Starved Rock State Park outside Utica Illinois holds a special fascination for me. Not only have I camped there twice, it seems to be a destination Phelpses are destined to use. As my brother said the other day on Facebook, “Starved Rock is as far as you can get when you start late.” Of course, we always start late. Dad and I left Holland only about four hours later than planned, and that was in addition to his having left Mt. Pleasant at least two hours later than he had planned!
My first night at Starved Rock was with Mom and Dad, on perhaps one of Mom’s last camping trips. Emily had less time off so she flew to Denver after we drove out there. We met Dorothy and Andy somewhere as well. Our destinations were Durango, Mesa Verde, the Utah National Parks, and Four Corners. Unless I’m confusing trips, in which case just pretend I’m not and keep reading.
The first leg through SW Michigan and the start of Indiana were uneventful, but the rest of the journey through Illinois, Starved Rock, and beyond, was utterly miserable. I have always had mild asthma but rather severe allergies. The latter kicked in like nobody’s business part way through Indiana and I suffered non-stop runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, coughing, and so forth, with absolutely no let-up. On most “normal” days I awake, have half an hour or so of awful, and after a shower they seem to taper off and I go on about my day. Not this time. There was no stopping this flood. I even asked to stop at a pharmacy so I could pick up my latest weapon in the war of the DMZ (Daily Mucous Zone), Tavist-D. Nada. Nothing worked. I rode in the back of the minivan utterly miserable, a hundred miles after a hundred miles. The good news is, I survived to live another day, type another post, and even take another trip.
Sometime after this trip, my first real allergy salvation arrived in the form a steroid nasal spray. It truly changed my life. I went from being miserable for days, or even just hours, on end, to having virtually no allergies whatsoever. After a few different brands, I have stuck with Flonase for around fifteen years. It is amazing to wake up, breathe normally, and barely remember that once upon a time I would be so “sick” I could hardly function, not to mention that a body fighting such severe allergies was prone to asthma, colds, inner ear infections, strep throat, bronchitis, and sinus infections. On average I would use Flonase from April through October or November, then put it away for the winter months until spring season kicked in again.
Enter weight loss event. In the fall of 2008 I misplaced about 40 pounds on the Medifast meal replacement plan. It took about four months and too much money, but it was great! The biggest single change in diet was eating lots more green. Broccoli and spinach became the two main “ingreendients” in my diet as I was allowed one “lean and green” meal of lean meat and green vegetable daily. For the rest of the year, including the second Carnegie Hall appearance made by me and members of the Mt. Pleasant High School Concert Choir, I maintained about 30 pounds lost, and continued eating spinach like crazy. As spring rolled around I did not start up Flonase in April. Perhaps I began in June. The next year I did not start until June, perhaps July. Over time I started it later and used it less. Had it become psycho-somatic? Was I cured? Did I even have allergies anymore?
Fast forward to summer 2013. I did not use Flonase at all until now, this second week of August (mainly because I forgot ask for a refill!). As expected I had no allergy symptoms at all during my 16th Interlochen summer. But that was about to change! The only consistent variable over the past five years has been a huge increase in my consumption of spinach. Until this summer, that is. For some inexplicable reason, Stone, the main cafeteria at Interlochen, rarely served spinach. It was often available at Pinecrest, but I ate there fewer than a dozen times this summer. I was without regular intake of this favorite leafy green for nearly two months, but the consequences of that would not be revealed until about a week after camp.
Dad and I headed west on Thursday, 8 August, intending to arrive in Imperial, Nebraska, Saturday night so we could attend church on Sunday the 11th. We camped that first night at Starved Rock, and memories of that awful allergic crossing of America flooded back. The next day, traversing the rest of Illinois, all of Iowa, and crossing into Nebraska, the allergies themselves came flooding back. I had just started to use Flonase in anticipation of this possibility, but it takes about a week to kick in. By Saturday I found myself in that utterly miserable state which had not visited me for a decade and a half. Constant runny nose, sneezes so frequent and violent that I was pulling muscles in my chest, shoulders, back and neck, and absolutely no relief.
