Arizona’s Sabino Canyon offers the kind of Sonoran topography that people come from great distances to see: lots of saguaro cactus, prickly pear, barrel cactus, cholla, paloverde and greasewood. The hikes aren’t terribly difficult — as in “easy” or “moderate” — and there are even roads upon which a great number of visitors are driven to and from the stupendous Sabino views of the valley where Tucson has sprawled out in its petroleum-besotted way.
Of course, on my recent trip to the Southwest, I wasn’t interested in being driven around Sabino, even if the tour buses represented a car-pooling initiative. I was interested in hiking. I was interested in hiking in spots relatively free of the throngs at Tucson’s most visited park; the remote latitudes. At least that was my attitude until, upon paying my entry fee at the gate, I was handed a bright yellow slip of paper by the park ranger.
It wasn’t a receipt, which would have been a reasonable assumption — it was an alert! A genuine alert about the mountain lions of Sabino Canyon. Mountain lions! There had been sightings recently, the alert informed me. Multiple sightings. And these were mountain lions who had apparently lost their fear of humans. These “bad” lions, the alert went on, could easily attack, and if you saw one of the lions while hiking, you were urged — assuming you were as yet in one piece — to contact the forest rangers immediately. A further inquiry at the information desk made clear that the alert referred to sightings this week.
What is a native New Yorker, an indoorsman, to do with this information? He has some skills in the great outdoors: The native New Yorker has a cell phone, and assuming that there is cell coverage in a canyon, he is willing to telephone for help. The native New Yorker knows how to beat out someone else for a cab. And the native New Yorker can maneuver expeditiously on a crowded sidewalk.
Maybe it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. I did live in the Connecticut suburbs during my elementary school years. There were frogs in the stream that ran alongside the street. There were vacant lots at the end of the road rich in maple and birch. And for a year or so in the early ’70s, I was even a Cub Scout. This was very outdoorsy. I learned to tie a few useful knots. I carved some twigs with my Swiss Army knife. I built a couple of campfires. My mom was den mother, and she was an easy mark in the promotion of Cub Scout badges. This experience lasted until, in true suburban fashion, my parents divorced, and my mom returned to the workforce.
However, my scouting experience failed to prepare me for the alert. The mountain lion can jump 20 feet in the air and go from zero to 35 miles per hour in just a few bounds. The mountain lion likes to crouch above rocky outcroppings and wait for prey. (Sabino canyon is composed of almost nothing but rocky outcroppings!) Is the mountain lion following you? Is the mountain lion poised nearby, with hindquarters quivering? Please do not bend over and expose head and/or neck! Inform, if you are able, rangers immediately!
Most people that day were opting for the guided tour in the van, and they were not only comfortable, they were safe. I hiked anyway; with an eye on every outcropping. Why? I don’t swim with great whites, nor do I sled in polar bear country, but in the great Darwinian competition for the West, I vote for the mountain lion over, for example, another strip mall or another Circle K. In fact, I’ve got a friend from Wyoming who sends me news accounts of mountain lion attacks; and while I feel badly about the victims and their families, I feel good about the mountain lions. They are performing to type, proudly. And if that means they are getting too acclimated to the mansions at the edge of Sabino, doesn’t responsibility for that lie equally with Arizonans?
Esperero, the trail I took, goes up and down into washes and tributaries of the canyon, and if I didn’t actually meet any of these “bad” lions, I did try to imagine standing still and yelling at them to stave off the first exploratory bite. If I don’t have the jagged scar to memorialize a close encounter, I do have the yellow mountain lion alert. I haven’t recycled it yet (though I might). But I sure have recycled the story.
Rick Moody is the author of The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and other works.
Story by Rick Moody. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.