Sometime in the chill of darkness, as I lay awake in a log cabin in the woods of West Virginia, rocking Sybil-style in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of the day, it hit me: this was not the first time I’d taken off my pants in public because some unidentified critter was gnawing at my legs.
The first time it happened, I was twelve years old and living in Ethiopia. I’d been on a camping trip to Lake Langano with my friend Vicky. We stopped at a rest stop (i.e. some bushes) to relieve ourselves before climbing back into her family’s VW van. The dusty bumpy roads meant we guzzled down water so the four-hour drive usually involved several of these stops. As I climbed back into the car, I felt it. Something was crawling up my thigh. I shrieked as it bit my left inner thigh and whipped my jeans off to see two giant black beetles climb out. They left painful red welts in their wake. I still have scars.
Not long afterwards, at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Bridger, decided to hold class outside. I sat on the grass with my back against a tree and immediately felt hundreds of little bites up and down my legs. This time, I almost made it to the bathroom before tearing the jeans off my waist and stomping on the regiment of army ants that had attacked me. It took me an hour to work up the nerve to put the pants back on and face the class. Not too many therapists in Addis at that time. It’s a shame. They would have made a fortune off that experience alone.
I guess I’d come to terms with these events and don’t even harbor a particular fear of insects. Ditto for reptiles and amphibians. I reserve my more irrational fears for rodents (and carp, but that’s not relevant here). I’ve always been terrified of them and will avoid them even in pet stores. Which brings me back to West Virginia.
The morning in question, John, the boys and I joined a perky young nature guide on a one-mile hike through the woods of Mount Cacapon, learning to identify the colorful leaves covering the forest floor. Full of new information I knew I’d forget before lunch, we stood chit-chatting a few hundred feet away from the nature center at the end of the hike.
The boys had run ahead to what we lovingly call Danger Playground for its retro disregard for any playground safety measures of the past five decades—ten-foot metal see-saw and the fastest merry-go-round this side of the Mississippi. I had half an eye on them when suddenly, I stopped talking. There was something crawling up my pant leg, clawing, nibbling, SHRIEK, I ripped off my pants, and saw it, running as fast its little tiny rodent legs would go. It was a mouse.
A mouse. In my pants.
Perky naturalist was speechless, my loving husband hysterically laughing, apologizing for it, then laughing again. I ran inside, my pants down to my knees, and spent some time in the bathroom trying to collect myself and deciding what kind of punishment to mete out to my husband for laughing in my time of need.
Needless to say I didn’t sleep easy that night—reliving the feel of little mouse feet running up one’s leg will do that—but I’m off the ledge, I’ve stopped rocking and murmuring to myself. And I’ve starting to think maybe skinny jeans and boots are more than just a passing fad. Maybe it’s fashion’s way of protecting our sensitive 21st century legs and psyches from nature’s crawlers. Maybe if I’d worn that instead of sneakers and the old bootcut Old Navy jeans I save for hiking, I’d have been spared the mouse. So if you see me out on the hiking trails in skinny jeans and boots, don’t look at me as just another fashion victim. I’m a survivor.