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The Interface Zone

On a walk with his dog in the woods, the author ponders tracks,
mortality, and the comfortable reality of living with Puma concolor.

By M. John Fayhee

Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my latest book A Long Tangent: Musings by an Old Man & His Young Dog Hiking Every Day for a Year (Mimbres Press of Western New Mexico University). Slightly edited to fit magazine format.

I HAVE NO IDEA HOW LONG I had been following the tracks in the snow. My dog Casey and I were hiking upon one of the closest trails to town, located in what is called by land-use planners the “wildland/urban interface zone.” As if such nomenclature was not demeaning enough, it is a management classification that has an official acronym: WUI, pronounced “woo-ee.” A WUI can informally be defined as one part mostly screwed up and one part very likely to soon be screwed up even more.

As usual, I was about 90% oblivious to my surroundings. Buzzing along, happy as a pig in slop. At some point though, the remaining 10% reluctantly emerged when I noticed beneath my feet a set of paw prints that appeared at first blush to be canine in origin. “My, my,” I said to Casey. “That was one sizable dog.” Casey, with her nose ever to the ground, appeared somewhat agitated. I kneeled and put my hand over one of the tracks. My extended digits barely covered it. Casey’s prints were, by comparison, miniscule.

Then, almost immediately, I started hiking again, and my thoughts wandered toward Neverland. But something felt a bit amiss on the fight-or-flight front. Reality once more beckoned. I looked down at those tracks again and realized there was no evidence that the pooch had been accompanied by a human. Most times, where there are dog tracks on a trail, there are accompanying people tracks. This struck me as marginally weird enough that I snapped completely out of my on-trail bliss and studied the situation lying at my feet. Could it have been a coyote? A wolf? A bear? Uh … a mountain lion? Thoughts about food-chain dynamics began to percolate. This is what’s known as a moderate buzzkill.

Though I am hardly an expert in the field, I do know that tracks left by a mountain lion closely resemble those of a large dog — except with the claws retracted. I once more leaned over, and, sure enough, no matter how many of them I scrutinized, no matter the angle of observation, nary a claw mark was visible in the snow.

So, OK, likely those tracks were left by Puma concolor—the second-largest feline species in the Western Hemisphere after the jaguar.

Given the newness of the snow cover, it was a recent passing.

My heart rate began to tick upward. I put Casey on a leash—a rarity—and pulled her closer to me. She considered that a sure sign of imminent doom.

A bit farther along the trail, the tracks suddenly ended. I peered in every direction and, nope, nary another track was visible. No additional snow had fallen, so it wasn’t like they were recently covered. They seemingly disappeared into thin air. It was then that I noticed the thick trunk of an old juniper an arm’s length to my left. It was also then that I wondered if I really truly wanted to look up into the branches of that tree, afraid of what I might observe observing me.

There has long been much in the way of press in the West regarding encounters between “wild” (read: living where they’ve always lived) animals and humans who have elbowed their way into erstwhile undisturbed ecosystems. Many have been the reports of pets becoming tasty menu items for coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, et al. Critters with a taste for blood, bone, and sinew. A full-grown man was killed and eaten by a mountain lion outside the town where I live a few years back. That caused quite the local stir.

People react differently to that kind of news. Many folks rationally argue, usually from the comfort of their den, that it’s man who has moved into habitat that was forever occupied by wildlife. Therefore, such people maintain, it is incumbent upon humans to make appropriate adjustments, one of which is to clearly understand that, when you step foot into the wild, you might end up getting killed.

Others argue that the Powers that Be ought to be protecting populated areas from animal invasion, using lethal means if necessary.

Many times—though not nearly enough times—I have come in contact with wildlife. I have come face-to-face with numerous bears; I’ve seen a mountain lion as big as a U-Haul van; and I once had a full-grown cow moose whack me with her snout. I’ve seen bobcats, coyotes, wolves, bison, and a whole host of other examples of potentially dangerous fauna. And, yes, there has been some pants-wetting on my part. But never once has the thought entered my head that the authorities ought to come in and “do something about” all these pesky animals “intruding” on our well-marked trails and well-maintained suburban lawns. I can’t even imagine anyone thinking such an inane thing. “Well, you obviously haven’t lost a cat to a fox,” one indignant lady sniffed in my direction when I uttered that sentiment, probably a bit too loudly, in a mountain-town bar.

“No, that’s because I’m a responsible pet owner,” I, pretty much a lifelong cat daddy, retorted.

My eyes slowly began moving their way up the trunk of that juniper. Mountain lions are “ambush predators” and, as such, they are masters of camouflage. And they have supercharged reflexes. I squinted and combed the branches, half expecting to soon be wearing a cougar chapeau. The branches above me were feline free. I was disappointed—though, of course, that’s easy to say now since there was no lion preparing to pounce upon my cranium.

I simply could not suss out how those tracks came to disappear midstride. Mountain lions are able to jump something like 20 feet. So, maybe it leaped off the trail into the thick surrounding brush. Either way, time to move along, with frequent backward glances.

When I related the story of the tracks in the snow to my chums at happy hour that evening, they all huddled closer together. Many of the people I drink with are disinclined to venture any farther into the proximate national forest than developed picnic grounds or scenic overlooks. They are primarily urban-raised artist types who view the wildness lapping upon the shores of our town as something frightening, something best avoided. They live here despite that wild country, not because of it. Yet, not one of them even hinted that the animal cops ought to go in and remove—much less dispatch—the wildlife that dwells out where the concrete ends, out where reality begins.

“Weren’t you scared?” one ceramicist asked, her eyes wide.

“Yeah, but only a bit,” I responded, with perhaps a bit too much alcohol-infused bravado. “But that’s why I live here.”

At that point, the mountain lion whose tracks Casey and I followed in the snow reverted to the realm of abstraction. Another goddamned abstraction.

For 12 years, M. John Fayhee was the editor of the Mountain Gazette. A long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine, Fayhee is the author of 13 books, two of which were Colorado Book Awards finalists. After living in the Colorado high country for a quarter-century, he now calls New Mexico’s Gila Country home.

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