Monday, May 29, 2017

Tim Rowland: Adirondack Ticks

deer tickAt some point in the last 20 years, ticks have moved up on the Most Feared Insect ladder, thanks to the spread, and the greater understanding, of lyme disease. Early on, lyme’s vagaries and a lack of medical advancement made for a tricky diagnosis; after standard blood work came up blank, doctors would tell men to suck it up, and women that they were hormonal.

Thankfully, we have a better handle on it today, and while the disease is still terribly problematic, we at least know what we’re up against, and someone who contracts it has a far better chance of being properly diagnosed and treated.

But even though, rationally, I know this knowledge is all for the good, my emotional side pines for blissful ignorance, when ticks were of no more concern than congressional oversight committees. It’s kind of a Wile E. Coyote situation, in which he walks off a cliff, and as long as he doesn’t know he’s walked off a cliff he’s fine — he keeps walking on air, until he looks down and sees where he is, and which point he plummets to the bottom of the canyon.

I’d always viewed ticks as benign, but now I have to put them into that “one more thing to worry about” category, which is already quite an overcrowded field. After a recent hike in Essex County I picked two of the bastards off of me, and of course it happened in the middle of the night when everything seems more dramatic than it is. So where previously, I would never have given it a second thought, I instead lied awake for an hour wondering, “Am I doomed?”

Although I have to admit, I was still somewhat mystified by all the tick-defense mechanisms I was seeing hikers employ in the field. I’m not always up on the latest fashion trends, so when I saw everyone tucking their pants into their socks, I figured it was either a Rastafarian statement, or the adult equivalent of teenage boys who wear their pants at half-mast.

I also didn’t get the white clothing, which I was told was an anti-tick measure. At first I assumed that maybe ticks were really fashion conscious and they wouldn’t be caught dead in white until after Memorial Day, but then someone explained that it was just so you could see them better after they make the leap from the tall grass to you.

And I know it sounds gruesome and terribly out of touch in today’s America, but as little boys growing up in the woods 40 years ago, ticks were not only viewed as harmless, they were also kind of cool in the way they would latch onto you. They had something else in their toolbox besides the common bee sting or bug bite. We admired that.

Ticks were almost fun. To a little boy, ticks were scabs without the mess. You could enjoy picking at them, and when they came off they were all kind of self-contained, with no blot of infectious ooze that would send your mother running for the mercurochrome. [Millennial explanatory note: Mercurochrome in the ’60s and ’70s was the SOP treatment for any flesh wound, the exterior equivalent of Robitussin. It came in fluid form, and its defining characteristic was its searing, neon orange coloration that wouldn’t wash off for weeks and could not be looked at directly without snow goggles. In fact, the reason we kids didn’t take more injury-producing chances, is that we didn’t want to show up for school looking as if we’d just walked through a failing nuclear power plant. Today, mercurochrome is considered to be one step away from Civil War medicine, in which venereal diseases were treated with raw arsenic. It is no longer legal in America, although I think you can still buy it in some Third World nations.]

Our parents did warn us about ticks, in the half-hearted way that modern parents warn their kids about weed. And there was a whole battery of occult steps you were supposed to take if one grabbed ahold of you, including painting it with clear nail polish and removing it with tweezers. Some Gordon Liddy types, ex-military as a rule, like to burn them off. They took pride in the art of positioning the flame so that it would fry the tick, but could still be withdrawn just before their skin began to bubble.

In this sense, ticks might have provided the only form of parasite eradication that bordered on sport. But we can no longer think of them in this way, which is kind of a shame. Having just finished Lost City of the Monkey God and seen how, spoiler alert, microscopic parasites can bring down great civilizations, I now understand that not all organisms capable of bringing down our society are holding elected office.

Read more about the spread of tick-carried disease in the Adirondacks and how to avoid ticks.

Photo: Adult Female Deer Tick, courtesy Agricultural Research Service.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

15 Responses

  1. says:

    Growing up in Northern Vermont in the 1960’s meant we rarely if ever discussed ticks. They were a pest of the South and did not affect our outside activities. Mosquitoes, blackflies and deerflies were much more a concern. The rate at which they have invaded the North Country and their sheer number is amazing and quite disturbing. I guess it is welcome to the new reality time.

  2. W. Davis says:

    Funny, true to your byline.

    Could be worse, you could live in NJ. The little bastards like it warmer. Two summers ago I got a scores of bites, but luckily no Lyme. My worst bite ever was in the snow one February though.

    You can blame me, I brought them to NY State when I started hiking the High Peaks in 1980. But cheer up, I introduced the NY Black Fly to NJ in a turnabout and now the state suffers.

