In the desert, nothing moved. For weeks, only a rare car or truck scrawling dust, the sun giving shadows slow chase. We travelled far to climb here, seeking wide and ancient spaces our own country could not provide. Eventually we felt ourselves chafed by its reticence. One morning, wearied to argument and knucklesore, we drove on impulse across the La Sal mountains into Colorado’s Western Slope.
Bedrock, Ridgway, Ouray. Farms strewn with rusted junk that the wideness of the American West permits, towns hung with Hallowe’en tack, dead leaves on porches. South of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we took a dirt road into the Uncompahgre mountains, thinking we would find a quiet place to park and sleep on a cut-through back west.
For twenty miles we stirred dust, past quiet ranches and deserted campgrounds. A coyote crossed the track ahead of the van, its jaw broken and lolling like a second tongue. We began to hit wet snow in the shelter of trees. The van’s wheels, far from the concrete heat of their home in Las Vegas, skidded and churned dirt and came to a stop. We made a painstaking, slithering retreat, thinking about a long walk to find a house with a phone, and the costs of recovery when our hire document stated plainly no dirt roads.
Access denied, we made the best of it. We parked at a waymarked trail, without a clue where it led, and walked it, zigzagging up through thin white aspen and pines to glimpses of serried ridges and peaks, battlements iced with the remnants of first snow. We made a trail of grey wet prints among the delicate disturbances left by birds and drips from the trees, until another set of prints appeared.
These were a fistsize paw with a big heel and no claws, and they were crisp and fresh today, not eroded in the thaw. Then we had new eyes, not just observers of the landscape but creatures in it, released to the wild.
“Mountain lion. Got to be.”
Ferdia pulled to the refuge of skepticism, knowing the big cat phenomenon, the ancestral mind’s learned tendency to see a threatening animal in likely shapes, or the spotter’s eagerness to make an eagle of a buzzard. But no, these were too big to be a dog.
“Should we keep following these? Is that a good idea?
What are the things they say about mountain lions? Make plenty of noise? Whatever, they must have better hearing than we do. You almost never see them, and if you do it’s bad news? Why would they let themselves be seen if they’re stalking you? A collision with our tameness. We, who think ourselves grounded, outdoorsy, practical; people who share their territory with predators don’t think twice about these things.
The prints went off track and then rejoined higher up, and then cut off among the rocks and we didn’t see them any more. We walked on in the deepening snow and caught the evening sun at a clearing, and turned back before darkness made prey of us.
Next day we returned to the Black Canyon, and descended a long way among the shadows and the livid slashes of pegamtite, scars of conflicts more than ancient, but not as far as the unfolding action down in the depths, where the Gunnison’s grind is tireless. We parade the ground of battles already won; the climb back out was not hard.
First morning back in the desert, I danced a jig of near panic when a tarantula crossed the path.