Gripped tightly in my sweaty palm is a bomb of sorts. I had many discussions with my girlfriend, Sarah, if we should detonate it. Heck, it was her idea. But for some reason I’ve taken on the duty of pressing the button. And once I do, there is no going back. Any consequences are mine to own. I know I can’t hesitate any longer or I won’t do it, I’ll talk myself out of it. After all, who wants to bomb their home? Who wants to bomb their most prized position, the camper van that they built with their own hands?
Do it, just do it. I tell myself. I can feel the burning fire of the skin covering my lower legs. Vengeance is not the best intention but it is sufficient motivation. There must be retaliation. There must be blood. I hold my breath and press down on the top of the bomb. It starts to hiss violently as I set it on the floor of our home and dart out the side before slamming the door firmly shut. Toxic chemicals fill our tiny home. On the outside, I’m calm and peaceful. On the inside, I’m yelling, “DIE YOU FUCKERS, DIE!” #Vanlife is over… for now. Bug bombs away.
Outside the van Sarah anxiously greets me in the parking lot of a hotel in Bellevue, Washington. We quadruple check the windows, doors and fan are sealed. She, even more than myself—arguably the biggest victim of this fiasco, wants a definitive end to our latest ordeal. I lock the van from the fob and take Sarah’s hand as we head inside.
The bomb was detonated on an evening in September 2020. The morning began watching the clouds of our breath fill the van that was parked in the cold and damp forests of North Cascades National Park. The plan, like all my plans, was conjured from a combination of maps, weather reports and research. When there is always a plan, there is always an opportunity to realize I’m not in control. That day, my plan was to sit out a rainstorm and rest our bodies for the next day’s hike. That plan went to shit.
On that day, my lower legs were covered in 75 fleabites and the rest on various parts of my body brought the tally to over 100. Sarah had just short of a dozen on her calf. Perhaps it’s because I’m hairy like dog, I concluded. I had been catching glimpses all summer of Sarah shaving her legs on the banks of rivers and lakes, using water cold enough to give you brain freeze. Her diligence at keeping her legs smooth sans shower has appeared to benefit more than myself.
Weeks prior, in Bend, Oregon, I noticed my first bites. The itchiness, we determined, was from mosquitoes or poison oak. When they only got worse we took to Google and narrowed down the culprits. According to the supreme all knowing and all powerful, the Internet, fleas are more likely to occur on the lower body; the even more dreaded bed bugs prefer the spaces of the upper body. We did what we could: trashed our comforter and old pillows, threw every other piece of bedding and clothing into the washer and drier on extra high heat and hoped for the best. The bites went away. I’d gotten in the habit of applying cream in the morning and at night and before long, things were back to normal. Little did we know the next generation of ankle biters had laid eggs, their offspring lay dormant awaiting their day.
I know what you’re thinking. Big shock! The couple who lives in a van and doesn’t shower got fleas. Yeah, maybe we had it coming. In our defense we were bathing five times a week, have no pets and becoming hosts to fleas wasn’t a scenario we ever expected. I traced back our potential culprits: our romantic horseback ride on the Oregon coast, a friendly Australian Shepard on the Yachats River, or an affection hungry Chow/Mastiff mutt on the banks of the Simian River. It’s 2020, so we’re not hugging strangers but loving on friendly dogs brings a sort of normalcy to an abnormal year. Now, a few fury pets have led to weeks of struggle climaxing in the detonation of a $4 bomb purchased from dealers in blue vests.
The only way to know my bites were fleabites was to treat them as such; the Walmart purchased flea fogger was ready to be put to the test. With the van off limits for a night, we splurged and got our only hotel of the entire trip. Navigating a hotel in times of COVID was one challenge, ethically ridding ourselves of fleas without spreading them to others was much more complicated. And if you ever find yourself in such a predicament, here’s what we did:
- Get a non-contaminated change of clothes (we had our “city” clothes secured in a different area of the van’s storage space).
- Secure all contaminated clothes/bedding that need to be washed and dried on high heat in a sealed laundry bag (the bag will need to be washed as well).
- Place contaminated laundry bag in the laundry room and start the washing process.
- Go to room and immediately take a hot shower without sitting on or touching any furniture. Place contaminated clothes in a plastic bag.
- In your fresh clothes, bring the outfit you were wearing to the laundry party. Finish washing all clothing.
- Prep for the bug bomb by removing all food related items from the van including spices, dishes and cooking gear. Any dishes not removed should be thoroughly washed. Remove anything else you don’t want exposed to the toxins like toiletries.
- Disconnect all electricity (for us this meant shutting off our solar charge controller and opening the circuits from our battery bank).
- Close all sealed outlets (windows, doors, fan).
- Detonate bug bomb.
- Enjoy cheap Mexican food whilst watching recycled blockbusters on cable TV like Point Break, The Temple of Doom and Tombstone while trying not to think about the chemical shit-storm occurring in your living space.
As I write this, months later on a cold December morning in Big Bend National Park, we’ve been flea free for 10 weeks. Our plan worked. Yet, to say it stopped there would leave out the mental torture I underwent in the weeks after the flea-fiasco. I developed what I coined, “FLEA-T.S.D.” I’d lose sleep every night for nearly a month, stressing at any sensation on my legs as I lay in bed. I’d have dark dreams of bug infestations and itchy limbs. I’d avoid using certain pillows in some weird rationale of paranoia.
Adventure occurs in many forms but it rarely emanates when everything goes the way it is scripted in my head. For me, adventure must consist of some extension out of my comfort zone. I knew #vanlife wouldn’t be some idyllic world like it is on Instagram. I knew there would be times like this, when I would want to be home, in my bed, away from the bugs, cold air and rainy days, with hot showers and streamable programs at the ready. Now, as I reflect back on our travels, it was only this moment, four days out of four months of tramping, that I wanted to be somewhere else. Considering all the days back home I dreamt of being somewhere else, they are odds I’ll take. The price of freedom seems to always be worth it in the end.
*Many fleas were harmed in the creation of this blog post.
Hello from Big Bend National Park.