How to not get eaten by a mountain lion

By Caitlin Kelly


It was only after we saw this sign that we turned to one another — cool New York City journalists who are expected to know a lot about the world every day — that we asked each other: “What is it we’re supposed to do?”

We had started our hike through Sabino Canyon, on the edge of Tucson, before reading the warning signs. You do not run. You do not turn your back. You try to make yourself larger than before (eat a doughnut? Eat a dozen?) in order to scare it.

Yeah, right.

We did not, luckily, see a mountain lion.

English: This is a view of Sabino Canyon, nort...
English: This is a view of Sabino Canyon, northeast of Tucson, AZ, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We did see three white-tailed deer, a bunny (might have been a jackalope), doves and about five different sorts of lizard, one so tiny he was the width of my middle finger and would easily have fit into my palm. They would pause, virtually invisible against a small rock or a tree trunk, waving their frond of a tail back and forth. They were impossibly lovely, so perfectly designed for their environment. One was striped in rust, white and brown, reminding me of a chipmunk.

I love the desert. It is such an elemental place, filled with a beauty that is specific and subtle. Cactus have a cartoony presence when fleshy, green and alive — but their bones, as it were, are an astonishing interior architecture, when dried and brittle and gray, that looks like coral. Every student of art, design and architecture needs to spend hours, days, weeks, studying this landscape.

As we walked, flakes of mica winked up at us from the rocky path. I picked up three of them. If I found a really big one I could use it as a mirror and flash it at the sky for an SOS signal. (If I knew Morse code. Oooops.)


Aren’t they gorgeous?

We started our hike at 8:00 a.m., although the sun had been up since 6:00. I knew there are rattlesnakes and my friend asked me to make the sound they make but I am not very good at imitating it. I did know enough not to stick my hand beneath any rocks or to sit down without looking around very carefully.

One of the reasons I so love being out in the desert is the necessary reminder that, out there — as in our every urban day, deceptively cocooned by labels and technology and fast/fine food and taxis and buses and jobs — we are merely one more species on this fragile planet.

We are poorly adapted, too. Our skin is fragile, easily punctured or torn by the spines and thorns of the plants out there. We will quickly overheat and char if we do not drink a lot of water and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.

It is a deeply powerful, humbling reminder how silly and small we are in the greater scheme of things. As we walked through the landscape, I realized how much I don’t know about the natural world. What’s the name of that tree? Why are those rocks darker than the others? How can trees grow so high and healthy in so arid a place? (Snow melt and monsoons, a guide told us later.)

Bombycilla cedrorum Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona
Bombycilla cedrorum Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the silence! Doves coo. Wind rustles leaves.

But ego and time melt away in a landscape clearly indifferent to our human presence. Is it 2013? 1813? 1513?

Who knows? Who cares?

Which landscape most moves or touches you?

49 thoughts on “How to not get eaten by a mountain lion

  1. sounds beautiful and the animals and plants that can kill you are just part of the experience. it reminds us that we are just visitors to their habitat. my favorite landscape is near the edge of the great lakes, sand, wild grasses, beautiful blue water. it’s very calming to me. glad you didn’t encounter a mountain lion, snake, or scorpion.

  2. I love most landscapes that burgeon with plant and animal life, but I’ve often felt most at home in cooler, windier places. The plants and the animals must be hardy and that quality appeals to me. After reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, it made me realize how adaptable and amazing plants and animals are – I’ll never think of a desert as being barren again – as your post demonstrates!

    1. Maybe I’ll see if I can find a copy while I am here. That would be the perfect thing to read — thank you for reminding me!

      Jose and I visited the White Sands National Monument 3 years ago (and I recognized it from the air on our flight here)….it was so beautiful and the signs of life so subtle…mouse paw prints and the circles of grass having been been across it. Amazing!

  3. Steve

    You really need to get out of the city more. I got a chuckle out of your concern about being eaten by a mountain lion. I would venture to bet that the chance of that happening is far less than being killed by a mugger, taxi cab or bus that you live amongst in your chosen environment. Being “eaten by a mountain lion” is exactly how I feel every time I venture into the city

    1. I live in a suburb — where we have deer, raccoons, red tailed hawks and a coyote in our parking lot — so I am not unfamiliar with wildlife. A hawk even landed on our balcony, barely 10 feet from me.

