Wednesday, March 23, 2016

wham bam thank you ma'am

Summer of 2008 was one of my best yet. It was filled with early morning fishing trips, catching my first bass on a fly rod, southern home cooking and mowing the lawn using my dad’s 360 degree riding lawn mower. I can still smell that summer when I think about it – including a prominent olfactory memory of Calamine anti-itch lotion.

As the summer came to a close, my dad and I decided to plan a father-daughter hiking trip before I headed back to college. We started training by walking the neighborhood with our packs and slowly adding gallons of water each week to increase the weight. At the time, I thought he was trying to get in shape to keep up with me. Now, I see it was him who was worried about my then 95-lb little body trying to carry a whole pack for three days; and he was right to worry – it took me a few weeks to build up the stamina. Once August rolled around, we were ready and headed up to a wilderness area in Arkansas with only our packs in the bed of the truck.

We spent most of the first day hiking down, and took our first break at a stream. I sat on a log wearing a gray shirt tee shirt and my trusty khaki shorts. Once we rested up we began hiking up. And up. And up. We took another break and I sat down another log to chug some water. We repeated this several times until light started to get dim, we found an area to set up camp. I ate dinner, also sitting on a log in my khaki shorts, and then we turned in.

The bugs were deafening that night. I don’t think either one of us got any sleep. You’d think it would be silent in the middle of a wilderness area at night, but not in Arkansas and not in the middle of the summer. I remember asking myself, as I tossed in my tiny hot tent that night, if I should be worried about any of the bugs.

The next day was more of the same, until about halfway through the day I began to hurt… and itch. And burn. My under-butt region and the tops of my thighs began to itch past the limits of what I thought was humanly possible. A quick trip behind a tree and a peek at my behind revealed to me that my butt had turned red. So red that the individual bites were indiscernible until closer inspection. Chiggers – how had I not thought to beware the chiggers in my little khaki shorts?

Redbugs, or chiggers as we call them in the South, are not actually bugs. They’re arachnids, like spiders and scorpions and belong to the genus Trombicula. They’re a type of mite barely big enough to see with the naked eye when they’re adults and are cute little vegetarians that eat plants. But the babies, well, let me tell you about the babies.

Larval redbugs feed on skin. They like to find tight, protected spots like YOUR PANTIES or fat folds to burrow into your skin and secrete enzymes that start to digest it. And then they slurp it up. The slurping and chewing causes extreme irritation and itching to their hosts. They’ll stay attached for up to five days, and then drop off of your body like you never meant anything to them at all. They don’t even take you out for breakfast the next morning – wham bam thank you ma’am.

Upon returning home from our hiking trip, I counted 110 chigger bites on my butt and upper thighs, and an additional 70 or so elsewhere. I’m sure I was not my usual frickin delightful self for those few days as I lamented wearing my loose-fitting shorts and sitting on so many chigger-infested logs like a dope. I had to take Tylenol PM to sleep at night for a week.

Despite their panty fetishes, chiggers really are pretty non-invasive parasites. They don’t suck blood and don’t enter your body past your superficial layer of skin. Parasites can get so much worse than little baby redbugs munching on some skin cells. Still, if you're not a southerner and find yourself in our neck of the woods during the summer, take precautions. No one deserves to be used like that.

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