An unpleasant wonder of the natural world

These days, the seconds no more tick away than the hours slip through the narrow part of an hourglass, but as the weather turns warmer and the days get longer, there's ever more reason to spend more time outside and that time is marked by different kinds of ticks.

Yes, the tick tock of the clock has been largely replaced by the silence of a digital display, but no matter how much time passes, ticks continue to loom large over time spent enjoying the wild places.

Years ago when I was a kid, the main reason to worry about ticks was an infection called Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which has a cool name, even though I'm fairly certain it's as unpleasant as any fever. Furthermore, diseases with accompanying spots sound particularly horrific. The key question for me was as to whether the spots were permanent or if they went away when the fever subsided. A secondary question: do the spots itch, like chicken pox?

In those days, we kids were regularly pulling ticks off ourselves, our dogs and each other, and I never met anyone who'd been infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Few things to us pre-teen boys had more to offer in the way of being at once fascinating, horrifying, repellent and, yet, strangely attractive as a tick that had managed to grow to the size of a grape on one of the friendly stray dogs that wandered the neighborhood where I first started spending time playing outside.

We'd all heard stories about someone's uncle's friend or second cousin's co-worker who'd been infected, but in my circle of associates, there was no firsthand experience of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I came to believe you needed to visit the Rocky Mountains and be bitten by a tick there if you really wanted to be infected with the spotted fever and find out about the spots.

My friend, Tommy, and I became fairly cavalier about ticks, having regular contests starting each March to see who could collect the most ticks during a day in the woods. Some days we'd get more than a dozen each, with most being removed before they actually had a chance to bite.

It all seems innocent enough, but these days I cringe when I think of the old tick contests and my naivete about those revolting little beasts, which I've long presumed were among the first things out of Pandora's box.

Flash forward 20 years and, being someone who spends a lot of time outside, I started hearing about Lyme disease, named for the Connecticut town where it was diagnosed. Not surprisingly, the official web site for the town,, makes no reference to the disease. I can imagine having a debilitating disease named after your town isn't the finest hour for the local tourism office. "Birthplace and boyhood home of Lyme disease," is about as good a slogan as "Lemon yellow Ty-D-Bol."

Anyway, I foolishly presumed Lyme disease would be like the Rocky Mountain spotted fever of my youth, something you hear about but never experience except by third-hand stories.

Boy was I wrong. Lyme disease is about as unpleasant as anything I've ever experienced, worse than a broken foot. At least with a broken foot, you know what's wrong with you. Lyme disease has a smorgasbord of symptoms, many of which are an awful lot like other diseases. In my case, they were a lot like the symptoms for meningitis, so at one point in my delirium I ended up in a hospital with a spinal tap needle in my back. It's one of the few things I remember about the worst week or so of the infection. That and the Bell's palsy, which my wife thought was a stroke.

Years later, we have the occasional amusing conversations about the experience, made possible by being fortunate enough to have been treated before any serious long-term damage was done, though a joke sometimes made by wife is that there was plenty of long-term damage done to my thinking abilities.

As is the case with many bad experiences, it has become possible to look back on Lyme disease with a comic eye, but even if it turned out to be the source of a thousand new jokes, I wouldn't go through the experience again. It was horrific, and I've since read about Rocky Mountain spotted fever and a dozen other diseases carried by ticks and many are equally horrifying. From what I've read, Rocky Mountain spotted fever involves an unpleasant rash that shows up as spots, though they do go away when the disease passes.

I won't get into the ins and outs of tick varieties, removal techniques and disease prevention options. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a wonderfully complete web site that offers plenty of tick advice: I will, however, caution anyone who has read this far along to keep an eye out for ticks and not take them as lightly as I once did.

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