A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Let’s take a break from my regularly scheduled ramblin’ for a public service announcement. I’m afraid you’re not going to feel very good about it. But reading this column all

Madison County Championship Rodeo

Let’s take a break from my regularly scheduled ramblin’ for a public service announcement. I’m afraid you’re not going to feel very good about it. But reading this column all

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Let’s take a break from my regularly scheduled ramblin’ for a public service announcement. I’m afraid you’re not going to feel very good about it. But reading this column all

The Redbug Blues

Let’s take a break from my regularly scheduled ramblin’ for a public service announcement. I’m afraid you’re not going to feel very good about it. But reading this column all the way to the end could make a positive difference in your life. Not like when you wear copper socks and suddenly all your luck is good luck. But still.

It’s chigger season.

If you know, you know. And you are very afraid. If you don’t, please read on. It may be that you are from “off,” as they say on Harkers Island, meaning from anywhere other than here. And there are even native North Carolinians who have not met — yet — our most unloved denizen.

They don’t teach you this stuff in “Welcome to North Carolina” school. There aren’t any Meet the Chigger! brochures in the welcome centers on the interstate. That’s why you have me.

• • •

Chiggers are the chupacabras of North Carolina — damnable beasts that feed on unsuspecting victims, mostly under the cover of your underwear, if not under the cover of night. Except that chiggers, unlike chupacabras, are real.

I’ll take a tick over a chigger any day of summer. Ticks are upstanding citizens of the parasitic world. You can feel them crawling up your leg and spot them on your skin, and for me, at least, I can feel them the instant they sink their chompers into my flesh. A quick pluck, and we’re done. No harm, no foul. Everybody has to make a living.

Not so the chigger. He is a vile, unethical beast. The larvae of harvest mites, chiggers are nearly microscopic, so good luck seeing one scampering up your shin. And they never come alone. Or even in twos and threes. They appear en masse and on the move, like a living version of those little aliens in the old Space Invaders game. They hang out in grassy, shrubby spots, and they love blackberry brambles. When you brush by, they hitch a ride on your feet or legs or arms or what we call down here your “bee-hind.” Boy, do they love your behind.

Nothing itches like a chigger bite. You’d rather roll yourself in poison ivy a dozen times over.

Once ensconced in their happy, moist place, they find a spot where the skin is particularly thin — around a hair follicle, perhaps, or near the tops of your socks or the edge of your underwear elastic — and there they insert tiny mouthparts, inject powerful digestive enzymes that dissolve your skin cells, and suck up the liquefied chigger spit and goo. Most folks think that the tiny red spot they see is the chigger, but it is actually the hard, tubular structure formed by your skin cells as a protective barrier around the chigger spit. Scientists call it a stylostome. The longer the chigger is attached to your flesh, the deeper the stylostome and the worse the itching.

Meanwhile, you are in agony. Nothing itches like a chigger bite. You would roll yourself in poison ivy a dozen times over if you had to choose between a chigger and a good ivy rash.

Welcome to North Carolina, spring and summer edition.

• • •

I know this is difficult to hear. And while you may be tempted to quit reading, you might want to at least mark this page. Fold down a little top corner. You’ll come back one day, clawing through this magazine, wondering if I present any solutions to your chigger infestation at the end of this story.

So let’s get to the good news. Bad as they are, even the worst chigger attacks aren’t so terrible that they outweigh the glory of a sunrise over Pamlico Sound or the sight of our mountains clad in laurel blossoms. North Carolina is still the gem of the South, chiggers and all.

And you are not defenseless, thankfully. Before your next foray off the sidewalk, you might consider boning up on an anti-chigger strategy. Standard mosquito repellants turn chiggers away, especially ones containing DEET. For those concerned about the potential danger of a chemical application, let me say this: If you wander into a chigger motherlode, you would drink straight kerosene if you thought it would help. Dial back to 30 percent DEET, and you’ll still be protected. And powdered sulfur works in a pinch. It’s called “flowers of sulfur” and is sold at most drugstores. Dust pant legs and waistbands, socks and shoes and boots. This stuff stinks, so try a half-and-half blend of talcum powder and sulfur.

illustration by James Bernardin

If you have time, mist your shoes, socks, and pants with permethrin, a synthetic bug repellant safe to spray on clothing (though not skin!). Let it dry overnight, and your duds will shed bugs for at least a few wash cycles.

Chiggers like tight, cozy spaces. That’s why wearing loose-fitting clothing can significantly reduce the number of places they attach. Where they go if you’re wearing briefs instead of boxers is something I don’t want to think about.

And when you’re happily wandering some meadow or field, and you think you feel some creepies crawling up your ankles, rub exposed skin with a small towel or bandanna. That can work wonders. As soon as you get out of the woods, shed yourself of chiggers quickly in a hot, soapy bath with plenty of scrubbing.

Fingers crossed that this is all overkill. Here’s hoping that you are redbug-free till the first frost falls across North Carolina. But if not, you are forewarned. It’s hard to ramble when you’re clawing at your ankles.

This story was published on May 30, 2022

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.