(Editor's Note: this story follows on from Excavation.)
Pulling down my jeans in the somewhere-in-rural-Oklahoma gas station’s bathroom stall, I noticed an odd black spot on my upper thigh. “Davina?” I called over the door.
“Yeah?” she said. I had left her examining her pores in the mirror.
“I think I have a tick. I must have gotten it when I went to pee in the woods and not in the latrine.” Like you suggested. “Can you look at it and tell me if it’s a tick or not?”
“It’s probably not a tick,” she said. I pulled my jeans up and opened the door. She turned from the sink and looked at me. “Just pick it off.”
“I can’t.” I pulled my jeans down to mid-thigh and pointed to the black bug. It had moved an inch since I first saw it. “Look! It moved.”
“Well, ticks don’t move, so it’s probably not a tick. Don’t worry about it. Hey, I’m going to go buy a lighter, some tweezers, and some alcohol. I’ll get it off you.” Davina dashed off into the store, saying over her shoulder, “Don’t worry! Not a tick!”
Isn’t that how people get ticks off? I thought. Even though I’d never encountered ticks or other insects found in the wilderness before, I was pretty sure the way this insect had latched onto me indicated its essential tick-ness.
However, my friend, an experienced camper and Venturing Scout, knew more about these things than I did. I figured she didn’t want to scare me by saying a predatory insect was draining me of blood and probably injecting me with Lyme disease, or Rocky Mountain Fever. I imagined the tick watching me squat beneath the trees and thinking to itself, them’s some succulent thighs—let me get summa that.
Davina burst back into the restroom with a bagful of items.
(She made every outdoorsy event, not just tick removal, into a learning experience: “scouting a good campsite,” “setting up the tent,” and “using the latrine without dropping the flashlight in the hole” were only a few of the short lectures I’d received that month. Traveling with a focused, detail-oriented friend who knew that I didn’t know what I was doing at all was quite comforting; she took charge of everything and I surrendered to the moment.)
“Okay, I got my stuff. You know what? It is a tick. Don’t worry, though. First, I put the lighter under its ass to surprise it. It might throw up into you a little bit. That’s when it lets go of you. Then, I use the tweezers to grasp it—but not too hard, or it might explode and leave its pincers in you, or whatever—and I gently pull it off you, burn it to kill it, and throw it away. Now, let’s do this thing.”
She put the lighter against my thigh and lit the flame.
“Ow! You just burned me!”
“Sorry. I gotta get real close. And…there we go,” Davina said, pinching the tick between the tips of the tweezers and flinging its corpse into the garbage bin. I shuddered.
We left the gas station. With Davina at the wheel, I unfocused my eyes and gazed at the velvet hills rolling by. Driving between plateaus, around mountains, through dead spots, I felt inside myself, alive, present. During the previous seven months, after Katrina, I’d felt beside myself, as if my true self were somewhere outside of my body, drifting. Nature violated my space. It took my work, my life, my physical history. All my artifacts washed away; no records remained.
I refused to observe. I’d stopped writing, for the most part—even in my journal. “Writing hurts,” I wrote in one of the few September 2005 entries in my journals. “I’m unhappy and nerve-raw in this environment.” If I wasn’t a writer, what was I? I became a worrier instead. I stayed inside, eating and knitting all day, growing fatter and more hunched. I worried that I would never write—be my true self—again.
On this trip, aside from a few panicked moments—seeing a photo of a hurricane on the cover of USA Today in a hotel in Idaho took me back to my evacuation mindset for a few minutes—my spirit unfurled and my body stretched. I became reacquainted with myself; nature and I made up. (Though I still kept my eye on it.)
It was as if the tick’s spit had dissolved the barrier Katrina built between my senses and the world; throwing the crushed tick in the garbage whisked away any remnants of the barrier, and the world was very much with me after that. I could see what James Fenimore Cooper wrote about in The Prairie, as I drove through Kansas at night, the headlamps the only light, the road craziness escaping in sharp laughter puncturing the smothering silence. I could feel it when I stared across the expanse of land near Happy Jack Road in Wyoming: a sharp line demarcated the ground from the sky. No buildings marred the horizon; geese flapped and pecked at each other. I imagined fighting my way across the country, carving my life from unforgiving land, plucking ticks from my flesh without the benefit of tweezers and a lighter, forcing both the animals and the white people on the frontier to accept me as a part of it (as Stagecoach Mary did).
This is how I found myself waking up somewhere in West Texas under a rusted moon, convinced that the jackrabbit prowling around the tent was a tiny murderer. How I found myself shivering on the ground next to a sound sleeper near a lake in Wyoming, listening to coyotes howl and grey geese honk. How I found myself peeing on a banana slug (by accident) in a forest in Washington; hiking up a mountain around Snoqualmie Falls; navigating log bridges while wearing skirts and sandals, marveling at waterfalls and moss.
This is how I found myself after months of being lost.
And how my writing urge started again.
published 13 August 2011