Lion Paths: Encounters in the Pinal Mountains

Wild beauty
Looking west - Dripping Springs

Dripping Springs Mountains – photo by A.Sato

“Homo sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them.”

― Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild

July mornings in the Sonoran Desert have a way of prompting an unplanned exodus. Upon waking, I wander into the yard to find my plants a paltry collapsed mess under the weight of 95-degree nights – when it “cools down” from 115. This is the scene at my home every summer here in Phoenix. The intrepid gardener seeks to balance her love for fresh vegetables with the advantage of native plants and a little bit of luck against the nefarious blaze of the low desert sun.

Pinal Peak - photo by A. Sato

Pinal Peak – photo by A. Sato

Fortunately, most of my summer weekends since moving to Phoenix have been spent in the Pinal Mountains, a 45,760-acre range southwest of the mining town of Globe, Arizona. Once the deer-rich hunting grounds of various bands of Western Apaches, these mountains have a history of conflict fueled by mining interests.  The Pinals, like much of the region, have stories rife with mining claims, battles, and indigenous displacement. A series of violent attempts to overcome the Apache hold on the mineral-rich mountains by the Spanish and Mexican armies began as early as the mid-1700s and continued through the late-1800s. Remnants of historic mining camps display their telltale goods: thick turquoise glass jug bottoms, fused and rusted bean cans, tobacco tins, and crumbling foundations.

The ascent into the Pinals is both hair-raisingly steep and utterly, unspeakably beautiful. A true sky island, the highest point at Pinal Peak is a 7, 848-foot Pre-Cambrian summit framed by the communities of Globe and the San Carlos reservation to the east, the Gila River floodplain to the south, and the Sonoran Desert to the west and north. Beginning with the high Sonoran and Chihuahuan mix of Parry’s agave (century plants) and the occasional saguaro at the lowest reaches, the terrain soon changes to an interior Chaparral community of scrub oak, manzanita, and alligator juniper. By 5,000 feet, you enter the cool embrace of a Ponderosa pine forest – a welcome relief! The visual change is dramatic, but even more dramatic: the temperature variance. If it is 100 degrees in Globe, which sits at 3,500 feet, it can be an amazingly cool 68 degrees at the higher points of this range.

Ridges and desert for miles

Ridges for miles – photo by A. Sato

Beyond the history of these slopes, what has always appealed to me, desert dweller that I have become, is its eclectic terrain in such close proximity to Phoenix. A short 1.45 hours (when one considers the amount of suburban sprawl that must be negotiated in order to break free) to the upper level campgrounds, and I am able to breathe again. I stroll amongst bracken, goldenrod, and bluedicks along cattle trails that meander their way through high ground meadows. Moss and lichen decorate the aspens and pines on the northeastern slopes as turkey vultures and an assortment of ravens and hawks hang out in the cool evening winds.

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod - photo by A. Sato

Mountain meadow alive with Goldenrod – photo by A. Sato

On one particular July morning, I ascended the mountain and found myself utterly alone! I cannot describe the blissful state I enter when I find that I am the only human in a wild place. The cacophony of my urban surroundings was far below the gorgeous slopes and melodic calls of winged friends.  The usual weekend recreationists had not made their way in with ATVs, generators, and guns. Even the peaceful bird watchers who come to this range seeking a glimpse of the rare Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush were absent. The only audible sounds came from the occasional birdsong and the slight breeze that dipped through the oak branches and carried a sweet smell of unknown foliage.

Along the road, verdins jumped in and out of juniper trees and dove beyond the steep drop-offs that fell hundreds of feet onto rocky ledges. As I walked into a dense pine grove, two white-tailed deer – drinking from moisture-filled tinajas – looked up and quickly jumped vertically into the sky and above the granite boulders that hug the creek.
Beyond the trees, the watercolor world of hot sand radiated as one might imagine a distorted photograph kept in a damp attic. From the trees, I feel like a soft traitor – an escape artist capable of flying away from my home at speeds and in manners no other desert dwelling creature has the luxury of doing. I imagined the Collared Peccaries (javelinas) napping in cool wash beds, coyotes flicking off bugs and seeking shade before the midday sun makes a white, hard light of everything.

Aspen groves

Aspen grove – photo by A. Sato

This is the place of the interloper. I know I am not unlike the first foreigner to wander here, hoping for salvation in the form of gold or game or, in my case, respite. This is the land of mule and white-tailed deer and with them, North American cougars. The Forest Service doesn’t know exactly how many mountain lions reside in this range, but they allow a certain number of kills each year. Last year, 8 lions were taken. My one and only encounter (thus far) with a mountain lion occurred just ¼ mile below the Lower Pinal Campground. It happened precisely on the day of my solitude and was uncanny in its luck. I had just witnessed a juvenile bobcat sitting along the forest road, which I had mistaken for a lost dog – and from my jeep, it looked like a dog until it turned and leapt up the slope and into the thick undercover. Dumbfounded by the rare sighting, I slowed down and gazed up into the canopy in awe.

The late day sun was starting to sink and my camp was established, so I decided to take a short hike before making dinner. As I wound my way around a small, overgrown trail, I saw a blaze of yellow descend through the Gambel oak and manzanita. For a moment, I was frozen – truly, that heart-pounding catatonia that typifies such an encounter is accurate because I could not move. I had to process in my frontal lobe what my reptile brain knew: large predator. A short distance later and I saw a mule deer leg. I couldn’t refute my experience at that point; I knew what I had encountered. Needless to say, I quickly retraced my steps and scrambled back to my campsite.

Blue dusk

Blue dusk – photo by A. Sato

That evening, a series of blood curdling screams filled the canyon near my tent. It was early yet and I had every reason to simply pack up and leave, but something compelled me to stay and listen… again, the screams. I can only describe the sound of big cats mating as something my imagination would conjure into a pterodactyl. I turned off my lantern and listened until the sounds stopped and the night was once again silent.

It’s hard to describe with any accuracy the feeling of hearing such an unnerving yet powerful call. But I continued to ponder this, my place in the wild, my safety or lack thereof, and the amazement I felt at listening to a song I never imagined hearing.

Wild beauty - free image via Morguefile

Wild beauty – free image via Morguefile

Always a poetic child and adult, I have written many love letters over the years. Now I find myself writing the narratives of place with the same deep-feeling gratitude and infatuation. The Pinal Mountains have charmed me with their lion magic, rare bird sightings, and unusual flora. Not a wilderness or intensely protected area, my devotion to them grows with each visit because they do not have some of the protections found in areas far more inaccessible. I grow ever-more protective of the range when I see beer cans litter her soft floor or spray paint blotched on granite boulders and pines that house numerous plant and animal species.

If place makes us, I want to be partially comprised of these mountains and canyons of which I make my temporary home. As much as I care for this place, it will take a lifetime for me to scratch the surface of its story or to be accepted into its fold.  The night with the lion, I will always remember with my full senses. Whatever it was, serendipity or fate, I had been gifted with the sights and sounds of a most gracious, graceful, and elusive host. It is her mountain, after all. I am just a visitor.

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