Seventh month itch

I made the ultimate maternal sacrifice last month. Even though my baby girl is almost 24, I proved that my instincts to do whatever it takes to keep her from pain and suffering still run deep. I gave her my Bug Baffler shirt. Yup, you read right…in June, from my cabin in the Maine woods, I didn’t just lend her my Bug Baffler shirt. I gave it to her to take clear across the country.

For those of you odd ducks out there who happen to be reading a blog about Rangeley but have somehow escaped knowing what a Bug Baffler is—it’s a unique fashion accessory born of dire necessity in these parts. It’s a hat attached to a shirt that seals your upper torso in fine netting. In theory, it keeps mosquitoes,  black flies and the like from finding their way onto your skin surfaces, allowing you to venture outdoors this time of year without getting eaten alive, losing your sanity, or both. For total coverage, you can buy the pants portion, too. But I never met anyone who had to go that far, not around here, anyway. If it’s hot enough to wear shorts and the skeeters are still out but you can’t find a stiff wind to blow them off or a reason to hop back into your DEET-soaked jeans, chances are you don’t live in Rangeley.

“The mosquitoes on my next rafting course are going to be worse than EVER,” Becky told me as she was heading back to Utah from her visit home.

“Worse than here?” I asked in awe.

“Oh, yeah. Clouds of ‘em…swarms!” Her co-instructor friend had just reported back from guiding on the Green River. She was able to dial the call, Becky said, but just barely. Her hands were covered in bites and she had a ring of ‘em along the narrow gap where her pants didn’t quite meet her shirt when she squatted or stretched.

We all listened but didn’t want to believe, trying hard not to squirm in our seats. Even Jerry, her brother-in-law, born in the land where the mosquito is the state bird, had never heard such tales. And even though I was starting to look like a poster promoting measles vaccinations, suddenly my itchy patches weren’t nearly as irritating. How could I whine about a smattering of bug bites when Becky was soon going to be engulfed?

Days earlier, I’d come across my Bug Baffler again, sitting on a shelf in my closet, heaped alongside my bike shorts, my yard work pants and all those other articles of clothing I knew I should actually wear more than once a year. “I wondered if I still had this old
thing!” I said, surprised its netting hadn’t unraveled in all the years I’d refused to put it on. Oh, I could have worn it, should have worn it, but vanity and that strange blend of blind optimism that takes root after decades of Rangeley bug seasons had left me covered mostly in useless cotton.

I’d come across the old bug net shirt back in May, too, when I was shuffling my sweaters and flannel-lined jeans behind my shorts and tee shirts—blindly optimistic I’d be able to swap seasons soon. Coming into my second spring of year-round Rangeley living, the practical part of me was glad to have unearthed my bug netting. But the louder, dumber side of me was still resisting. “Seems like the bugs won’t be too bad this year,” I said, stashing the Bug Baffler back in the corner.  “I’ll be fine without this.” (If, Heaven forbid,
I was ever jostling down the short cut road enroute to the emergency room, bleeding profusely, I imagine I would have told myself I was fine in pretty much the same tone I was using to chat with myself in my closet.)

I was fine, too, relatively speaking, even though my bug forecast was about as accurate as my snowfall prediction.  By the end of May, I was dousing myself in repellant, wearing my Bugs Off bandana around my neck to cover my new necklace of welts, and swearing and swatting like I had a personality disorder. I stayed outside, though, wavering between defiance and near defeat. “I live on a lake in Maine!” I’d mutter. “I’m supposed to be sitting here on my dock in the evening having a wine cooler in the summertime!” I kept on reminding myself as May progressed into June, refusing to retreat inside, till I was nearly convinced the bugs weren’t that bad. But, as June wore on, I had to admit that the drinking jar of homemade wine cooler I carried down to the dock had become way heavier with wine than with spritzer. I was numbing myself into submission–and I was getting itchier by the day.

“I give up! I’m going to start wearing my Bug Baffler,” I announced one late June night. My ears had started to burn under a new swarm of no-see-ums, even though Tom had put out so many tiki torches and smoldering coils our waterfront looked like Survivor
and smelled like a Grateful Dead concert. And I think I was still getting mosquito bitten, too, but it was hard to be sure with my battery-operated Off clip-on buzzing louder than skeeters on steroids. “The bug net will be doubly good for me,” I said, heading for my closet. “No bugs, and less chugging because I’ll have a zipper in front of my mouth. So what if I have to admire the sunset over the lake through a haze of green mesh? This is my new life and, at times, it requires adaptive clothing.”

On my way back outside, Bug Baffler in hand, I went past the bedroom where my sweet, fair skinned baby girl was packing to go back to a wilderness dark with mosquitoes. Instinctively, I shook the dust off and handed my survival shirt over. Better her than me, I realized, and better on the banks of the Green River than Mooselook, Maine. Out there it would give her steady hands and a sane mind as she guided a group of Outward Bound teens safely through Mosquito Misery Canyon—a grander gesture, I figured, than keeping me covered in my drinking chair.

“I’m glad I found that old Bug Baffler in time for Becky’s visit,” I told Tom as we sat on the dock the other night, swatting and sipping. Hopefully, she knew somehow we were talking about her as she navigated her way through the canyon. But, hopefully, her ears weren’t burning as bad as ours.

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