My sister, a fellow woods walker, has often admonished me about the dangers of tick infestation, particularly the eastern wood tick. Ticks seem disgusting suckers. Members of the arachnid family along with spiders, mites and a host of other eight-legged extraterrestrials, ticks seem to me disgusting little suckers. Illinois forests contain thousands of white tail deer, and the eastern wood tick feeds mostly on them. The tick can carry Lyme Disease, which can become chronic, painful, and debilitating. I’ve been chick sick, but never tick sick. Not yet.
You’re supposed to tuck your pants into your socks, wear light colored clothing, and inspect yourself carefully afterward, fully naked and in front of a mirror, paying careful attention to hairy areas like armpits and naughty bits. Of course I never do that. And I hadn’t been kissed by a tick yet, or by anyone else, for a long while.
I got myself lost in an Iowa forest one rainy, windy day and just decided to wander until I found my way out. I trampled down horse trails and deer trails, through tall grass meadows and beside the wind-whipped Des Moines River swollen by spring rain. And as I stopped to look at a dying cottonwood with its trunk grilled black by lightning, I felt a little tickle up my ankle. Reaching down, I discovered culprits: two wood ticks trying to climb into my boot.
Well, of course that wouldn’t do. I brushed them out, but one may have gotten into my boot anyway. I checked the rest of my clothing for ticks. And you must know I was wearing back. And then the tickles started laughing up and down my chest. Fortunately, I hadn’t encountered one other hiker in my three hours in this state forest. So no one saw me fondle my own breasts in a search for the hard-bodied, wee vampires that seemed to slither beneath my sweatshirt.
I made it down to the rocky shore of the mile wide Des Moines River. I took off my boots, and there I spotted another tick, with a reddish brown body and a small shield of black-speckled gray near its orange head. Yeccch. Even the idea of parasites repulsed me, though I’d sucked enough blood myself until someone drove a stake through my heart, forcing me to flee the practice of law.
The wind whipped riffles across the Des Moines, roiling up white caps, the river behaving like a sea. I shed my rain gear, my outer shell, my sweatshirt, my nylon undershirt, all cast dark green or black, perfect camouflage for crabby creatures about 1/8th of an inch across. In the squall, I laid out each item of clothing as flat as I could on the beach, which was made up of brittle and painfully sharp pebbles. My windbreaker couldn’t cope too well with my ‘stay’ command. So I used flatiron rocks to pin its four corners, and examined it front and back, inch by inch. I cast off my thick, wicking socks, turned them inside out, scrutinized every square nanometer of the fun areas between the toes. Then on to the shell, the sweatshirt, the rest. I turned all the pockets inside-out, the and reversed the garments in the rippling wind. The windbreaker broke free. You should’ve seen me chasing it, a barefoot and naked boy running on broken glass after his kite in the wind.
Shivering, my flesh studded with goosebumps in the Iowa storm, I crouched over my boots. I ripped out all the laces and pulled the tongues out. You may think me paranoid and neurotic and obsessive, but once every 20 years or so, paranoia pays off. I found another tick adhered to the underside of the tongue of my boot. And another on the inside of my undershirt. I tried to search my back, but of course my neck wouldn’t cooperate. Oh, to be possessed by Satan at that moment so I could’ve turned my head the full 360.
I tried crushing the ones I found, but they make ticks the same way they make cigarette packs or wide-brimmed hats: in two varieties – crushable and crushproof. Mine were indestructible. And they just wouldn’t let go of my clothes. They could hang on to a hairless ADHD piglet basted in baby oil that had OD’d on espresso. I finally ended up stabbing one to death with the sharp edge of a two foot slab of rock.
Now, I had to check my privates all over again, just to make sure. The beach seemed rather exposed to do this, so I found the only cover I could – a dead elm that had fallen onto the beach. I scanned upriver and downriver for the unlikely day hiker, yanked down my Hanes briefs, and dug my fingers into the bush. Just then, a young woman emerged from the woods. What an ear-splitting scream, even in that carrying wind. Not her scream. My scream. She just laughed and kept on walking.
Now I was a sex offender. As her husband rounded the bend, I gathered my flapping clothes and socks and covered myself up like an offended dowager. They glanced at each other and laughed.
“Little cold to be takin’ a dip, isn’t it?” said the man.
“Ticks,” I grumbled as I retreated into a willow bush and stumbled putting on my underpants.
I finished dressing, rethreaded my boots, and hiked back into the forest. I’d scare up a bevy of deer browsing every once in awhile, their white rumps vaulting into the air as they bounded off. And, every so often, I’d have to stop and check for ticks. Twice I found a couple on my ankles, but this time, I’d stuck my pantaloons into my socks. The ticks became an annoyance, and not a cancer.
I stayed lost for quite awhile, but knew I’d find my way out. I went in circles. That Des Moines River, she’ll drive you crazy, boy, the paranoia said in the voice of an old miner.
“Can’t be any worse than Des Moines,” I said out loud as I flicked a tick.
The afternoon grew long, the clouds rolled in low, and I found my way back to the trailhead. As I drove over the bridge that linked the north and south banks of the Des Moines, a steel mist erased the horizons. It seemed like I rode the edge of an ocean. Two headlands jutted into the broad river to the west, and I imagined I drove across the Golden Gate, the mouth of San Francisco Bay pursing itself on my right to kiss the yawning Pacific on my left. Later that Sunday, I’d stroll the lonely streets of a small town rising from the swells of new planted corn for my third hike of the day. Let’s see, I’d been kissed by rain and winds, by fog, and by ticks. What more could a city man ask for?
Did I have to take off all my clothes on that river shore? Of course I did! I’m an idiot. And if I didn’t, then you wouldn’t have anything to read just now. Did this really happen? Yes it did. I may be foolish, but I don’t lie if I can help it. Something like this would only happen to me.
Exposing myself to the elements, exposing myself to a fear, I move beyond my present bonds and bounds. Even fools eventually learn. It just takes them longer.
© 2015 by Michael C. Just