“It may seem ridiculous for an experienced walker to feel ill at ease about routine matters almost every time he starts on a major journey. But more is involved than experience. Whether you like it or not, the occasion tells: most people, I think, suffer some degree of stage fright on their first day at a new job. The sidecanyon up and away from Supai had been in a sense the real beginning of my journey, and I had duly suffered stage fright. Within a mile of the village, traveling too fast over rough ground and moving about as nimbly as a no-toed sloth, I twice stumbled and almost sprawled full length.
But I must not mislead you into believing that even in those first days of earthbound effort I was totally imprisoned by the brutal immediacies of the physical world. The Canyon, as I have said, had its moments. Deep in a sidecanyon, a Sphinx overhang, massive with hints of wisdom, brooded above a seep spring. A torch cactus, angling out from its crevice, cocked a slyly humorous snook. I lay on naked rock, sipping nectar that an hour earlier had been snow, and all around me the sun distilled voluptuous scents. A whiskered ground squirrel bounced onto a rock, froze, blurred, and was gone. Beyond shadow that still belonged to the night, a day’s incoming sunlight streamed across the rock reefs. Noon pressed down onto the Esplanade, hotter each day, more ponderously silent. Evening came, and a softer, richer silence.”
-- Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time (Vintage Books, 1967)
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In last week’s journal/blog entry I discussed insects. The fact is that with only occasional exceptions, bugs aren’t a serious problem in the mountain areas where we hike.
Yes, in warmer weather we certainly do sometimes encounter insects. Most often in the mountains their numbers are relatively small. They’re rarely a big deal.
No one is required to like insects, of course, although it helps to cultivate an attitude of tolerance toward all life forms, and not obsess about “undesirables.”
Insects are part of the natural landscape, along with millions of other living things, and they’ve been here a lot longer than human beings. Most aren’t interested in us.
But a few species are obviously after our blood, and we naturally want to avoid being bitten. We do have a right to protect ourselves against unwelcome intrusions.
So just how can we defend ourselves? The popular answer is, of course, to apply bug repellent to our skin and/or our clothing. But bug repellents have certain risks.
As many of you know, the most popular and powerful commercial repellents have a controversial ingredient called DEET (short for N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide).
DEET is a registered pesticide. Do you really want to apply a toxic pesticide, a poisonous chemical, to your skin or clothing? (A portion of any chemical that’s applied externally to your clothing is likely to find its way through to your skin).
Be skeptical of claims that DEET is safe. Any chemical that gets on your skin may be absorbed into your bloodstream, and DEET can have harmful effects on the central nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that is capable of damaging brain cells.
The EPA (on their website) says DEET is of “low acute toxicity” or “slightly toxic,” and acknowledges that its use “has been implicated in seizures among children.” How do you feel about putting something on (and into) your body that’s slightly toxic? Would you choose to eat food that includes a small dose of poison?
From a US government website, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “A study was done involving 143 National Park Service employees at Everglades National Park to determine the effects of DEET on varying use groups. It was found that 36 of the workers (25%) reported health effects that they attributed to DEET. These effects included rashes, skin or mucous membrane irritation, transient numb or burning lips, dizziness, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating. Headache and nausea were also reported.” May I rest my case?
Fortunately there are safe, non-chemical, herbal repellents that may not be as powerful as DEET, but some of us find them perfectly adequate for the job.
These products have natural ingredients like citronella oil, lemon eucalyptus oil, lemongrass, and many others. They’re totally safe to apply to our skin.
Want a recommendation? A product that some of us have been using for years is called Herbal Armor, available at outdoor supply stores and health food stores.
Garlic, by the way, is a natural insect repellent, and eating fresh garlic the day before spending time outdoors may reduce insect problems. I’ve taken odorless garlic supplements for years, since garlic has many health benefits, and these supplements may be one reason why most bugs “don’t seem to like me much!”
I also take larger-than-usual doses of B vitamins each day, similarly for health reasons, and B vitamins likewise seem to have some insect-repelling properties.
[There continue to be DEET-promoting articles appearing regularly in the media – two years ago there was one in the Wall Street Journal that belittled alternative methods -- but everyone should know that just as with other controversial issues, the influence of vested interests often results in biased reviews in favor of risky, highly profitable products instead of much safer, healthier, low-cost alternatives].
Here’s another suggestion that I mentioned last week: since bugs are often attracted to scented soaps, shampoos, and deodorants, look for UNSCENTED products, and try to use nothing scented on your body for 1-2 days before a hike.
Mosquitoes are said to be especially drawn to dark colors, so to reduce their ability to find you, wear light-colored clothing that’s also as loose-fitting as possible.
Bugs are here to stay, but if you do some of the above, you may find that they’re less interested in you. That should make it easier to peacefully coexist with them!
-- Charlie Cook