May 14, 2023by Jon Kramer

A Prickly Test Of Friendship

A Prickly Test Of Friendship

copyright Jon Kramer 11-14-19  /  2,264 words

Nonfiction – The events took place summer 1983 during Geology Field Camp at Florissant, Colorado

I had not intended to test the ramparts of my ass against the invasive tactics of a diminutive barrel cactus, but by the time I knew who was winning, it was too late.

George and I had set out early that morning to recon the final missing section of South Park.  We needed to record the geostrata in one last remote area to complete our geologic map of the region for Geology Field Camp.   South Park, tucked away in the middle of central Colorado’s spectacular mountain ranges, is a truly inspiring picture. The broad, flat valley encompasses 1,000 square miles of wavy grasslands punctuated by dynamic, rolling ridges and jutting hogbacks, surrounded on all sides by majestic snow-capped peaks.

We hiked perhaps 15 miles along steep ridgelines and airy escarpments to complete the survey.   There’s nothing quite so invigorating as trekking cross-country with only topo map, compass, and intuition to guide you in the wilderness.  No roads, no trails, and no sign of human interference anywhere in these wilds.  All ours to enjoy.  A more complete definition of freedom cannot be conjured!

The morning chill of 2-mile-high altitude faded as the July sun came up over the eastern peaks.  We were well into unmapped territory, climbing a slope when George noticed a few cows eyeing us from above.  Not an unusual sight in open-range country.  But as we got near, the cows became agitated and started fidgeting and mooing.    That seemed humorous to us – rarely does one see cows get excited.  They are usually anything but.  As we soon discovered, however, these cows were not your usual cowpoke breed.  They were as wild as the tundra and to say they were not used to people was like saying you’re not used to sharks:  You never encounter them, but if you do it’s not something you’re happy about.

The prudent thing to do was go around, and this we attempted to do.  But as we moved right-flank the cows turned with us and began vocalizing in earnest.  At the same time bovine reinforcements had arrived from over the crest and were quickly filling in the ranks on the ridge.  The herd –  by now the numbers had increase exponentially and thus it was fully qualified as a herd – were sneering and shuffling in our direction as we tried to cut around them.  It was a strange thing to have them so interested in us.  There did not seem to be any babies around, yet they were becoming more agitated by the second, fidgeting, snorting, and scratching the ground.  Suddenly, some cosmic cow alarm went up and the herd charged full-bore, thundering down on us.

Run for it! we both yelled, terror-stricken and hauling-ass down the incline to the right, praying the slope did not end in a cliff. We sprinted full-speed into the unknown.

In attempting to evade a stampeding army of very fit and mad-as-hell bovines, there are a few things one must consider: a) Despite appearances, an aggravated cow can run much faster than a human, even a terrified one; b) Cows on the run gain speed in proportion to their mass – which is a helluva lot, when you think about it – which we did, but only for about one millionth of a second;  c)  Running downhill gives heavy, 4-legged behemoths a distinct advantage over scrawny bipedal hominids.

Our situation, therefore, was dire and quickly becoming desperate.  We had only one advantage – agility – and that would not suffice for long.

The tree!, George yelled, racing toward a scraggly Juniper, We gotta climb the tree!

You call that a tree!  I screamed back, running as fast as I could toward the pile of sticks he was heading for.  As we neared, I wondered if the weather-beaten skeleton would even hold our weight.  But by now we had run out of options – if there ever were any, which there weren’t – and this was the only tree-like growth in the area.  So it was up the Charlie Brown Juniper we went, if ever Charlie Brown were to pick a juniper instead of the pathetic spruce he dragged around at Christmas.  George was already up by the time I launched into the wood.  I just managed to fly aboard before becoming mincemeat.  The small limbs creaked and bowed under our weight.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough – thank God! – to get out of harm’s way.  At least for the moment.

The stampeding beasts came rushing up, flooding around us, snorting, stamping, and churning up the ground around our tiny perch.  We prayed they would not get the idea to ram the trunk.  Stressed as it was by our weight, it would surely splinter if the cows tested it.  Thankfully they didn’t.  We secured our stations as best we could and settled in to wait it out.

What the hell is this all about? I asked, still rushed with adrenalin and panting from the flight

Darned if I know, George replied, I thought bulls were supposed to be the ferocious ones.  Never heard of cows going off their collective rocker… these ladies are intent on serious bodily harm.

What we have here are some bad-assed bovines!,  I declared,  Frigging Killer Cows!

I don’t care what we call them, from now on we keep outta their sight!

