I have visited the Shawnee National Forest twice this summer and cannot get enough of it, so that's the first way.
The other way I've been bitten involves real bug bites. You see, my old Marine buddy Mike Ward and I explored the national forest last week, and some Shawnee chiggers voraciously feasted upon me. My ankles now look like they were blasted with a nail gun. And they itch! Thus, I scratch!
Chiggers, incidentally, are not insects. They are arachnids, as are spiders and ticks. Chiggers are immature mites, to be exact. That means baby mites were chowing down on me! Aw, geez! Well, I guess hosting a few chiggers is better than playing host to a Lyme disease-carrying deer tick.
I haven't been bugged by bug bites since my Camp Lejeune days, when I attracted a few hungry chiggers while leading my rifle platoon in the pine woods of that 170-square-mile Marine Corps base in North Carolina. I used to apply plenty of insect repellent, and I'd put a doggie flea collar around each ankle in an effort to stay safe from the chompin' bites of the dreaded chiggers. Another benefit of staying chigger free? My troops would see me as hard corps: "Man, even the chiggers don't mess with Sgt. Griggs."
I probably would have gotten out of the Shawnee last week without chigger bites if I hadn't stopped at an old cemetery as were driving to the national forest's Little Grand Canyon area south of Murphysboro. When we were almost there, I had to pull over. It was an emergency. I'd consumed too much coffee that morning and had to micturate before I exploded, to put it politely. It really was an emergency. I was experiencing extreme bladder distress. It was more than urgent; it was a national forest crisis.
Respectfully, I crossed the graveyard to the bordering forest, where I stepped into the trees and into thick, ankle-deep, ground cover. As I was practically overcome by the nature of my relief – did I convey that delicately enough? – I was attacked by the chigger brigade. I should have just pee-peed along the side of the road and waved if anybody drove by. At least I wouldn't be scratching now.
Itching, however, is better than the pain and swelling of bee stings and horse-fly bites, I guess. We saw plenty of bees in the Shawnee last week. I often photograph bees and wasps – often up close – and get along with them quite well. I've never had any ugly
confrontations with them. I don't bite them, and they don't sting me.
Chiggers are another matter, I reckon, so I'll simply steer clear of their habitat. No more stepping into thick ground cover along old cemeteries, for example.
That should do it, right there, just that. After all, I've not experienced chigger attacks elsewhere in the Shawnee or elsewhere in the Land of Lincoln. My wife gets bitten in the grass in our backyard! But they ignore my leathery, gyrene ankles. Chiggers also have ignored me in the stands of hardwoods and undergrowth around my hometown and along field roads on nearby farmlands and in the woodlands of our state parks. And in almost all of the Shawnee.
So, just one isolated chigger incident – even as voracious as those little buggers
were – shall not deter me from trekking through the woods of southern Illinois. The Shawnee National Forest is my kind of country, you know, and I'm planning an October visit to photograph the national forest in its autumn colors. I'm already itching to go back.