The Conn Diagonal, Custer State Park, South Dakota.Photo by Andrew Burr
I lashed myself to the summit of the Needles Eye and glanced at the sky. Dark clouds swirled and spun. A mighty wall of wind and water surged toward us like a rogue wave. I pulled up the rope and shouted. “Hurry, Paul.”
The oncoming storm cast a shadow that chased the warmth from the day. Paul crab walked across the summit as cold winds pulled at our T-shirts. Goose bumps riddled my bare arms.
The bottom of the thunderhead churned like boiling gruel. Lightning and thunder blazed making us rush to set the rappel. The down drafts punched into us carrying raindrops the size of small lakes. We were drenched by the time we escaped the lightning rod summit and retreated into the safety of Paul’s battered International Scout.
“Give it your best shot, God.” Paul shouted out the window.
Thunder rattled the metal doors and hailstones pelted the hood of the truck. I wondered about Paul’s irreverence. Secretly, I felt superstitious about openly taunting God. Eight years of Catholic grade school had cured me of any inclination I might have had toward organized religion. But I wasn’t ready to say that God didn’t exist. I imagined a giant hand wielding a hammer and crushing both of us like a bug.
“Easy,” I said, “You don’t want to piss him off.”
“We have an agreement, Pete. These are my Needles. I control the weather here,” Paul laughed, lit a cigarette and blew puffs of white smoke at the windshield. I opened the window a crack.
Only Paul could get away with a comment like that. He was tall and strapping, a seven-year veteran of the Special Forces. When Paul spoke people listened. Hailstones the size of small marbles cracked against the metal of the truck. “I’m not sure God heard you.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “You might be right.” Standing on the gas he raced the truck down Needles Highway.
We flew into the parking lot of the cafeteria and lurched to a stop under a massive pine tree. The tree gave the truck some protection against the icy projectiles that threatened to dimple the truck body. Paul and I were out of the truck in a flash. Hail the size of nickels, left welts on our heads as we scrambled under the eves of the cafeteria. We aimed to sit on the bench that ran the length of the building and watch the storm.
Evidently we weren’t the only ones interested in sitting out the storm on the bench. A stream of tourists hurried from a bus with a banner that read Alabama Evangelical Christians. They wore black T-shirts with “God Listens,” stenciled in white.
We squeezed onto the bench adjacent to a large ponderosa pine tree. They stared at us. We definitely didn’t fit the mold of pasty white skin and early onset diabetes. Everything in their look said we needed to be saved. “Come join the flock.”
Just then a bolt of lightning smashed down on Photographers Point, a tall spire a few hundred yards from the cafeteria. The yellow flash and the bang were barely a second apart.
“That’s it, God. Give it all you got.” Paul shouted. He took a long draw on his cigarette and laughed away the smoke.
The Almighty’s answer came immediately, a flash and a bang together. The sound and light meshed into one great calamity and the tree, not three feet from where we sat, exploded.
We dove off the bench onto the flagstone as a jagged strip of bark and splinters blew into the parking lot. The smell of burnt wood and ozone assaulted my senses.
“That was close,” I said. We pushed ourselves off the flagstone and stood up. I picked a piece of bark from the tangle of my fro. Paul brushed singed wood chips from his T-shirt.
Angry murmurs came from the crowd. Heads turned our way. Their eyes crucified us. Several of the enlightened made a dash for the inside of the cafeteria. They fled like fleas off a dead rat. I heard someone yell, “Find mother.”
“I guess I better tone it down some.” Paul gave me a subdued look.
I raised my eyebrows. “Maybe so,” I said. “That was a bit too close.” The thing was, I actually wondered about the timing of the blast. The lightning strike had followed his blaspheme immediately. Was it an accident of nature or intentional?
The storm intensified. Now curtains of hail and rain flooded the grounds. Watery ice piled up four inches thick and streams of water flowed down the highway. The storm was a true high plains thumper.
As the storm raged, I thought about God and the lightning strike. Was the blasted tree a sign of his wrath?
After a while the sky began to brighten and the hail and rain gave over to the afternoon sun. The evangelicals filed onto their bus in a long line, some glancing nervously over their shoulders at us.