Monday I told dad that at our next stop we had to buy spinach, as it was the only variable I could point to that might make a difference in how I was feeling. In Iowa City’s New Pioneer Food Co-op we had purchase ingredients for a great salad, but had not gotten around to making it. As we had no spinach, I wanted to add that to the mix. That night, Monday, 12 August, I made a salad of kale, spinach, some kind of lettuce, green pepper, tomato, olives, avocado, and sunflower seeds, tossed with a little Miracle Whip (I know, I know, but dad hates mayo and that’s all we had). That was our dinner!
That night was the worst. We were camped at Pioneer Park in the city of Torrington, Wyoming, just inside the state line from Nebraska. Since crossing into Nebraska my allergies had really ramped up, and this overnight was the apex, the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee. (Ok, I just used those near-synonyms for “peak” simply because I know them all.) I used about half a box of Kleenex over night (not much sleep!), and killed the box later Tuesday. I was surprised that a misery with which I had so long been unfamiliar, but which was all too painful a memory, had returned to vigorous reality, and so easily and quickly.
Throughout the day Tuesday (no shower available to rinse the pollen or whatever off) I continued to suffer, though to a slightly lesser degree. Was the spinach working? Had the Flonase kicked in yet? Or were we just out of Nebraska? When we hit Newcastle, Wyoming, I asked a pharmacist for her recommendation, and she said her top pick was Allegra, and she also suggested chlorpheniramine maleate for the times when the 24-hour Allegra might be wearing off. I took an Allegra right away. As we drove north toward Mt. Rushmore, I fervently hoped that I might start feeling a little better, and quickly!
A few hours later we set up camp (in the daylight!) at Horse Thief Campground, a terrific private campground about 25 minutes from Mt. Rushmore. We experienced quite a thunderstorm, which included pea-sized hail (we had everything set up!) while cooking some Johnsonville brats (do you know that the Russian word for brother is брат–braht? Could anything be more perfect than that?). The thunder and lightning lasted for about 45 minutes, and we thought the rain was over, but then it picked up again and lasted for several hours. We cooked, ate, and did the dishes in the thunder, lightning, rain, and hail, in our Gore-tex and under an umbrella. In retrospect, that was probably stupid, given that there was a large tree five feet behind us. At one point I did look around and calculated that our odds of being struck were about level with everyone else nearby, even as my hands were in the dishwater and I was taking a mental note of the extension cord running from the electrical box to our tent.
At 7:54 PM we jumped in the truck and headed to Mt. Rushmore to see the evening light show. Our campground host thought it began at 9:00. We arrived at 8:20 only to be told it had ended just a minute before: “They must’ve cut it way short today because of the weather, ‘cause they didn’t even go 30 minutes this time,” mused the elderly lady at the parking admission booth. Great. Two nights in a row we had arrived a total of about 3 minutes late and missed the evening attraction. The day before we had hoped to take the auto road to the top of Scotts Bluff. It closes at dusk; we arrived at 6:50 and they had just closed the gate. And here we were at Mt. Rushmore face to face with the clock again. Still, the presidents were illuminated brilliantly, and it was a beautiful sight even without the show. We drove through the parking lot and headed back toward camp. About a half-mile back on SD244 we rounded the bend where the profile of George Washington comes into view. It is amazing, and at night, all lit up, was spectacular.
And then it hit me: I was feeling much better. Progressively I’ve become a little less violently sneezy, I use a few fewer Kleenexes, and the muscles in my shoulders, chest, back and neck have begun to regrow and repair from their injuries. Granted, I still am not “well” in the sense that I feel the way I have for the past fifteen years. That puzzles me, because even the Flonase has not really taken hold. But the combination of all four things: Flonase, spinach, Allegra, and chlor-whatever have made what could have been a gorgeous but miserable trip into a dream trip with my father. Each has played its role, but for the time being I’ll give the credit to Allegra!