Colorado Plateau Utah, United States 10 Oct 07
Odometer 49,844 m 80,216 km

Readjusting to life at home has not been easy. Often, I awake in the middle of the night not knowing where I am. Flashbacks are common. I’m still thinking in Portuguese and coveting clean water. Windows have become my best friends.

Cabin fever has taken a heavy toll since returning from Brazil in May. It’s time to press El Viento back into service. It’s time to strike out. It’s time to renew my bond with the great American Southwest.
The National Monument campground was plumb full, so I had to look elsewhere for accommodations. Just as well, I thought, a solo night under the stars would do me good. Soon, I found a little used dirt road that provided the perfect spot. It was a dry, sandy wash with an expansive up-canyon view. I pitched my camp as I watched the rock walls come alive with color, morphing from subtle shades of ocher to vermillion, then crimson. It felt good to be back.

Just after dark, as I dined on peanut butter slathered Fig Newtons for supper, I looked up to see a light in the distance. What is that, I wondered? It’s too bright to be a flashlight or fire. And it looks to be moving--towards me.

It turned out to be headlights from a 4WD vehicle crawling its way slowly down the rocky escarpment above me on what passes in these parts as a road. I was camped just off the byway in plain sight, so like it or not, I was about to get visitors.

Now, I’ve learned over time that it’s best to simply
avoid trouble. Especially when traveling internationally and alone, you develop a sixth sense for steering clear of dodgy situations. Nighttime encounters are always more suspect. So, I instinctively ducked behind some juniper trees to vacate my camp as the truck approached. Without incident, it came and went.

As the dust settled, I reemerged and grabbed my computer from its pannier. I planned to retreat to the warmth of my sleeping bag, post a journal update, and then get some shut-eye. But before I could crawl inside--I glimpsed braking taillights.

The truck had stopped. The truck was in reverse. Was trouble now looking for me?

As it rolled backwards, I wondered where this might lead. Maybe he needed help. Maybe he thought I needed help. Maybe he was an axe murderer looking to be featured on the next episode of 48 Hours. Maybe I could never have guessed what he was about to say as he rolled down his window.

“Howdy,” said the lone cowboy, dressed in camo, as he leaned towards the passenger window.

“Hi, what’s up,” I queried?

“I saw your tent, so I thought I better come back to tell ya.”

“Tell me what,” I curiously inquired?

“Well, right after I passed your camp and rounded that next bend, not 100 yards from where yur standin’, I spotted a huge lion.”

“A mountain lion?”

“Yup. So, I came back ‘cause I figer’ed you’d wanna know. He was ‘bout as big a cat as I ever seen.”

“Well, hey, thanks for the heads up--I think.”

“Shur, you have a good ‘en!”

And with that he drove off, leaving me alone in the dark. Well, almost alone. There was that secret admirer he mentioned still lurking about.

In my travels across North, Central and South America there were times when I felt watched, unsafe, or in some way exposed and vulnerable, but never did I feel like
food. Indeed, there’s something primordially disconcerting about being an integral part of the food chain--especially when you’re not at the top of it!

But I’m an environmentalist. I believe in a mountain lion’s right to exist. Indeed, the ecosystem needs them. Our crazy laws not only allow, but promote their extermination. It’s insane policy and I’m against it.

But rationality has its limits. Right now my inner cave man is peeing his pants every time I hear the bushes rustle. I can’t up and leave. And unlike the cowboy’s pick-up truck, El Viento provides me no safe haven. With no escape and nowhere to hide, it comes down to predator versus prey--a battle as old as time itself.

Over that time, nature has leveled the playing field. For every cunning cat there’s a wily jackrabbit, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. But in assessing the fairness of this fight, it’s plain to see that my adversary holds the upper hand: the lion brings superior stealth, agility, power, strength, speed, claws, fangs, vision, hearing and smell; all I’ve got is my superior--gulp--intellect.
“OK, smart guy, what can you employ in your defense?”

HELMET: I once read (remember, I’m smart) that mountain lions tend to drag their victims away headfirst. My helmet might come in handy here.

LED HEADLAMP: Great for seeing your hand in front of your face, not so great for spotlighting pouncing predators much before moment of impact.

SWISS ARMY KNIFE: It has everything imaginable and nothing usable, at least in close-quarters, hand-to-claw combat.

MULTI-TIP SCREWDRIVER: I fear as I fumble from Phillips to flathead, he’ll tear me apart, bit-by-bit.

INNER TUBE: I could fashion a slingshot to hurl stones in his direction, if only I knew which direction that was.

CAMERA: I could fire my camera’s flash in a hail of dazzling light to daze, confuse and thwart his attack--at least as long as the battery lasts.

Hmm... doesn’t sound like much of a match. I need a better weapon.

Suddenly, the peanut butter smeared Fig Newtons I had for dinner hit bottom, inspiring me with a stroke of genius. “Wait just a minute,” I decry out loud in the hopes my skulking feline friend is listening, “the fight ain’t over ‘till it’s over!”

If you’ll remember, one of the last times I wore my riding boots was in the Amazon. Well, did I mention then that I took a nosedive over my handlebars into a pit of quicksand? No? Well, all things happen for a reason.

Extracting myself and El Viento from that swamp, in the 100-degree heat and humidity of the tropical rainforest, took its toll on me--and my boots. In fact, I’m not sure what sort of microbial biology has been going on in there ever since, but they make anything that comes into contact with them smell like, well, I call it
Toxic Sock Syndrome.

So, like warding off vampires with a clove of garlic, I settle on the idea of hanging my toxic socks above the tent door. For good measure, I throw my boots out too, pull on a 3-day-worn, sweaty T-shirt, forego brushing my teeth, pee here and there around the camp’s perimeter to mark my territory--and rue the big, bad kitty that dares bite into
this breakfast burrito!
Squawking ravens let me know it's dawn at Camp Cougar. Hesitantly, I leave my dreams behind and venture out from the confines of my nylon tortilla. Before me lies my unused arsenal: helmet, headlamp, tools and camera. Through the tent’s screen I can make out my smelly boots, still standing sentry. And upon unzipping the door I see that I am not alone.

Giant cat tracks encircle the tent. Me? I live to stink another day.

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