Field Trips Are Great Except For Tick Fever


We are one week away from the last day of school in Missoula, and the beginning of Summer Vacation (or as I call it, GET OFF THE COMPUTER). Another school year come and gone, and I’m feeling wistful for the relatively simple times when Rusty and Speaker were innocent young grade-schoolers at John Colter Elementary.

High school is so complex, so serious, so expensive. Adult problems are starting to ooze into my kids’ lives, and like most parents, I am not ready for them to grow up and head off to college (which is to say, I haven’t won the Lottery yet).

I was thinking back this morning to a memorable field trip I chaperoned when Rusty was in fourth grade. I accompanied his class to Travelers Rest in Lolo during their Lewis and Clark section. It’s a trip a lot of kids will never forget, unless they seek professional therapy at some point. It went a little something like this:

Wednesday morning found Mr. Madden’s fourth grade class fully in the grip of Tick Panic. This was the day of their field trip to Traveler’s Rest and Mr. Madden had mentioned that it’s tick season, and he would be checking each kid for ticks when they returned in the afternoon.

“How big are ticks?” asked one anxious little girl, twisting her sweater into knots.

“Oh, not very big,” said Mr. Madden. “You can hardly see them. I don’t think…”

“Do they eat your blood?” asked Randall, the class gross-out king.

“No, they…well, yes, they do, but…”

“I heard they can jump fifty feet!” said another boy.

“That’s how Spiderman got his powers,” added Rusty, my ten-year-old. “Got bit by a tick that fell in a vat of toxic waste.”

“I think you’re thinking of the Hulk,” Mr. Madden corrected him. “But we’re getting off track here. I don’t think we’ll be in the woods that much, and like I said, I’ll check everybody for ticks when we come back. Now, does everyone have a lunch and a water bottle?”

I stood by the bus door and glowered at each kid as he/she climbed aboard. I wanted them to know that Rusty’s dad don’t take no mess. I sat in the back of the bus to ride herd on the troublemakers and future parolees, but the kids were surprisingly restrained on the 20-minute ride to the Traveler’s Rest.

Driving out of town, we stopped at a traffic light right in front of Fantasy for Adults on Brooks St. A few of the kids were trying to figure out what that store sells. One of them asked me, so I told him it’s a place you go to get materials that help you when you want to wax your dolphin. Fortunately, the light turned green before I had to elaborate.

I was sitting next to Holly, whose family had just moved from Bigfork to Missoula.

“You ever been to Traveler’s Rest, Rusty’s dad?” Holly asked. She was the sweater twister, and she was turning the thing into a potholder.

“Nope, never have. But you should relax, you’ll love it. I think it’s this famous spot where Lewis and Clark stopped for gas and a USA Today or something.”

We pulled into the parking lot of Traveler’s Rest, and joined about ten other fourth-grade classes, to form a seething mass of more than 200 kids. There was a commotion in the grass, where a small crowd had gathered around a garter snake. A couple of kids were poking it with a stick, until a teacher walked over and picked it up. “Just a harmless garden snake, kids. Let’s return it to the woods.”

Bob Wire. Rusty learns proper saw technique at Traveler's Rest State Park.

The best way to eradicate ticks is to destroy their habitat! Even Lewis and Clark knew that.

The best way to eradicate ticks is to destroy their habitat! Even Lewis and Clark knew that

“Does it eat ticks?” asked Holly, chewing on her sweater. The teacher shrugged, and tossed the snake into the bushes at the edge of the woods.

The Traveler’s Rest director called all the kids over to the medicine wheel for the opening ceremony. As Louie Adams, a Salish tribal elder, stood patiently waiting to give the opening prayer, the mob of kids swarmed the area like Deadheads to a patchouli wagon. Amid all the hubbub, another elder, dressed in traditional garb, stood near the center of the medicine wheel and silently made a pinching motion in front of his mouth. He slowly rotated in place, and within 30 seconds the place was dead quiet. You could practically hear the ticks crawling around in the brush. It was an amazing sight, something none of us chaperones or teachers could have achieved with a bullhorn and a Taser.

After the ceremony, which involved the kids each taking a rock to the middle of the wheel, dropping it on the pile and turning right, everyone split up into groups to go to their first station. Ours was the drum circle.

The circle was all girls, led by a woman elder who explained the meaning of their particular song, and then she took some questions.

“Can you play ‘We Will Rock You’?” asked an ADD/ADHD enthusiast from Lolo.

Demonstrating a Flash in the Pan at Traveler's Rest State Park, Lolo, MT

Demonstrating a “Flash in the Pan” at Traveler’s Rest State Park, Lolo, MT. Photo by Austin Smith.

