What Scares Me

Fear of whitewater, bats, and ticks



They've come to suck your blood—and that's not the worst of it
By Jane Smiley

Not too long ago
, I picked an engorged tick up off the floor of my kitchen, thinking it was a stray chocolate chip. It only took a moment for me to see more clearly the minuscule legs and the hideous crease down the underside, but the idea that I had mistaken a tick for something edible freaked me out for days. Because now that I've had my midlife mortality crisis and come to terms with just about every fear I used to have (and they were legion), the only one left is ticks.
I have dogs, the best of which is, unfortunately, a golden retriever. A golden retriever is a paradise for ticks—lots of hair to hide in. During tick season here in California, sometimes we see two or three dark-brown ticks crawling around the top of the dog's head looking for a place to attach. That's repulsive enough, but it's the ones who found a spot, ate their fill, and dropped off that I worry about, lying there in the pattern of an oriental rug, waiting to be stepped on.

It's hard, if not impossible, to find anyone who defends ticks. Spiders and houseflies and rattlesnakes and killer bees and even maggots and leeches have their fans, who inform the rest of us about how useful, well adapted, or beautifully designed their preferred creature actually is—but the only thing you ever hear about ticks is that they carry Lyme disease. It is typical of the malevolence of ticks that the carrier is too small to notice until after she has delivered her insidious message.

Ticks seem to exist for themselves alone. They are ugly as nymphs and grossly disgusting as engorged adults. They live only to reproduce, which females do by dropping thousands of larvae and then dying. They don't take a meal and move on, like mosquitoes; they dangle by their mouths and get intimate. When feeding, they are motionless and passive. The worst thought when you find a tick in your hair is that it's been there awhile, that it drank your blood without your even realizing it. You have to ask, in the parade of extinctions, why can't we trade ticks for something we prefer, like black rhinos or snow leopards?

It happens to be summer now in California, too dry for ticks. I have some breathing room. I might even go for a walk one of these days. While I'm out there, I will visualize a world without ticks. It will be just like our world, only better.

Jane Smiley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres and Horse Heaven.
Just because the boat floats doesn't mean you will
By Donald Katz

After years of taking fast water for granted
, I learned to fear the ironic power of river rapids early last spring. The red inflatable kayak I was paddling caught a sharp rock at the top of a sizable and noisy chute coursing through the middle of an Oregon stretch of the Owyhee River, and began to sink.

In an instant I was sucked under the rock and shot over the waterfall, well beneath the surface. The shock of being pulled so quickly under the water precluded taking a decent breath, so by the time I felt the bottom of the Owyhee beneath my feet, I was already hurting for air. I looked around and realized that I was actually standing on the bottom of the river, surrounded by a surreal volume of luminous and silvery fat bubbles. I looked up to see the surface and the churning whitewater five feet above my head. I was being pummeled by a variety of powerful hits from each side and felt a consistent downward pressure on my helmet. Though I was wearing a life preserver and trying to swim, I realized that I was not rising to the surface.

Everything about the experience was dreamlike. The situation conjured no panic, and even the realization that the air-fat kayak was also being held down beside me, even the strange recall of interviews with people who'd come back from near-drowning episodes to report that the experience was not unlike going to sleep, caused a sensation beyond an abiding wonderment. I just stood there, thinking that here, beneath a river in Oregon most people had never heard of, a hundred miles from anything much more than a few earmarked steers—surrounded by the irony of gigantic white balls full of air—I would die.

I was egested from the hole as powerfully as I'd been swallowed. I bounced off six or seven rocks as I rode the rapids on my back, and I began to hear calls of concern from the others. I eventually found a conical rock I could hug downriver, and I remember thinking that no matter what, I would never let it go.

After I was helped onto the bank, I tried to imagine getting back into the red kayak. The thought sent a reverberating sensation that rattled the backs of my shaking legs. I'd once considered river whitewater no more treacherous than a roller coaster—but that had all changed now: I was afraid.

Contributing editor Donald Katz has written for Outside since 1976.
They may be worth protecting, but they can still creep you out
By Jack Hitt

Maybe you're one of those
bat-loving types who lectures people that bats are actually very clean animals and they eat half their weight in insects every sundown and it's a false slander that they get tangled in women's hair. Batophilia is not that uncommon these days, as evidenced by all the people heading into the flying mammals' very lairs: high-tech cavers armed with headlamps, special caving ropes, and the ability to use the word spelunk without laughing.

But back in that stone age when all outdoor equipment was bought at the Army Navy store, caving was an amateur's game. I was introduced to it in the late sixties by my friend Donald, whose grandmother had a house in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau. T-ma, as the grand dame was known, was happy to share her equipment, mostly a pile of old dented lanterns that dated, probably, from the Civil War. You filled the lantern's bottom with carbide and added water, and once it began to make a certain unmistakable sizzle, the resulting gas—as redolent as boiling ore—was flammable.

In most Tennessee caves there are several fairly unavoidable features—the big cathedral space, the mud room, the fat man's squeeze. On one occasion, Donald's father, a noted heart surgeon, was struggling through a fat man's squeeze. Dr. Eddie was also bald, and every time he'd lift his head, he'd howl as a tiny stalactite dart punctured his scalp. He exited looking like a middle-aged messiah who'd just removed a crown of thorns.

I was next in the squeeze, grinding on my elbows across a gravel floor made more comfortable by a freezing stream of cave water trickling through. The spare plastic bag of carbide I kept in my pants pocket had rubbed open from all the wiggling, and my hip began to sizzle, then to warm up, and finally to burn hot as fire. I'd begun to hump pretty damn fast, squirming in a panic, as my mind foresaw a suffocating gas buildup—or, more likely, a Jerry BruckheimerÐlike explosion—when a concerned Dr. Eddie bent down to shine his flame into the tunnel. "Hey, Jack, are you having any—" Boom!

Turns out there was a lot more air in the tunnel than I thought, because right then and there, ten cave bats decided to flutter through on their way out. The sudden chaos of fur—when I think about it, there must have been a hundred bats—encouraged me to discover the virgin pleasure of pressing one's face into frigid gravel water. Fortunately, bats have that radar thing, so all one thousand of them easily found the space above my prostrate body, although it must have been difficult scrambling down my back given the vibrations caused by all the subaqueous screaming.

When I finally got out, everyone was tending to his own suffering. Dr. Eddie was stanching his head with a rag. No one cared about my encounter with ten thousand bats. Donald's brother accused me of exaggerating. He said he'd seen only a couple of bats. I don't know. In my mind—then and now—my ordeal resembled that encyclopedia picture of Carlsbad Caverns at dusk when a million bats roar out like demonic nuncios in a funnel of black terror.

And yet, I still cave. Because even though I fear bats, mine is an exquisitely nuanced phobia. It's not truly activated unless I'm in a cave and I see a bunch of bats, and then my pants catch on fire.

Outside correspondent Jack Hitt wrote about ted turner in December 2001.

Lead Photo: Chris Buck
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