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June 2006

Reality Bites: Lyme Disease

A park ranger's struggle with the tick-borne illness.

I got my case of Lyme disease from a tick bite while working as a park ranger in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada on June 14, 1998. We rangers are one-size-fits-all fixers of any problem you could imagine, and we get called upon to act in situations you might not associate with us. If we come upon a fire, we are expected to get out our shovels and start building line. If there’s a baby to be born and the woman isn’t making it to the hospital, we’ll deliver it, right where we are. And if someone commits a criminal act, it’s our job to make sure they don’t get away.

I was on patrol that afternoon when I heard a deputy sheriff on the radio, pursuing a suspect on foot in the canyon below me. He was inside my park, so I went down to the river to assist him. This sort of thing was common enough that I can’t remember what the particular guy we were looking for had done, but I recall the sting of the star thistles on my bare legs as I ran down from the road. I was wearing shorts because I’d been on boat patrol earlier that day and shorts were easier to swim in if you had to dive off the boat to get someone out of the water.

We lost our man. I dusted myself off and drove back to the ranger station, where I caught up on paperwork. The incident had been sufficiently anticlimactic that I never wrote a report on it. So it can be with pivotal things; they can come dressed in normalcy, like the Texas Schoolbook Depository or the spaghetti dinner I had with my friend and fellow ranger Kyle Pattee before he burned to death fighting the Shiprock Fire up in Idaho. They say he didn’t have his gloves on, so he couldn’t hold down his foil shelter when the fire overran his position. So it was with me, running into the weeds in that warm afternoon in those shorts with no insect repellent. They hadn’t told us about ticks and Lyme at our ranger academy. To this day, they still don’t.

The following morning, my day off, I slept in. Sometime after coffee I found a tick-small, brick red-doing a headstand with its mouthparts buried in my skin just below where my gunbelt had been. I carefully removed it with tweezers and put it in a plastic sandwich bag to take to my family doctor.

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