Herding swine

Our days had always been numbered. Having circled for weeks, the peril started taking out friends, dropping relations and inching closer and closer to the home front. When it finally hit, the unwelcome visitor was practically scratching at my door, announcing itself one little sniffle and cough at a time. What was this dreaded terror, you might ask. Why, the swine flu, of course, that pesky little virus that has struck fear into the hearts of Durangoans for much of 2009.

Yep, it was six short months ago that the inbred virus first made headlines. In mid-April, the CDC discovered a heretofore-unknown species – a swine flu virus haphazardly mated to small pieces of bird and human flu. And in true media blitz fashion, chaos, misinformation and mass panic followed.

“Oh, help me lord,” more than one southern drawl muttered in those early days. “I just couldn’t resist that bacon-crusted, ham-wrapped, savory piece of tenderloin. Please have mercy and spare me death from the swiney flu.”

Apparently, someone was listening. Following a heavy lobby from the pork belly industry, our highly contagious little bug starting going by “H1N1,” and the meat-lovers pizza happily found itself back on the menu.

Swine flu’s local legacy was no less interesting. The virus somehow survived an alcohol-soaked spring break in Cancun, hitched a ride on a college student’s liver and oinked into La Plata County days later. Then on a midsummer night’s eve, the nasty little pig swept through the Kanakuk Camp near Vallecito incapacitating 70 campers. And in recent months, Mr. Swine has grown to love local pastures, greedily penning up in local schools, workplaces and watering holes.

Given the likelihood that my brood would be among the first infected (marrying a teacher and fathering a 7-year-old means more than rich financial rewards), I’ll confess that I was reasonably concerned. When one of my daughter’s second-grade tablemates went home with swine for a companion, I was downright panicked.

I though I had legitimate cause. Way back in 2006-07, the Sands family faced a particularly trying winter on the bacterial front. In a winter marked by crud, colds, pneumonia and chunder, the viral high point snuck up in late April. On that fateful day, Rachael and I received a most unexpected surprise for our 10th wedding anniversary. Call us sinners, but we’d taken a brief respite from parenting and gone south for the weekend. There – under the faux-dobe of an overpriced Santa Fe hotel room – we honeymooners learned firsthand how the innocent little flu bug takes down 36,000 people each year. Body aches, shakes, the wrong variety of moan and bleary, feverish dreams hit right at the stroke of midnight. The torture continued through morning.

At daybreak I helped my comatose wife into the backseat of the car and set off on the greatest of adventures – a fever-induced drive through the Land of Enchantment to our Durango home. During those three and a half hours, my brain slow-cooked at 104 degrees, the windshield bubbled in hallucinogenic splendor, and a cruel, potholed highway menaced our every move. My co-pilot writhed in the backseat – falling in and out of consciousness – occasionally muttering unintelligibles like “Oh look, it’s My Little Pony.”

In hindsight, it’s a miracle that the car stayed on the road, my passenger kept her chicken enchiladas down and I managed to dodge a different breed of DUI (Driving Under Influenza). Two and half years later, it feels like I’m still recovering from that little episode, and you might understand my misgivings about a full family repeat this winter courtesy of H1N1.

But despite each and every precaution, a little piggie managed to sneak home in my daughter’s school backpack last week. The first sign something was amiss was when Skyler announced she was “absolutely freezing” during the heat of last Saturday’s Indian Summer boiler. That chill soon rattled into a sniffle and a cough. Headache, stomach pain and 103-degree temperature were not far off, and the dreaded Swine Flu squealed into the midnight hour with an upchuck climax. Rachael and I promptly developed sympathetic aches and pains of our own as well as a matching set of peptic ulcers.

But the inevitable trip to El Hospital never showed, as our pig magically scooted for the door on Day 3. Skyler’s fever dropped, her appetite returned and the dreaded H1N1 diminished into a mild cough. Knock on hamhock, but the big, bad pork bullet seemed to have only grazed us. Somehow we scored the mild version of Mr. Swine, his evil twin choosing to knock elsewhere.

I do know that the Santa Fe superflu could be scratching at our door any day now. However, our days of fear and loathing in fluland are over. I’m also quite excited to have earned our Swine Merit Badges so early and easily in the season. We’ll wear them with pride.

Plus at the current rate of recovery, our friends should start calling again any week now. And who knows? The scarlet H1N1 might even be rubbed off the family’s brow in time for a Thanksgiving dinner invite. We’re currently accepting all offers. I’ve even volunteered to break with tradition and slip a little savory, spiral-cut swine onto my plate.

– Will Sands