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  • Jan Flynn

Ticked Off

It’s full spring in Napa Valley. The vines are unfurling their leaves, fluffing the vineyards into expanses of productive greenery as Vintage 2019 gets underway. The weather is cycling from pleasant to glorious, wineries are staging the first of their major events and release parties, tourist traffic is surging northward along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. And everywhere, from the hushed stands of redwood forest to sunny oak chaparral and the ripening grasslands on the valley floor, nymphs abound.

By “nymphs” I don’t mean this:

Painting by Hans Zatzka: imagenesmy.com

I mean this:

See that teensy black speck on the person’s thumb? That, my friends is a Western black-legged tick in its nymph stage. And right now, it and its myriad brethren are everywhere, lurking amid the natural splendors.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: in this region of Northern California, where it never gets cold enough to whack the little buggers into dormancy, it’s always tick season. But with Orwellian logic, some seasons are always more tick season than others. Right now, with temperatures warming nicely, vegetation springing up between vines and along trails faster than it can be mowed into manicured submission, and oak leaf detritus building to a kind of tick Mecca, every self respecting member of species Ixodes pacificus is on a quest.

Behold the questing tick. Waving her tentacles in anticipation, an adult Western black legged you-know-what poises herself on a blade of tall grass, waiting for a passing deer, or rabbit, or squirrel, or your dog, or you to brush by her. If you’ve got warm blood — or really, any blood at all; ticks are perfectly happy to infest reptiles such as the Western fence lizard (whose blood, oddly enough, has the effect of cleansing the tick of the Lyme-disease-causing spirochete it picked up from its last deer bite, which is nice for the tick but not to say that it won’t go on to bite another disease-carrying critter for its next meal) — the tick is all in.

Well, not literally all in. Just the head. Actually, not even the whole head; just its mouth parts. In the interests of you ever wanting to read my blog again, I will spare you images and further description of that whole process.

Suffice it to say that unlike mosquitoes and other biting insects, the tick does not eat and run. Or bite and fly, or nibble and crawl, or anything. It settles in for a good 36 hours if it can, happily gorging until its body mass increases by something like 200-fold, at which point it simply drops off. I won’t show you pictures of that either.

The good thing to know is that if you find a tick on your dog, or (so, so much worse) on yourself, if it hasn’t truly latched on and been at work for 24 hours, it won’t have had enough time to transmit Lyme or other pathogens into your bloodstream. The point is, just because you find a tick doesn’t mean it’s time to freak out.

This is very much easier said than done.

We love to hike and take walks, and we have a dog, so we take sensible precautions. Molly never misses her monthly treatment of flea-and-tick guard. We don’t go traipsing off into the woods without wearing socks and long pants, we stay on the trails, and we check ourselves carefully before we get back home. Only once have either of us sustained a tick bite, and that was my husband, who drove straight to the doctor and had the little monster properly removed and the bite examined. He (my husband, that is, not the tick, for whom the episode did not go well) suffered no ill after-effects, aside from feeling crawly and grossed out for several days.

We love the outdoors, at least most of it, so we keep things in perspective. But sometimes the outdoors comes inside, and not in a breezy, Sunset Magazine kind of way. Recently my beloved and I were enjoying a rare morning of sleeping in. By turns each of us were awakened by sensations of something scrabbly and decidedly unwelcome making its way across our surfaces.

The next time someone tells you human levitation is not possible, toss a tick in their bed while they’re just waking up and see what happens.

Once the invader was caught and dispatched — our compassion for all living beings has its limits — we conducted a thorough search of ourselves, our bed, our dog, the floor, and the entire house. We found no other ticks, and I promise you, we looked. To be safe, I proposed boiling the sheets, the blankets, the dog’s bed, everything in our closets and if I could just figure out how, all of our upholstered furniture, but my husband talked me down.

I suppose there is a larger lesson here. Something about having to take the bad with the good, or accepting that there is no such thing as risk-free living, or the vital importance of a really good vacuum. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions. What I can say with assurance is that when it comes to sleepy Sunday morning buzzkills, finding a you-know-what in your pj’s ticks all the boxes.

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