We sat in the tree wondering how long we’d be stranded there.  It wasn’t pleasant preparing for possibly several hours in a hanging belay without the benefit of a climbing harness to sit in.  We tried to get comfortable but there was little of that to be had.   As it turned out, though, the wait wasn’t very long.  In about 45 minutes the cows lost interest and ambled away.  But we stayed in the tree until the very last one had gotten completely out of sight over the ridge and for awhile even so, just to be sure. Upon hitting the ground, we wasted no time in escaping along a bearing 180 degrees from the direction the cows had gone. When we had some distance between us and the KCs (Killer Cows), we slowed down and looked back.  No murderous cows had followed – not a single KC in sight.

We had covered a lot of ground since the morning – not to mention the acrobatic interlude –  and now we were feeling it. There’s a certain high you get when you literally run for your life and come out the other side unscathed.  But there’s also the crash that happens once the danger is past and the adrenaline gets shut off like a spigot.  Suddenly you feel completely and utterly exhausted.  One second you are psyched and amped to the max, racing to maintain your life by hook or crook.  The next instant you are so wasted you can’t even stand, collapsing in a jumble on the ground.  This we finally did once we felt safe enough to take a break.

As we made the decision to stop along a ridgeline, we each sought out a nice perch to relax on. George picked a perfect seat on a flat stony ledge padded by some lichen.  I found an inviting spot of grass tucked between slabs of a sandstone shelf.  We threw off our packs and dropped hard to the ground, utterly exhausted.

You know that dark, sinking feeling that gradually comes over you as you slowly, but surely, realize you’ve made a terrible mistake?  Such was the anguish gathering in the pit of my stomach.  I began to analyze the source of my distraction. Was it the thought maybe the KC’s were right behind us?  No, we had a good view from where we were and they were well gone over the horizon.  Was it maybe the setting sun and imminent darkness falling while we were yet many miles away from the van? No…we were expert at navigation even in the dark.  My present doomsday feeling was something more immediate – more pressing, one might say.  As luck would have it, in my haste to get off my feet I had apparently sat squarely, and directly, and very heavily, down onto a Pediocactus simpsonii.  Take it from me, that is a revelation you damn-sure never want to experience.

It’s amazing how tenacious life in general, and plants in particular, can be. Did you know, for example, that some cactus can grow in the mountains up to 12,000 feet in altitude?  Well, we knew it because George and I had seen this particular one –  the Mountain Ball cactus –  in several places around camp.  The good news – and the bad news, as it turns out – was these barrel-shaped cacti were fairly small, so if you were to step on one, you probably wouldn’t know it – unless you were bare-footed, and only a fool walks around in the mountains in bare feet.  We were not fools.  My butt, however, was presently arguing that particular point in my case.

If you do a web search, in the description for Pediocactus simpsonii, you’ll find such helpful information as “Spine cover tends to be dense…” Even though this event took place way before Google came along, I was at the time very keenly aware of this fact.  In my present condition I knew things had gotten way to intimate here and there were now a zillion little barbs stabbed into my behind.  Not to get too graphic here, but the little cactus had snuck right up the middle and had given both cheeks a full-on broadside of needles.

When you get nailed by a cactus with millions of tiny spines – such as the famous Prickly Pear, or the Mountain Ball I was currently enjoying –  it’s important to extract every little spear from your flesh as quickly as possible or you’ll have infection along with the pain.

Now here was the dilemma – I knew I needed to get those little spikes out of my posterior, but there was no way I could extract all the offending spines from my own backside.  It was just plain impossible.  I could not see them and neither of us had a mirror to remedy that fact.  Without seeing, you cannot hope to remove them.  There was only one thing to do: put my friendship with George to the ultimate test.

Say George, have you ever thought about going into medicine?, I asked, nonchalantly.

That drew a characteristic George-style sideways glance and grimace.  This happens when he’s stymied by a particularly strange question. Not really, he replied, Why?

Because I was wondering if you might have an interest in proctology?

Now don’t get freaky on me man! he said with some worry,  What the hell are you talking about?

Well, maybe you’d be good at it, I said encouragingly. 

Like hell… get to the point, he replied clearly confused.

You know this cozy grass-lined seat I’m sitting on here?  The one with perfect padding? 

What about it?

It was hiding one of those little barrel cactus, I announced, and I’m currently the star bull rider of it.

Wow, really?  he said, trying failingly, to suppress a laugh, So what?

I tried to be tactful, I cannot even see the little spiny bastards assaulting my ass, much less thwart their attack.   So, I was hoping you might want to help your friend out.

What!?  George blurted out, Are you saying you want me to pull spines out of your ass?

What else could I say,  I’m glad you understand, thanks for volunteering! 

