I never knew how much I would regret not camping on a weekend jaunt to Yosemite. I’m reminded of it every second of the day as I feel the burning and itching sensation up and down my arms and other parts where the sun don’t shine.
I was attacked by bed bugs at the sprawling Yosemite Lodge, tiny hitchhiking demons the hotel saw the day I checked out. Combine them with the hordes of mosquitoes on the upper Yosemite Falls hiking trail, and you’ve got scads of unsightly scabby blotches that put Chicken Pox to shame. It’s so embarrassing, I should be exiled to a bed bug colony.
“We did locate a couple of the bugs in the headboard of your bed,” explained Anna, the sweet desk clerk who aided me when I begged her to fetch me Benadryl from the nearby clinic, explaining I was crazy allergic. I had come to the mountains to hike and roast marshmallows with my daughter’s school. I did not come to be food.
I never thought good old Yosemite would shelter pests imported by guests from New York or Europe. Recently, the bugs have been detected not just in hotel beds but also at department stores, and it has been suggested a decreased use of pesticides is causing the return. It’s a huge price to pay for trying to go poison free. Although there are some viable eco-friendly solutions if you find them in your own home.
The lodge, which is no Ahwahnee, seemed unaware of the bed bug problem when I called after noticing the bites. We are told infestation is not related to fleabags, but upon checking in, I did notice my room had a filmy layer of residue, the bedding was cheap and greasy (old spreads are magnets for germs) and I asked that they remove a stained chair which had a wet ring on the cushion. A hotel handyman with an uncanny resemblance to a dark haired billy goat plunged his face into the stained chair seat to sniff it, much to our amazement. “Nope, this doesn’t smell like urine,” he assured us.
As far as what was eating me, I had a few clues. The Bay Area isn’t listed on the top 15 US cities infested with bed bugs, but I know the critters hitch rides from one destination to the other, basically fiendish hobos that cling to luggage and clothing. For that reason, hotel guests have been warned by the experts not to unpack clothing or put anything out on the beds and to vacuum our bags and wash our stuff in hot water the moment we arrive home.
“Has anyone complained about bed bugs?” I asked the lodge, informed by the parade of recent articles on the resurfacing of the age old pests in hotels – including four star lodgings. I had heard you should never put your suitcase down on a bed, which I didn’t, and perhaps tote your own bed linens, which I didn’t. They said they didn’t know of a problem but a security person could drive me to their clinic for treatment. That is when it sunk in: I should be in the tent. Safe. Protected. Earthy.
Camping has always proven a good way to go at Yosemite, since it is cheaper than hotels ($60 for a few nights versus $200 a night at the Lodge) and you get to use your own sleeping bag, pillows, towels and air mattresses. Your canvas is sealed at night so no unidentified flying objects can invade. The biggest challenge is ensuring all of your food is out of your car and tent and has been bear proofed in a lock box.
Why didn’t I join my husband in the tent? Like many other national park visitors, I opted for the comforts of my own bathroom and shower and the convenience of a dining hall across the road. I opted for driving for six hours in traffic rather than taking a bus, opted for the droning sound of the idiot box to lull me to sleep rather than the subtle calls of the wild under the stars. I owe apologies to John Muir who would have recommended the camping route, and to Roderick Nash, my wilderness instructor at UCSB, who would be appalled by this story.
My dermatologist, Dr. Megin Scully, shot me in the tush with a steroid and dabbed nuclear strength cortisone ointment on my sores, saying it should be better by the next day. I went home and sucked down more Benadryl, soaked some more, and reapplied the ointment. This is my new routine. Have coffee, pack lunches for the kids, take meds, rub on ointment, and so on.
“You should try rubbing Vicks VapoRub on the bumps, that is what we Asians do,” I was told by a Filipino pest control guy back home in San Francisco, when I called to arrange a visit to make sure my home was bed bug free. He said Vicks clears up the problem right away. “We don’t call the doctor like you do, in America,” he said, laughing. Did I hear a smirk?
I asked my husband to run down to Walgreens and pick me up some of that Vicks. It did soothe the itching and perhaps will clear the swelling and redness in a few days. I have my bumpy fingers crossed.
Meantime, I reek of Vicks and am feeling awfully sorry for myself. And like any victim of a health crisis, I keep asking, why me? Why me, with the broken middle finger from boogie boarding that now also features a big red bite that I cut open while driving? If there is a god, why did he make bed bugs and mosquitoes, and why do they choose me? Sound familiar?
The answer lies somewhere in the deep unknown, a mystery as difficult to solve as reaching the top of precarious Half Dome. I now realize that opting for a hotel visited by the masses is a slippery slope that should be avoided by those not fully armed with their own bedding, insect repellent, a mosquito net, and a canister of Terminix.
I think you will agree, it all makes pitching and taking down a tent seem effortless and putting up with dirty hair an acceptable flaw when doing the nature thing for a few days. Maybe the bed bugs are trying to tell me something. “You’ve got to get yourself back to the garden,” they’re singing, sounding a lot like Joni Mitchell. Hey, shut up, stop bugging me. The Vicks girl gets the picture.