Disclaimer: The following story contains strong language and blasphemy that some may consider offensive. I give the story an R rating. Read it at your own risk.
I lashed myself to the summit of the Needles Eye and glanced at the dark clouds roiling in the sky. The super cell surged toward us like a rogue wave. I heaved on the rope pulling it up as fast as I could and called down to my climbing partner, Paul Muehl, and urged him to hurry.
We were on a binge to climb twenty spires in one day but the weather looked grim and I was guessing that we’d have to try again the next day. We were swinging leads on the classic roadside spires and had just finished climbing Super Pin which Paul had lead in unlaced tennis shoes. I grit my teeth now remembering how his heels had risen out of the backs of his shoes on every move. Afterwards we’d motored up the highway to the Needles Eye where I’d just finished leading the Fenton route that took a line up the steepest part of the face.
The rope pulled easily as Paul sprinted up the route. A minute later he crab walked across the summit as the first massive down drafts tore at our T-shirts. We turned our faces up toward the sky to see the bottom of the thunderhead which churned like boiling gruel. Lightning and thunder blazed and the wind punched into us with raindrops the size of small lakes. We were drenched by the time we set foot on the ground and retreated into Paul’s battered International Scout.
Thunder boomed, lightning flashed. The light and the bang were united in one concussive roar that rattled the windows in the truck and jolted us against the seats. “Holy Fuck!” I shouted.
Paul rolled down his window and thrust his fist into the rain. “Give it your best shot, God!” shaking his middle finger at the sky before withdrawing his arm and rolling up the window.
We laughed. There was something in the tone of his voice and the shear audacity of the godless taunt that always made me crack up—he cussed about the weather all the time. But deep down I felt a certain uneasiness about the way Paul uttered such blasphemy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not religious. Eight years of Catholic grade school had cured me of any inclination I might have had towards organized religion but I wasn’t ready to give God the finger. There was no reason to give up any karma especially since we were risking our lives everyday on the sparsely protected Needles climbs. I figured I needed every piece of luck I could get if I was to survive the summer without being killed or maimed.
“Holy shit, man.” I said. “Go easy with that business.”
Paul set his dark eyes on mine and lit another cigarette. “God and I have an agreement, Pete” he said, blowing a lungful of smoke at the window. “These are my fucking Needles!”
They sure as hell were his fucking Needles. Paul was a tall and strapping Special Forces veteran and trainer of the South Dakota Highway Patrol. He had an aura about him, a way of taking charge of situations just by virtue of his presence. A park ranger had once approached us in this very parking area as we were preparing to climb the Fan in the moonlight and informed us that climbing at night was against the rules. Paul backed the poor guy into his truck and said, “These are my fucking Needles and if I want to climb at night then I fucking well, will!”
We later heard that the head ranger had told the subordinate that Paul could do whatever he wanted in the park which by extension meant that those of us that fell within his circle could as well. Yet I doubted that Paul could hold sway over God. Just then, as I mulled these thoughts over in my mind, hailstones the size of snake eyes cracked against the hood of the truck. “Its getting worse,” I said. “I think you pissed God off.”
“Jesus Christ,” he nodded, “Maybe I did.”
Paul backed the Scout up and raced down Needles Highway toward the Sylvan Lake cafeteria our favorite haunt which catered to the many Needles tourists.
We lurched into the cafeteria parking lot and slid to a stop under a massive pine tree. The tree gave the truck some protection against the hail that now threatened to dimple the truck body. Paul and I scrambled out of the Scout and settled under the eves of the cafeteria to wait out the storm on a bench that ran the full length of the building ending at another giant pine towering over the eating establishment.
A moment later a bus motored into the parking area and halted in front of the cafeteria steps. A banner on the side of the bus read: Alabama Evangelical Christians or something like that. There was a blast of thunder as the bus disgorged its load of disciples all dressed in black T-shirts with “God Listens,” stenciled in white across the front of their shirts.They milled about under the eves of the cafeteria and some of them squeezed onto the bench next to us. Paul and I occupied the end of the bench closest to the pine tree.
