“Make yourself look large.” I glance at my 5’5” frame, a body shaped by the lingering longings of an anorexic adolescence.
“Stand your ground. Do not run.” But I am a runner. It is what I do best.
“Wave your arms. Shout. Throw rocks.” Throw rocks? If survival depends on my throwing arm, I will be ripped apart before the first stone touches the desert sand.
“This trail is closed.” The somber park ranger points to the “Three Tank Trail,” a trail dangerously close to the one I’ve highlighted on the map of the Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District. “It is where the mountain lion was sited two days ago.”
A tinge of doubt clouds my resolve to hike the Sky Island basin, a region named for the towering Santa Catalina, Rincon, and Santa Rita Mountains soaring above the southwestern desert floor like islands floating above the ocean’s horizon. The Tucson Mountains west of the city are too short to technically be labelled a Sky Island, lacking the required forest environment found in elevations over seven thousand feet. But I include them in my quest. After all, their rugged, red-tinted peaks provide the backdrop to the familiar blushing skies of sunset.
I do not know what I am seeking as I don my worn, familiar hiking boots and loop the camera around my neck. The region is considered an ecological bridge, a gathering place for a rich assortment of flora and wildlife traveling south from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental range; from the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson, to the Chihuahuan Desert to the east. And while a shortage of winter rains and several nights of bone-chilling frost have erased any hint of early spring wildflowers, I am excited about photographing this wide plethora of possibilities.
That was before learning the 150 pound carnivorous cat which devours mule deer, elk, wild horses, domestic cattle, and prey much larger than me was seen demonstrating unusually aggressive behavior thirty-six hours earlier.
The emptiness of the trailhead parking stirs a queasiness in my stomach. The picture of the mountain lion stapled to a sawhorse next to the lot and a bold-lettered sign announcing the trail closing add to my uneasiness. I remind myself the route I’ve selected is considered safe and winds through a forest of giant saguaros, not the mountainous terrain of the cougars. Yet, I can’t help but wonder . . .
Has anyone told the mountain lion to remain on the Three Tank Trail?
My aloneness is as stark as the mountains edged against turquoise skies. My feet drag along a path of saguaros towering thirty to forty feet overhead, many over 150 years-old with multiple arms stretching to the sky. Vertical, needle-lined pleats define their skin and most are riddled with holes drilled by the Gila woodpecker or the gilded flicker. And yet, I see neither. I scour the skies looking for birds. Nothing.
My camera hangs limply around my neck.
I hike past a saguaro whose tip is crowned with a fan-like form, a rare and unexplained phenomena of Nature. I notice but do not lift the camera, blind to all save the imaginary shadow of the cougar stalking, waiting to pounce on the back of unsuspecting prey, to dig sharp teeth into the soft skin of the neck.
I spin circles every couple hundred feet, checking my backside. But what would I do? What could I do? Fear, that deadly aroma that attracts predators, oozes from my pores. Only when the car is in sight and I pause to turn one last time do I notice an army of sparrows merrily flitting about the scrubby bushes.
On the way home I stop and buy a whistle . . . and rejoice the desert blindness has disappeared.
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