Ok, this is just bizzarre. If you’re easily freaked out, don’t read this. It might start off nice and pretty…
This story begins sometime in the mid-1990s, when I was still young enough to do stupid things with friends who had too much to drink. It involves a sort of tradition for those of us who grew up in the Front Range of Colorado, a world famous natural amphitheater, and a close encounter with the local flora.
It was late on a warm summer night. A group of us had decided, just on the spur of the moment, to go over to Red Rocks Amphitheater, and see who was playing. Now, this didn’t mean going to the ticket booth. It meant parking the car off the side of the road, and climbing over a hill to a place where you could overlook the concert below, and hear the music reverberating off of the monolithic rocks. Every teenager in the area has supposedly tried to do this at some point, although over the years it has become increasingly difficult–or so I hear. I might just be getting old.
Now, those of you who have never visited Colorado might have something of an idyllic view of our foothills. You see photos of aspen groves, forests thick with ponderosa and lodgepole pines… but that’s not really what we have in the foothills, close to the cities. Instead, it is more like a high desert scrub… lots of barren rocks, bristly grasses, stands of yucca, and most importantly (for this story at least) lots and lots of prickly pear:
(Note: I’ve used that picture before. It isn’t actually from Red Rocks, but from Table Mesa in Boulder.)
Ok… so, now, you might see where this is going. They don’t exactly provide nice cleared trails to sneak up into Red Rocks. So, we parked near some small, fenced fossil bed along Dinosaur Ridge, which runs up the right side of this map:
We were near the upper right-hand corner of the map, right about where the "sat" button appears–nowhere near the actual amphitheater. We knew we weren’t going to be close, although we really had no sense of the scale of the place. From the bottom of Dinosaur Ridge, it looked like an easy hike to the top, less than a quarter mile. We’d brought along a few pairs of binoculars (only one of which came home) so we assumed the distance from the stage (about a mile) wouldn’t matter.
So, there we are, in the dark, climbing up this ridge, with a couple of flashlights and a bunch of idiots. (Myself included.) As we climbed, the hill seemed to grow. We’d get a little higher, thinking we were right near the top, when another steep stretch emerged before us. Up and up, climbing around shrubs and boulders, slowly making our way up. We realized, too late, that a quarter mile on a steep, craggy slope was not anything like a quarter mile in the ’burbs. Once we started, we knew there was no turning back.
I was already winded and trying to bite back nasty complaints when I met the prickly pear. I didn’t see it… I just reached out to catch my balance, and set my hand right on top of it. Owshitfuckgoddammit…. a stream of swearing echoed forth into the dark wilderness as the pain registered. I grabbed the flashlight that I’d dropped, and shone it down onto my palm. I winced. My hand looked something like the prickly pear, with little spines protruding from my skin.
Suddenly, I didn’t care about the music, or the hike, or the stars above. I hated nature. I hated my friends and their stupid ideas. I hated myself for going along with them. Grumbling, I followed them up the ridge, slowly plucking spines from my hand, one by one.
When we arrived at the top, I had to bite my tongue. Our view was pretty incredible. The music was but an echo–I still have no idea who was playing that night–but all of Red Rocks was spread out beneath us, under a brilliant starry sky. We could see the roads leading to the parking areas, winding around the foothills, dotted by a half dozen pairs of lights, concertgoers who were leaving early or arriving late. I remember feeling a little awed by the way the roads and the rugged hills blended together, and the way the amphitheater glowed like some jewel off in the distance. It’s one of those moments I remember feeling that humanity and nature were linked, that maybe somehow our constructions were a part of nature. After all, I had a part of nature in me–or rather a bunch of them, making my hand feel like a pincushion. Despite the pain (or perhaps because of it) it was quite a memorable experience.
I wouldn’t dare try to climb back up there again to get a photo, but Google Earth does a pretty satisfying job of trying to recreate one:
There was actually a footpath at the top of the ridge, and it took us little time to follow it back down to the road, which we followed around to get back to the car. I left feeling a little humbled by the whole experience, and spent the next few days getting the last of the spines out of my hand.
Flash forward a half dozen years. I’ve moved, had a family, gone back to school, and started writing again. Seemingly out of the blue, I get a wart on my finger. Eh, warts happen, I figured. If anything, I was slightly amused by it. I even gave it to one of my favorite characters in the story, A Hint of Rosemary:
She looked into the eyes of the girl, (who had been, so far, an apt pupil,) and saw laughter dancing in her pupils. Why is she about to giggle at this card? She raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
The girl blushed in embarrassment. "I’m sorry… I just noticed." She pointed down at the card. No, not the card, my finger, the old crone thought. "You have… um… well… I didn’t know witches really did have warts!" The young girl snorted, slightly, trying not to laugh out loud (and failing miserably.)
With a scowl, the old woman pulled back and curled the finger in question under her other hand. So I’m a witch, eh? No wonder she thinks I have secrets. She looked at the cards, then at the hooded cloak hanging by the door, which she wore on trips to the village. I suppose with my business, and that dark hood wrapped around my face all the time, I really do look like a witch. She uncovered her hand, and examined the wart on the side of her index finger, then shook it at the young girl. "You’ll get yours someday, girl… just wait…You’ll get yours."
The young girl suddenly looked quite worried. Bet she thinks I can put a curse on her, the crone thought. "You don’t mean…" the girl stammered, nervously.
Laughing, the old woman winked. "I mean… sometimes when you get older and wiser, warts… amongst other things… happen."
Oh, the foreshadowing I hid in that wart… I love it! Anyhow, you’ll have to read the story if you want to see what happens.
So, I had this wart on my finger. I figured it didn’t hurt, and I didn’t really care about its appearance. Living in Colorado’s arid climate, my hands are usually sort of dry anyways. So I left it alone. I didn’t really think about it.
Recently, a spot appeared in the middle of the wart. Still, it didn’t hurt, and I didn’t think too much of it. Until today. After washing my hands, I noticed that the top layer of skin on the wart had split. I poked at it, and the wart fell off, revealing the spot below.
It was green.
I freaked out.
"I have an infected wart! OMG! I’m gonna die! Maybe it’s ebola!" (Ebola happens to be mentioned on the bar across the top of this page, so it’s no surprise that came to mind.)
Well, my pragmatism and curiosity quickly took over my paranoia when I noticed that whatever was green was solid. Reassured that I wasn’t about to start oozing pus all over the place, I grabbed a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers.
I bet you can guess what I found. Yep, a 12-year old prickly pear spine. For some reason, I thought I’d gross everyone else out and take a picture of this and blow it up to an unreal size:
Don’t worry, I was able to fully extract it, and afterwards I cleansed my finger and put on a bit of antibacterial goo and a bandaid. As you can see, the spine was about 3 mm long, which meant it was pretty deeply embedded in my finger.
I figured I spent a dozen years with that thing in my finger, I could take an hour out of my day to write about it.
Now, to all of the young people in Colorado who are considering sneaking around the hills around Red Rocks someday, please, trust me… stick to the trails.
And watch out for warts and prickly pears.