The evangelicals smelled of sweat, Doritos and gum masked by a fresh application of deodorant. We, on the other hand, must have looked like bums in our ratty T-shirts and stained carhartts and to make matters worse I’m certain we smelled like a couple of wet dogs. When I glanced sideways I caught the eyes of a large man wearing a golden cross on a sliver chain. Everything in his look said that he wanted to save us—come join the flock.
And that’s when a bolt of lightning blasted the top of Photographers Peak a few hundred yards from the cafeteria—the flash and the bang were barely a second apart. It rattled the cafe windows and vibrated the bench that we were sitting on.
Paul didn’t hesitate. “That’s it, God. Give it all you got you fucker!” He raised his middle finger to the sky.
Looking back, I know that part of the reason he said what he said was for effect-he wanted to shock the evangelicals. Yet their presence near us mattered not because this was his standard operating procedure.
Then came a flash and a bang together. The sound and light meshed into one giant concussive boom and the tree, not three feet from where we sat, exploded. Bark and splinters blew across the patio as we dove onto the flagstone. The smell of burnt wood and ozone assaulted my senses and hung like mist all around us. Heads turned our way. Angry murmurs erupted from the crowd. The evangelicals dashed inside the cafeteria. Someone shouted, “Find mother!”
“That was close,” I said, as I pushed up off the ground and stood up. I picked a piece of bark out of my hair and shook wood chips from my shirt.
Paul brushed some sawdust off his arms. He frowned. “I guess I better tone it down some.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I think so,” I said. “That was fucking close.”
As the storm failed into the evening the evangelicals boarded their bus. Some of them glanced over their shoulders at us shaking their heads. Adjacent to the doorway of the bus was an elderly woman in a grey, knit sweater who seemed to be silently counting heads as the flock stepped up inside the motor coach. She possessed an air of ownership of the group and I wondered absently if this was the “mother” someone had called for right after the lightning blast. I gave Paul a look and noticed he was watching her too. When I turned back she had disappeared onto the bus.
* * *
A few days later Paul and I went in search of a set of spires called Beecher’s Balls several miles south of Custer. I studied an old, faded topographical map as we drove through the forested ranch lands along a dirt road. 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 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, abandoned cabins.
Paul followed the junction to the left and we emerged into a wide clearing where we had an unobstructed view of the spires. We both leaned into the windshield slack-jawed.
About fifty yards from the truck, a pair of spires shot one hundred feet into the sky. The two pillars arched away from one another, forming bulbous summits that were a perfect picture of two testicles. Mother nature had created an enormous sculpture of a human scrotum. We had found Beecher’s Balls.
“I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch,” said Paul. “If that ain’t the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“No shit,” I said.
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 15 minutes to reach the top. “Off belay,” he called.
In a moment the slack in the rope was pulled up and the line tugged against 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. Just get your ass up here.”
I climbed quickly, reached the summit, and surveyed the sky. A tall grey juggernaut obscured the western horizon. The black bottom of the thunderhead was flat like a table which contrasted with the white plumes that rose into the anvil that seemed as high as space itself. Lightning lanced down from the bottom of the thunderhead with the regularity of a machine gun as the storm marched toward us.
I untied from the rope and we hurried to set the rappel. Adrenalin made my fingers tingle and I thought about the lightning strike back at the cafeteria and wondered…retribution? 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 a crack. Near the summit I peered into the crack and was surprised to see a pack rat the size of a small cat peering back at me. He had a kind face with shiny black eyes and he seemed to be grinning. Small pieces of metal, an empty Skoal can, and beer tops were placed here and there inside his crack house. His prize possession, however, was a silver carabiner. “Where did you find the carabiner?” I asked the rat.
In answer he cocked his head, wiggled his nose. I looked down the rock face. It was thin and steep. I doubted that he’d climbed the spire with a carabiner in his mouth. More likely he brought it down from the top. A rumble of thunder brought me back to reality as the first hints of high winds began tugging at the tops of the trees. I gave the rat a nod and climbed to the top of the spire. Another clap of thunder spurred me to action.
