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Autumn leaves and woolly worms

Posted: October 16, 2017 5:01 p.m.
Updated: October 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.

With the advent of autumn comes yet another memory I’ll never lose, no matter how much I imbibe.

I’ll never forget my first introduction to that mythical critter some call Pyrrharctia isabella.

It was a few years back, when my Beloved and I and a few friends were up in the hills for a weekend. We were driving down this lovely, winding, tree-draped mountain lane, with a group of good friends on a fine autumn day during peak leaf season in the North Carolina high country. On one side of us was this picturesque valley where cows and horses grazed leisurely on green rolling knolls. Indeed, the mind immediately hearkened back to tall tales told by dad about how farm animals in the mountains had legs longer on one side than the other, the better to traverse the steep slopes. The sun was shining, the leaves were spectacular, the conversation lively.

My Beloved, sitting in the passenger seat chatting away with our friends in the back seat, suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, eyes wide, finger pointed at my neck, and unleashed a shriek that shattered stones and knocked down tree limbs all the way down the mountain.

Panic loves company -- at this point I had no idea what she was screaming at, only that it was creeping up my collar.

The screaming, mine included, continued, punctuated by hysterical laughter. Finally, my buddy sitting in the back seat -- and I have to give him credit for speaking in a perfectly calm voice between guffaws -- said, “Just stop the car and get out slowly.”

Get out slowly? I suddenly had this vision of a killer wasp the size of a cheap cigar preparing to sting me into anaphylactic oblivion.

Someone else -- I think my buddy’s girlfriend -- noted, rather loudly, that my new companion was about to enter the inside of my collar. My problems were now compounded by two things. One, my friend couldn’t get out of the car to help me because he was laughing so hard he couldn’t unbuckle his seatbelt, and two, while I consider myself to be a veritable rock of steadfast calm, I apparently had broken into a dance that consisted of running in place as fast as I could in midair while waving my arms and screaming, “Auughhh! Get it off me! Get it off me!”

Eventually, someone was able to maintain composure long enough to gently flick my little visitor away. And the fuzzy caterpillar, known as a woolly worm or woolly bear and that was, in fact, about the size of a cheap cigar butt, inched his way to the side of the road, apparently no worse for wear and utterly oblivious to the excitement he had caused.

As it turns out, woolly worms are cute little critters and they’re absolutely harmless. They just inch along, eat, occasionally predict weather for the upcoming winter and are the inpiration for a number of quirky festivals, such as the Banner Elk Woolly Worm Festival, which features, among other things, a big regional woolly worm race.

In terms of strategies, a woolly worm race seems to work similarly to a chicken drop -- that is to say, utterly at random. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the excitement -- or the revenue -- it generates.

Works for me. I’m easily amused.

I have yet to witness one of these races, but maybe someday. In fact, I’ve always wanted to own a thoroughbred racer of some sort. Unfortunately, while the profession of journalism does provide many rewards, the financial wherewithal to buy racehorses is not one of them.

But I might just be able to afford a woolly worm. Who knows, maybe even a champion.

I don’t think we have woolly worms around here, although we get our fair share of tent caterpillars in the spring. They don’t quite have the good looks and magnetic personality of woolly worms, but maybe we can help them work on it. 

The possibilities are endless.

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