Making the most of itch

A severely allergic writer visits the 23rd annual Poison Oak Show and lives to scratch about it

Illustration By Adam Rifas

I was working as a cashier in a New Age store the summer after college. It was too hot for long sleeves, so I taped large squares of gauze over the blisters on my arms. I still drew shocked looks from the customers, but I figured the bandages were more appealing than what lay beneath.

Nonetheless, I was so uncomfortable from the itching, the stares and the effort to remain pleasantly helpful on the job that I started crying when a customer asked me what had happened to my arms. I told her how awfully my body was reacting to poison oak; how I had to keep going to the doctor and taking cortisone pills; how persecuted I felt because I hadn’t seen a poison-oak plant in years, but the toxic oil kept finding me.

A self-appointed intuitive healer, this woman leaned across the register and told me I had unfinished business with poison oak. There was a reason it was finding me. Her advice: Go to the woods, find a poison-oak plant and sit with it. I was to meditate on the plant until I received an answer about my seemingly supernatural reaction to it. Then, she promised, I would be free.

Once my skin healed, I forgot all about her advice until years later, when I saw a poster for the 23rd annual Poison Oak Show in Columbia, where people have gathered annually at the historic St. Charles Saloon to celebrate “Tuolumne County’s biggest crop.” The list of scheduled contests shocked me: Best poison-oak arrangement? Most potent-looking red leaf? Best poison-oak jewelry? Best poison-oak rash? Best poison-oak recipe, for God’s sake?

What kind of tradition was this? To someone like me, hosting a Poison Oak Show makes about as much sense as hosting a wasp expo or a botulism-tasting fair. Then again, if there ever was a chance to come to terms with poison oak, this was it. On Saturday, September 24, I coated myself in Ivy Block Lotion and drove the two hours from Sacramento to Columbia. I was determined to make peace with the plant, or die itching.

Columbia is both a tiny rural community and a California State Historic Park. The blocks surrounding the 142-year-old St. Charles Saloon form a tourist-friendly rendition of gold-rush-era California peppered with cafes, an old hotel, a theater and a number of candy shops. The sturdy brick façade of the St. Charles boasts signs welcoming ladies and minors and advertising Columbia Sarsaparilla—made in town at the Columbia Soda Works.

The bar’s many doors and shutters were flung wide, allowing the sound of a classic-rock band churning through “Red House” to fill the narrow streets. A grizzled-looking man sitting on a bench outside the bar watched my approach.

At first glance, the Poison Oak Show was far less intimidating than I’d expected. The entries were sparse; nearly everything fit on one picnic table roped off on the saloon’s wooden porch. Most were humorous in nature: A tall branch of poison oak draped in popcorn garlands and ornaments looked scrawnier than Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A 3-foot-long branch posed as an innocent grapevine with clusters of the purple orbs dangling down between menacing red leaves. A watermelon carved to look like a ferocious extraterrestrial with gaping jaws battled its way through a tub of poison-oak brush in a sculpture titled “Alien vs. Poison Oak: Whoever wins … we lose.” An arrangement of poison-oak leaves and condoms was labeled “Unsafe Sex.” The show’s winning entry was a tableau of two stone frogs lounging serenely in a garnet forest of poison-oak branches.

The food category, which was clearly and thankfully a joke, featured sushi rolls with poison oak substituted for nori, poison-oak tacos and poison-oak muffins with a “leaves of three” garnish. Leaf photos and plastic-wrapped samples of red-and-green poison-oak leaves completed the display.

Illustration By Adam Rifas

It was all so silly that I forgot my apprehension. As I leaned closer to the rope to examine the display, I noticed a large snapshot of a man’s swollen face, labeled “Poison Oak Victim Jim, 1995 Aug.” One look at the pained expression in his eyes brought me back to reality. Here I was, not a foot away from hundreds of leaves, all prepared to unleash allergenic fury on me. Lest you think I’m being melodramatic, poison oak’s irritating urushiol oil has been documented to stay active on dead plants for up to five years. The online Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Information Center estimates that a quarter-ounce of urushiol could have every person on Earth itching.

My mother forbade me to go to the Poison Oak Show. Not only that, she sat me down and gave me a stern lecture about how horribly allergic I am to the stuff. How my skin roils with oozing blisters that itch furiously and take forever to heal (even though I never, ever scratch). How new patches keep erupting for weeks after an exposure. How I inevitably end up in the doctor’s office begging for cortisone pills—which I always get because by then the poison-oak rash has crawled dangerously close to my eyes, my mouth or some other mucus membrane that spells hospitalization if it actually gets there.

Even as they’re filling out the prescription, the doctors always dispute my interpretation of events and insist that poison oak only affects areas in which urushiol directly touches the skin, and cannot possibly spread once the oil is washed off the body with soap and hot water. Although this might be true for most of the population (approximately 75 percent of whom are also allergic to poison oak to some degree), one exposure for me inexplicably seems to keep on giving no matter how many times I’ve taken a shower and spreads to areas that have never seen a leaf.

Knowing I’m severely allergic makes me a ridiculously cautious hiker. Poison oak is found only on the West Coast, but its urushiol-oozing cousins poison ivy and poison sumac populate the eastern part of the country. Thus, the mantra I repeat obsessively throughout any North American forest trek is “Don’t touch anything green.” While my friends skip through the woods with abandon, I duck branches like Neo dodges bullets in The Matrix. Poison oak is one of California’s most common plants, found everywhere in the state except for deserts and elevations above 5,000 feet. Given those odds, I stick to beaches, deserts or urban environments.

Whenever I do get a poison-oak reaction, it’s usually a mystery as to how. To the best of my knowledge, I have never gotten it from direct contact with the plant.

I backed carefully away from the St. Charles’ front porch just as a man wearing a T-shirt from the previous year’s Poison Oak Show and a medal around his neck began dismantling the display. “Anyone want a grape?” he yelled, as he grasped the faux vine and swung it over his head. He took no notice as the red leaves brushed his bare arms. A young boy ran up and began eating the grapes and then stooped to pet a nearby dog. A woman in a half-shirt and denim shorts grabbed the Christmas tree, holding it against her bare belly. “I just love this one!” she said. I gaped in awe at these people, leisurely embracing what I’ve spent my life avoiding.

Clearly, these people held the secret I was looking for. I wanted to talk to them, but as I considered the oil coating the branches, and their hands and clothes, I just couldn’t. What if they accidentally bumped into me? What if they wanted to shake my hand?

I retreated into the saloon for a sarsaparilla. I looked for a place to sit, but nothing seemed safe to touch: the dog, the kids, the barstools, the tabletops. I perched nervously on the edge of a chair and watched the band, Them and Us, run through a series of Beatles tunes as a handful of couples danced drunkenly across the peanut-shell-covered floor.

The winning frog sculpture was carried inside and given pride of place on top of the saloon’s piano. Trying to ignore the psychosomatic itching I felt on my arms and legs, I stared at the lounging amphibians and attempted to meditate—as I’d been instructed to long ago. Several moments passed as I tried to draw wisdom from the frogs. I noticed how serene they seemed in the midst of all that irritating foliage. “Be in the world, but not of the world,” they seemed to say.

Alas, my allergic conditioning was too strong for any wisdom to penetrate. I kept flinching when bar patrons brushed by me on their way to the dance floor. I left as soon as the band stopped playing, barely an hour after I’d arrived. When I got home, I threw all my clothes in a plastic bag and scrubbed my entire body with Tecnu anti-urushiol soap. Days later, I was still compulsively scanning my skin for rashes.

So much for my vision quest. Given a choice between battling aliens or poison oak, I’ll side with Sigourney Weaver.