“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 haul it in. He raced up the climb to the regular beat of thunder.
The first of the down drafts slammed into us as Paul arrived on the summit. The sky had turned pea green. Beecher’s Balls were the highest point for twenty miles in every direction and lightning blazed 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 the shock of his life,” Paul laughed.
Paul leaned into the wind while I threaded the rope through the anchor. Raindrops pelted us like bits of sharp glass as we were battered by the gale. And then a massive gust hit us coming in horizontally along the tops of the trees taking our voices away as it rushed off into the void.
Hanging on the anchor I tossed the rope off the spire. The rappel line shot straight out from the summit surfing on the wind. A tree a few hundred yards away took a direct lightning strike and disintegrated into yellow flames and smoke. Blue sparks jumped from the steel bolts on the anchor arcing with the carabiners hanging off our gear slings. I pushed the rope towards Paul and he hooked on his rappel device. He levered his body over the edge and shook his fist at the sky. “Go for it, God.” And then he dropped into the abyss.
Just then the rat loped across the top of the spire straight toward me. His tongue wagged from the side of his mouth—a grin of fear etched on his face. His eyes locked with mine and I thought, 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 just as another bright flash erupted in the trees. No time to waste. I cast off into the abyss and zoomed down the ropes. I hit the ground, unclipped from the line, and leapt for the forest floor as lightning smote the family jewels. Pushing up on my knees, I found the rat. He lay in the duff on his back—dead.
“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 ignoring the water streaming off my nose. I felt a kinship with the rat. We both liked high places. I wondered why he hadn’t just stayed in his crack house. Perhaps he knew the lightning would find him there.
I reached around to the back of my harness and retrieved my good-luck carabiner and laid it next to the rat. “At least you went out with a prize.” Then I turned the rat on his side and moved his front claws so they gripped the silver carabiner. I hesitated a bit longer and then sprinted to the truck.
We waited out the storm and then went back and pulled down the rope.
As we rattled down the dirt road headed for town, we were surprised to see a woman in a grey sweater and a black scarf walking along the side of the road toward us. The person seemed to be making her way between the driveways of the two old cabins which seemed odd to me. The cabins were run down, the roofs were falling in, both long abandoned. As we approached she halted and looked straight at our truck. I thought she looked familiar as if I’d seen her before but I couldn’t remember where. Paul stopped and rolled down his window.
When she put her hand up to smooth the scarf and uncovered some of her grey hair I realized that she was the woman from the bus! Ebony eyes stared at us from her heavily creased face. Her lips were turned downward in a frown. My stomach tightened when she spoke in a tone that seemed to carry a power in it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “You two boys are lucky to still be alive. Those rocks are where Beecher the Preacher raped a girl. Legend has it he was lynched there. He was the devil, you know,” she said, a questioning look in her eyes. “And you,” she said, pointing a finger at Paul. “You be watchin’ that mouth of yours and remember: wicked men die of their sins.”
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 shaking his fist at God.
I watched the lady in the rear-view mirror as we pulled away. Then I glanced at Paul for a moment. His cigarette danced 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 wrenched my head around and gazed out the back window of the truck.
“She’s gone.” I whispered.
“What?” Paul asked. He seemed to wake from a dream. “Who?”
“The woman. She’s gone.”
Paul looked in the mirror and slammed on the brakes. “Jesuuus Chirst.”
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 fuckin’ word about this to nobody, Pete.”
“No. Never.” I agreed.
In the years that followed Paul never raised his fist to god again.
Postscript: Everything described in this story happened except for the lady in the grey sweater with the black scarf. I added her to bring out the dark vibes of those two days of climbing and to accentuate Paul’s character.
The lightning blasts were somewhat exaggerated but the strike on the tree at the cafeteria and Beechers Balls happened as described.
Yea. the rat was real. I’ll never forget him flying by me, carried away by the wind.
In the early 1900s there was a preacher that raped a woman near the pinnacles that came to be known as Beechers Balls. The two spires are also called Kens Pins.