The motions were as familiar as sitting and standing, thanks to my years leading trips in India. Panicky, wild-eyed student approaches with tears in her eyes. Student has not slept due to body aches /pounding head/ sore throat/ nausea. This is the absolute worst she has ever felt and here she is camped out in some derelict orchard in Oregon with naught but a tent between her and the elements. I began making calculations. Student’s panic level multiplied by outdoor living conditions, divided by the contents of our backcountry first aid kit, plus parental concern, minus all I’ve learned about what constitutes a medical emergency over the years = one trip to an urgent care clinic.
Unfortunately, we were turned away from no less than three such clinics, like Mary and Joseph petitioning the innkeepers of Jerusalem. We ended up spending the morning in the ER, which wasn’t such a bad thing. We had the whole place to ourselves and got plenty of individual attention. If you’re planning on an ER visit any time soon, shoot for mid-morning on a Thursday in Hood River, Oregon.
Thanks to the hours I’ve logged in far worse conditions abroad, not to mention my recent incarnation as a medical actress, I was anxious for my student, but otherwise perfectly at ease. We were in and out in reasonable time, albeit with only a vague diagnosis and instructions to dose with Tylenol and Ibuprofen until the storm passed.
A quick stop at the pharmacy to stock up and we were on our way back to camp, trundling over the gaping maw of the Columbia River Gorge on the oh-so-skinny Hood River bridge at a sedate 20 miles an hour. Holding my breath each time a car passed from the other direction, I noticed an eighteen-wheeler approaching at full speed. I sucked my breath in a little tighter, cheating as close to the guard rail as I dared in my fourteen-ton, 40 foot-long bus.
The semi barely breasted the nose of the bus before a sound like cannon fire exploded in my left ear and I felt a sharp pain in my hand. My student shrieked and I hunched my shoulders, gripping the wheel to keep a straight course until we were safely off the bridge. I asked her if she was okay, still unsure what had happened. “Fine,” was her shaky reply. My hand was throbbing, and I appeared to be covered in sparkles. I didn’t dare take a broader survey until we came to a stop sign, which is when I realized that the body of the semi had hit the double driver-side mirrors, shattering them and bending the metal frames into the cab’s interior.
The top mirror dangled in warped shards from its casing by a few wires, while the bottom was more neatly cracked, and facing the opposite direction. I glanced at my hand, which showed a red welt but no broken skin, then maneuvered the bus into a diner parking lot to clean up the worst of the shards so we could get safely home. I marveled that we were both unhurt. The shattered bits of mirror had blown right across the front of the bus into the stairwell on the other side, but aside from the glitter dusting and my sore hand, every fragment missed us both entirely.
The bus got fixed but the student grew mysteriously worse until, on the morning we were breaking camp, the Hood River ER called and said they made a mistake with her diagnosis. It was strep throat. She would need rest and antibiotics, but she would get better. Another pharmacy stop, some mad Ubering around Portland to get her settled in a comfy AirBnB with her dad, and all seemed to be settling out.
My boss gently suggested that after the last few days and to safeguard my health, I might want to take a day off– something I haven’t done all semester. The strep hadn’t got me, and we even had some library time and showers at a nearby college on the schedule. “Maybe that will be enough,” I thought. “Maybe if I can just go be by myself for a while, write some words, get clean…” But when we got to the sports complex at Lewis and Clark College, we were met with this grim scenario:
This is not a shower scene from Shawshank Redemption. This is where we got clean, not to mention an eyeful of the Lewis and Clark women’s swim team. It was also the very last place a weary waif might manage to find some “me time”.
I think I will take that day off after all.