It started with an innocent post in a Facebook group, asking about safety at an American national monument on the Mexican border. I’d read accounts of drug activity, illegal border crossings, and even murder, so I wanted to see what others had experienced at this park – and quite frankly, I wanted to know if it was dangerous. It was going to be a three-hour drive for me, and I wanted to be informed so I could be intelligent about how I spent my time. And, as a woman travelling alone, I wanted to know up front what the risks were, and how I should prepare.
Most of the feedback was inane, but one woman got in my virtual face with her attitude. She stated that I shouldn’t let paranoia get in my way and that she camped alone all the time. I didn’t appreciate the criticism; after all, I was just trying to educate myself. But she kept at it, on the verge of name-calling. It made me wonder if I, indeed, was being a big chicken.
Despite all that, I decided to invite a friend to travel with me. Since I am a photographer (as well as a writer), it is much easier for me to photograph while driving… if someone else is doing the driving. Plus I planned on doing a bunch of night photography, and I felt it was safer for me to have someone nearby while doing that in remote areas.
Little did I know that danger would not come from getting the car stuck off-roading, or drug-runners, or being approached at night. It would originate from the unlikeliest of sources: a loose rock.
While hiking atop New Mexico’s “Outlaw Rock” in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, I lost my footing. The ridge was narrow, and it didn’t occur to me that I could end up falling – sliding even – 750 feet down. What did occur to me – as I was falling forward in slow motion – was that my big, professional, and a very expensive lens was about to hit the rocky terrain. So, I instinctively twisted my body to force a landing on my side and back, sparing my camera equipment the brunt of the blow. When I smacked the ground, I hit hard, and something wasn’t right. My left shoulder had been penetrated, many times. I didn’t even have to look – I realised immediately, and in an oddly calm fashion, that I’d fallen on a cactus. My first thought was, “I don’t have a comb with me.” As strange as that may sound, a comb is something that the National Park Service recommends one carry in a desert hiking kit because it makes removing cactus needles easier work. My second thought was, “I hope that’s not a cholla.” (Cholla have backward-facing barbs, and entire arms of the plant can lodge themselves into you.)
My travel partner was by my side instantaneously; frankly, I was impressed. I looked up at him and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I’ve landed on a cactus.” He pulled me up and proceeded to remove the needles from my back. I imagined I must have resembled a porcupine with mange.
I was very lucky – I was merely bruised from my knee up to my hip, and I hadn’t tumbled down the side of the hill. Theoretically, the cactus saved me from that.
As we hiked back down the precariously steep hillside, I could feel the wind cooling the blood that was oozing from my shoulder. The ache was immense and happily distracted me from all the loose rock and the fact that I could have tumbled down again with any misstep.
Besides the blood, the bruising, the welts, and the pain, this mess-up created a great memory for me. The OMDP Park was gorgeous and was worth every minute of it. Despite the fact no one else finds the cactus portion of the story humorous, I do. And I will always recall it fondly.
However, upon returning home, I came to realise: What if I had let that woman bully me and had decided to travel alone? Would I have even attempted to climb Outlaw Rock? Would I have fallen on that cactus, alone, with no one to help me? How would I have driven myself out of there with a back full of cactus needles? And to where? To a local store (the nearest was about twenty minutes away, mostly over bumpy dirt road), or to a hospital? It put things in a completely new perspective for me.
None of us tends to consider our mortality unless it’s thrown in our faces. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these things can’t happen. They do, and it did. But for now, anyway, I’m still invincible.