Mountain Orgy

Published: The Southern Review

Perhaps it’s karmic payback for all those misspent summer days of my youth, joyfully following in the wake of the DDT fogger trucks that weekly decimated the insect population of Bexley, Ohio. In any case, I have long served as a target for mosquitoes, which will invariably pick me out of a pack of 30 hikers and dive-bomb me for three miles while all others go unmolested.


Scientists have long studied what attracts mosquitoes and other insects to certain people. A University of Florida study declared that one in 10 people are highly attractive to female mosquitoes (males don’t bite). Researchers generally agree on this: mosquitoes zero in on their human prey from long distances – as much as 150 feet away – and consider carbon dioxide and heat output a beacon for them. Which makes sense, in my case, since I have always run hot. I’m invariably the sweatiest hiker in the pack – even though I’m usually among the best-conditioned. I have to hike in shorts, even on trails with residual snow. I tend to shed all sheets and covers in my sleep, even in winter.


Never has my insect-ual love affair been more apparent than on a summer hike along Big Sur with a longtime trail partner. We were in the process of downgrading our relationship from a romantic one to a platonic one, but the transition was so gradual that neither of us inflicted any wounds upon the other. We were bound by love our love of hiking trails.


For the bulk of the trip, the fog line hovered 1,000 feet or higher above sea level.  As we day-hiked our way south toward Ragged Point, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the treks got steeper and the temperatures in the high country above the marine layer soared.


On the final day, while scaling the Junipero Serra Peak in Los Padres National Forest, surmounting the fog line provided another surprise: an orgy of black flies making the best of their very brief mating season. The smallest were the size of a dime; the largest as a big as a quarter. Their bite was sharp, like a mild bee sting. My partner violently slapped away a few, applied some Cutter, and that was that. They weren’t all that interested in her.


That’s because I was available. By the time we reached the peak, I had been bitten hundreds of times, and rivulets of blood were flowing, in crisscrossing patterns, down both legs. I rarely travel lightly, which is why I make a much better day hiker than camper. Between the emergency first aid supplies I carry for the groups I lead, the bug sprays and poison oak remedies, multiple changes of outerwear and enough water and Gatorade to fortify a basketball team through a triple-overtime game, I wear out backpacks as often as hiking boots.


But nothing I was carrying that day tempered the appetite of the hormone-crazed bomber flies; the madder my alchemy of ointments and sprays became, the more they wanted to do to me what they were doing to each other.


Their numbers thinned as we rose higher, and they had dissipated by the time we bagged the summit. But we, or rather I, would have to negotiate their firing lines on the downhill trek. Although I wouldn’t be as sweaty going downhill, it was so steep and rocky in their mating zone that I figured we might actually spend more time descending through their turf than we did climbing it. If I submitted to gravity to rush through their swarms, I might be trading the bloodletting for a broken ankle. Almost all day-hiking injuries occurred going downhill.


I was in the habit of changing my sweat-drenched shirt at the apex of every hike.  That day, I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt made of rayon. And even as it became as wet as a pond, it had protected my arms, if not my hands, from the ravages of the orgiastic flies.


My legs, however, were raw, pocked as if from hundred rounds from a BB gun. I decided that they couldn’t take any more tenderizing. So I pulled off the rayon shirt, tore it in half, and did my best to fit the pieces as leggings. I threw on a cotton shirt and hoped for the best.


Being an over-packer, I hadn’t thought twice about throwing a bottle of wine into my backpack, with the idea of surprising my now-platonic partner with a celebratory libation to finish off the trip when we hit the summit. I had not, of course, had the foresight to include a corkscrew or drinking vessels. But I was determined not to let such stupidity deter the intention. So I peeled off the aluminum around the top with a pocket knife and used a stick to tamp down the cork until it rescinded, in dozens of pieces, into the bottle – which was hot to the touch inside the steamy backpack.


Thus we did enjoy a granular, boiling cabernet in alternating chugs, straight out of the bottle, before beginning the downhill trek.


It turns out that mating black flies, too, are fond of alcohol. Especially when distilled in the form of sweat. As even black flies know, the only thing better than sex is sex with a buzz. And in their pre- and post-coitus zeal to belly up to the bar, my leggings strategy was rendered moot; one by one, they simply bit through the rayon.


Back at the hotel, as I applied rubbing alcohol to what was left of my legs – as painful an exercise as I have ever endured – my hiking partner marveled at the fact that she had gone virtually unmolested while I was being skinned alive. She mused that if anyone could invent an insect repellant that worked on me, they’d be wealthier than Bill Gates.


I told her of the existence of such an elixir, one that I hadn’t seen since my days as a young journalist in Savannah. She scoffed that such a product existed.


So I told her of Georgia’s famed Gnat Line, which serves as a 38th Parallel for one of the most annoying, persistent – and celebrated – insects in the country. The areas of the Peach State north of the line, including Atlanta, are unaffected. South of the Gnat Line, it’s everyone for himself.


Milledgeville, located roughly in the middle of a triangle formed by Atlanta, Macon and Augusta, holds a Gnat Days Festival every year. There may be no more appropriately named sports franchise in the nation than Savannah’s minor-league baseball team, the Sand Gnats. The marshes surrounding the city are gnat bordellos.


Individually, gnats are practically unnoticeable. But they travel in packs, often numbering in the millions, as thick as smoke. Which means that during the hottest months of the year, outdoor enthusiasts are exposed not only to Savannah’s searing heat and wretched humidity, but roaming black clouds of gnats steeped in Kamikaze tradition.


Their aerial circuses are a thing to behold. It is possible, when they are gathered in sufficient numbers, to see them coming from a few hundred yards away – and they can close that distance in mere seconds. They are equally impressive at putting on the brakes when they make contact with humans. Their general orders are to conduct psychological warfare, hovering and annoying more than attacking – but with numbers so prolific, a few make their way into moist openings of the eyes, nose and mouth.


But with me, they didn’t hesitate to attack any exposed opening in my body. I often swallowed or inhaled as many as I could spit or blow out. While covering high school baseball games for the Savannah Morning News in the late 1980's, I packed a small mirror, saline solution and an extra pair of Bausch & Lombs in my computer bag, because the most ambitious of gnats could limbo underneath my contact lenses.



There was no bug repellent that remotely waylaid them in the completion of their duties. Their only known Kryptonite was a feminine beauty product: a moisturizer distributed by Avon called Skin So Soft.


In three years in Savannah, I could count on two hands the number of girls and women of whom I inquired who did not carry Skin So Soft, often mixed with water in a spray bottle. And though Southern men wear their machismo on their sleeves, the skin not covered by sleeves was liberally covered in Skin So Soft. I knew women who significantly augmented their family income selling just one Avon product.  But the ultimate testimony to the product’s efficacy might be this: It even worked on me.


On that day among the black flies in Los Padres National Forest, I would have given a month’s salary for a bottle of the magical elixir.


My partner, upon hearing the story, whelped with delight, spitting out pieces of the Clif Bar she was consuming while we awaited room service. She ran to her backpack and dumped the contents.


Onto the bed, right beside a bag of almonds and a pair of tweezers, spilled a bottle of Skin So Soft.

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