Fog is like water, in the valley where I live.
As dusk approaches, rivulets of cold air flow down the
slopes and gullies of the surrounding mountains. They pool in the flats, the
horizon line where dark brush rises from snow blurring as if smudged, the
softness blending up, beginning to erase the world. Leaves and twigs vanish, then
treetops. Layers like organza drift in one atop the other, settling toward the
ground, light sighs of cloud. They sink the riverbed into sleep. They call
other things awake.
It’s a good time to go walking up to the naked knoll behind my house, the day bending toward 3 o’clock, several hours of work completed, but still an hour and a half before sunset. So a week into the new year, I leashed my dog Taiga and headed out up the snowpacked road, through a metal gate onto an unplowed Forest Service route, then a sharp turn up a snowshoe-trampled singletrack, winding between the darkening trees.
Melt clattered through clumps of chartreuse wolf lichen spackling
the ponderosas, leaving rings of yellow in the snow below. The dog nosed the
powder, noting the passage of every creature. She was eager to be out after a
week confined to the house, recovering from a knee sprained in deep snow on
this very trail. I settled into my breath, feeling my own housebound hours
trickle out of my loosening bones and muscles, more animal now, finding my pace.
The trail left the trees for a stretch, crossed a pure white slope where I
paused to watch the mountains wrap away into the fog’s blanket, then ducked
into a dark little draw and climbed the iciest stretch, 30 minutes in, near to
the top now.
The phone buzzed and I fished it from my pocket—a text from a friend I hoped could dogsit during an upcoming reporting trip, something that couldn’t wait. Thumbing in my reply, I glanced up at Taiga, dragging me forward by the other arm. Her ears – little triangles of attention—aimed to the top like an arrow, suddenly swiveled towards something to my left.
I turned from the screen, then, let my hand fall. I
registered a brown shape coming on. How near it was. Maybe 10 feet away. Seven.
Silent. So silent. Moving with purpose.
A bobcat? I thought, surfacing slowly from my distraction. A
lynx? But no. The ears weren’t tufted, and there was that long tail, thick as a
sisal rope. Gold eyes met mine, unblinking, flat, intent. A mountain lion.
We froze there, for a moment, in that joined gaze. She was young, perhaps the size of a golden retriever, her coat still dappled with a few spots, wooly as a teddy bear with winter. But still. Big enough to do some damage. Young enough to have a mother nearby.
Stunned and strangely numb, I imagined the bigger cat watching, tried to remember all those instructions camp counselors gave during my childhood summers in the Colorado Rockies. In all my time in woods and deserts and peaks, I’d never had to use them, never seen a mountain lion, though I’m sure many saw me. Look big, don’t turn your back.
I slung the dog over my shoulder—easy pickings at just 25
pounds—and began to holler. The lion just looked at me, unfazed, then circled
west and settled behind the screen of dead lower branches jutting from a nearby
tree, no more than 20 feet away. She lowered her head, her eyes still locked on
mine. “You’re not scared enough little cat!” I yelled lamely. The dog barked
hoarsely, sounding about as confident as I felt.
The détente lasted a moment longer, then I turned and started down the trail, glancing back a few steps on to see the young lion loping towards me once more. I raised my voice to a scream. Trying to teach her not to follow. Imagining a future when she snatched someone’s dog. Or came too close, got too bold, and got shot.
She stopped, her eyes still burning into me, and I went on.
Slow, careful not to inspire chase, turning every ten feet to check if she was
there, if a larger cat was waiting in the trees just upslope. She wasn’t. It
wasn’t. The fog thickened. Dusk deepened. I finally put the dog back on her own
feet. The growl of the neighborhood snowplow came clear from below, part of an
ordered, familiar place that now seemed so far away. When we came finally onto
the road, I stood for a long time looking back.
Once, a screech owl landed on a pile of wood just outside our
tent and peered at us through the flap. Once, a redtailed hawk dove down
towards the hood of the car as we drove down an Oregon highway, lifting at the
last second, swooping up and over the windshield an arm’s length away. Once I
crested an Alaskan hill just in time to see two wolverines chase by. Once, a
moose staggered through a river next to our canoe, then vanished like a ghost.
Once, now, a young lion chased me through the twilight.
The ordinary passage of hours, interrupted. A startling awake. A blinking suddenly down at warm, blood filled hands, up at the changing sky. I shivered with the fullness of the feeling–unnameable, ancient, and somehow new every time.
We turned for home. The snowplow driver raised a gloved hand as we passed. I waved back, as if nothing had happened. The fog closed behind us, the valley full again, a night lake of cloud and silence.