When I was ten, my parents decided it was time to move from the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama and our comfy suburbanite home where I had lots of friends, a great school, and an active social life at church, to the relative quiet and serenity of the country out in Semmes, Alabama. If my wife turned to me today and offered me that opportunity, I would jump at it. But, as a ten-year-old, I was less enthused.
We didn’t have a house yet to move into, but we had some land. My father had purchased five acres of property from a family friend and the plan was that we were going to build the house ourselves, or as much of it as unskilled labor can, and on the cheap. What fun!
Perhaps sensing less than a complete lack of buy-in on my part, my parents thought it would be fun to spend an evening at the property, camping. We owned five acres on the outskirts of a much larger parcel and at that point, the only access to the property was a bare-dirt road leading from the very end of a connected neighborhood, served entirely by its own dirt road. That dirt road would be the bane of my existence for the next decade. The county graded the road now and again, usually right before it rained, which meant that every time it rained, the loose red dirt turned into a two-inch-thick quagmire that meant a disgusting, red, muddy mess on my bike ride to the school bus stop. Ironically, the county paved the road the year I left home.
But, once you turned off the neighborhood road and went about 1/10th of a mile into our property, you were literally on the outer edge of approximately 100 acres of woods, which, to my knowledge, had never been logged and was generally pristine, virgin forest.
As years went by, I explored the surrounding woods tentatively. Past one side of our property, I built a lean-to fort. Meant for showing off rather than stealth, I cleared a walking path leading up to it and put down pine straw I gathered from the forest floor, and then edged the path on both sides with fallen tree logs. In another part of the woods, I found a roughly 60×60 slight depression full of ferns that held water anytime it rained. Many times I’d go back there and wade around in the ankle-deep water reveling in this strange, natural pond in the middle of nothing. And then, if you went far enough in a couple of directions, the land gradually turned downhill towards a creek you could hear through the thicket. But, the woods got so dense and creepy that I never actually went down to the water. Looking back on my time there, I realize what a magical place it was for me even if it didn’t exactly start out that way.
Back at our camping adventure, we arrived at our new home site on a Friday evening and dutifully unpacked the car; sleeping bags, meager groceries for dinner and breakfast the next morning. There were no bathroom facilities, and though we never actually discussed the scenario, I assumed the idea was if you needed to go #2 you either held it or found a log somewhere, preferably a long way from camp.
I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute, but suffice it to say that we ate, looked at the stars and hit the sleeping sacks. It was pretty uneventful. The next morning we rose early as we always did, stiff and slightly chilled. We packed up the car and headed back over to my uncle’s house where we were staying since we’d sold the old house and didn’t have a place to live right then.
Later that day, I started getting an itching sensation all around the lower part of my body. At first, I didn’t pay it much mind but it finally got to a point where I was scratching so often and so hard that I was raising welts on my skin. And then, I noticed I was actually getting bumps on my skin; inside my pants and behind my knees. As the hours passed, my itching and scratching became almost intolerable. The worst of it was all around my groin. As a young boy, I’d yet to have any experience with anything having to do with my groin, so I was quickly getting pretty freaked out.
Finally, in a fit of despair, I found my mom and told her what was going on, only to find out that she too was suffering the same as me. Turns out, we both had chiggers. If you don’t know what a chigger is, it’s a very small bug that burrows into your skin. The warmer the location, the better, which is why they prefer your nether regions and behind your legs.
There is no cure for chiggers, but there are plenty of home remedies. And we tried them all; vinegar baths to drive them out; clear fingernail polish to suffocate them. Nothing worked, except time. In about four days the little devils had digested enough of our skin that their lifecycle was complete and they began dying off. The relief we felt when finally the itching starting subsiding was palpable.
Throughout this, my father maintained he didn’t have any chiggers and never had in his life. Whether that was true, or whether he was just trying to be the big man, I’ll never know. And I’d love to say that we learned our lesson and never got chiggers again, but we did. Never as bad as that first time, but we still got them. Or rather, I still got them. I don’t think my mom was ever really out in the woods like that again except for in the winter cutting firewood with us. But, chiggers don’t survive in cold temps, so winter usually offered a reprieve.
We never did really find a sure-fire method of killing the mites once you had them. No, your best bet was prevention and that meant liberally spraying your socks and waistline with repellant anytime you knew you’d be in the tall-weeds.
But, it was an auspicious beginning to our new life in the country. It did get better. We eventually finished the house, though we did move in literally as soon as it was habitable, which meant we didn’t have carpeting and not all of the rooms were sheetrocked in. In truth, the house was a work-in-progress the entire time I lived at home.
Then again, when you have a DIYer in your house–like my dad and like me as it turns out–is any house ever really “finished?” I don’t think so.