DID PIONEERS COMPLAIN, “Nothing exciting ever happens to me”? Probably not. For them, a mere trip to the creek for water meant keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes coiled in the weeds at their feet and panthers poised on a branch overhead. Although we modern Texans like to imagine ourselves worthy heirs to those hardy settlers of yore—fearless, tireless, innately wise about life—the truth is, most of us are hopeless city slickers. We screech at spiders under our own eaves; we think bad weather happens only on the Discovery Channel; and in the country we can get turned around faster than a toddler in a revolving door. Thanks to air conditioning and other modern conveniences, we’re so insulated from nature that we’ve forgotten to be wary of it. At the same time, more and more subdivisions are taking over previously pristine country and more and more Texans are opting to hike and camp in remote and rugged areas, where the old-timers typically come equipped with feathers, fur, or fangs.
Here are seventeen worst-case scenarios in which twenty-first-century Texans might unexpectedly find themselves—from being swarmed by killer bees to sharing the surf with a hungry shark—as well as basic emergency steps to take to save life and limb. And remember, as you boldly set out to explore the wilder areas of Texas with their resident skunks, snakes, and more: Hey, it’s their state too.
Bitten by Fire Ants
One-quarter-inch long or smaller, these surly little critters possess a degree of aggression that is belied by their size. What’s more, they don’t even belong here. Red fire ants (they’re actually half red, half black) are believed to have arrived uninvited in the U.S. in the thirties by way of South American ships docked in Mobile, Alabama, and they have been mobile ever since. By the fifties they had happily set up housekeeping in East Texas. Today fire ants cover at least two thirds of the state, and a February 2000 poll reported that 79 percent of Texans have felt their burning sting. Fire ants are truly dangerous only to the allergic or infirm; in 1995 a ninety-year-old woman in a Texas nursing home died six days after fire ants swarmed her in her bed. But for the rest of us, they’re still plenty painful, and the irony of an attack is that motion is what cues them to sting. If you jerk your foot or otherwise react violently (and who doesn’t?), the ants send instant messages to their nearby friends telling them to join in the fun.
If—when!—you awake from a post-picnic nap to find yourself covered in fire ants:
1. Brush or rinse them off, but do so as calmly and slowly as you can. Dab the bites with a weak bleach solution (Add 1 tablespoon bleach to a 1-cup measure, then fill it with water. Dab on affected areas) within the first ten to fifteen minutes. According to Dr. Patrick J. Crocker, the chief of emergency medicine at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital, this will help prevent the formation of the white, fluid-filled pustules that will otherwise appear the next day.
2. Apply ice to the bites to numb the pain and reduce swelling.
3. Avoid scratching. The blisters are easily broken and infected and can leave permanent scars.
Swarmed by Killer Bees
The Swarm, a 1978 big-budget film set in Houston, introduced the concept of killer bees some fifteen years before the insects themselves actually winged their way into the state. The cast of thousands—valiantly fought by the likes of Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, and Henry Fonda—manages to off a slew of hapless humans before succumbing to military overkill. But parts of the movie’s premise came true: Africanized honeybees—that is, a hybrid of a high-honey-producing African strain and a domesticated breed developed in Brazil—did indeed move north to the U.S. in the early nineties. Today the bees have spread as far west as Las Vegas, but the largest concentration in the country is, for some reason, in Abilene; this summer, in nearby Big Spring, a man hired to remove a hive was fatally stung by hundreds of bees.
Killer bees have a serious anger-management problem. Each colony of hundreds, or even thousands, will attack en masse in response to a perceived provocation or threat, which may consist simply of your firing up your mower a hundred feet away. Because the bees usually relocate during the fall and spring, they also favor sites such as barbecue pits left unused over the winter. So be on the lookout for solitary “scout” bees, and listen for buzzing.
If you find yourself besieged by Africanized honeybees:
1. Run! You can outrace them, although you’d better be in shape: They may chase you as far as five hundred feet. Try to get inside a house or car, or zigzag through trees, bushes, or tall weeds to gain some protection.
2. Don’t swat at the bees. It just ticks them off even more. And don’t jump in a pool or other body of water. They will likely hover, waiting for you to surface.
3. If you are stung, wait until you are safely away from the bees and then use a fingernail or the edge of a credit card to scrape the top of the stingers they will pop up and out of your skin. Don’t try to squeeze them out. That will only further damage the already swollen skin. But don’t leave them in either. They can continue to release venom for up to ten minutes.
4. Treat the stings with ice to reduce the swelling and, for the pain, a paste of baking soda and water or a topical anesthetic.
Lost in the Wilderness
Whether you’re wending your way to the Window in Big Bend or pointing your SUV down a temptingly rugged Hill Country path, you can easily fall afoul of Mother Nature (sudden downpours, surprised wildlife, and more) and her friend Lady Luck (car breakdowns, sprained ankles, or worse). But the sneakiest trick that the great outdoors can play is disorientation. It’s easy to get turned around