Back in 1985, while living in Tucson, Arizona, I went camping with my wife, MaryBeth. It was late spring in the Sonoran Desert and getting too hot for comfortable camping in the valleys. South of Tucson the Santa Rita Mountains rise from the desert floor 6,000 feet, to the ponderosa pine covered upper reaches. Our destination was Gardner Canyon, a clef between two shoulders of the mountains on the east slope, in the shadow of Mt. Wrightson, the 9,000 foot summit of the Santa Ritas. We drove down from Tucson, turning off on one of the National Forest roads, winding their way up from the desert grassland, through the scattered oak, and up amongst the big fir trees, to the small campground.
We setup our two-person tent, with an opening on one side by our feet. We laid out sleeping bags and pillows inside the orange nylon shelter, flanked by tall pines with light brown scaly bark. It was late afternoon, the sun behind the mountains, the valley filling with shadow, as we prepared food near the small stream that dribbled through the canyon. After dinner we watched the sky grow deep indigo above the trees and one by one brilliant stars appeared, twinkling through the needle covered boughs high overhead. We sat around the stone ring containing the dying embers of our fire. The coals shimmered orange and red, until I poured water over the glowing remains. A great hissing sound rose up through the billowing steam, as the water quenched the last heat in the charcoal and surrounding rocks. We watched the stars for a short while, smelling the wet ash, listening to the faint steaming hiss, singing pine needles, and the gentle sound of the brook. We climbed in the tent and settled down for the night, sliding our legs into the sleeping bags, pulling them up to our chins. The mountain air’s cool breath rustled through the big pine trees, the noise mingling with the call of a far-off owl. In no time, lulled by the quiet sounds and fresh clean air, we were both fast asleep.
You know how sometimes during sleep, your mind swims just beneath the placid surface of consciousness, suspended closer to the dream state than awareness? That was me, when gently stirred from forgotten dreams, as I lay warm and cozy under the down bag, still more asleep than awake. The gradual transition precipitated by a familiar physical cue. Very slowly the balance changed, as my conscious mind began to respond. But with it came disorientation and confusion about my physical location, like waking and not knowing where you are for a moment.
I’m feeling a familiar cue, the pressure of soft cat’s feet stepping on my legs, moving up the covers. My cat frequently walked all over me at night, wanting to go outside, in search of food, or curl up by my head and run his loud purr-motor. After the fresh mountain air I was exhausted and had plunged deep within the well of sound sleep, from which the cat was waking me. Slowly the paws moved up my thigh, then onto my stomach, which jostled me from my sleep. By the time the cat set foot on my chest I was conscious enough to know I didn’t feel like servicing his late-night feline demands.
Eyes still closed, annoyed that the cat roused me from a very pleasant sleep, I withdrew my hand from the sleeping bag to gently brush the cat from my chest. The next instant I was fully awake. When the cat chomped down on my wrist with sharp teeth, I regained complete consciousness. I reacted instinctively the instant I felt my skin punctured. Angry that the cat bit me, in the span of perhaps two seconds, I opened my fingers wide, clamped down on his thick fur, lifted him over my head, and threw him at my feet.
In those moments, as in England, I suddenly realized my exact location on the planet. I was in fact, not at home in my bed, but was lying on the ground in a tent high up in the Santa Rita Mountains. In total darkness I scrambled for my flashlight. All the commotion woke MaryBeth and at that same precise moment we saw what moved within that round white spot, illuminating the darkness at our feet.
We grew very still. Both of us grasped our sleeping bags and slowly pulled them up over our faces, our eyes peering over the nylon covered down. The object of our attention moved in my flashlight beam, like a performer on stage under a single spot, the rest of the theater in utter darkness. There it was, black fur, silky and shiny, gleaming in my light. From beady little eyes, the retinas reflected back my light, like headlights on a distant automobile, only these were green. Its small black nose with a highlight glinting off the tip, marked the starting point of white fur, which spread wider between its eyes, ears, and then over its back, finally reaching the big bushy tail, that stuck straight up.
Neither of us said a word, but both braced ourselves for the un-pleasantries about to come. After all, I was unaware of anyone who had picked up and thrown a big fat skunk, bigger than my fat cat, against the tent wall, and avoid the horrid spray. At such close quarters we both felt our noxious doom at hand.
But … the skunk appeared un-phased after I roughly hurled it through space. It just kept rummaging around my feet. After what seemed like a year, our visitor managed to get his nose between the tent flaps. The next moment its black furry body disappeared into the equally black night.
We lay there a few moments contemplating what had just transpired. My experience was more drawn-out, while MaryBeth abruptly awoke from sleep to see the unwanted creature at our feet. You can imagine our relief at not being blasted pointblank.
“Wow!” I finally said, the flashlight still pointed at the tent flaps. “That was close.”
“What happened? How did he get in here?”
“Same way he got out. I thought it was the cat.” I told her what I remembered, ending with my chucking the skunk against the other end of the small tent.
“Why didn’t he spray us?”
“I don’t know.” I was shocked and relieved. “It just doesn’t seem natural that a skunk …” My voice trailed off to nothing. My flashlight still pointing at my feet. “Uh oh.”
“Uh oh, what?”
“Would you call the skunk no spraying us odd behavior?” I asked.
“Perhaps uncharacteristic behavior?”
“That’s not good.” My relief at dodging a skunk stink-bomb in the face switched to another concern, as I turned the light onto my wrist. Four small red spots glistened where the skunk bit down.
“You’re bleeding.” MaryBeth remarked.
I rubbed my wrist. “Yeah. That’s not good.”
After years of camping and being around animals I knew the signs. An animal that acts out of character is a prime suspect for—Rabies. It was close to three a.m. and I realized what I needed to do.
Came the dawn and we broke camp, packed up my VW bug, and drove quickly down the winding rutty gravel road and the fifty miles back to Tucson and the hospital ER, where I checked in and explained to the woman at the desk what had happened. She looked at me, her eyebrows arched as her nose crinkled halfway up her forehead. “I don’t smell anything.” She sounded almost disappointed. After waiting a half hour we entered a room and meet with the nurse and doctor. Since the skunk bit me all I could picture was the rabies treatment, a ring of seven shots into my stomach.
After I told the doctor my story, the first question was, “Do you have the animal?”
I looked at MaryBeth and we shook out heads. “The skunk left our tent and disappeared into the night. Besides, I doubt he would have come willingly with us to the hospital.”
The doctor sighed, “I guess you’re right. We’ll need to err on the side of caution and give you the rabies treatment.” I cringed, knowing in minutes a series of needles would perforate my abdomen. He sensed my concern and smiled. “You’re a lucky man. They recently changed the rabies treatment. We no longer inject in the stomach. Now you get one in your butt today, come back for another in three days, then seven, and a last one in fourteen days. Our main concern when you come back the first time is to see how you react to the first dose.”
I was relieved beyond words. Avoiding the stomach injections made me very happy. Happy enough I could look at the event with a sense of humor. When I got ready to return for my second injection, I seriously considered a practical joke. However, reality got the better of me and I counted my blessings. Besides, I didn’t think the people in the ER would appreciate my arrival, wild-eyed and sporting a mouth full of fizzing Alka-Seltzer foam.