Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 17, 2017

Thorn in My Side

We’ve just returned from two excellent days in the Anza-Borrego Desert of southern California. There’s a lot to tell, but I have to sort through photos and notes first. To kick things off, I’ll simply convey a lesson I learned. It’s one I already thought I knew. I even mentioned this useful bit of information recently in a blog post. I should’ve taken my own advice.

Practice, Practice Practice

Your mother taught you not to run with scissors, to look both ways before you cross the the street, put on clean underwear and so forth. Do you invariably, unfailingly practice those life lessons? I didn’t think so. This is one of those sorts of things.

The scene

We were hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, due south of Palm Springs, northeast of San Diego. It’s a big place: 600,000 acres (green areas).

Anza Borrego Mine Wash Map Google

The Pacific Ocean is about 90 miles east. The Salton Sea is in the upper right corner. The red flag marks where we were: a dirt track leading up through Mine Wash, which climbs from Route 78 into some mountains to the south. Here’s the terrain:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6630 (640x473)

Sere, lovely, hot: 95 degrees on that mid-April day, about 11% humidity. As you can see, the desert was still blooming from the enormous amount of rain southern California received this winter. That’s what drew us there, as if we need an excuse to indulge our love of the desert. We spent hours hiking, photographing details like this blooming mammalaria cactus …

Cactus flower Brad Nixon 6625 (640x480)

… this barrel cactus

Barrel cactus Brad Nixon 6656 (589x640)

… and this cholla cactus, already familiar to regular readers from the blog I wrote about a visit to the Cholla Garden in Joshua Tree National Park at the link above.

Cholla flower Brad Nixon 6621 (640x480)

It’s that attractive little Teddy Bear Cholla cactus that is the source of today’s lesson. It’s precisely what I warned about in the article I wrote. I said, “Those spines are extremely sharp and will easily pierce your clothing and then your skin with extreme prejudice.”

There I was, veteran of a hundred desert hikes. I know not to put my hand over a rock when I’m climbing a steep trail, because there might be a snake there. I know to watch where I step, and keep an eye on where I’m going, because there are all sorts of unfriendly things in wild places.

But, absorbed in getting an extremely close-up shot of a tiny desert flower blooming amidst the gravel of the wash, I folded one leg under me, turning one foot to the side to lower myself into a squat.


I rolled my shoe over a tiny cholla. Here’s the result:

Cactus spines Brad Nixon 6647 (640x572)

With my full weight on my foot, those spines pierced the leather of the shoe and then the foot inside the shoe. My foot.

The problem wasn’t simply pain (although I noticed pain). The challenge was finding a way to pull the darned thing out without filling my hand with cholla spines, too. There’s nothing to grasp except more spines.

Removing spines Marcy Vincent 7347 (640x532)

It’s embarrassing to give advice and then get injured when ignoring it. Well, at least I listened to one piece of Mom’s advice: I was wearing clean socks.

I eventually just yanked the shoe off, which removed the spines from my foot, and folded up a page from a handy little pocket notebook all writers carry (The Counselor, in this case) to use as a “glove” and extracted the spines from the leather upper, one at a time. You’d be impressed by how far they penetrated.

Lesson Learned (?)

So, hikers, take a tip from the canny ol’ veteran of desert places. Watch where the heck you’re putting your body parts out there. Things that grow in harsh lands have ingenious and effective ways of defending themselves.

Oh, the picture I was shooting? Um, not worth it. I was distracted by something.

I’ll be back with more Anza-Borrego landscapes, flora (and fauna) in less painful circumstances as the week progresses. At least I don’t have any rattlesnake bites to report.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Shot of Brad © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google.



  1. I knew it couldn’t be fatal or you’d not have written the story – but I was waiting for you to describe the venomous snake you disturbed and so was pleasantly surprised I was wrong about that.
    I hope your foot is better now, best wishes!


    • It’s not like trekking in Australia, where every ten meters or so you pass another poisonous snake, each one more venomous than the last. Or so I understand.


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