After which two things happened: I looked at my mother, and I touched it.
It’s a beautifully sunny day in Arizona, on some paved hiking trail I can’t recall the location or name of, somewhere near Phoenix. I was about 30 or so meters ahead of my mother on the trail, inspecting some odd cactus-ey looking thing which looked sort of like a bunch of fuzzy short sausages linked together as if velcroed.
My mother’s shouted warning couldn’t stop the inertia of my finger, which buried itself into a dozen of the furry looking cactus spines, all thin as a hair, and microscopically barbed along their entire length.
Yes, it was painful.
Of course, I drew my finger back.
Of course, the link, now attached to my finger, detached from the plant.
Of course, when I shook my finger, all one dozen spines broke off, leaving the tips buried in my fingertip.
The little furry ball, now detached from my finger, fell to the dry, rocky earth, upon which it bounced.
Of course, after the third bounce, the link landed directly on my right ankle, where it stuck to my sock with the tenacious finality of a velcro ball thrown at a velcro target.
This seemed like a very odd thing to happen. The fuzzy little sausage link looked like a bit of a burr stuck to my sock, except for the fact that the spines had gone through my sock and another dozen or so were embedded deeply into the thin flesh stretched over my ankle.
Still, it looked like a burr, so I reached down to pull it off.
“Patrick! Don’t touch that!”
My mother’s second warning had no better results than the first. As the final exclamation point fell on my ears, I grasped the fuzzy ball between thumb and forefinger and yanked the burr from my ankle.
“Oh, Patrick,” sighed my mother, now at my side, as I inspected the link, the spines of which were now embedded deeply into my thumb and forefinger, which I couldn’t pull apart. “That’s a cholla.” She prounounced it something like, “choi-ah”.
“A what?” I asked, unsuccessfully trying to shake the thing from my fingers.
“A jumping cholla cactus,” she said. “You touch it. It sticks to you. You pull away. It jumps off the plant, bounces off the ground, sticks to something that moves, until it falls off again, then grows a new plant somewhere else.”
“Oh,” I said, still unsuccessfully attempting to shake the fuzzy jumping sausage from my fingers.
We did eventually get it off. The broken off spines embedded in my flesh were all but impossible to remove. Over time, my body’s own internal defences would break them down, but months later there were still little bumps in my fingers and ankles reminding me of the lesson I’d learned that morning.
“Don’t touch that!”
Below South Pass
Arizona, United States of America
Taken during travels, 1997