  3. Geogymn says:

    Fun article about a bummer scourge (Ticks, What are they good for, absolutely nothing, say it again)! Mercurochrome – “Ouch!”. “Just blow on it”

  4. Charlie S says:

    “as little boys growing up in the woods 40 years ago, ticks were not only viewed as harmless…”

    When I was a boy growing up on Long Island ticks were not the menace they are now. Matter of fact fields were some of my favorite places to romp and roam, tall flowered fields chock full of bees and butterflies on hot summer days, yet I do not recall ticks. Three or four (or five) summers ago I stopped near a field on the south side of Blue Ridge Road northeast of Newcomb. There’s a big boulder in this field and it was loaded with high grass and beautiful flowers and in it I propped my little girl and her mommy and took some photos. At that time I was thinking ticks. I knew they weren’t there then but I also strongly felt “it’s only a matter of time” which is proving to be true evidently. Romping through tall fields of grass and flowers is what childhood used to be about, we are reminded through books or photos or old and new artwork. Now we are afraid to go into summer fields because things are not what they used to be!

    Things are surely changing! Most of the environmental challenges that we are facing, including the increasing population of viral-laden ticks, are due to us humans who are altering and chopping up and parceling out as much land as we possibly can as fast as we can. The natural world needs health and uninterrupted connections yet we are changing the course of nature by over-development, pollution, greed, ignorance… We chemical bomb flies and bees, we shower down poisons on ants (chemical warfare), we butcher woods and fields wherever we can…. without stopping to think, “What are we doing?” We are altering nature every chance we get every moment of every day. We are omnivorous beings who are making our mother sick. Our leaders are the only ones who have the power to stop this but try telling them they cannot continue creating new tax havens.

    When I think of the victims of Lyme disease I think of them as the victims of what this society calls progress.

    • Geogymn says:

      How about all the lawn services spreading chemicals on a regular basis. And also round-up, it is everywhere…everywhere. Just today I was working on a camp and a neighbor was spraying round-up lakeside. I don’t care how benign they say the stuff is… it is insanity!

  5. Charlie S says:

    “Growing up in Northern Vermont in the 1960’s meant we rarely if ever discussed ticks.”

    Near Orwell, Vermont a few years back I walked with a farmer through one of his big fields. This field was thick with chest-high grass and after a half hour of this we exited the field and lo and behold…not one tick to be found on either of us. Surely this will be a thing of the past in this area in the not too distant future the way things are going!

  6. tfrench says:

    Let me beat someone to the punch and reprimand you for your indelicacy toward a serious matter.

    Bravo — Well Done.

    But we need to lobby our elected officials. I don’t want to worry every time I cross my lawn. A vaccine does exist, but according to the CDC website, “is no longer available.” Allegedly developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline, “the manufacturer discontinued production in 2002, citing insufficient consumer demand.”

  7. Stephen Daniels says:

    Nice story. Note that deer ticks can’t fly or jump onto you, you have actually make contact with them to get one on you.

    Also, I think the “scab” you are describing, are wood ticks, not deer ticks. Having grown up upstate New York, I’ve never seen a wood tick here in 59 years, though I’ve gotten them on me in Massachusetts and New Hampshire when I lived there.

  8. Bill says:

    Didn’t think you would post my previous comment but I tried anyway. Liberals – progressive & open minded unless you disagree with them.

  9. julianne sawinski says:

    i used to live up there and in the catskills and Lyme has pretty much destroyed the second half of my life. Your column is funny but ticks are not. but on a not particularly related topic,…

    maybe you can help me. I lived up on Patnode road (probably, maybe) on 20 acres I bought from Joe mashtare in 1971 (about) in ellenburg center or corners or somewhere off Star road. Got my mail in Log Cabin off Star road, I bought a 100 year old cabin from a guy named Tarrant from texas and his bro in law and they helped me and boy friend move and rebuild it onto my land. I always wondered when I sold it if it still exists. I moved to fla then and still, LOTS of ticks here and everything else that bites or strings all the time but no snow. Any chance you could find out for me?? I have tried a few times to find some info and will try again and again but it would break my heart if it had burned down. from the computer it looks as if that road has been developed ;but I find that so hard to believe!! it was so full of snow in winter but I had no vehicle and hitchhiked everywhere. thanks for any help you can give. The only pix I had were destroyed down here in our hurricane IVAn which was equal to Katrina in its own way but a year earlier. This land would be perfect out in east Milton for Earthships due to its odd properties but I don’t have the energy anymore to do much more than recycle. The living in the cabin thing was due to the back to the land stuff out of NYC, a lot of us young folks really didn’t believe that nyc could survive much longer.

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