I don’t know how many minutes had passed. I was engrossed. Sitting cross-legged and looking at my journal I was concentrating on the words I was crafting. Around me the sky was slowly shifting from light to darker blue as the sun retreated westward and Aspen shadows were moving imperceptibly across the dust in the trail. The trail was lined with grasses heavy with pollen, and my eyes stung and watered. The only sounds were my allergic reactions to the grass, which hung like shouts over the valley that I was waiting to photograph at the end of the day.
After a spell of silence I looked up and she was there, staring at me with coal black eyes. The mountain lion crouched down as our eyes met, and the ten feet of space between us pulled taut, filling with the tension of unknown outcomes. I couldn’t tell for sure that she was female – a small male would have the same stature. What was going through her head? How long had she been watching me? I had no idea. As we stared at each other, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was larger than her, which wasn’t much of a consolation at the moment. I’m a skinny guy and sitting cross-legged I don’t look very big. And I don’t have claws. Or teeth.
She stood immobile, crouched down and watching me. And I watched her.
I’ve seen other big cats in the wild before, mostly jaguars in Central America. Only one of those encounters had unnerved me. That one was a female too, but the only thing I could see in her intent eyes was the bright green reflection of my headlamp. Now here I was facing down a female again, and the deep black of her eyes didn’t waver from me for a second. Mountain lions are notoriously unpredictable, and are statistically far more dangerous to people than jaguars. But for some unexplainable reason I didn’t feel threatened. She didn’t move a muscle, and I sat still. We just stared into each other’s eyes across that short space between us.
Out of all the wild cats I’ve seen, I’ve never photographed one except with a remote camera trap. My camera lay on the ground a long arm’s reach to my left, my heavy tripod a long reach to my right. After a brief internal debate I reached for my camera, and then it was over.
The instant I moved she rotated and disappeared around the turn in the trail behind her. I jumped up, ran to the spot and looked around the trees to see if I could catch her, but she had already gone – as silently and completely as she had appeared. The trail was dry and there weren’t even any tracks. If I was a puma or a dog or most any other mammal, I would probably still smell her, but I couldn’t and it was suddenly as if she had never been there. There was only the sky, the trees and my watering eyes. After a moment I could hear my heart beating. The sun was lower now, so I put away my journal and started to set up my camera. The moment was over.