« Return to this article

Know the West

Dressing for success in the mosquito-ridden West


Rain in the West is always an occasion for celebration, and this year in South Dakota we’ve had a lot of moisture to celebrate. To complain about this would be against the code of the West; heck, the code doesn’t let us complain about stuff like broken arms or legs, either.

Several neighbors casually mentioned that they’d greased the haying machinery in May, and by late June, they hadn’t cut a blade of hay. No hay means no winter feed for the cows unless they go out and chew it off the hillside, which might be difficult if we get the usual deep snows and brisk winds.

“I’m not complaining,” they all say heartily with a glance upward. Ranchers are always nervous about weather, and we learn early not to count on anything. One day when the rain paused, two neighbors were trying to pull a truck out of thigh-deep mud. One observed, “This could be the first day of the next drought.”

When the rain stopped, everybody started chopping down hay with any machinery available. One rusty rake I saw was towed by a sedan, with a passenger leaning out the window and yanking on the rope that lifts the tines and dumps the hay in a windrow. A couple of guys started mowing our big hayfield three days ago and haven’t reappeared. We hope they didn’t run out of gas and try to walk out. The creeping jenny -- some call it bindweed -- is so strong and lively that if you walk into a patch, it can wrap around your ankles and drag you down. Yesterday the dogs ran into the greenery and didn’t come when we called, though we could hear them yip. We found them so tangled up in creeper they couldn’t move. Of course, they’re small dogs; a malamute might have gnawed his way clear.

Then there are the mosquitoes.

I dress in the morning as knights of old prepared for battle, laying out each piece of armor to protect myself from West Nile virus. Only one case has been reported this year, but like most people, I don’t want to be the second one.

First I don long, heavy socks; then winter sweatpants too thick for the proboscis of most mosquitoes. Boots laced up over the pants and two turtleneck shirts. Since commercial mosquito repellents make me break out in big red blotches, I mix natural oils with unscented hand lotion and smear the mixture over my hands, face and neck. (Equal parts eucalyptus, lemon and citronella in a base of unscented lotion.) I rub lotion on the shoulders of my shirt and on a big scarf tied under my chin. Sloshing more lotion on my floppy hat, I jam it down and step outside.

A breeze helps deflect the mosquitoes, but as soon I walk, I sweat, and mosquitoes rise from the grass in squadrons. Their low humming sounds like Hells Angels on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally. With a garden to tend, I march to the pump house, turn the appropriate handle, and gallop to the garden. There I grope around until I find the end of a soaker hose. I snap the supply hose into it and stagger out to the tilled area. Behind me, a black swarm of mosquitoes rises, and my arms and legs are covered in a moving veil of wings as the critters probe for an opening.

I swat a mosquito that has sucked most of the blood from my right ear. When I feel a throbbing at my jugular vein, I mash it, spurting blood. I laugh like Margaret Hamilton, Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. Imitating her banshee laugh was one of my first attempts at drama, and is today one of my few talents. Uttered at the back of a slow herd of cows, it moves them into a brisk trot. And it once got me out of a rather tricky situation in the dating game. But it has no effect on the local mosquitoes.

Economists are always urging Western ranchers to diversify. “Take in tourists who will pay to sleep in the bunkhouse! Make tourists pay to fix fence!” So now, we have a new diversification plan. As soon as we find the branding irons -- we’re sure they’re inside the barn under that tangle of weeds -- we’ll brand a few of these monster mosquitoes and haul them to the sale ring, the new red meat.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes and wrangles mosquitoes in Hermosa, South Dakota.