She knows that I don't know and probably don't care any more than she does; neither of us are allergic to poison ivy, or oak, or sumac. Still, we've occasionally managed to include people in our tribe who do have that particular susceptibility, and it's always been a cause of mirth between us. Here's the story of how we found this out the easy way.
"C'mon, follow me. It's not far." Shawn Alladio beckoned to the two of us and disappeared into the woodline, west towards the ocean, west with the night.
We followed, not willing to let a much older woman punk us by striding off into the unknown and leaving us two strapping young lads behind. We had met Shawn earlier that day and already been nonplussed by the odd contrast between her ultra casual style and her unrelenting will to drive her truck and trailer with 4 jetskis north from her home base in Orange County up to a remote ranch on the Santa Barbara coast before nightfall.
Just over 50 years old, with the build of a woman who has worked hard in physically demanding environments her whole life, hair bleached from the sun and salt water, piercing eyes and the crooked smile of someone who's had more than one busted mouth incident, Shawn cuts simultaneously an "earth mother" and "queen of war" figure. It's an odd combination.
Twice that day we were handed a "Proceed no further" note from Universe. Once when an alternator gave out, and once with a flat tire. Neither event phased Shawn. She fixed both within an hour, quickly switching out the tire early in the trip and pulling a spare alternator (who carries those?) from the pile of boxes and bags in the back of her truck when it sputtered to a stop in the grassy hills west of Tarzana.
We two lads laughed about both incidents, laughed at how matter of factly she fixed both problems, diagnosing both before we had even pulled up behind her.
By the time we arrived at the ranch late at night, we knew a few things about how driven Shawn was. We had a lot more to learn, and of course, we didn't know that one of us was highly allergic to the poison oak we waded through that night, but we found that out later.
Following her into the woodline and down a steep slope, we slogged across a small creek at the bottom of the ravine. Climbing up the opposite side, we emerged from the brush with leaves in our hair and dirt on our knees, popping out at the top of a cliff standing proud above the Pacific.
It was night. Dark, a thousand thousand stars in the sky. The oil rigs off the coast were bright spots floating above the horizon, the breeze off the water cool and damp. We hauled with us a bag of groceries, a bag of charcoal, and a bottle of wine. Rough cut stairs down the loose sand shale walls descended to a small earthen ledge carved out from the cliff. We followed them, then crouched to light a fire in a pit on the ledge.
The urushiol oil from the poison oak (the oil is the same irritant found in poison ivy and poison sumac) smeared liberally on all three of us from our bush whacking, we sat back to let the fire grow, blissful in our ignorance.
We grilled sausages and vegetables over the coals. With no plates or napkins or utensils, just quick burnt fingers and hungry bellies, we made short work of the food. The wine took longer. With a warm full belly and a heart singing in the wide wild darkness, I wiped the grease from my hands in my hair, savage fashion, leaned back into a rough blanket and listened, first to the waves and then to the stories.
The story I heard that night, the 100 foot wave story, the one that stuck with me, isn't mine to tell.
Hell, the poison oak rash that showed up on my roommate the next morning wasn't mine either. He tried to cure it with whiskey and salt water to no effect. It stayed with him through a good drunk and then for 2 more days and uncounted miles of pounding on the ocean as we hammered through a jet ski course led by Shawn, doing our best to keep up with her and for the most part, failing.
It was a week long course up in Morro Bay learning to use a jet ski in an unforgiving ocean with one of the hardest humans I've ever met, a tough shell surrounding an exceptional heart.
I picked up a few skills on that course that have since gotten rusty; how to smoothly pluck an unconscious human out of rough water, how to accurately slide the ass end of a jetski around in the white foam of a surf zone so it stops right in front of said unconscious human, and the nine hundred steps of daily maintenance required to reliably operate a small engine in salt water.
Some things I haven't forgotten. I learned on that trip, and I'll never forget, that toughness is more than a physical characteristic and cannot be reliably judged on appearance. I learned just how much attitude matters, and I re-learned, for perhaps the hundredth time, the value of a warm kindness on a cold morning.
I found the only useful cure for poison ivy (or oak) is time, and that if the gods blessed your body with the ability to ignore the irritating affects of urushiol oil you might stop and give thanks for those endless scratching nights that never happened.
All of this is the long way of saying be careful, extra careful, when you follow a wild woman into the night, remember to count your many unsung blessings, and don't waste whiskey or salt water trying to cure those things you should have avoided in the first place.
Too much reading...
How about dessert?