There’s only one rule—besides carrying enough water—about hiking in the southwest American desert: Don’t fall.
The reason isn’t so much to avoid landing on unyielding rock as it is about impaling yourself on razor-sharp spines of the cacti that infest places like the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona.
Actually, forget about falling. You don’t even want to brush against or accidentally grab any of these thorny bastards, which are all too happy to abandon their desert homeland to hitchhike on your clothing or, all too often, your flesh.
Let me count the many species of cactus set to make your life miserable. There’s the majestic saguaro, whose multiple arms are not recommended for hugging. There’s the aptly named jumping cholla, whose stems easily break off and attach to the poor sucker who merely grazes them. There’s the ironically named teddy bear cholla, which is not so cuddly. There’s the barrel cactus, the hedgehog cactus, the fishhook cactus, the half dozen species of prickly pear.
Have I forgotten any? The spindly ocotillo, with its gorgeous red flower tips, is technically not a cactus, but try telling that to anyone who accidentally embraces its many spines.
I was properly wary about colliding with any of the cacti that line the fine desert hiking trails around Tucson, and had successfully avoided any contact through most of two hiking-intensive visits to the southern Arizona city. But all it takes is a moment’s inattention to learn a severe lesson.
I didn’t actually fall into a cactus. I was just descending a little rock step, focused on my footing, when I brushed against a prickly pear. There was no sharp pain, just a twinge not unlike a mild sliver. The problem was getting the barbs out, which you want to do immediately, before they really start bothering you.
The thing about prickly pears is not the obvious long spines. It’s the tiny, fuzzy orange things called glochids that are the problem. As in the dozens of these little spears that launched themselves through my shirt, sticking me like a pincushion.
Luckily, I had a companion with sharp eyes and a nifty pair of of Uncle Bill’s tweezers. She spent a good five minutes plucking all the tiny spines out. And then, a short distance down the trail, another few minutes getting the ones she’d missed, the ones irritatingly still stuck to shirt and skin. We were still finding stray soldiers an hour later.
It wasn’t my only close encounter with glochids on our November trip. One day, I, found a few stuck mysteriously in the top of my head, despite wearing a hat and not falling on my noggin. Good thing I’m bald up there.