Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bicycle Memories, Part 9; Riding thru the Bugs of Arkansas

James, a longtime friend and now a fellow blogger here in the Philippines, left an intriguing comment after reading part 8 of this series on “My Bicycle Memories.” He says my mentioning of the yellow-flowered bushes at the site of the long gone farmhouse reminds him of how his grandfather, who lived just south of where I was on LRAFB Arkansas, used to whack his pant legs with sprigs of the yellow-flowered bush before going into the brush and woodlands.

Based on that bit of homespun info, now I think that’s probably the reason the original denizens of the disappeared homestead also cultivated that particular kind of perennial. I find that immensely interesting, and now I’d like to know exactly what kind of bush it was. I’ll put it on my list of things to eventually find out.

And since the subject of irritating bugs and insects has come up, in this segment I’ll jump right to a description of my own continuous clash in olden days with the beastie bugs of Arkansas. Anyone who has ever set foot in the woods and fields of The Natural State in spring and summer knows about its prodigious creepy-crawlies and their bothersome nature. I’m NOT talking about snakes and tarantulas, although I saw those too. No, it’s the ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, horseflies, and spiders, among others, that make life absolutely miserable for anyone venturing off the roads and beaten paths. But, even keeping to the pathways will not necessarily prevent a personal invasion of the “buggy kind” unless elaborate measures are taken.

For me, taking those measures began as soon as the tick season started in late April. And so, before saddling up for the woods, I went through an elaborate pre-ride prep: First, before getting dressed, I sprayed my entire body with OFF bug repellant. Then, I put on my summer woods clothes consisting of combat fatigue pants and a long-sleeved turtleneck cotton shirt. Next, I’d tie the legs securely over my socks with the ankle drawstrings, after which I tightly wrapped long black elastic cloth strips at the ankles and lower legs to make it even more difficult for no-seeums to find a way “in.” After putting on the running shoes I specifically used for mountain biking, I sprayed myself down with a heavy duty anti-tick repellant that I managed to acquire from Air Force stocks. I knew it was toxic as hell from the caution label on the can, which warned against using it directly on the skin at the risk of dire health consequences. Evidently, it was poisonous for bugs AND humans alike.

So, that was how I suited up before every summer time ride or run through the woods of Arkansas. Keep in mind that the temperatures and humidity in the central part of that state are worse in my opinion than even here in tropical Philippines. Even so, after suffering a multitude of painful and itchy lessons, I never wore any less than what I describe above. It sounds like an uncomfortably warm way to dress in such a humidly hot clime, especially while doing something so vigorous; but surprisingly, I didn’t feel much warmer that way than if I wore just a pair of shorts and a tank top. The most important thing is staying hydrated, thus I always carried two full water bottles with me.

Even after taking all those anti-bug precautions, when I came in from a ride or a run, I was forced to go through an equally intricate “post-game” undressing ritual. I say “forced” because if I didn’t then I would certainly contaminate the inside of my home with a host of cast off bloodthirsty bugs.

First, out in the yard, I resprayed myself with the toxic military bug spray to stun my nasty little passengers. The next stop was an outdoor closet inside our carport where a supermarket paper bag and a pair of running shorts awaited. Quickly, I took off all my clothes, stuffed them into the bag, swiftly sealed it, and put on the clean shorts. My shoes I threw out into a far corner of the yard for a later thorough inspection and cleaning. Immediately I took the bag into the laundry room and dumped the bug-ridden clothes into the washer. Straight away I started the washer using the hottest water and plenty of strong detergent. As the steamy water rose above the clothes, I could actually see dozens of dying ticks floating on the film of fresh suds.

“Ha! Drown and die you little bastards!” I’d yell at them.

Finally, it was straight to the shower, where I gave “naked Me” a full visual and tactile inspection. During this “final phase,” at least once or twice a week, I’d still find a deer tick or two hanging off me with their little heads firmly buried under the skin. And that was despite all my defenses—the two kinds of repellant and all the clothing with all the openings virtually sealed.

A combat controller stationed there on the base with me once told me that he and some of his mates would go through countless cans of the noxious bug poison on every trip to the field. They found that the repellant didn’t work so well, especially against chiggers and ticks, so out of desperation, after hearing that wearing pantyhose was the best protection, they tried it out. These fellows pride themselves on being tough macho guys, so I can’t verify this myth; but I wouldn’t blame them a bit for wearing women’s under things if it works; for the damage that ticks and chiggers can cause is not only maddening when itching is involved, but deadly, when Lyme Disease is the outcome.

Once, I found a particularly deeply imbedded tick in the depths of an armpit. I failed in trying to remove it with its head still attached to its blood-engorged body. Unfortunately, the decapitated head stayed in and caused a horrible infection. The site of the bite swelled up and turned several shades of blue, yellow, red and black, all in concentric rings with the outer ring reaching a diameter of two or three inches. The lymph nodes in my neck and armpit blew up as big as golf balls and hurt something fierce. I finally relented and went to the clinic for antibiotics. I’m still not sure that I didn’t catch Lyme Disease, because I’ve had problems off and on ever since.

