How not to deal with high altitude summer sunshine

Or, one of the dumbest things I have ever done in my life. Even dumber than the ill-fated Everclear experiment. Please note: this story has disgusting parts. If you have a weak stomach, you may want to skip it.

Back around 1994, my good friend George and I decided to do a road trip. We were both about thirty. George was on a yearlong self-discovery adventure in his Jeep, driving around the country. I hadn’t been back to Colorado, a place of famous scenery and an old stomping ground, since 1990 when I went back to help my mother scatter my dad’s ashes at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. That trip hadn’t gone well, mainly because the combination of my impatience and my mother’s personal foibles were not a good travel recipe, but we did what we set out to do. This would be better. I have been around much of Colorado and I’m a good tour guide, and it was a place in which George hadn’t done much sightseeing. I’d meet up with him and join him for the final leg of his yearlong journey back to Seattle.

The plan was for me to fly to Denver and meet him at the airport. Now, this took trust. This was before cell phones went really mainstream. He knew my flight information, but I had to count on him to be there. If my flights got messed up, the only assurance I had of connecting with him was twofold:

  1. I knew he would not leave the airport without me.
  2. I knew I would eventually reach the airport, and would not leave it without him.

If he knew the same things, we would somehow connect. So happened that my flight got canceled, and the most realistic way to Denver was on another airline. Other than the highly questionable airport PA, all hopes rested upon us wandering through the airport until we ran across one another. About five hours after I was supposed to have arrived, that occurred. In those days, that’s what you dealt with. Kids, next time some old person tells you how much better the old days were, ask them how fun it was not to be able to call people to let them know your flight was delayed/canceled/rebooked/otherwise messed up.

The next day, we set out for the glorious old video arcades of Manitou Springs, then Cañon City and the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas. I was a good tour guide, but I’d forgotten a couple of things. While Colorado doesn’t get all that hot, much of it is over 5000′ in elevation, and a good percentage is over 6500′. The air is thinner, with far less atmospheric protection from sunlight. Temperature means nothing; it could be 40º F outside, but at 13,000′, you will roast. I’d also managed to forget that I was a white, predominantly Nordic guy living in Seattle, where sunlight is infrequent and a sunburn is actually something of an achievement. Summers had been blistering where I’d gone to high school, but that was thirteen years in my past.

If you can believe this, I decided that the way to travel was in tennis shoes, shorts and a bandanna. No shirt. No hat (even though I knew I was already starting to go bald). George suggested some sunscreen. Macho man declined, pooh-poohing a little bit of reddened skin. By the end of the first day, I had the start of a decent burn. You’d expect that in an open Jeep. Day two came, with more of a burn, and by day three we were at Mesa Verde. I was scarlet. Still I wouldn’t put on a shirt, hat or sunscreen. By now this was really starting to hurt.

A funny side note: what I did not know at the time was that George was gay, and that this yearlong tour was more or less his coming-out tour (at least, to himself). Not that there weren’t signs, which I’d have seen had I possessed enough gaydar to detect a Pride parade. Rather, I simply didn’t make assumptions, and wouldn’t have cared anyway. I wasn’t concerned enough about it to stop and consider it. None of that is funny; what’s funny is that in the motel room each night, for amusement, I’d pull out the Gideons’ Bible and start reading all the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus. “And if a man lieth with mankind…” I was laughing the entire time, and George seemed to think it was a great joke as well. One of these days I need to ask him what he made of this comic proclivity of mine. I know it didn’t offend him, because he knew I wasn’t serious. It’s one of those things that makes one wonder if the subconscious picks up on stuff that we don’t process. We’re still laughing about it.

By the Highway to Hell, as we dubbed US 666 toward Monticello, Utah, I wasn’t laughing about much. I was broiled alive. My face, scalp, tops of arms, chest, shoulders and thighs were almost maroon, and the first burn was beginning to peel. Almost half my body was burned. Felt pretty much as if I’d been dunked in acid. This all could have been prevented, if I hadn’t been one of the world’s greater fools. Perhaps worst of all, it was detracting from my friend’s enjoyment, which I had zero right to have done. I have a photo of myself at Arches National Park, and it’s scary.

