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Rattlers and Deer Ticks and Bears, Oh My

by on September 11, 2009 9:04 AM

I met Sasquatch this summer. He looked like Rod Stewart’s bulky brother. The hair on his back was spiky, with blond tips. That’s how close he was to the trail. He should have been wearing a bumper sticker: If you can see my roots you’re too close.

We clacked our titanium walking sticks together in hopes that he’d say, “Whoa, humans with walking sticks. I’d better skedaddle.” Instead, he acted like a punk who’d just been told he’d parked his muscle car in a handicapped spot at the Paramus Park Mall, lifting his head as if to say, “Yeah? So?”

We might have given him a wide berth but we were about 10 minutes from trail’s end, which meant that after four mornings of backpackers’ breakfasts -- granola bars and instant coffee -- we were closing in on fruit, sausages, muffins and eggs: One side, Bub.

Moments later we arrived at civilization, Yosemite style -- a drive-in campground. A

park maintenance man told me that that the bear we’d met was a notorious campground mooch, entirely unfazed by the presence of humans, with or without walking sticks, and that Sasquatch was his nom de camp.

Blond Sasquatch was actually the third unsettling wildlife encounter of our Yosemite trek. We also met two timber rattlers. One of them meant business: He coiled up.

But my scariest wilderness experience of the summer happened a lot closer to home. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where it happened, exactly. Might have been Fisherman’s Paradise. Might have been Bear Meadows. It might even have been Thompson’s Woods, right in town.

All I know is I took to my bed two weeks ago with fever and chills. Four days later, tired of marinating in my own sweat, I staggered to the shower. While toweling off I noticed that some wisenheimer had painted a bull’s eye on my tummy. Just to the left of my belly button was a scarlet oval, about the size of my hand. In the middle was a darker crimson oval, about the size of my thumb.

Now I am not the type who runs to the doctor for every little malady. Until the bull’s eye showed up, I figured the doc would tell me what I already knew: Yep, you’re sick, go back to bed until you feel better. But the bull’s eye kind of freaked me out.

“Wow,” said the physician’s assistant when I lifted my shirt. I was pleased I had made an impression. The PA called in the doctor, who made the snap diagnosis: Lyme Disease, courtesy of a deer tick.

Medical conditions that have the word “disease” as part of their name sound dire, don’t they? If you say you’re sick you conjure cozy images of books and blankies, tea and toast. But if you say you have a disease you sound like you should be quarantined and possibly prayed over.

In fact, Lyme Disease isn’t that big of a deal if you catch it during the bull’s eye stage. Ten days of antibiotics and game over. Borrelia burgdorferi loses, you win. Untreated, it can lead to long-term joint and nerve problems.

This means that twice in the past couple of years I’ve been lucky with dread diseases. In 2007 I was found to have colon cancer while the cancer was still confined to one creepy little polyp. Now Lyme Disease soon enough after the bite to still have the rash.

I’d just as soon not be the poster boy for these afflictions, but if you write it seems to me you ought to use whatever public forum is available to you to increase awareness. In the case of colon cancer the message was, get over your squeamishness and get that colonoscopy. With Lyme Disease it’s pretty much the opening line of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”:

If you got out in the woods today, you better not go alone.

It’s not that ticks are agoraphobic so going hiking in a group will scare them off. The idea is to have someone check you for ticks at hike’s end. Ideally, it’s a person you’re on such intimate terms with that you don’t mind or maybe even enjoy their gentle ministrations. But as with the colonoscopy, this is no time to be squeamish.

Look at it this way: If my bull’s eye had been in some easy-for-me-to-miss place like my lower back instead of my belly, I might still think I had the flu and be slipping into Lyme Disease Phase II, the symptoms of which can include blurred vision, fainting, facial paralysis, hallucinations, nausea and vomiting.

As for prevention: The various Web sites devoted to Lyme disease recommend making it as difficult as possible for ticks to belly up to the blood bar by a) gooping up with bug spray before heading for the wild places, and b) reducing skin exposure by wearing long sleeves and long pants and tucking everything in.

Of course the simplest prevention strategy would be to heed the second line of “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”:

It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.

Sure it is, but with fall foliage season nigh here in Penn’s Woods, staying home is not an option. So goop up, tuck in and head out – with a very good friend. And if you meet any bears, not to worry: At six o’clock their mummies and daddies will take them home to bed because they’re tired little teddy bears.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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