Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The cat that waited for me

After a miserable night at Red Rock Canyon – a howling wind that blew dust and whipped the tent all night, plus a too-bright moon and a migraine – Tuesday was a predictably lousy day. By mid-afternoon I was exhausted and just wanted to be home, or at least someplace familiar. So I headed for Wildrose Canyon, on the western edge of Death Valley.

I don't know why, but Wildrose has always felt like home. Maybe it's just because it was the first place I camped in Death Valley, more than thirty years ago. It's a wide canyon (or narrow valley, if you prefer) full of sagebrush and creosote, rocks and springs – in other words, it's much like any other canyon in the Panamint Range. But, as familiar as it is, Wildrose can still surprise me. In a wet year its hillsides are carpeted with wildflowers. In 2005 it was overrun with cottontails. I saw my first panamint daisy there, practically growing out of the pavement at the side of the road. Its springs are a haven for warblers, finches, orioles, and dozens of other birds, while the rocks are home to chuckwallas and collared lizards. And, while I tend to avoid the noise and crowds of official campgrounds, preferring the solitude of more remote areas, the campground at Wildrose seems to be ignored by most park visitors.

I arrived at the Wildrose campground at about 5:00 and was happy to see that my favorite spot was available. (In fact, twenty-one of the twenty-two campsites were available.) I immediately felt better, so I set up my tent and decided to look around.

At the far end of the campground is a trail that passes between a steep hillside on the left and a small spring, thick with mesquite, on the right. A few steps down the trail, I saw a bobcat on the hillside, just above my eye level and no more than ten steps in front of me. I stopped. It stopped. I took a step back; it took a step back. Neither of us knew what to do next. It was so close, and so unexpected, that it took me a few seconds to really understand what it was. I ran through a checklist in my mind: tufted ears ... short tail ... long legs ... spots ... twice as tall as a house cat ... this was definitely a bobcat.

Have I mentioned that my camera was still in the car, a hundred yards behind me?

For the next few seconds, while the cat and I stared at each other, I had two conflicting impulses. The first, of course, was to run back for my camera. The other was to stay where I was and enjoy the moment – I had never been this close to a bobcat before, and might never be again. And besides, did I really expect a bobcat to just sit and wait for me?

I decided to go for the camera. All the way to the car, and all the way back, I cursed myself. How could I be so stupid as to walk away from my camera in a place like Wildrose? I knew I'd never see the cat again, at least not that close.

I guessed the cat would go up the hill, so on the way back I went up the hill myself, coming over a low ridge a few yards above where it had been. I stood for a while, scanning the hillside as well as the trail and spring below. Nothing. Then I thought I saw movement behind a small shrub about twenty feet below me. Something was different about that bush; the ground behind it was the wrong shade of brown.

I aimed my lens at the bush, trying to focus beyond the branches on whatever might be behind them. When the cat's face popped into focus I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Yes, the bobcat had sat – literally – right where I had left it, and waited for me to return with my camera. Thank you, Mother Nature!

I moved left for a better view. The cat looked at me for a moment, then walked downhill toward the spring – and lay down in the shade of another bush. A minute later, it stood up and disappeared into the mesquite.

I stayed for two days and never saw the cat again. I had three photos, and one more surprise from Wildrose.

This story was published in Death Valley Photographer's Guide: Where and How to Get the Best Shots, Nolina Press 2011