Black Canyon Mountain Lion
Koji A. Dae
© Copyright 2019 by Koji A. Dae
The Tucson desert exists in a strange state between wild and cultivated. A fine coat of dust covers the cities and wild washes run through their concrete to mitigate the monsoon floods. Citizens are as likely to find a scorpion or rattlesnake in their home as a household pet. Yet the land between the cities is so sparse in vegetation and packed hard, it difficult to say where the cities ended and wilderness began.
In my twenties I ached for something pure and natural. The adolescent need for wilderness burned in me. I needed something real and tangible after years of abstract thought in educational institutions. I joined a conservation corps, hoping to touch the wilderness and settle my soul.
But even working in conservation, I rarely experienced a state of wilderness. Most of our projects involved mitigating signs of humanity — picking up the piles of clothes, backpacks, and water jugs illegal immigrants left behind or sorting out braided trails from hikers who have wandered. It's hard to see the world as wild while laying asphalt in a national park or stepping out of the way of a hundred visitors a day while trimming a trail.
A few assignments touched the wilderness more than others: falling sick trees on top of a mountain or cutting a new trail after traveling off-road for an hour. This, and the delicious pie in the nearby city, made cutting a new trail in Black Canyon a coveted project. The trail was part of the Arizona Trail, a path from northern tip to southern border that cut through the most beautiful wilderness Arizona offered. A National Park Service contact managed the Black Canyon section, and he carefully laid trail following the curving slope of the land. It was the kind of sweeping trail that was a pleasure to dig out. For nine hours a day, we followed his pink pin flags with picks, mattocks, rock bars, and Macleods to create the perfect gradient for what would become a leisurely hike for future users. The aching hands and a sore back were worth the solitude and satisfying exhaustion that came with cutting a new trail.
Sighting various desert creatures broke up the monotonous swinging of a pick or carrying away chunks of rock. A whip scorpion, unearthed in a crack, might cause a moment of pause and admiration. The long black pinchers and slim body gave me a reason to lean on the wooden handle of my tool and sip from my Nalgene.
A bigger rarity, like a gila monster sunning its pink-splotched, leathery body, might garner a call from the person who found it so we could gather around and watch its slow movement.
On one of our final hitches of the season, both leadership crews were rewarded with a co-assignment to Black Canyon. Fourteen of us, two large vans, two inventory tents, and several personal tents created a significant encampment for the two-week period. It also created an air of festivity. We were ready to work hard during the blistering days and trade stories of the season at night.
One day, a storm whipped up at the end of the workday. We cached our tools beneath tarps to keep them dry and hiked two miles back to camp, racing the gray clouds rolling in from the southeast. We lost and ended up picking our way down slippery rocks as the clouds let loose on us.
The storm raged, forcing a quick dinner and a retreat to our personal tents for the evening. The four girls zipped ourselves into a single tent to play cards.
Body odor, wet clothes, and the dirt that had seeped in our boots or deep into our skin must have created a stench that would send the average girl running for the latrine. But the filth didn't bother us, and the smell had become such a part of us that our noses ignored it. We huddled close on top of mats and sleeping bags in need of laundering.
We played a silly game with various dares on each card. The storm stopped, leaving a cool wetness around the cramped tent, but we kept playing. Between laughter, we heard a sound that stopped our motion. It came from a ways off at first — past the girls' camp, the main camp, and the boys' tents. A safe distance. The faint but clear sound of wailing ripped through the storm-washed canyon.
We stopped our laughter and chatter and exchanged glances.
"Bobcat?" one girl asked. But even from far away the sound held too much strength to come from the small body of a bobcat. The bobcat also had a wailing cry, but one more like the whine of a baby, making you want to rush out and cuddle it. This sound sent a chill down my spine and did not invoke the need to wrap my arms around the owner of the voice.
We played another turn. Two. The scream sounded again, this time nearer, in the main camp, no longer separated from us by the boys' tents. I clenched my jaw against the wail. I didn't want to appear afraid. But three other dirt-streaked faces mirrored my wide-eyed silence.
"A mountain lion?" another girl whispered.
What else could it be? While the bobcat wails like an abandoned baby, the mountain lion screeches like a woman scorned. The hollow sound echoed within itself, like a woman in deep pain. I imagined it as the primal scream of childbirth.
The sound came again. Distance was difficult to judge, but it seemed to be just meters from our tent.
I realized the frailty of our tent — a thin covering of ripstop fabric and a few fiberglass poles. Claws and teeth could shred through it in a matter of seconds. We sat, frozen, waiting to see what would happen.
Should we turn off our headlamps? Maybe our lights drew her like a moth, curious about the play of our shadows against the fabric of our tent. But if we sat there in darkness, with only the sound of our breath, would she feel empowered to attack?
Large footsteps sounded in the brush around our tent. Then the screech came from the other side. Mountain lions are the one large cat who can't roar. They lack the rumbling vibration of lions and tigers. Instead they have the sound of an injured woman that an unwitting person might want to help, which left the four of us trembling, none of us wanting to admit our fear. We were supposed to be leaders, to know what to do if a mountain lion came wailing into our encampment and circled our tents.
We did nothing.
Just breath and silence and waiting for the wail.
The next wail came from further off. Then fresh silence.
When I snuggled into my sleeping bag, I turned off my lamp, but I didn't close my eyes. I watched the way the moon created shadows through the thin fabric of the tent and waited for the mountain lion to return until sleep took over without my permission.
We got up before the sun, as we always did, made coffee and oatmeal, and ate in silence. Our leader told us to walk in a close line. Some crew members whispered about the mountain lion.We stuck close together as we hiked through the darkness to our worksite.
I positioned myself near the rear, one person behind me, a row of tired workers in front of me, already sprawling despite the warnings. Once we hiked up the first hill, out of camp, I swung my head to the right, my lamp leaving the trail. In the near distance, my light reflected on two green eyes. Narrow vertical slits, they appeared to be glowing. The eyes of a cat, too big to be a bobcat, watching us march away.
It was the last I saw or heard of that mountain lion.
For a few days we stayed closer together. My nerves were on edge. But the wailing never returned, and I never again saw the green eyes observing us, as if assessing a herd of cattle. With the final hitch finished, we left the canyon, packed our tents and equipment into our vans and headed back to the paved roads and concrete cities.
The tremor of fear from that night settled deep inside me and took root as a thrill of possibility. Eye to eye with one of the most powerful creatures in the desert, I finally felt I had touched the wilderness. It lived within me as a set of green slits, glowing against the dust of early dawn.
A. Dae is an American writer living long-term in Bulgaria with her
husband and two children. She writes both nonfiction and fiction. You
can find more about her at kojiadae.ink
or on twitter @kojiadae