From the drum circle our group moved to the U.S. Army station, where a guy dressed as an insurance logo demonstrated all the weapons used by Lewis and Clark’s expedition members. He showed us how to load and fire a musket, a 5-foot long flintlock rifle he kept swinging around, causing the crowd of kids to drop to the ground every time its muzzle passed their way.

“When the powder flashes in the pan but doesn’t ignite the charge, that’s where they got the phrase ‘flash in the pan,’” he said with a self-satisfied smile. The kids looked at him like he’d just told them that Sponge Bob Squarepants was an invertibrate poriferan.

“You never heard that phrase? Well, lots of common sayings came out of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For example, they had this here whip, called a ‘cat of nine tails,’ that they used to punish their misbehaving troops. They kept it in a bag, and when they ‘let the cat out of the bag,’ someone was gonna get it!”

Again with the blank stares. “I don’t see no cat,” said some kid from the back of the crowd. “Yeah,” added another. “Where’s the cat?”

“There’s not actually a cat,” said the agitated Minuteman. “See, it’s a whip…never mind. Look, I think it’s time for you guys to go to the next station.”

Fortunately, the next station was lunch. We all gathered over at the picnic tables and opened our brown bags. I looked back at the U.S. Army display and saw the Minuteman drinking something from a powder horn.

After lunch our group gathered in the oversized yurt for a lecture on how the Salish tribe were cruising along just fine, thank you, for about 12,000 years. Then the white man showed up with his horses, rifles, cable TV, People magazine and cheap trucker’s speed, and bitched it up for everybody. The director explained how the tribe was promised all manner of things in exchange for a small parcel of land in the Bitterroot Valley. But there was no online Babel translation service back then, and the message, as President Bush would say, was disinterpreted. So after 12,000 years of peaceful coexistence with the earth, the Indians were hoodwinked, given the bum’s rush, and pushed off the land to make way for check-cashing huts, titty bars, and $600,000 homes that line the ridge along Highway 12. I’m paraphrasing.

The last station of the day was the Nature Walk, down near Lolo Creek. Several chaperones were positioned along the creek’s edge, to keep the kids from plunging in and becoming a headline (“Area Youth Swept Away In Tick-Infested Waters”). Outfitted with compasses, crayons and clipboards, the kids walked around the forest area in the dappled sunlight, and made notes and drew pictures just as Lewis and Clark did in the very same spot some two hundred years ago:

“Hey, Meriwether—get a load of this empty Skittles bag. Tropical fruit.”

“Right, William. And this is a temperate zone. Are you suggesting that Skittles migrate?”

So the trip to Traveler’s Rest wound down with samples of buffalo jerky (“Yuck! This is gross!”) and dried salmon (“This tastes exactly like cat food.”) as the kids surrounded the medicine wheel for the closing ceremony and prayer. This time they lugged rocks from the center to the outside of the wheel. I noticed that most of the boys picked up the largest rock they could, lugging these microwave-sized boulders to the edge of the wheel, dropping them, and collapsing in the grass.

The silent elder once again shushed the crowd, and Louie Adams gave his thanks to the Creator. While he was offering his prayer, I looked up and noticed a large bird circling the area. It was bigger than a hawk, and I suddenly realized that, by god, it was a male bald eagle. I shit you not. I looked back down to see if anyone else noticed, and when Louie finished his prayer, I looked up and the eagle had vanished.

The buses arrived, the kids retrieved their backpacks and jackets, and we climbed onboard for the ride home. Everyone was talking excitedly about their favorite parts of the gathering, and I helped Holly stuff her ruined sweater into her pack. A birthday celebration awaited Rusty’s class, but the birthday boy was soaking wet from getting into the creek up to his chest. (The other chaperones and I couldn’t figure out how he got past us.)

As the bus pulled up to John Colter Elementary and the kids started pulling on their backpacks, I reached across the aisle and grabbed Randall by the arm.

“What?” he said. I pulled him to me, and rubbed a thumb through his hair.

“Holy CRAP,” I said, widening my eyes. “Look at the size of this TICK!”

Screams erupted from the back of the bus. Teachers and chaperones were pushing kids out of the way to get to the door, and Randall lost control of his sphincter and began farting. Girls were crying, clutching their hair, and scrambling to get off the bus. In the pandemonium, I slipped out the back emergency door and walked on down the sidewalk, hands in my pockets, whistling the theme song from “To Sir With Love.”

Ah, another successful field trip. I wonder how much schooling it takes to become a teacher?

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.


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