Ghost Cat: On Being Haunted by Mountain Lions
There it is again. In the wet sand at the margin of the pool, right beside the clear Vibram pattern of my boot. And it wasn’t here when I walked this slick-rock grotto at sunrise. I’m hiking in Saguaro National Park East with my friend Walker Thomas, a consummate back-packer and nature-enthusiast who has explored the granite outcrops and plunge pools of Wildhorse Canyon many times.
This is my first trip.
We arrived at 2 AM, four hours after my daughter dropped us at the trailhead, bushwhacking across a moonless landscape with headlamps. This morning, I sit with angry shindagger welts crisscrossing my legs, feeling the still-hot lash of an ocotillo whip on my right cheek. The air is still and warm. I sip a cup of Miner’s Blend, my favorite from the Bisbee Coffee Company, while a mockingbird runs through a repertoire of birdsong, bouncing the voices of cactus wrens and thrashers, woodpeckers and flickers off the canyon walls.
A phainopepla in its glossy black robe flies to the pool for water and stands inside the footprint of the lion.
The track is the size of my palm, its center pad like a wheel hub for the four splayed toes, each of which my thumb could easily rest inside. In all my years of hiking these desert mountains near Tucson, I’ve never encountered a mountain lion face to face, though I know they’re here and that they certainly see me. Last night, it was the glowing blue eyes of male wolf spiders at trailside. Now, I’m thinking about large green eyes at my back. I feel insect tracks on the skin of my nape. Is she following me? Is she stalking me?
Science is only now uncovering a connection between humans that reaches beyond the five senses, a “sixth sense” that spans what’s physical and emotional. We’ve all experienced it—that profound feeling you get when you’re being watched. Nine times out of ten you look up and someone is staring at you. Some believe this connection extends to the nonhuman world as well. You’re hiking alone, the desert unscrolling before you as you step along the path. Then you feel it. The hairs at the back of your neck lift away from damp skin—eyes locked onto the sway of your shoulder blades. When you turn around, you’re not too sure but you think something large and tawny just slipped from sight.
Felis concolor, catamount, cougar, painter, panther, puma…she goes by many names. The O’odham people call her “mawith,” a word that brings to mind the English words “maw” and “awe.” Native mythology portrays the cat with a fusion of fear and respect. The Zuni believe she is the sentinel of the north, protecting the world with her keen sense of sight and smell. The Navajo see her as provider, leaving the largest parts of her kill to feed the people. The Hopi carry her carved image as a totem when hunting.
There are other tribes, however, who see something more ominous. Among the Apache, to hear her wail is an omen of death. And my Tohono O’odham neighbors consider her a flesh-eating beast. Mawith.
That which does not kill us, Nietzsche says, makes us stronger. Even with the caffeine in my veins, I’m not feeling it. In Soul Among Lions, biologist Harley Shaw writes: “In the niche of the lion, we are not its superior, and it deserves a certain awe.” I think: Fear and Wonder take the same nervous trackways.
I dip my cup into the pool where only hours ago a mountain lion dipped her tongue. As the ripples widen and a few remaining coffee grounds settle onto the bright sand, I see the curl of pink, the lift of water between teeth. The lowered head. The raised eyes watching me.
Ken Lamberton’s first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire, won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. He has since published five books about the Southwest. With his latest project, called “Chasing Arizona,” he’s attempting to visit 52 places in 52 weeks during Arizona’s centennial and write about what makes the Grand Canyon state great.