with them on the first try. I rumbled through the trees on the forest service roads looking for anyone I recognized, but no luck. The nearest town was, according to the most recent highway sign, 15 or 16 miles away. Having no camp to set up, I turned out from the dirt forest roads and back onto the quiet 2-laner to get myself some lunch.
A metallic bang followed by the sound of metal bouncing on the pavement. The engine kept running but the wheels did not keep rolling. I coasted Godzilla off to the side of the highway and got out to survey the damage.
The universal joint had failed. (No. Not the same one I replaced a few months ago. The one I decided didn’t need to be swapped.) The driveshaft laid against the dirt and grass. I had tons of camping gear, but not a single wrench or any other tool for that matter. After a few solemn moments of despair, I loaded my backpack full of water from my cooler and opened the tailgate to retrieve my mountain bike. It’s only 15-16 miles. On a bike? Easy peasy. Besides, without a cell signal and very few travelers along the highway, I didn’t feel like I had much choice.
Then I noticed the smell.
A few days before I left for camp, I did a little maintenance on the big green machine. Changed the oil and filter, topped off the fluids, and degreased the engine. So, for the bulk of the 5-hour trip, I regularly caught whiffs of degreaser burning off the engine. Didn’t think much of it. It happens. This odor smelled a lot like the degreaser solution, only much stronger. Inside the tailgate and covering the rear floor was a gallon of kerosene. I know it was a gallon because that’s exactly how much kerosene I loaded into my now empty heater for my tent. My extra clothing, my tent, and much of my paper writing materials were soaked. In an ironic twist, the fire extinguisher I packed was coated in highly flammable kerosene as well. Excellent.
Crossing my fingers that a random spark wouldn’t ignite my truck and all its belongings into the stratosphere, I continued to unload my bicycle, clipped my backpack onto my back and hit the road.
15-16 miles on a flat road isn’t much. In a car, it’s a matter of 20 minutes or so. It’s a good full-day hike on foot. On a bike, it’s a couple of hours. On a flat road. Only this wasn’t a flat road. This was a mountain road at around 9000 feet in elevation. Just to give a point of reference and to make myself feel better for taking three runs at the first slow mountain hill, the elevation at my home is around 1200 feet. That means I was breathing 25% less oxygen and having 100% less success at mountain biking to the next town than I thought I would.
My first run at the hill, I got up about 10% of the way before wheezing to myself, “Screw this. I’m going back to the truck.” and coasting back down the hill toward Godzilla. Surely, someone in my group would drive by and see me and my plight if I just sat in the shade of the Scout and guzzled water. I opened the fire hazard of a tailgate to rest my legs, pulled my hat over my head, and patiently waited. Or rather, I intended to wait.
Then the buzzing. At first, I thought they were bees. Turns out they weren’t bees, though they were about as big and loud as any bee I’d ever seen. No. My vehicle had popped its driveshaft and rolled to a dead stop in the middle of what I discovered is elk country. That’s not a euphemism.
I got out of the truck and explored 50 yards or so off the highway, perplexed that the grassy hills were oddly crunchy underneath my feet. Though I never spied one (later when I got to camp, my fellow campers would tell me of the 50 or so elk they drove through/around to get to camp) it became evident the fist-sized flies were a product of the countryside being covered in layer upon layer of elk poop. I also got the distinct impression the road I was on was more heavily traveled by wildlife than people.
Not about to spend the night in a fume-filled truck while huge mammals ventured past me pooping and doing whatever else elk do in the mountains, I decided to tackle the hill on my bike again. I’d say I made it up about 25% the second time before turning back. But that third time, I made it up and onto a flat area where eventually, I realized I wasn’t making it through the 13 more miles to the nearest town before sundown.
Call it divine providence or sheer luck, but at just the right time, I happened to check my dying cell phone and saw a single bar of service. One. But one was enough to call AAA for a tow. The compu-voice told me I’d be located based off my cell signal, which was reassuring. Though it turned out to be a bold-faced lie. Within a few seconds, I was speaking to a live operator.
AAA Operator: Are you in a safe place?
Me (panting): Sure. Yes. Yeah.
AAA Operator: How can AAA help you?
Me (panting still): My truck broke down and I need a tow.
AAA Operator: Where are you?
Me: Um… in the mountains. On a road.
AAA Operator: What’s your nearest big city?
Me: I… have no idea. Eagar maybe?
Operator: … Where is that?
Me: … In the White Mountains. Near Big Lake.
