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Ticks Are for Kids

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Aka How I Learned About Tick-Borne Illness—the Hard Way

In summer 1990, after I graduated from high school, I drove from my home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Lander, Wyoming, to take a wilderness first responder (WFR) course through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). My car was a Toyota Tercel 4WD wagon, tan in color, that one of my jackass skatepunk friends had dubbed “the Turd Wagon.” I had greasy skin, greasier hair, and subsisted mainly on ramen noodles, Twizzlers, and Cheez-Its; I wore baggy shorts and climbing tank-tops almost exclusively, including one my father had found in France that read “Free Clee”—whatever that was. I was the dictionary definition of a “dumb-ass climber kid,” and I’m not sure why anyone put up with me other than I could occasionally get the rope up and was good at cragside slander, having been born into a family of unrepentant smart-mouths. (Example: My grandfather referring to my aunt’s deadbeat husband as “the turd who walks like a man.”)

I’d taken two NOLS courses prior: the Adventure Course at age 15, clomping around the Big Horn Mountains in massive boots and an oversized frame pack, then the Wind River Mountaineering Course at age 16, which culminated in an ascent of Wyoming’s high point, Gannett Peak (13,804 feet). I loved being outside, loved the mountains, loved climbing—and thought I might want to be a NOLS instructor. Unfortunately, I was waitlisted for their Instructor Course due to my young age (18), I was told, but if I took the WFR course they should be able to get me in.

I passed the WFR course handily, but NOLS never got me onto an Instructor Course—all for the best, I’ve since realized, since my tolerance for human interaction is limited to about 30 minutes a day, a number that dwindles by the year. But I digress. Let’s talk arachnids!

During those two weeks in Lander, I camped in Sinks Canyon outside town, now a destination climbing area but back then barely more than a locals’ spot with a few topropes, some über-sharp boulder problems, and a handful of exploratory sport routes. Still, it was enough for an over-stoked kid like me, and each day after the course ended I’d flog myself on the boulders till my fingers bled. I was camped with a couple other climbers, also taking the WFR course, and they’d be back at camp cooking dinner on their Whisperlite stoves while I was doing my best to tweak every finger in the late-May gloaming.

New Canyon, NM
The author in his peak “dumb-ass climber-kid” phase, in the Manzano Mountains New Mexico, at a crag so silly and short it was eventually stripped for its hangers. Photo: Cameron Burns

I’m not sure I even had a tent, or I was just too lazy to set it up. Each night I’d inflate a little half-length Therm-a-Rest backpacking pad my stepfather had loaned me, throw it under a tree, then lay my two cheap thrift-store bedrolls atop it, nesting one bag inside the other for “extra warmth,” living sloppy like a drifter. It was coming up on summer, and the grass was lush, a green carpet of perfect repose. Unfortunately, I was not the only one who thought so.

Each morning I’d unzip my sleeping bags, roll out onto the grass, then marvel at the many “little red spiders” crawling all over me and the bedrolls. They were tiny guys, cute as buttons, waddling along on spindly legs, their bellies sometimes flat and sometimes swollen (odd…!). They didn’t seem to bite, as far as I could tell, and so I let them be, as they seemed to be doing for me. I hadn’t seen spiders like this down in New Mexico, where our biggest worry was the black widows that hung out in garage corners and woodpiles. These guys weren’t black widows.

No problem!

At the end of my trip I fell ill. Very ill, with a splitting headache, heavy limbs, a fever, and a dry cough and raspy sore throat. This didn’t seem like an ordinary head cold, so I dragged myself to a clinic. Maybe I’d gotten “Mono-Finger Disease” from too much tweaky bouldering.

“It’s weird that you’re so sick,” said the nurse practitioner, taking my vitals. “There hasn’t really been anything going around.”

“I know,” I said. “Kind of strange…I dunno. I’ve been camping up in Sinks, so maybe it was the cold air at night? My sleeping bags kinda suck.”

“Sinks?” she said. “Oh, boy, the ticks have been really bad up there this year. We had lots of rain this spring.”

Ticks?” I asked. “What are ticks?”

She stopped pumping the sphygmometer and gave me a look.

“You’ve never heard of ticks?”

“No,” I said lamely. “I’m, uh, from New Mexico… the desert. But there have been these little spider things crawling all over me.”

“Those are ticks.”

The nurse practitioner prescribed a course of antibiotics for a “tick-borne illness, unspecified,” which I picked up at the town pharmacy. I splurged on a hotel room that night, I felt so poorly—and desperately wanted a shower to wash off two weeks’ of grime. And there, as the hot water coursed over my back, I discovered exactly what ticks are all about. One of the damnable critters had burrowed into the soft flesh of one of the most vulnerable sites on the male anatomy, feasting itself into a blood-engorged coma. The parasite was excruciating to dislodge, proving once and for all that these “little red spiders” were not my friends. And while I’ve since been bitten by ticks, and gotten sick again, I know exactly what they look like now. It turns out, they’re not so cute after all.