An Allergic Reaction on Old Rag Mountain

On top of Old Rag Mountain

In 2009, I was 4 miles into a hike up the infamous Old Rag Mountain in Virginia when my throat started closing up and my eyes swelled shut.  I have extreme food allergies to all nuts, beans, peas and especially soybean.  I had eaten a sandwich from an unfamiliar restaurant at lunch that day, something I rarely do for obvious reasons, and I had put myself into a very dangerous situation. My food allergies cause anaphylaxis, which is essentially a series of symptoms like severe itching, eyes swelling up, throat closure and severe stomach pains usually followed by explosive unholy diarrhea.  So there I was, incapacitated on the side of a mountain, propped up against a rock, rummaging through my backpack for my medicine. Most people with severe allergies carry a shot of epinephrine, but I’ve always preferred liquid Benadryl.  All I had in my backpack was Benadryl in pill form which takes longer to kick in than the liquid. I popped 3 pills and sat quietly for a half hour while my reaction ran its course.

My food allergies are exercise induced. If I eat something I’m allergic to and chill out on the couch, I almost never have a reaction. I try to stay as still and as calm as possible to minimize the effects of the reaction.  A cold bath seems to help me too. If there had been a stream on the mountain, I probably would have sat in it to lower my body temperature. This particular reaction turned out to be relatively mild. My hives were mostly confined to my hands and head, my breathing was never overly constricted, and I could see out of both eyes.  After a half hour, I drank a liter of water in one sip, slung my pack over shoulders, stood up, and headed for the summit. 75mg of Benadryl has the unfortunate side effect of sapping all the strength from your body. When I reached the summit, I took a 90 minute nap in a shady spot behind a big-ass rock. After my nap, I easily managed the final 6 miles of the hike and thankfully avoided any earth-shaking bowel movements.

Food allergies are all the rage these days. I meet a lot of hikers who tell me that they are “allergic” to things like gluten, white flour, red die 7, etc.  As a person with genuine food allergies, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt because I know how bad it sucks when you’re out in the wild and your body shuts down, but the truth of the matter is that most of the people I meet with “food allergies” are really just hypochondriacs who read too many magazine articles filled with pseudo-science and clever marketing from expensive organic food companies. The day that I hiked Old Rag, a more severe allergic reaction might have required a helicopter rescue. Its funny that you never read about anyone with a Gluten allergy needing a medivac rescue from the side of a mountain. 

Unfortunately for me, soybean oil is in almost every processed food product on the grocery shelf.  I have to be extremely careful what I eat when I hike.  If I was ever low on water and forgot my Benadryl on the trail and I had a really bad reaction, it could easily be a fatal mistake. So next time you’re sitting around with your buddies discussing your collective gluten allergy, consider how ridiculous you sound to someone with a real food allergy and try not to get too upset if I chortle in your general direction.

Old Rag Mountain Virginia


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