I know the cholla cactus only too well

“The desert is full of wonderful plants, including sand verbena, chuparosa and the cholla,” the article read.All I had to hear was the word cholla and suddenly my ankles began to sting.

The writer almost had me going with her word pictures of the blooming natural flora out east of us this time of year. But there isn’t a flower fabulous enough to get me to hike out there, now that I am reminded what is waiting for me.

In or out of bloom, I have always known the charming cholla cactus by its nickname, “Jumping cactus.” Left up to me, its nickname would have been the “Merciless Stabbing Cactus.” And I don’t doubt it has several closely related cousins growing nearby, just waiting for me to stroll by or, heaven forbid, stumble.

I spent many a childhood vacation in Tucson, Arizona where I believe all cholla begin their lives. Apparently they, like many Arizona natives, have drifted west and settled in California. But in my childhood, while my brother was out shooting at rabbits, those of us of a more peaceful nature were desperately trying to entertain ourselves in the middle of a sea of cactus, sage and sand. When my parents insisted I quit reading and go outside, the only option was to walk around.

No matter how close to the middle of the path you stayed, no matter how thick the socks or how high the boots, somehow you never made it back without catching the spines of a cholla in your foot. One dedicated desert naturalist fondly described its long needles as “the sharpest of all the cactus needles.” No kidding. Not only does it hurt like the devil, but when one hits your leg, you may fleetingly think you have been bitten by a rattlesnake. The overall effect is utterly unnerving.

And in case you are tempted to accuse me of being a Coastal wimp, let me remind you of the two winters and a thousand summers I spent living in Palm Springs. I was there long enough to find a handful of things I actually do find charming about the desert. I love the bats that eat the giant beetles. I love the sunrises and I love the balmy nights. I even loved hiking in the mountains, which I did only when the snow was at least three feet deep and I needed snowshoes. That was the perfect solution to cholla attacks.

As for now, you may have my parking place and my spot in the sand. I have spent enough time evading the wily, spiteful, prolific, ankle-loving cholla spines.

Henceforth, I expect I will limit my viewing of the desert to the pages of Arizona Sunset or the panorama from a sidewalk café in Palm Springs.



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