The Eloquent Hack: The Keeper of Western Secrets

Pay to Play, in Painful Parlance.

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His scream was abrupt and loud, and came from some place of primal fear deep inside. Before he could ramp up the string of nervous profanity that was beginning to spill from his mouth, I asked as calmly as I could “You got bit by a tick?” 

“YesIgotbitbyamother#%&*ingtick! Jesus, these things freak me out,” he said, as he pulled his shirt off and pinched the offending bloodsucker off his stomach. “Don’t they just creep you out?” 

I shrugged, bending down to scoop another bundled armful of poison oak roots from the trail corridor we were preparing to bench. Little telltale black dots were beginning to appear on my gloves and the long sleeves of my shirt, a sign that the roots were very much alive and full of sap, and I figured we had maybe one more hour of this before we’d have to get the hell out of the woods and scrub ourselves down or face the consequences. 

“I just don’t know how you can be so calm about ticks,” he continued, as he carried another of his bundles of poison oak roots over to the growing pile. “As soon as I feel one on me, I can’t stop imagining them crawling all over, just waiting to suck my blood and give me Lyme disease. What conceivable good do they represent? How in the scheme of all creation do ticks rate as worthy of continued existence? We should just kill them all!” 

“Look at us, man. We are standing in a thicket of poison oak right now, pulling it out of the ground by the roots with our bare hands. You do realize that something like 85 percent of the world thinks we are absolutely insane, doing what we are doing right now?” 

“I don’t know, dude,” he shrugged. “I’d take poison oak over ticks any day.” 

He and I are lucky. We don’t really react too badly to poison oak, which is why we were the only people engaged in this particular task on this particular trail. The trails here, like many of the trails in coastal California, or the Central Valley into the foothills of the Sierra up as far as maybe 4,000 feet above sea level, or coastal Oregon, even up into Washington, or any of the oak/redwood/ cedar transition zones and most of the places where blackberries thrive, are a target rich environment for our friend Toxicodendron Diversilobum. And here, just a little inland from Big Sur, just a little south of Fort Ord, it’s everywhere, and the local strain is widely known as weapons-grade shit. 


Look at us, man. We are standing in a thicket of poison oak right now, pulling it out of the ground by the roots with our bare hands. You do realize that something like 85 percent of the world thinks we are absolutely insane, doing what we are doing right now?

Notice that I did not say that he and I are immune. We are not that naïve. We’ve been designated poison oak wallowers for long enough to understand the folly of such boasts. Immunity does not apply to urushiol, the uniquely amazing irritant that resides in poison oak, poison ivy and sumac. It has the tenacity to attach and adhere to surfaces, and smear itself onto other surfaces, and resist being cleaned off surfaces, about on par with heavy gear oil. It also has a penetrative ability right up there with really gnarly sol- vents like methyl ethyl ketone peroxide. Upon touching exposed skin, urushiol needs a couple hours to begin penetrating the skin’s layers, then it attaches itself to proteins and cells in our body, and alters their appearance. This confuses our immune system into think- ing it is being attacked—cellular mutation, parasitic worm, whatever—and this in turn can trigger something akin to a doomsday response. Hence the weeping, oozing rash and the ceaseless itching and the sloughing skin. 

In some cases, our reactions mellow out with repeated exposure. But in just as many cases, our reactions can worsen over time. The advice of anyone who says they are “immune”, or that “you can totally build a resistance by eating a little bit of it every day” is best taken with a generous side helping of salt. Speaking of salt, that’s roughly the weight of how little urushiol is required to initiate a re- action in most people; about 50 micrograms, roughly the size of a grain of salt. 

person standing in mud
Photo: Anthony Smith

Detaching from the horror of bubbling skin and oozing pus, try to take a moment and appreciate that. A dose as small as a grain of salt can light 90 percent of us up. Urushiol is so incredibly stable that exposed oils can remain active and cause reaction for several months. Dead plant specimens over 100 years old have been shown to still have oil capable of causing a reaction. Poison oak is totally native, fully integrated into ecosystems where it is found, is highly adaptable and competitive, can grow in a wide range of climates, and seemingly, is really only a threat to humans who want to romp around in the woods. 

My friend doesn’t mind poison oak so much, but his loathing of ticks is boundless. As he continued to fret about the tick bite, I wondered about how nature has a way of keeping us in check. Ticks are really bad news—they carry so many nasty microbes aside from Lyme disease, which is in of itself a miserable, hard-to-diagnose, life-altering curse of a sickness. But then again, those microbes, they are part of this whole incredibly complex, totally interconnected dance of existence. 

“Crazy times up in Santa Cruz, eh?” I asked my friend. “Sounds like the goods have been getting pretty heavily blown out by the Covid crowd.” 

“It was getting bad enough before the pandemic,” he replied. “It’s like the whole area needs the mountain bike equivalent of aggro local surfers. You know, those crusty guys who used to slash your tires or vibe you out of the lineup if they didn’t recognize you. Some kind of deterrent that makes people stop and think before acting like they just own the place.” 

“You mean like a plant that will make you hate being born if you rub up against it, or an insect that can totally ruin your life?” 

He was silent for a second, then laughed. “Yeah, I guess. Why are we even ripping this stuff outta here anyway? It’s the perfect angry local. Gotta pay to play, tourists!”