In Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage she writes about deliberately exposing herself to poison ivy in order to leave summer camp: “Like virgins to a volcano, we threw ourselves in. We rolled in it. We picked it. We rubbed it in our hair and stuffed it in our shirts and ground it into our eyes. Reader, we ate it. (…) We turned to a plant as Juliet had turned to a plant before us: to transport ourselves out of a difficult situation.”
When I was in outdoor school — a weeklong camp Corvallis middle schoolers were sent to — I did something similar. It wasn’t to escape, and I wasn’t nearly so thorough in subjecting myself to a known irritant, but I remember that as soon as we were taught about poison oak I rubbed it on my arm. I guess I was just curious about what would happen, although the rashy, itchy results were, in retrospect, boringly predictable.
I’ve successfully avoided poison oak ever since, even when hiking the Rogue where it lurks around every bend in the trail and continually readies its shiny-leafed embrace for your one misstep. But I have for some reason thought of that decades-ago decision many times over. I can’t think of another instance when I’ve done something quite that foolish in quite the same way, but the ease in which the choice was made has never fully left my mind. It’s part of the reason I shrink away from the edges of towering dropoffs: my brain instantly thinks, wouldn’t it be terrifyingly simple just to step forward instead? It’s not that I want to fall. It’s that I can’t stop imagining the little effort it would take to do so.