Maybe it was the approaching darkness, a low flashlight battery, deafening thunder, or sheer terror that blurred my vision, but the park map was unreadable.
Yes, it’s December, but mine is no Christmas story.
Although I’d been on this trail many times, in my panicked state of mind, a fork in the path confused me. I was being stalked, preyed upon, and hoped I’d chosen the best way forward.
Only a few hours earlier, I’d been happily setting up my campsite. My husband was away on one of his frequent fishing trips with his buddies; a no-girls-allowed kind of trip.
As long-time Arizona residents, my husband and I had camped and hiked frequently, so he was not unduly concerned about me going solo, especially since it’s only a few miles from the city. I wanted to have an adventure of my own to tell before I died of old age or a pandemic.
It had never crossed my mind that this particular stroll in the park might be my last. As long as it’s quick and painless, I couldn’t help thinking it would make a great story to tell the grandchildren about the interesting and unique way their brave and adventurous granny had passed from this earth.
Here’s how it began. My attempt at a five-day solo backpacking trip in Saguaro National Park, just to the east of Tucson.
On day one, after hiding my new Ford Bronco at the far end of the parking lot so it wouldn’t be noticed and possibly stolen, I’d strapped on my backpack and started out at sunrise to give myself plenty of time to trek the ten miles at a leisurely pace into our favorite, though remote, campsite.
Winter months in southern Arizona are mostly sunny with mild and pleasant temperatures, but the sun goes down promptly at six, and I wanted to be set up and enjoying a cozy campfire by then—if only in my dreams. Because of the arid conditions, campfires were prohibited in the park. Only small butane stoves were allowed for cooking.
Without any mishaps, I reached the camp by mid afternoon, which was located directly on the Arizona Trail. I hadn’t counted on being the only camper out there. But I was.
About an hour later, I heard a group of deer snort-wheezing and stampeding up out of the canyon. It gave me pause because I’ve never heard them snort-wheeze with that much intensity before. That should have been a big clue to me! Sadly, I didn’t get the hint and went back to setting up my camp.
Not by sight, I sensed the slightest of movement above and to my right as I was tying my solar-powered lantern to the tent pole. It was perched five to six feet off the ground on the branch of an old cottonwood tree and staring at me with the most gorgeous green eyes. Even in the face of life-threatening danger, its beauty was impossible to miss.
Cougar, puma, mountain lion. Whatever you want to call it!
I could see the cat’s underbelly and it was obvious she had many mouths to feed. Well, sister, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your holiday meal, I thought.
I backed slowly the couple of feet to my bear spray and my cellphone. Slipping the phone in my pocket, I grabbed a couple rocks and commenced lobbing them with one hand, bear spray at the ready with the other. Unfortunately I throw like a girl, so in spite of my efforts the cat was looking more confident and really had that Ima Pounce a Mouse look in her eye.
Slapping pans together, throwing stones and yelling—including obscenities—didn’t seem to faze her in the least. She sat terrifyingly still. Her long, lean body was mostly hidden among the tree’s branches and foliage, the only movement being a slightly twitching tail.
So I grabbed a few more rocks and got inside my tent. There was little to no cell service in the park despite the close proximity to Tucson. Dropping one tent flap, I’d hoped the flap would completely hide me from this alpha predator and its chilling stare. I could still see her through it clearly. It was then that I turned on my cellphone and started filming. If it was my fate to be torn to shreds, I at least wanted my story documented and credible. A video I knew my grandchildren would be showing their own kids. And tragically just before Christmas, too. But that couldn’t be helped. The timing is what it is.
Not that I relished the thought of my family witnessing my gruesome death. If it came to that, I’d surely drop the phone. The camera might only capture the tent’s ceiling, maybe some blue sky and a tuft or two of light brown fur floating weightlessly upwards in the melee. The only audio might be that of brief scuffling and muffled growls. Then silence. It would all be over in the blink of an eye, with nothing more to see than a tent flap lifting in the breeze and the faint, retreating sound of my lifeless body being dragged through the underbrush of cholla and cacti to wherever the kittens were hidden and waiting.
Before I could get too morbid, a glorious flock of scrub jays flew over and began to mob the cat. After a few pecks from the birds, its focus was distracted away from me and caused her to come down from the tree and disappear from sight—for good, or only momentarily? Had the cat lost interest and gone her way in the opposite direction? Either way, there must be a God in heaven to send the jays just when they were needed.
I was able to call the park service and tell them about my situation and asked them what I should do. Everything the park staff told me to do to scare off the mountain lion didn’t work, and I told them so. “So now what?” I asked.
“Don’t take the time to pack up, just get out of there. Keep moving but don’t run. Call us if you have anymore trouble.” That’s what they said. Call us. It would be dark in an hour. My signal was spotty and intermittent. I hadn’t been able to contact my husband, who was in his own remote location, albeit minus the stalking cougar.
I thought about my husband. Every December, we loved to watch “A Christmas Carol” together in front of the fireplace with hot rum toddies. I wasn’t about to spend the night alone like old Scrooge, imagining the shadows on the tent walls as the long bony finger of the grim reaper-ish Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing to my own gravestone.
So, leaving backpack and tent behind, with only my cellphone and flashlight, I was out of there. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle just thinking about the possibility of being stalked in the darkness on the narrow trail that didn’t allow for a vehicle rescue by the park service. A monsoonal thunderstorm was brewing overhead, making an airborne rescue even less possible.
The park staff had added one final warning:
“If you actually get into a face off, stand tall, make yourself look bigger, and look it straight in the eye. If she attacks, don’t play dead—fight back!” Personally, I had no intention of even looking back to see if she was following. I didn’t want to know. Instead I put my hopes in the knowledge that she had babies and wouldn’t want to go far from them. She wouldn’t, would she?
Due to two fires in the Rincon mountains last year, I also had to watch out for burned areas that might have slick patches of wet pine needles or ash. And with the sky threatening rain, I was in danger of flash flooding, rolling debris, and erosion of a once-familiar trail, making it possible to go astray.
Here’s how my solo backpacking adventure ended. The blessing of adrenaline enabled me to hoof it out of that park, ten miles in the dark, in four hours! For some context, I’m a flabby 56-year-old. Not a trail-hardened, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker type.
A mile or so from the parking lot, two rangers met me with Gatorade and a men’s extra large blue, down-filled jacket, since the temperature had dropped 20 degrees in 30 minutes due to the storm that was just beginning to drop its first outpouring of rain. Because the jacket was the exact shade of blue as the aforementioned new Ford Bronco, they let me keep it.
I was later informed that this was the most alarming human/cougar encounter documented in the Rincons since the 1890s.