What Do You Do When You Need to Call Poison Control From the Middle of the Desert?

Get on a bike. Ride hard for a cell signal. Keep telling yourself your daughter will be fine.

byZach Bowman|
What Do You Do When You Need to Call Poison Control From the Middle of the Desert?

Brandon held the handlebars, blocking my departure.

“Don’t create another emergency.”

Easy to hear, harder to adhere to when you’re astride someone else’s motorcycle and there’s 20 miles of twisting, Colorado River road between you and the cell signal you need so you can call Poison Control.

We’ve spent the last week roaming eastern Utah with our friends, Brandon and Leigh. Letting Lucy wobble around with their two dogs, Piper and Lilly. Camping in the folds of the San Rafael Swell with our backs to towering sandstone ridges, huddling against the wind. Riding dirt bikes in the nest of sandy trails, chasing jackrabbits out of the scrub.

We wandered the miles of dirt roads to Gobblin Valley, meandering through incalculable acres of public land. We’ve crossed some 14 states in the three months we’ve been on the road, and Utah has shown itself to be the brightest jewel of the bunch—a sprawling and alien playground painted in a pallet of pale yellows and reds, soft whites and dusty greens. A rainbow of browns.

It was late when we finally made Moab. Stopped at a campground to empty our holding tank and fill our water. With groceries left to do, I was in a rush, so I peeled the foil seal from the top of the tank treatment, dumped in half the bottle, capped the thing, then hauled off to finish up, head to the store, and get back on the road. We followed Brandon and Leigh out of town, up the twisting spine of 128. Drove through the deep cut of the Colorado River, the stone walls rusted red and crumbing to the muddy water below.

We were pushing towards six by the time we made camp between the folds of two massive, slickrock swells. This is uranium country, and the dirt beneath our feet fed our nation’s nuclear ambitions through the ‘60s. Two perfect holes in the sandstone behind the truck told the tale of core samples drilled long before I was born. Nothing here worth scarring the earth for, I guess.

I wasn't thinking about bombs or reactors or mineshafts as I made ready to cook dinner. Just what we would need out of the pantry if we were having spaghetti. Beth was inside, and when kiddo started crying it didn't seem like something to get my hackles up over; the clock’s not moving if the girl’s not wailing about one thing or another—too many stuffed animals or too few, too much cuddling or not enough. Why her magnetic alphabet letters don’t belong in the bottom of our boots. That’s when Beth opened the door.

“What was this foil from?”


It was the foil from the holding tank treatment. Beth said she turned around to find kiddo with the stuff on her fingers, which she sucks to self-soothe. It was on her lips, and she was bawling an honest wail. How could I be so fucking stupid as to leave it where the girl could get it?

Beth Bowman

We read the bottle. Formaldehyde, it said. Logic suggested the girl didn’t get enough in her system to cause any real damage. But how could we know? The directions were clear: drink two glasses of water and induce vomiting.

Kiddo drank the water happily enough. Settled down to her usual happy self after a minute; was fine when we took her outside and pulled her shirt off. She seemed a little confused when momma sat her on her knee, then wrapped her arms in a hug.

She looked downright terrified when my wife put her fingers down her throat.

I couldn’t stand the look of terrible confusion on the girl’s face. The tears running down her red cheeks. I wanted to pick her up and hold her, to stop all of it. Beth’s better than I am; she did what needed to be done while I pushed down tears of my own.

None of us had any service, and smart money was on calling someone who knows what the hell to do. I threw on a helmet. Brandon fired up his WR400, hammered from a hundred desert bashings. I didn’t take time for armor or boots, just put a leg over the thing in short sleeves. That's when he grabbed the handlebars and gave me a quiet warning. I ripped out of camp and pointed the bike towards the interstate in hopes of finding signal. I rode as hard and fast as I could, the dirt tires squirming under the assault of a thrashing single cylinder.

Beth Bowman

It was 20 miles to the four lane, up and out of the river valley over wide and open range. The bike had no speedometer. I rode it until it popped and stuttered, the valves floating in fifth. Passed one truck, then another.

There’s something about what we’re doing that makes our margins—for happiness, for safety—seem so thin. I know the girl could have gotten into anything back at the house in Knoxville, but that’s not where we were. We were in the forgotten sticks of Utah, a damn long way from so much as a phone call. And I put us there. I was worried thin about our daughter, and furious at myself, and thinking about what she was going through far from where I was when I finally brought the bike to a stop, ripped off the helmet, and dialed for help.

My brother, first—a nurse. No answer. Then a friend, a doctor, who couldn’t tell me for certain what to do. Then poison control. The wind was fierce and I had to kneel and lean close to the bike, praying the thing would provide enough of a brake for the lady on the other end of the phone to hear me. I spelled out the name of the treatment, read the warning on the back. She told me we did fine. That we shouldn’t have induced vomiting, but not to worry otherwise. Our daughter would be fine.

I was sweating from the heat of the bike as it pinged itself cool beside me. Shaking and breathing hard. Fighting the same hot tears all over again. When I rode back into camp, our daughter was laughing and scrambling around in the dirt with the dogs, happy as can be. Precious as always.