There are many reasons to set out into the wild — or at least North Georgia, which I visited this past weekend: solitude, beauty, asylum from the law. But not cleanliness. Nine summers ago, I went into the woods vaguely aware of this. But it took a couple thousand miles of walking for it to sink in.
"It's called Pseudomonas Folliculitis."
I leaned into the phone booth. Those two Latin words, painfully enunciated by my girlfriend, didn't alleviate the discomfort of sitting. And sitting was all that I wanted to do then just as it was after each full day of trudging along the Appalachian Trail. Yet somehow, while alone in the woods of North Georgia, I'd gotten a "community-acquired" infection that cruelly made sitting difficult. I was thru-hiking the AT and I should have known better: thru is just hurt rearranged.
Standing by a tar gash that crossed the 2,174-mile trail, wordplay was not comforting. Not to me or "the follicular papules, vesicles and pustules which may become crusted, and, rarely, progress to chronically draining subcutaneous nodules" covering my backside like a cry for help in Braille. The damn things hurt a lot more than the course load I was putting off at college.
Matters weren't improved by the thought of my girlfriend's mother scrutinizing computer images of radically mutated rear ends, while her daughter — the object of my affection (but not, I hoped, my infection) — tried to Google ass rot. No matter that mother and daughter were quarantined in a spotless New England home a thousand miles away. They suffered because of me: the bacterial boyfriend.
They appear now as I imagined them then, perusing obscure medical journals (Leprosy and the Like, by Ferdinand Rosebottom) and discussing my nether regions: "It's more disturbing than that, mother. Why don't you search for crater. ... No, no. Not that. I wish we could call Charles again."
Her mother responds without sympathy.
"He left you to walk from Georgia to Maine ... to Maine! Could it be a brain disease?"
I will never know the actual details of their search. All I have is its fruit: the Latin name for my rash, and its equally obscure origin, "the ubiquitous bacterial organism, P. aeruginosa." Knowledge is not an antibiotic, but this was of some small worth.
P. aeruginosa possess a single fetish: moisture. And the rub was that I had chosen ("deliberately," Thoreau might say) to live outside during the vernal flood of 2003, the wettest spring the East Coast had seen in a decade. When it didn't rain, I was sweating, and vice versa. (In the mid-Atlantic, I briefly got enough sun for a premature report to the mother-daughter medical team on decreasing epidermal topography.) A colony of hydrophilic bacteria had found the perfect home; from P. aeruginosa's perspective, evolution could not have borne two more perfect lovers.
My girlfriend's mother revealed that I could have expended less effort wooing Pseudomonas Folliculitis in an insufficiently chlorinated Jacuzzi — the way civilized people get it. Thru-hikers, I wanted to tell her, take the more ambitious path to infection: walking some 20 miles a day for half a year, over mountains, without hope of sympathy or remuneration. But she already knew this.
Desperate, I carefully asked other thru-hikers about "a slight discomfort below the waist."
"I'm gonna tell you something," an old dude told me one morning with a grin. "I've got a case of scabies that just won't go away. And now that I know your ass is worse off, I don't feel so bad about it." This is true bonding: sharing your flesh with bacteria and then sharing that experience with another who is also sharing his flesh with bacteria, realizing, together, that there is no asylum from the laws of nature.
Well, I got to Maine, and I flew home to Atlanta. Back where the trails are paved, the pustule-production-diagnosis-eradication team disintegrated. My girlfriend and I had met just before my departure, and our relationship had largely taken shape during the weekends she left school to find me in the woods. My bumps were the least of our problems, as it turned out, which included a fundamental difficulty communicating. Twenty pounds skinnier and sporting a neck beard, my post-trail body conveyed the hours of endless trudging better than I then could.
Nearly a decade since summiting Maine's Mount Katahdin, I'm now dry and clean, no longer suitable for colonization. When people ask how the hike changed me, I often say: "I don't sit as much." It's easier than showing them the little marks that commemorate 2,000 miles of mountains, dozens of hardy comrades, and those two tough women who found a name for my condition. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. That is, I think they're goose bumps.