Me: Hello? Did I lose you?
Operator: Is that near Payson?
Me. No. Payson is like… four hours away.
Operator: I can’t find Eagar or Big Lake. It’s not on my map. What highway are you on?
Me: I don’t know. A small one. With lots of elk, or rather evidence. …of elk.
Operator: That doesn’t help.
Me: I’d have to agree with you there.
After a few more lines of conversation and an hour and a half, I watched as a young man from a nearby towing company loaded the big green beast onto his flatbed. He and I made pleasant conversation as we made our way down the mountain and into a nearby town. However, by the time we arrived, all the auto shops and parts stores were shut down for the night. He offered to drop my crippled vehicle at a hotel, where he kindly waited as I checked in for the night.
The tow driver and the lady at the front desk both recommended the restaurant across the road from the hotel. Having last eaten that morning, I wasn’t about to argue. The front desk attendant even gave me the down low on getting a 10% discount if I mentioned that the hotel recommended I eat there. I should get over there ASAP though. Turns out when they’re slow, they just close.
In Arizona, you kind of take quality Mexican cuisine for granted. In every city or town worth their salt, you can have decent Mexican food, and I assumed this establishment would be no exception. After a day like that, I decided to splurge and order a nice large spread for one. I ordered a plain cheese quesadilla to compliment the complimentary chips and salsa, and then a big sloppy plate full of carne asada burrito covered in green sauce. Sounds delicious even as I type it.
However, the thought of it is tainted by the reality of what I tasted when the food arrived. I shouldn’t say it was all bad, even if my taste memory tells me otherwise because it wasn’t. The chips were fine. I suspect it’s hard to screw up chips when they come from a bulk bag of Costco chips, but I’ll give credit where credit is due. Chips were decent. The salsa was not terrible either, even if a little on the hot side. Not everyone shares my delicate palate. I understand that. I’ll even go so far as to say I enjoyed the cheese quesadilla.
The burrito looked wonderful in its pool of green sauce flanked by refried beans and rice. I tucked my napkin into my waistband and cut myself out a chunk and prepared for genuine Mexican food greatness. As the food passed my lips and hit my tongue, the first sensation gave me the indication that something was horribly wrong. The texture of the flour tortilla was not unlike a wet sweat sock, only infinitely more squishy and creamy.
No sooner did my gag reflex kick in than the flavor I can only describe as fresh lizard turds overwhelmed me. My tongue signaled my throat to reverse track and purge the concoction out of my mouth, but having no desire to make a scene, I fought back, clamped my lips shut and forced it down my gullet. I stared at the plate in disbelief while peristalsis did its magic. The dish looked and smelled so good, but tasted so bad. Maybe it was a fluke? Maybe it was just that first bite, and the next would taste as good as it looked.
I took a second bite, sure to scoop a little more carne out of the mushy, gummy tortilla. But It was just as nasty as the first. This time, I could feel my tongue contracting without my input and flailing like a slug suddenly attacked by terrible children with canisters of salt. I gripped my soda, popped the straw in, and washed the food down once more.
The third time was the final straw. I bypassed the tortilla and stabbing a piece of meat from inside and taking great care to keep it out of the green sauce before giving up and asking for a box. The girl brought me a box as I cleansed my palate with cola and cold quesadilla and salsa. I couldn’t leave 60% of my meal no matter how unpalatable or inedible. It’s just not in me. Well, the carne asada was (for now), just not the ability to pretend this meal wasn’t good, let alone that bad. I tipped the waitress and took my food to my hotel room, heading straight to the garbage can and dropping the to-go box inside.
I fell asleep that night to the dulcet tones of hotel room cable piped through an old tube TV and woke up the next day with only mild repercussions of the previous night’s cuisine. I waited outside of the auto parts store across the street from the hotel until they opened, borrowed some tools and pulled the driveshaft. The staff of the parts store was awesome. I told them what I was doing, and they helped me press the parts into the driveshaft for no charge. They hammered in the parts while I wandered the store.
One of the men asked the other, “You goin’ to that funeral later today?”
“Hadn’t planned on it. You?” replied the other.
“Well. No, but one of us probably should.”
“Pay our respects. Besides, at them Mormon funerals, they feed ya.”
“Uh huh. Big meal.”
“…I’ll have to stop by, then.”
$40 in parts and two hours under Godzilla in the hotel parking lot and I was back on the road to camp where I spent three days in the same clothes and underwear because kerosene.
Oh. And I discovered I am not allergic to bees.