“There are no mountain lions in the eastern half of Flat State. Any that are found in the western half are migrants from Somewhat Lumpy State.” The park ranger pontificated very well, and left the rest of the group nodding, calmed by the steady assurance of an expert. So I waited until they all left to wander over and inquire/state, “I take it this means the warning last month was really for a large, tan dog that could climb trees?”
He gave me a tired grin, the sort usually given to partners-in-crime. “We’re not supposed to say anything because of the media and the people who will call in squirrels as mountain lions. You see tracks?”
“Not this time, but I was on the main, lake-side trails.” You see, I take mountain lions* and other critters seriously. I’ve been stalked by something in the long grass.
The place was a nature and archaeological reserve in a stream-cut valley and breaks in the western part of Flat State. It’s pretty well-known in the region because of the springs there, and because of major archaeological stuff and some questions about the Spanish having come through in the 1600s. Back in the day it had more springs, but it is still a great place for an easy hike and wander. The valley drops about a hundred feet or so below the surrounding terrain, and there are some steep bluffs and cave-like areas up at the tops of the valley. The plants are mostly mid-grasses to tall grasses in the bottom, with cattails, sedges, and other water-lovers around the spring and little stream and lake-let. A side canyon has some cottonwood and pine trees, either survivors or planted back before this was a park.
My work schedule was large block of time on call followed by shorter block of time completely free of the electronic leash. As a result I tended to skip out-of-town when I was off duty, and said lake park was one of my frequent destinations, especially when my off days and week days coincided. A cold front had passed through, followed by a few more, and a frost that weekend, so the time was ripe for a hike.
After skirting the little lake, the trail cut pretty close to the foot of the bluff. OK, it crossed the base of the bluff, and because of the runoff from the cliff up-slope, an area of very dense, tall grass grew along that section. I’m a touch over five feet tall, and some of the grass had two feet on me easily (tall grass indeed). Some of it had begun dying, the rest was just starting to lose the green of summer for the tawny and red shades of autumn and winter. So imagine a short woman, boonie-type hat on head, hiking stick in hand, be-bopping along, aware but not really paying 100% attention. After all, I was alone and had the park to myself.
And something moved in the grass. Against the wind. I stopped. It stopped. I moved forward. The grass rustled forward. Oh sheepdip.
Did I back up or keep going? I stood near the center of the tall grass, so whatever was pacing/stalking me had good cover for a hundred yards both ways. Leaving the trail meant sliding down a steep slope into an arroyo. While I tried to decide, the thing in the grass remained still. The wind blew through the stand of grass, making the tips wave and rustle. A hawk rode the wind up the canyon wall above me. Stay, or retreat?
I swallowed hard and decided to keep moving, steadily, calmly, watching the grass as I did. Sure enough, as soon as I moved, the thing in the grass moved. We came to a low spot, where something had flattened some of the stems, and I sped up, not running but not lingering, either. Once past that area, I could hear the rustling again. When I had the trees in sight I accelerated once more, probably leaving dust puffs like the roadrunner in the cartoons.
The thing never left the grass. When I crossed paths, literally, with a juvenile bobcat about a year later, I guessed what had been pacing me. But. Mountain lions are spotted on a regular basis in that area, and between the Thing in the Grass and the encounter with the dog pack in a different area (climbed a cliff to get away), I started carrying something appropriate for far-too-close encounters of the wildlife kind.
*Every other year, or more often, mountain lions attack people, joggers, children, generally from ambush. Two joggers had been attacked the previous month the last time I visited the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, jumped in a canyon park that is not too far from the resort. As a result the park was closed to hikers. About four years ago or so, a mountain lion grabbed a toddler from a park on Sandia Mountain near Albuquerque as the child’s parents stood a few feet away.