A few things signal to me that I’m really getting somewhere: washboard roads, for example, and Forest Service two-track lined by “No Shooting” signs riddled with holes. It’s like the whiff of white gas as I light my Whisperlite or a sleeping bag that smells vaguely of last night’s campfire or a long silence punctuated by loon calls; these smells and sights and sounds signify that something is going right.
There is one sound, though, that has always sent chills down my spine and made me reconsider whether I might be better off taking up an indoor sport, like bowling or water polo. It is not the howl of wolves in the distance or the rutting of moose; it is not the piggish snorting of a bear in the bushes or the telltale shriek of a mountain lion. I have encountered each of these charismatic megafauna, to some degree or another, but so far (fingers crossed!), they have left me unscathed.
This is more than I can say for the mosquito.
I am one of those unfortunate suckers who can’t seem to go more than a few minutes outside without a mosquito bite, a trait my dad used to tell me was because I was so sweet. (That’s how I learned to roll my eyes.)
Since a near-miss with mosquitoes in the Beartooths, I’ve tried all kinds of natural remedies to keep them at bay, none of which works as well as DEET. Do not hike downwind of me.
I would guess my annual mosquito bite tally numbers well into the triple digits, which is unfortunate because I am really and truly incapable of not scratching them until they bleed. Inevitably, my arms and legs and especially my ankles are rendered an unsightly mess of oozing scabs, no matter how much topical Benadryl I apply.
It is a point of fact that mosquitoes (or, god forbid, other biting insects, like black flies) can ruin an otherwise perfectly pleasant outing, which is why, as we packed our gear for a recent trip to the notoriously buggy Boundary Waters, I armed myself with an Alaska-grade headnet and three different topical ointments for varying levels of itch. I was prepared to spend five days in rain gear, if that was what it took.
It was cold enough during our trip that the mosquitoes were relatively insignificant: some buzzing at night as we made dinner and sat around the fire, but not the clouds of bugs I’d anticipated, and certainly not the sort of nightmarish collecting at the corners of one’s eyeballs I’d feared. It was a pleasant surprise.
Still, I came away with a few dozen bites. This was nothing unusual, but I felt personally affronted by the collection of angry red dots on my ankles, which are particularly hard to scratch effectively.
As we made our way around the Midwest—to the Porcupine Mountains and Copper Harbor on the UP, to our friends’ farm in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, visiting family and friends in Milwaukee and Chicago—we sat around a dozen more campfires, where I alternately contracted new mosquito bites and itched my existing ones.
Mosquitoes bit through my socks as I heard what my friends have been up to and what they’re excited about; I scratched absentmindedly as we laughed over memories separate and shared, as we made plans to look forward to.
After three weeks on the road, my body was wrecked—too many beers, too many cheese curds, too many ill-cared-for bug bites. On the last night of the trip, as we stoked a little fire at a campground in eastern Nebraska, I felt physically exhausted, but I cannot remember a time when I felt more full, more ready for whatever was next.
I’ve been home a week, and my mosquito bites have faded. The scabs have healed and fallen off. It sounds odd, but I almost miss them.
When my extremities are covered in bites, it almost always means I’m happy. It means I’m somewhere beautiful, somewhere that makes me feel whole. It means I’m surrounded by people I love, hearing stories that evoke memories or planting the seeds of new ones. Mosquitoes are what happens when I’m being my best self; they’re a sign that I’m getting somewhere.
Now that I’ve healed up, I’m already looking forward to swatting them away again next summer.