      My larger point is not that the outdoors is dangerous — and tourists here *have* died and been killed, more from hyperthermia or exposure — but that not knowing the dangers is silly and makes you more likely to have trouble or not know what to do if you encounter it. The odds of encountering a rattlesnake are probably quite high, actually.

  4. You got it, Caitlin. Sabino Canyon seems to be a favorite of mountain lions for some reason. One or two are seen every year. Some people see this desert and that is it – they don’t want to leave. I am in Colorado now but am missing the constant activity of the myriad birds around our house in Tucson. We have a Gila monster who shows up annually on our hill as well.

    1. It’s so beautiful!

      Jose and I are loving the birds…esp. the cooing of the doves. I got some fantastic photos late yesterday afternoon of one of the purple cacti and hope to frame it for our home. We have several ex NYT friends who have moved here permanently and we are intrigued.

  5. mhasegawa

    Having experienced both, I have to say that I prefer seaside or even lakeside to desert. Something about water is very soothing to me.

    1. I agree that being near water is lovely — the hotel I am in has (!) a mini creek/waterfall in the lobby and it is very soothing to see and hear after a 98 degree day.

      If I ever lived in a desert area, I would also need to spend some of my time near water. I’d miss it!

  6. There’s a little forest behind my house with a trail that leads to a beautiful big cliff looking over the bay. I’ve been up there I don’t how many times during my childhood. After inheriting the family house, I tried going back only to encounter bear poo on the trail. I went on with my little excursion but felt totally paralyzed on the inside! I had a similar event happening to me on a trip to BC where there were signs everywhere that said BEWARE OF GRIZZLIES in thick bold letters. Again I didn’t enjoy the hike. So, it’s a wonderful thing you were able to appreciate the hike so much – don’t know how you did it!

    1. Bear bells!? I did a hike in B.C.and carried a small set of bells…not sure how much that noise would have kept them away.

      After we saw that sign, (we’d done about 1.5 hours by then, or more) we turned back.

  7. The hike in Arizona looks beautiful (outside of the frightening mountain lion warnings!) It’s so important for us all to re-connect with nature and the earth. I spend much of my free time in the outdoors, walking, hiking, taking photos… really anything to be connected. I’ve never seen the desert, but I hope to one day. For now, I spend my time with nature in the woods around New England. Thanks for sharing this beauty!

    1. I feel like a normal person when I spend time in nature. I am reminded that I’m one tiny bit of a very large, complex universe. It’s humbling and soothing. I never understand people who don’t spend time outdoors, unplugged, alone.

      The desert is amazing. Such beauty — and so utterly different from what we know in the Northeast!

  8. One of my favorite nature scenes was in the north of Israel, standing on the mountains and seeing the beautiful world around me.
    Oh, and if you want to make yourself seem bigger to a mountain lion, wave some large branches around or hold out the sides of your coat out like wings and roar or make loud noises. It works on swans, so it might work on mountain lions.

  9. Right now I love hiking and camping, so I usually go for rain forests and rocky terrains. If my friends and I spot waterfalls along the way that’s a bonus. The only downfall is having to deal with creepy crawlers especially at night. lol Other than that, the sound of nature just calms the nerves.

    But I’d love to visit the desert someday. That will be a milestone for me since I’m not a very big fan of hot climates. I’ll take what I can though if it means travelling and seeing the world. And honestly, I yet have to see a real cactus. 😀

    1. I’ll be driving through Flagstaff to get to the GC and there is a state park with a creek — I’m ready for a dip!

      The desert is really a reminder of fragility! We started that hike at 8am and were done by 10:30 a.m…It gets so hot so quickly. But cactus are so cool! There are so many different kinds…when you come out of the airport here, there are gardens of them and it makes you realize what a variety there is. (are?)

  10. I’ve seen that sign in Sabino Canyon, and luckily didn’t meet any lions either! I loved the area around Tucson – you’re right, the desert does have a very subtle beauty. Enjoy the rest of your time there!

  11. What a beautiful post. I’m so glad you’re having fun (and still with us)! I once went on a hike by myself in the Malibu mountains in dead of summer, and thought I heard a mountain lion’s growl, or something like it, got totally freaked out and high-tailed it so fast out of that canyon, anyone watching would have laughed! Much of the path was full of little rocks and divets so I was scared of spraining my ankle on the way down. Then I ran into a baby rattlesnake lying in the middle of the path, alive but not moving. Because of the stickly brush to either side, I had to step over – or jump over – this little guy. Not fun. The whole episode convinced me I was definitely a city girl, and I should never go hiking alone.