Arkansas chiggers, a type of bloodsucking mite, can drive an infested person nuts with the itching. These near-microscopic red devils seem to love to go for the ankles. I don’t how many times I came in from a run before I knew better and scratched myself raw for the next day or two. I tried witch hazel, rubbing alcohol, ice cubes, calamine lotion, anything I could think of, to try to get some relief from the maddening itching.

In the late summer and early autumn, Arkansas horseflies—I describe them as a cross between a honeybee and a fruit fly—seem to seek out the smell and taste of sweat-soaked human scalps, mine for example. One time, during a bushwhacking run through the forest, before I came up with a remedy for them, I almost knocked myself out running straight into a tree trunk, so distracted I was by the maddening buzzing and stinging of scads of horseflies. These fat winged biting insects will fly right into your hair, and when you try to swat them away, instead of that, you’ll find they have tangled and burrowed their way in all the way to the scalp. It’s a disgusting and disconcerting feeling to feel their plump vibrating bodies snarled up against your head. Ugh.

Ah, but there WAS one good thing about having all those nasty bugs to contend with out there in the woods and meadows encompassing the area of my single track mountain bike trail. From May through September, it seemed that I was about the ONLY human stupidly willing to brave the ticks and chiggers of the Arkansas boondocks. That alone more than made up for the spraying, itching, and swatting. In truth, I really miss it.

Don't miss Part 10 of Bicycle Memories: Yanking and Banking.

9 comments:

Ed Abbey said...

I used to laugh at Arkansonians that sprayed themselves silly before going out in the woods. That was before I wandered into a nest of deer ticks once and spent the night in some lousy hotel picking them off with tweasers and a magnifying glass by the hundreds. Now when I am in Arkansas during summer, I go through the same intricate ritual that included very toxic bug sprays.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I'd spent thousands of hours in the woods of Central Michigan and in the scrub lands of mid Texas and never came up against what I experienced in Arkansas. As you found out, the Arkansas woodlands are NO laughing matter when it comes to bugs.

Katana said...

... ticks? chiggers? fleas? I hate them... I have hated htem since I took a visit to the Endor Forest of Ft Lewis. Those mosquitos were hungry for blood. They went through my winter BDU's, Polypro and undershirt and a heavy layer of DEET! I was near homicidal with the itching. Even the thick, thick black gloves I had on didn't deter them. They just went right through, it was amazing! These were super bugs or something!

Le sigh. I hate bugs and other flying prasites. I'd almost like going to the field if it wasnt for those little fellas driving me insane.

James (Les) Chandler said...

Phil,
I wish I could remember more of the plant my grandfather used. I may have to go down to the old farm one day just to identify the plant. All i know is that may grandfather spent hours in the bush. He never sprayed himself and he never got any ticks on him.
It didn't take me long to catch on that it had to be the plant that he would cut and whack his pants all over with the sprigs of that plant.
He never got chigger (he called them red bugs). I have been told that they are the most itchy bug bite in the world. It takes a couple days for the bites to show up on your lower legs. My son got them bad and they did not show up until a couple days after we got back to Hawaii, but one look at his legs and I knew what happened. I knew what those little bumps on his legs were and I felt his misery as he was constantly scratching for about a week.
I completely forgot about those horse flies...how could I ever forget them?
My parents still live in Arkansas on the other side of Petigine Mountain. That mountain is between them and Little Rock. When I go back this coming spring I will be dealing with those pesky bugs.
The only bugs I did like was the lightning bugs that came out just as it started to get dark.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Homicidal with itching... Good one. I've never heard that phrase. Suicidal maybe. So in your case, who would you have aimed your homicide at? Innocent bystanders perhaps? ...grin...

I went to Petit Jean State Park all the time while living there. Funny thing is, I never had to worry about bugs while hiking there. Hmmmmm.

Katana said...

suicidal? that's just silly. Why would I kill myself? Its more fun to lash out at other people.

AND I typed up a comment on my own blog about battle dome, but I'll summarize it. Battle Dome and I grew up in the same hometown and we are civilian drinking buddies with no forseeable chance of encountering one another in a professional setting (him being combat arms, and me being a woman and all...). How I act in front of *MY* soldiers is completely different from the persona on my blog.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Doctor of Psychology (to be) Katana, heal THYSELF! Some little bugs "get under your skin" and you want to kill someone for it? Remind me never to go out in the field with you kiddo.

Katana said...

we all have our idiosyncrasies. An aggressive army of blood sucking bugs is mine... It didnt work so well for Raczak and his roughnecks

PhilippinesPhil said...

I take small comfort in knowing that even mighty elk have run themselves to death trying to escape hellish clouds of horseflies. Sometimes the littler the enemy the more effective their attack.