At the end of the line an old lady wrapped in a black shawl fixed us with her dark eyes and waved a crooked finger. I gave Paul a look and noticed he was watching her too. When I looked back the old woman had disappeared onto the bus.
* * *
The next day Paul and I went in search of a set of spires called Beecher’s Balls. I studied an old faded topographical map as we motored through forested ranchlands south of Custer, South Dakota. An X had been placed in the center of a wavy circle of contour lines. Penciled arrows led off the highway following a network of dirt roads and tracks.
“Beecher’s Balls?” I asked Paul in amazement. “Did Beecher really name the pinnacles after his balls?”
Paul laughed. “I’ve no idea how the spires came to be named.”
“This should be the road,” I pointed to an obvious fork just past a couple of old cabins.
Paul followed the cut-off to the left and we emerged into a large clearing where we had an unobstructed view of the spires. We both leaned into the windshield slack-jawed.
“I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch,” said Paul. “If that ain’t the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
About fifty yards from the truck, a pair of rocks shot one hundred feet into the sky. The two pillars arched away from one another, forming bulbous summits. They made a perfect picture of two testicles. Mother nature had created an enormous sculpture of a human scrotum. We had found Beecher’s Balls.
We parked the truck in the shade of a nearby tree and organized our gear. “Two spires. Two leads. Which one you want, Paul?”
“I’ll take the right nut.”
The spire on the right was taller. Not that it mattered. Both routes started in the shady corridor between the pinnacles and followed cracks and folds leading to the summit of each.
I stacked the rope and readied the belay while Paul booted up. In a few moments he started climbing. Paul moved up and right into the sunlight. It took him about 20 minutes to reach the top. “Off belay,” he called.
Paul hauled in the line quickly tugging on my waist. I rushed to finish tying my shoes and stepped on to the rock. “Climbing,” I shouted.
“Climb away,” he answered. “Storm’s coming,’ Pete.”
I glanced at the sky and saw white clouds streaming over the top of the spire. “How much time we got?”
“Hard to tell. Don’t worry. We’ll get em both done.”
I climbed quickly, reached the summit, and surveyed the sky. A tall grey juggernaut obscured the western horizon. The bottom of the thunderhead was flat like a table and appeared nearly black contrasted against the bright sun. Lightning lanced down with the regularity of a machine gun. The storm surged toward us.
I untied from the rope and we hurried to set the rappel. I felt anxious about the impending storm. Adrenalin made my fingers tingle and I thought about the lightning strike back at the cafeteria. On the ground we reorganized the gear and I started up the left pinnacle.
The climb followed a gentle trough that steepened near the upper end split by several cracks. Near the top I peered into a portion of the crack that widened appreciably, surprised to see a pack rat the size of a small cat peering back at me. He had a kind face with bright eyes and he seemed to be grinning.
Small pieces of metal, old cans, and beer tops were placed here and there. His prize possession was a silver karabiner. I wondered where he found the karabiner. “Where did you find the karabiner?” The rat cocked his head, but remained mute. Not that I expected him to answer me. I looked back down the rock. It was thin and steep. I doubted he’d climbed the spire with a karabiner in his mouth.
On the other hand, maybe another climber had left the karabiner on top. It would have been easy for the rat to carry it down here to the crack. The rumble of thunder brought me back to reality. The first hints of high winds began swishing the tops of the trees. I gave the rat a nod and climbed to the top of the spire.
“Off belay,” I yelled. “Check out the rat in the crack when you come up.”
“Hell with the rat. Put me on belay.”
Admonished, I rushed to secure Paul. The rope went slack as fast as I could hauled it in. He raced up the climb to the beat of thunder.
The first of the down drafts slammed through the trees as Paul arrived on the summit. The sky turned pea green. We were the highest point for miles in every direction. Lightning lased from the base of the thunderhead with deadly precision. We needed to get the heck off this thing. Paul ran across the summit.
“Crazy fuckin rat’s in for a shock,” Paul laughed.
Paul studied the sky while I threaded the rope through the anchor. Raindrops pelted the top of the spire as we were battered by a gale. Paul grabbed the anchor and I leaned into the wind gripping the rappel line.