I did NOT volunteer for ass duty!, he retorted.  You can yank them out yourself. 

This wasn’t going well.  I got to my feet, wondering how bad the damage might be.  If I could make it back to the van, I would be able to find a mirror, some needle-nose plyers, and do the necessary surgery myself.  But just standing made things horribly worse.  And when I took a step I nearly doubled over in pain.  It seemed like the spines were being pounded deeper with even the slightest movement of my legs.  It was excruciating.

I was desperate. George, this is serious.  I really, really need your help.

He sat there for a second eyeing me askance as I tried walking bow-legged.  But I just couldn’t bear it. I had to stop.  I pleaded with him – OK, now I’m begging you…

He looked at me, sort of grinning, but also with some concern.  Oh for the love of Allah!  he finally said, throwing up his arms.  You are going to owe me big time for this! Each spine I pull comes with a price!  We’ll start with a case of Yuengling beer…

Whatever you say, Doctor.  I’m all yours… 

It wasn’t pretty – not from any perspective – but George, true friend that he is, stepped up to the job and performed like a skilled surgeon.  In about 20 minutes I was spine free.  Gratitude cannot be fully expressed for performing such a deed.  And even though my sorry ass would sting for days, the Field Camp crew all got a great laugh at our misadventures that day.  And we have a helluva story in the books.

Sometimes friendships are tested in strange ways.  I hope for two things in my continuing 40-plus year best-friends comradery with George: a) That he realizes I am grateful for all the years he has been a steadfast companion in our relationship, and b) That I never have to pick cactus spines from his butt!

******************

AFTER WORDS

Our geologic recon of South Park was inspiring to us.  During our mapping of the region, we had come across outcrops of the Antero Formation – an Oligocene age (approximately 30 million years) lake deposit that contains fossils.  When Field Camp ended, George and I decided to camp in South Park a few days and dig fossils before we headed to California where, unbeknownst to us at the time, we would meet our mortality in the desert.

We managed to drive Betsy off-road several miles, right to one of the small outcrops we had mapped. The Antero Formation in this area is known for its very fine preservation of fossil plants and insects.  We set up camp and began digging in earnest along a layer of shale nearby.  In the course of our exploration, I discovered an incredible specimen: a small piece of shale with a perfect fly.  It was so well preserved it looked as though the insect had just landed on the rock some minutes before.

I showed it to George who, right away, said,  Where’s the other half?

Valid question.  In this area the Antero shale often splits along the fossils it contains.   As a result, most fossils here have two sides.   We immediately started looking for the opposing side of the fly.  Although small, it would be easily recognizable.  Alas, though we searched for hours, we never found it.

As the sun started setting, we gave up the search, abandoned the pit and cooked dinner.  That night the stars came out and the Milky Way glowed across the sky.  The high mountains are a sublime place to be at night and we slept like kings on the freezing ground. The next morning early I returned to the hole we had dug the day before, intent on finding the missing fly.  No luck.   We concluded it was either smashed during our excavation or, more likely, had never existed.  Sometimes the shale splits along one side of the fossil and leaves nothing on the other.

The next few days we hiked and dug at several sites around the camp – some as far away as two miles – and found some great specimens, most of which would eventually be donated to schools and museums.  We found fossil ferns and leaves, water beetles, various larvae, ants, and even worms.  There were also some parts of fish as well as fish coprolite.  But we never found another fly.

Each time we made a discovery, we carefully wrapped the specimens and labeled the exact location.  George and I are always cognizant of our impact on the land.  So, whenever we dug a hole, we filled it back in when we were done.  We strive to leave the environment in at least as good a condition as we found it, if not better.

On our last evening there we tidied up camp and packed everything away in Betsy, getting ready to head out in the morning for our fateful trip to southern California (see my story Cocci Twins).  This was to be the last of our time in the mountains for awhile, until we got to the Tetons in a couple weeks.  In between now and then we would be in 110 degree desert.

We broke camp early the next morning.  As part of the process, we scattered the rocks we had gathered around our campfire, as well as the ashes.  We also filled in the original excavation nearby.  We spread the debris evenly as we filled the hole.  When done, I climbed into Betsy’s driver’s seat as George did a final smoothing of the dirt to level it out with the surrounding ground.

Well, I’ll be damned… I heard him say, as he finished up and hopped in.

What’s up? I asked as I fired up the van.

He didn’t reply.  He just got in and handed me a piece of shale.  It was blank.  I was about to ask what the big deal was when I turned it over and saw the other side.  It was the other half of the fly –  a perfect mirror to the one I had found three days before.

Fittingly, to this day George has one half of the fly and I have the other:  Halves of the same specimen, just like he and I.