Sunday, May 14, 2006

How not to be eaten by a mountain lion

Photo: The General Grant Sequoia Tree. Eventful Woman is the
small figure to the far right of the photo.

If seeing bear proof lockers again was scary, then my heart really thumped when I read the signs about what to do when meeting cougars (mountain lions).

Don’t run
Don’t crouch down, try to appear as large as possible
Hold your ground, move away slowly while facing the lion
Pick up little children
(and throw them at the lion - only kidding)
If lion behaves aggressively, wave hands, shout, throw sticks and stones
If attacked, fight back
!! (yeah, right)

We were standing in the snow at Sequoia National Park.

Most of the roads were closed because of heavy snowfalls and we had decided to take the short walk to see the large General Grant sequoia. I had been enjoying myself scrunching along in the white stuff. And, then I saw the cougar warning sign. Eeeeeek!

My palpitations were just settling down when I spotted another, slightly smaller sign warning of other dangers in the park - rivers, lightning, plague, ticks, poison oak, carbon monoxide, giardia in the water, rattle snakes and hypothermia. It was a wonder that I didn’t turn tail and bolt to the safety of the Land Rover.

Instead, TH and I continued to plod along in the snow, puffing ourselves up to look bigger, while looking out for handy children to use as missiles. There were not a lot of people around and I hoped the cougars were not hungry.

We finally paused in front of the General Grant tree, named in honour of Ulysses S. Grant. Used to our own gigantic Kauri trees at home, we did not fall into a hushed silence as the promotional material suggested. The Americans claim this to be the world’s third largest living tree, but that probably means America’s third largest. However, it was pretty impressive. The height was 267 feet (81.5 metres) and the circumference was 107 feet (32.8 metres) at ground level. It’s estimated age is 1800 – 2000 years.

I fingered the bark, which was soft and spongy, but splintered under my touch. It was quite dainty and fragile for such a big tree.

Back in the Land Rover I read over some of the Park’s promotional bumph, while TH brewed up a cup of tea. The Park Rangers write a regular newsletter called "The Sequoia Bark" (very clever). I enjoyed reading the winter notes of Ranger Mary Anne Carlton:
"The Douglas squirrels go from tree to tree for safety. Sometimes you find a little midden where one sat and ate the fleshy scales of a sequoia cone. You can tell coyote tracks from domestic dog tracks because they travel in almost a straight line. Coyotes don’t lollygag around, they’re saving energy by going the shortest distance they can to survive."

The warning sign I had seen didn’t mention coyotes. I checked Ranger Carlton’s notes about cougars. She said that there was more chance of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion. Hey, didn’t the warning sign mention lightning as well? It was time we stopped "lolly-gagging" around and got out of here. With almost all the park roads closed, there wasn’t much more we could see anyway.

The countryside flattened as we drove further south towards LA. We tossed off our jackets, hats and scarves as the day warmed and we motored though acres of the orange and olive groves. The whole landscape had changed quickly from the start of the day and was now dry and flat, with clumps of cacti and Phoenix palms. The buildings took on a distinctly Spanish look. And, there were lots more people around.

Coming from the wide-open (and deserted) spaces, the increasing numbers of people and traffic, made me suddenly feel unsure and apprehensive, like a nervous country girl about to hit town. I had become "city shy". Take me back to the cougars and coyotes.

I pushed my irrational thoughts aside and told myself that these folks were just going about their usual life and work. The farmer ploughing his fields, the kid happily skateboarding, the people in the Ute (pick up) with their crop of vegetables piled high in the back were all just that, and not about to suddenly whip out their machine guns, as in the movie of my fevered imagination. I saw a cow shaped letterbox outside one house. "See", I told my pathetic, nervous inner self, "they have novelty letterboxes just like we do."

A funny sign lifted my spirits. It advertised the benefits of "gusto" wind machines, which are used during cold weather to stir the air, and protect the orange and olive groves from frost – "Cure for the common cold – gusto wind machinery"

I had finally settled into some sort of inner calm, when a large, battered Chevrolet, circa 1970’s, pulled close alongside of us. The driver was gesticulating wildly, hooting his horn and skimming dangerously close. After veering in and out alongside of us for a few metres, he zoomed ahead and cut across us, slamming on his brakes. There was no choice but to screech to a halt. As the dust settled I saw F1 and F2, who were navigating as front vehicle that day, continue on ahead as if nothing had happened.