We headed for Salt Lake via Green River, and by that time it was getting disgusting. The second layer was coming off, leaving very raw skin exposed and weeping amber fluid. Did you know that the skin on your scalp is really, really thick? It was coming off like cornmeal mush, in big crispy slabs. I had amber fluid leaking out of my hair and much of my skin, drying in gross crusts. It hurt, rather badly. I finally yielded to a shirt, hat and sunblock. In the shower in Green River, I made the powerful error of trying to take a hot shower. I have a rather high tolerance for non-dental pain. This pain exceeded my tolerance by several notches. Half my body had second-degree burns, with blisters all over the place. It wouldn’t have been far-fetched for me to seek medical attention. For the rest of the trip, it was cold showers all the way.

In spite of my acute discomfort, we had some semblance of a good time. George wanted to go to Temple Square, and I’d never been, so we paid it a visit. For those who imagine bevies of missionaries bugging one non-stop, take it from me: that couldn’t be further from reality. It did have greeters (all young women, in pairs), and people walking around to help folks find stuff, but there was no hassle. This is the epicentre of the LDS Church, and you can see their pride in the attentive landscaping and appealing architecture. They also let me in, with my unappealing visage and very casually immodest dress. They were not required by law to do that. It is a beautiful place, and I was impressed by the way its caretakers express their faith through dedication to keeping it spotless, bursting with flowers, and welcoming to guests. Even if you aren’t Mormon and disagree with nearly every official and unofficial position taken by the LDS Church, the respect with which they maintain Temple Square inspires admiration for their industry.

George’s goofiest notion of the trip was yet to come. He wanted to head out to the Great Salt Lake, and gods knew I was in no moral position to obstruct anything he was eager to do, so we headed out there. There’s at least one causeway across part of it, leading to a peninsula where they have a wildlife refuge. It was simple to tell when we were getting close, because the lake smells like a paper mill. You can smell it for miles. As you go down to the ‘beach,’ you learn the second reason that lakefront property is not in demand: the brine flies. At first, I thought that the beach had brown sand. I then walked down to it, and saw the brownness scatter away from my feet in a circle that followed me. It was a literal carpet of brine flies. It’s a good thing they don’t bite, or one would be devoured. George then decided this was a great day to go wading in the lake, a pleasure I declined. (With half your skin charred away, would you willingly dunk yourself in water six times saltier than the ocean?) He then learned that the water leaves a fairly slimy scum on the skin, which ruded him out a lot. As a result, we had the one real moment of the trip where my judgment had been better. While he went into the men’s can at a Dairy Queen to scrub the slime off his legs, I relaxed with an ice cream treat and waited, far more smug than I had any right to be.

The last haul, from Burley, Idaho to Seattle, was a blur of pain for me. It was the sixth day, the first layer was long gone, and the second was bubbling off me. When we got back, for extra fun, I had some baseball games before I was recovered. Sweat-soaked uniform caked with dust which got ground into very raw flesh? I don’t recommend it. I’m not sure how I even managed to play. Somehow, in one game I was 4 for 4.

It’s been nearly twenty years. I still have the tan lines on my upper thighs; I can tell which they are, because I haven’t worn shorts that short in a very long time, and I don’t spend large amounts of time in the sun to begin with. The burn permanently darkened my skin. For the rest of my days, I’ll have to watch very carefully for melanoma. I simply can’t ever allow a serious burn again.

And I’m passionate about sunblock. I’ll trowel on the heaviest stuff I can find. Hatless in summer sun? Not unless I want to go through that again. I’d just as soon not.

Last year George and I celebrated our thirtieth year of friendship. We need to go on another road trip at some point. This time, I promise not to do anything imbecilic.


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