    That said, my landscapes of choice are definitely the desert and the beach. Too many mosquitos in the mountains. Enjoy yourself!!!

    1. Oh, dear! I can just picture you skittering through the canyon…rattlesnake-hopping! 🙂

      I had planned to do the Grand Canyon alone, again, but it looks like a young friend here will go with me…good thing my tent is a 3-man, so we’ll have room.

      Mosquitos are horrible — the only thing worse being black flies and horseflies, common in northern Ontario where I went to summer camp.

      It’s fun to be able to share this adventure here.

      1. You’ve been camping alone? That is awesome and impressive! My brother has done that, and I’d like to one day (well, with my dog). I’m glad you’ll have company this time. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced black flies or horseflies, and not sure I want to. Looking forward to hearing about the camping trip. I assume we’ll have to wait until you get back to hear about it. One doesn’t blog while camping?

      2. I don’t leave until Tuesday for the GC, so I doubt I’ll do anything here Wed-Saturday until we return.

        Black flies and horseflies are nasty — it feels like a lit cigarette against your flesh.

  12. I was born in Albuquerque, then grew up in rural Colorado. I went back to Albuquerque in ’92 and was there ’til 2004. I’ve been trying to find my way back since. New Mexico will always be home (shout-out to your husband!) and THAT’S the landscape that moves me the deepest. High desert, flanked by rugged peaks to the east, and the bosque to the west. There’s nothing on this earth like a New Mexico autumn, when the skies bleed turquoise and the odor of roasting chiles permeates the air over the city. And when you look west, you’re looking out over the extinct volcanoes (where I’ve mountain biked many times) and toward Petroglyph park, which is a wonderful place to kill a day on foot.

    I’ve backpacked miles into the Bandelier back country and spent days in the Gila looking for (and successfully finding) natural hot springs. I’ve spent weekends in the Jemez, surrounded by blunt New Mexico peaks that yield to high clearings and calderas; wandered Lincoln County grasslands punctuated with buttes and abandoned cabins. Closer to home, the Kasha-Katuwe monument is full of hoodoos and otherworldly echoes of the Bisti Badlands and parts of Highway 44 toward Cuba. I’ve also chased Shiprock down lonely roads–have you ever noticed that the closer you get to it the farther it seems to be? A truly powerful and spiritual place.

    And I LOVE the canyonlands of Utah. Those call to me, too. I’ve spent many days exploring the areas around Lake Powell (the Escalante Wilderness is simply un-freaking-real). I lived for a time on Colorado’s Western Slope, which has landscapes the mimic the canyonlands of Utah and Arizona. Check out the areas around Palisade, for example, if you’re ever there.

    I’m a desert and mountain dawg through and through, but I will say that I love the Pacific coast, from the tip of the Baja to northern Washington State. And hell, on into Vancouver, BC. Simply gorgeous. Definitely catch a sunset in Seattle if you can. The Gulf Coast has its charms, too.

    Hell, I’m a sucker for virtually any landscape. I just love being outside. But I am and always will be a westerner.

    1. Thanks for sharing this — great details!

      Jose and I had a great time as we flew over his college town of Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains. He and I did a 10 day trip to NM in 2000 when we started dating and I totally fell in love with that landscape. How could you not?!

      Have not yet explored Utah (eager to). The class he teaches here is annual, so I hope to keep returning and exploring more each time.

  13. Great post!! I love that you’re taking time to enjoy what nature can give us. A huge recharge. As for my favourite place? Everywhere….hahaha really I’m not kidding. I can explore just about any natural space with the same enthusiasm. I love finding new creatures or plants. I think I should have been a biologist. I found a new orchid today on my little walk on a side of a road, so there is opportunity all around!

      1. Check it out, I just posted some photos! Cacti blooming…all the energy put into producing a flower in the desert is pretty mind blowing.

  14. I love the idea that goes behind this. Sometimes we feel so big! And then we invest in something like nature and realize how small yet still significant we really are. Great post!

  15. I so agree with your remark that ego and time melt away – and I understand your dismay at seeing the sign. Having moved last year from NYC to the Pacific northwest, where similar signs often pop up along trails, I was taken aback the first time. A different world out here!

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