Yes, this may not be a subject you are all that interested in learning about. It won’t be, however, too detailed or, um, musky, so venture on, if you dare!
This is more of a report of a year of success than an account of my personal grooming habits.
I am happy to report that I suffered not a single tick for the entire year of 2005. Through a combination of preventative measures and good luck, I managed to remain tick free.
Ticks are a pernicious pest in the Midwest, and Missouri is host to uncounted millions of them. They are blood suckers who attach themselves to your flesh, usually in obscure, hard-to-reach little nooks and crannies, and enjoy their feast. At the least, they are disgusting trespassers. But they can also spread disease. Ugh!
I am a realist about ticks, though, and I’d have to be in order to venture into the woods and fields of Roundrock the way I love. Ticks are a fact of life, even in suburbia, and irrational fear of them is a silly option. In years past, I have sometimes returned from Roundrock to find a tick temporarily embedded in my flesh, but these visits are fleeting. Unlike many people, I have never had a problem plucking a tick — head and all — from my skin and dispatching it. (And when you think about it, nothing is better than a thorough tick check with a loved one!)
This year, however, I’ve managed to free myself from even that little problem. My solution has been two pronged. The first has been practical. For the most part, I have tried to avoid the occasion of ticks. They tend to lurk in grassy and brushy areas. Ticks will wait at the tips of leaves, and when they sense the carbon dioxide of approaching mammals, they will extend their forelegs into a questing position. If your flesh or clothes brush against the tick, it clings and joins the ride. You become their moveable feast.
Well, an obvious solution to that problem is to stay out of tall grass and brush during prime tick season (May through August — though I have seen ticks active even in February). But who wants to do that when you have something as lovely and alluring as Roundrock? The next answer is socks.
Libby and I have put no small amount of effort into finding the perfect Roundrock socks. The goal, which we have mostly achieved, is to have socks that rise high on the calf, with sufficient elastic in the top to bind closely to the skin. We turn down our socks to the tops of our boots, carefully fold our long pant legs about our ankles, then pull the socks over the top of them. Thus we have built what has proven to be an effective barrier to tick invasion. Since nearly all of our tick assaults will begin on our legs, we’re well protected.
Light colored pants also help. Ticks who begin the long march up our legs are more easily spotted (and flicked away) against white or tan fabric than against jeans. A couple of summers at Roundrock will render any light-colored slacks a muddy and stained mess, of course, but if they work, then they will gladly be replaced when the time comes.
Another solution — one that we have found is not only mandatory but absolutely delightful — is swimming. As you know, during the summer months, Libby and I always try to end our day at Roundrock with an hour or two in the lake. This, of course, requires the shedding of our clothes and the laving of our flesh in the cleansing waters of Lake Marguerite. The tick-laden clothes go into a plastic trash bag, to be dealt with later at home. The swimming seems to be sufficient to wash away any ticks (and chiggers) that may have gotten past our first line of defense but have not attached themselves to our skin yet. We generally supplement our swimming solution with a vigorous hot shower, including lots of scrubbing, when we get home.
And there is another, most diabolical means for deterring insect infestation. We treat our pants and socks with a chemical known as permethrin. The night before our trek to Roundrock or Fallen Timbers, we simply spray a water/permethrin mix onto our clothes and let them hang dry. By morning we have a ruthless defense. Permethrin is a type of insect nerve agent that works by contact. When an insect begins to crawl up the fabric of our treated pants, it gets a fatal dose of poison and dies, literally, within inches. By the end of the day, I have often seen dozens of minute chiggers still and lifeless on my pants. Normally these would be swarming north to my waistline, but not with the permethrin defense. Ticks, I presume, also meet this same fate, but being heavier, they fall from my clothes to an anonymous death somewhere in the forest.
Every study I have found (okay, Tjilpi found one that contradicts) regarding the long-term health effects of permethrin on humans has suggested that it is safe to use. If I were to develop some malady fifty years from now, I don’t think that would be a problem since I don’t suppose I’ll still be around fifty years from now.
I am a bit dismissive of Deet as a defense. Somehow this stuff entered the lexicon with the unfortunate and misleading description of “insect repellant.” The fact is, it does not “repel” anything. Deet merely masks the chemical bouquet your body gives off so that insects cannot “smell” you as easily. It does not drive them away. It merely hides you. And given that you must breathe, you’re still giving off all sorts of chemical signals to the pests that will eventually overcome your masking defense.
Deet, in order to work, must come in contact with your skin. The chemical reaction with your body causes a sort of haze to linger over your flesh, and this is the barrier that confuses the insects. Nonetheless, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to hold my tongue when I see people spraying their clothing with Deet, thinking, incorrectly, that it will help protect them. Deet on fabric becomes inert. This is precisely why calling it “insect repellant” is a misnomer. The fabric of your jeans alone will keep the bugs off of your flesh. Adding a bit of pointless chemical to it does nothing for you. (But putting Deet on your skin beneath your clothes is even worse. Not only do insects not venture there anyway, but the protection of the clothing fabric is believed to increase the rate your body absorbes the Deet. It does get absorbed into your body and accumulate in your organs.)
Oh, I could go on. Have you seen those potions that combine sun screen with “insect repellant”? That’s criminal! Deet should be applied as little as possible. Sunscreen, on the other hand, should be applied as frequently as possible. Do you suppose the companies that manufacture this contradictory product don’t know the science behind it? Do you suppose they care?
Well, back to my point. 2005 has been a tick-free year for Pablo. Vigilance, prudent behavior, and our friend chemicals have helped me through the year. Now we’ll see if my hubris will survive 2006.