The man in the Chevrolet flung open his door, and walked quickly back towards us. He was quite short, middle aged to elderly and didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons. Even so, we were on high alert. I couldn’t see his face, which was in shadow from his baseball hat. We decided to remain in the Land Rover, which would have a distinct height advantage over him. TH kept the Land Rover in gear, ready to steam forwards and push the Chevrolet out of the way, if necessary.

The man whipped off his baseball hat. He was grinning all over his dial as he shouted out, "Say, are you my long lost cousins from Noo Zeeee-land?" We stared at him in shock. Of all things, this was not what we had expected. By now he was alongside the Land Rover, peering up at TH with joy and amazement on his face.

"Cousins?", repeated TH.

"I sure hope so. The name is Gay Lucas. Put it there", the man said, thrusting his hand up into the Land Rover cab.

The penny dropped. Our sponsorship logos, which included the Lucas brand, were emblazoned all over the sides of both Land Rovers. The words "New Zealand" were also in very bold letters. Gay Lucas had been driving on the other side of the highway. He had seen the Land Rovers, then the logos, had whizzed around in a U turn and started chase. He’d recently studied his ancestry and had read that a branch of his family had immigrated to New Zealand.

And now here he was, clinging to the side of our Land Rover like an over-excited kid on his birthday. He was very disappointed that we weren’t his cousins, or that there wasn’t a rich Mr Lucas, back in New Zealand, who had sponsored us. He was keen to stay on and talk about how we might help him find his cousins in NZ. We were not keen at all. He seemed mad eyed and over-zealous. High on something, perhaps?

I looked up the road to see what had happened to F1 and F2. They had stopped a distant 200 metres away. Obviously, they were not going to act as the cavalry on this occasion. We extracted ourselves as gently as we could from Mr X and scooted onwards.

We stopped alongside F1 and F2. I shoved open my sliding window, "Why didn’t you come back?"
"We thought you had just stopped to talk", replied F1
"Didn’t you see we were forced off the road?"
"No, I didn’t notice."
"What about all the horns and shouting?"

Again, he hadn’t noticed. I remembered the incident back in the motel room several days ago, when F2 and I had been shouting at each other while F1 was on the telephone. He didn’t notice that either. Maybe he was one of these people that could isolate themselves into their own little bubble.

My eyes flicked across to F2. She was staring straight ahead. I wondered if she had noticed the incident. If she had, she wasn’t saying. Or, maybe she still hadn’t made the teamwork connection."

I sighed. I felt I shouldn’t have to spell this sort of stuff out. But, we were still new together as a team. What was obvious to me may not be that clear to others. Our leg though America was, in part, training for later, when we would be driving through wilder countries on the homeward leg.

So I just said, "keep your eyes open behind you, as well as in front. Remember, there is safety in numbers. If you are the lead vehicle and we stop for more than a few seconds, especially if we are forced off the road, then you need to come back."

They nodded and we moved on down the road.

F2 had been doing well with the navigating that day. But, she became more anxious as the day wore on. I guess the busier roads were having an effect on her too. There was no sign of any campsites and we decided on a motel. After F1 and F2 drove past several in a row, we ended up outside a "Best Western" that was expensive at $US65 per night (remember this was 1998). I suggested we go back to the motels we had just seen. But, F2 had had enough. She informed me that she was tired and she wasn’t going to stay in a dump.

We decided it was best to split up for the night to give everyone some space. The big argument we’d had in the last motel was still fresh in my mind and, while F2 had demonstrated a more even temper since then, she had been very tense at times.

TH and I returned to the cosy "Sundance Inn" down the road. At $US32 per night it was clean and comfortable and it was great to be alone with just each other.

© Eventful Woman, 2006

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1 comment:

Go on, tell me what you think of this story.