Life is full of reminders to pay attention. Yesterday, as I was hiking at Crystal Mountain, I noticed some tracks. It had rained hard the previous night, and I hadn’t seen anyone else all day. Veils of wet clouds hung in the tree tops and dripped onto my shoulders, holding close the sounds of my breath and the rustle of my rain coat.
My first thought–hardly a “thought” really, just a quick recognition–was “oh, dog prints”. I should have looked up. The hair on the back of my neck should have stood on end, telling me to pay attention.
Instead, I continued on, lost in thought and surrounded by fog.
Then I came into a flat, open area and noticed fresh bear scat. Interesting, I thought. It got my attention, but didn’t faze me.
Next, I started to see the “dog” prints again. But when I looked around, I realized there were no accompanying human prints. And it occured to me–you never see dog prints without a human boot print or too.
That’s when I realized, these aren’t dog prints. I looked closely and sure enough, there were no claw marks. Dogs cannot retract their claws; but cats can. This was not a dog. It was a cougar. A mountain lion.
Many years ago, my father was on a hunting trip. At camp the last night, the men stood under a tree from which hung their kill–two gutted deer–and posed for a snapshot. It wasn’t until weeks later, when the film was developed that they saw it. A few feet above my father’s head, as he smiled for the camera, was the tail of a large mountain lion. It almost blended in with the trunk, it’s body curled in a graceful arc.
Living in the mountains I, too, have had my share of close encounters with mountain lions. I was once stalked by a cat that left large tracks in the freshly fallen snow. When I turned around, retracing my steps back to the car, I saw where the cat’s tracks had followed my own, his large paws covering over my boot prints like a child’s.
I wonder if yesterday a cat sat curled in the branch of a tree, watching me. Perhaps I was being sized up as predator or prey. Maybe she watched me and finally decided I was too big to mess with. Or perhaps she wasn’t hungry.
Either way, I’m sure she was paying attention to me. I, on the other hand, needed the gentle reminder of her prints.