“Batten down the hatches.” I tossed the rope off the spire.
The rappel line shot straight out from the spire and rode the wind like a kite. A tree a few hundred yards away disintegrated into yellow flames and smoke. Blue sparks jumped from the steel bolts on the anchor arcing with the karabiners hanging off my gear sling. I pushed the rope towards Paul and he hooked on his rappel device. He levered back over the edge and shook his fist at the sky.
“Go for it, God.” Paul’s ever-present cigarette flamed bright orange as he dropped into the void.
Just then the rat loped across the top of the spire at a full sprint…straight at me. His tongue wagged from the side of his mouth—a grin of fear etched on his face. His eyes locked mine. Where’s he going? I scoped the edge—it’s completely overhanging. No escape. Maybe he wants to ride down with me?
I’ll never know for sure because just as the rat leapt, the mother of all gusts hit the spire and the rat flew past me. A bright flash pulled my attention back to the trees.
A few hundred feet away another tree burst into splinters and flame. No time to waste. I cast off into the abyss and rushed to the ground, burning the skin of my brake hand. I hit the ground, unclipped from the rope, and ran toward the forest as the first lightning strike lased the top of Beecher’s Balls.
I leapt into the wet duff as another strike smote the family jewels. There is absolutely no truth to the idea that lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
Pushing up on my knees, I found the rat. He lay in the duff on his back—dead. Killed by the big drop.
“Poor son-of-a-bitch.” Paul shook his head and ran for the truck.
Now the rain came—a downright full-on deluge.
I knelt near the rodent and ignored the rain. I felt a kinship with the rat. We both liked high places. I wondered why he hadn’t just stayed in his crack. Perhaps he knew the lightning would reach him there.
Reaching around I retrieved my good-luck karabiner off the back of my harness and laid it next to the rat. “At least you went out with a prize.” I turned the rat on his side and moved his front claws so they gripped the silver karabiner.
I hesitated a bit longer and then sprinted to the truck. We waited out the storm and then went back and retrieved our rope.
As we rattled down the dirt road headed for town, we were surprised to see a figure walking along the side of the road. The person seemed to be ambling between the driveways of the two old cabins. Paul stopped and rolled down his window.
The folds of a dark shawl hid her face and a withered hand gripped a wooden walking stick. She turned slightly; ebony eyes stared at us from a leathery face. Her tenuous smile revealed missing teeth. I sensed something unreal and mysterious about her. My stomach tightened as I realized where I’d seen her before. Was this the woman from the bus? Common sense said it couldn’t be.
But her eyes said different, her voice came raspy and raw and had a power in it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Dem rocks is where Beecher the preacher man raped a girl. You two boys was lucky. You don’ wanna be around dem rocks in a storm cause the Almighty has a thing about this place. It’s as if dat devil Beecher’s still around…his spirit’s trapped here…an th Lord sends in the juice jus to be sure he’s punished…an you’ll be fried as sure as I stand here today. An you,” she said wagging a finger at Paul, “you be watchin that mouth.”
I thought about the lightning strike at the cafeteria…and the close call today. I thought about the rat and Beecher the preacher man, and Paul raising his fist at God.
I watched the old lady in the rearview mirror as we pulled away in the truck. I glanced at Paul. His cigarette danced a nervous jig back and forth across his mouth. I looked in the mirror. The woman was gone…vanished…the road behind us…empty. I’d only looked away for a second. How could this be? I gazed out the back window of the truck.
“She’s gone.” I whispered.
“What?” My question seemed to wake Paul from a dream. “Who?”
“The old lady. She’s gone.”
Paul looked in the mirror and slammed on the brakes. “Jesuuus Chirst.” His cigarette waggled up and down.
His eyes fixed on mine and silence permeated the truck except for the rumble of the motor.
We laughed. We laughed so hard tears streamed down our faces.
“We ain’t never sayin’ a word about this to nobody, Pete.”
“No. Never.” I agreed.
Paul put the truck in gear and we lurched off to town. In the years that followed our climb on Beecher’s Balls, I never heard Paul shout at God ever again.