Beggar’s Lice and Cat-Briar; or, Don’t Take the Short Cut!

See that mass of green below the barn?  That's where we were hiking.

See that mass of green below the barn? That’s where we were hiking.

No, no, no!  How many times have I told you never, never, ever to take the short cut?  It never turns out to be the shorter way, always the long way around, and bound to be fraught with dangers unknown.

Yes, I know we had that premonition:  there will be a locust tree down across the path a few metres around that bend, and so there was.  It didn’t look like much to climb over from here, but when we got up closer it was clearly covered with the new red shoots of poison ivy vines: no chance of crawling over THAT.  And we certainly did not want our little Noga in her six-inch winter Lhasa Apso coat clambering over a poison ivy covered log, did we?  Out of the question.

Poison Ivy Vines Winter

Poison Ivy Vines are Hairy

Now for the map.  By the landmarks, of which there were plenty, we were a quarter mile from the car on the loop trail through the old apple orchard.  This part of the trail had left the green lanes of the working orchard terraces and dipped down into the wooded side of the mountain, right on the spine of the Blue Ridge.  Table Rock Mountain was in clear view to the north-east.  Just below us on the slope was the CSX railroad grade.  We had an hour of sun before it would dip below the horizon.

We could have just turned around at that point and followed the damn trail back where it came from.  But that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it?  So instead we looked up-hill toward the working orchard and found that there were maybe two or three terraces that had been left to go back to nature, which in this part of the country means getting filled up with cat-briars and multiflora rose.  But there were clear game trails, where the deer and other citizens of the forest made their way up the mountainside.

So up we clambered, digging our sneaker toes into the damp mossy bank, getting hand-holds in places that turned out to be briars more often than not, and getting stabbed and cut up in the first thirty seconds.  Well, that was brilliant, wasn’t it?  The deer have fur and thick hides to protects them from this cutlery growing out of the earth. And now we are standing on the first terrace, in a sea of briar canes sporting thorns the size of our head, and where do we think we are going from here?  Down?  I think not.  We are not that easily stymied.  Onward and upward is the only way!  But how the hell are we going to get through this sea of thorns to that next game trail, seen dimly through the thicket?

Ouch! Ouch!

Ouch! Ouch!

Bushwhack!  Is how.  Pull the sleeves of our fleece over our hands, since we didn’t bring gloves, the day being warm and not having anticipated that we’d end up wrestling around in a sea of briar canes.  So we did, and pushing the canes and twining tangles of cats’claw briar aside (getting slashed bloody in the process) at last arrived at the next game trail, which was clearly steeper than the first one, and slicker, and muddier, and not as nice.  And where is little Noga?  Gamely pushing her way through at floor level.  There’s a champ, what a good dog.

Noga, warm and dry

Noga, warm and dry

Tackling the second game trail requires going on hands and knees, being nearly vertical.  Time to lay aside our pride now, since we have clearly made the wrong decision.  Panting and cursing, we arrive at the top of the second terrace, and looking upwards we are gravely disappointed to see that this is definitely not much nearer to where we wanted to be.  Turning to look down from whence we’ve come, it is all the more clear that going down is NOT an option.  The briars and rose bushes are all growing in the upwards direction, toward the sun, as plants are wont to do, stabbing sharp fingers in the direction of our eyes.  So if we thought we’d had some fun tangling with them going UP, the idea of trying to fight our way DOWN through them without a machete or, better, a chain saw, brought to mind a picture I’d once seen of a hapless sparrow that had been spitted on a spike of an acacia tree by a shrike.  No, we are now firmly committed.  We check the sun again.

A Shrike Impales its Dinner

A Shrike Impales its Dinner

The irony of the situation is that we happen to be certified Wilderness Search-and-Rescue workers, who know how people get lost and how they behave when they discover that they are lost.  We have to know “lost person behavior” so that we will know where to look for them, or for their dead bodies :(.  We remember with a remorseful grimace that 90% of lost-in-the-woods fatalities are found within one mile of their car.  We squeeze out a grim smile and turn uphill.  The main thing is to remain calm, and to avoid going in circles, which is what often happens to people who are lost in the woods.  Luckily we know where we are, and where we want to end up: it’s a matter of getting there in one piece, and before the sun sets.  Freezing rain is predicted for tonight.  So let’s find that next game trail and get our increasingly tired arse up it.

This one wasn’t so bad, except that as we were clambering on hands and toes we could not help but notice the thick viney roots covered with hairy tendrils that criss-crossed the bank.  Damn it, poison ivy.  That was the entire reason we had taken this blasted short cut in the first place!  And now the dog, the wonderful hairy dog, was scampering right up through the thick of it, giving herself a good coating of urushiol, the nasty oil that binds to your skin and causes weeks of red blistering itching misery.  Great.

Ouch, Itch, Ouch

A Terrible Case of Poison Ivy!

This terrace wasn’t as wild as the others, but it wasn’t home either.  It took two more slithers up game trails to hit the lane that led back to the orchard barn, and the car.  By that time one of us was exhausted and dragging.  The other was frisking about wagging her tail, ready to do it again.

She wasn’t so pleased when we had to spend an hour picking beggar’s lice out of her fur upon our return home.  These sticky triangular seed pods are also called “hitch-hikers,” but we prefer to call them beggar’s lice, because our beggar is so poor that she can’t even afford real lice, but must crawl through thickets of briar and cat’s-claw to get hers.

Beggar's lice a.k.a. hitchhikers

Beggar’s lice a.k.a. hitchhikers

Maybe now we’ll remember not to take the short cut….

Photo credits: Creative Commons, except for the thorn tree which is pxleyes, and the one of Noga, which is mine!

Leave a comment


  1. Marc DeFourny

     /  February 25, 2013

    I enjoyed the story because I experienced something similar when I was a teenager and fled a work site and found myself full of thorns.

  2. I enjoyed the story finding myself in a similar situation as a teenager escaping from a work site.

    • Wow,now my curious mind wants to know why you were fleeing. Is that something you can share?

      • As Teenager my mother sent me to work at a friend building an extension on his house.I had to move mud in a wheelbarrel to field near by. Lots of slurpy mud or muck. I took over my mud encrusted boots and took off. I found in my escape a briar patch with no shoes , I got caught fleeing but I got the rest day off by breaking down and crying how ad the mud detail is. I was about fourteen.

  3. Ugh, that sounds like slavery. Not a good way to introduce a youngster to work. My first job at twelve was taking care of five little kids. Luckily they were good kids. At fourteen my job was finishing wood for the interior of a room in a museum. Very dusty but I was proud that everyone would see my work, even though they didn’t know it was mine. In between those jobs–mucking out horse stalls! Pitchfork, shovel and wheelbarrow….but not mud, only horse sh*t! I don’t blame you for running off into the briar patch.


What's your take?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: