The fleeting, odd bit of noise sounded mechanical when it first hit my ear. But we were in a designated wilderness wherein nothing of the sort is allowed. And so brief was the sound I almost wasn’t sure I heard it.
Then it sounded again. Definitely something humanmade. Maybe it was a horse since it couldn’t be a machine. It didn’t sound like a horse. I was grasping for meaning. It didn’t sound like anything to do with any horse.
“Did you hear that?”
“What the hell is that?”
Silence. A thin wisp of air through pine needles. That far out spacey, desolate sound. Two men and their thoughts. A long wondrous view overlooking a huge swath of piñon forest.
And there was that noise again. A metallic rattle from the direction of our camp where we had left behind our packs with our food, and so now there was another concern.
Other odd sounds drifted over, impossible to decipher and unsettling in the midst of wilderness. More rattling. Muffled rustling. Something.
“Sounds like a bear getting out food.”
I don’t know if it sounded like a bear shredding packs to get food, but the mind imagines and I had no other idea what else it could possibly be.
The noise was loud from such a distance. Whatever it was wasn’t small. It wasn’t a bird nor a rodent.
I stood on a rock gazing over the forest down toward our camp and I saw the tall tree the camp was under. I saw no movement but nor could I see our packs.
“I’ve never had any problems with bears in the Los Padres.”
“Neither have I.”
The afternoon sun struck the south slope of the high desert foothills with an unseasonably warm intensity for November.
We sat in the rocks for an hour or so watching the forest and the sun set behind mountain peaks in the far off distance and several times we each unsettled a yellow jacket nest in the ground nearby and they swarmed out to investigate our intrusion and we withdrew for fear of the tiny buggers.
And the bewildering noises continued.
“Wanna go see if we have anything left to eat?”
Just after the sun fell below the horizon we moseyed back to camp to see if the bear had left anything for us to pick through.
Nothing was touched in camp. No sign of any animal could be found.
Then the metallic rattle erupted as we stood in camp. The noise was nearby. A stone’s throw, perhaps.
“What the hell is that?” The mutual question.
The noises had been carrying on now for quite some time, inexplicably, and became ever more vexing.
Maybe it was a can rattling among rocks in the wind. But there was no wind, just a breeze too light to cause such a noise.
We walked from camp not many yards across the adjacent glade and to its far edge where the piñon pines began again. The noises continued intermittently.
Then we heard the yowls.
The lion cub as found.
The voice was that of a mammal. Finally we had some solid sense of. . .something. No doubt it was. . .hairy. It was a bloody milk drinker! Of some kind.
We surmised either a cat or possibly a bear was over in yonder darkening forest. Maybe a bob cat or lion. Maybe it was a young cub of some sort playing with trash, a can perhaps.
Bingo! Finally something was beginning to make sense way out there in the woods. Yes. Of course. It was a cub playing with a can. A curious and playful kid.
The first visit I made to this camp some number of years ago I found numerous old pull tab beer cans scattered about the trees. Imagine that.
There must be a trash dump a young animal got into, I thought. But the noises continued. On and on. And on. It made no sense.
“What kind of animal could possibly be occupied by a ******* can for so long?!”
None. No animal, of course. We couldn’t figure it out. The longer it carried on the stranger it seemed.
In the lingering twilight of autumn with an intense and fiery sunset burning up the tree silhouetted horizon, we walked through the glade spotted with Great Basin sagebrush to see if we could find a clear way into the piñon pines and scrub oak and take a gander at whatever it was out in the woods there.
We found no open natural easement through the forest with a cursory glance and so pulled up short and stood looking into the woods, not seeing much.
“Want to go see what it is?”
We stood along the treeline in a darkening forest. We’d have to push through some scrub and light branching and enter a more enclosed area within the trees, listening for the odd noise or a screech and trying to pinpoint. . . something. . .in there.
“I’m not inclined.”
Very funny. Some poor fool walked into the woods one fine fall night to investigate an eerie noise and he was promptly ripped to shreds by a mother mountain lion protecting her cub. That was the hypothetical news story imagined at the time.
No. We’re not entering Pan‘s lair to investigate. The origin of the word “panic.” We’ll save that for mañana, ese.
I returned my rather large and freshly sharpened carbon steel blade to its leather sheath. Maybe I wouldn’t have bled out from catastrophic lacerations and puncture wounds about the body and face after I liberated myself from the lion’s jaws and paws using my knife, and I would have instead crawled home like Hugh Glass. Very dry humor, indeed. It was all we had besides the deterrence of our presence, two lumbering bipedal primates.
We moseyed back to camp which took all of thirty seconds or so. The noises continued. Of course they did. I thought of the Blair Witch Project.
“What the hell is going on over there?”
It was too late to see. We’d wait ’til morning.
I had a nervous twinge. Not that I’d suffer harm. But the animal we thought for sure must be over there, because we heard its voice earlier, that animal was not actually acting at all like we know animals should normally act.
The animal didn’t seem to care about our voices or our loud walking about in the crunchy and sparsely covered soil or our scratching through the wiry scrub brush as we walked or our scent. And no animal plays with trash for hours on end.
We laid out beneath the Milky Way in the warm night. Stars shot across the speckled firmament. White dots drifted unblinking in orbit, satellites and space junk. And the noises rattled on once in awhile.
Maybe there was a cat den over there. But even so, we’d expect silence and not hours worth of loud noises and no seeming concern whatsoever for our presence.
At four o’clock in the morning I rose from my cot to irrigate the bushes and I stood within a trillion points of light sparkling all around even despite the beaming moon. The air was not cold. All was quiet. Finally.
But the noises had not ceased through the night, so my friend advised the next morning after sunrise, suffering as he had a fitful night of virtually no sleep, listening to the beast in the bush rattle around on occasion.
After coffee and a few slices of a Renaud’s almond croissant we finally went to investigate the noise. By this time I was thinking an animal had somehow gotten tangled up in old trash, like fencing or wire, and it was thrashing about trying to free itself.
We found an old latrine pit without a lid. Trapped inside the hole was a baby lion three or four months old.
I have only seen two mountain lions in the Los Padres National Forest in all my time out there. The first was a desiccated body of a young lion that had been hit by a car on the 101 freeway along Gaviota Coast and crawled into the creek and died in a cave. The second lion was this one here trapped in an excrement pit among beer cans.
We collected a few old bits of cut wood and tree limbs and stacked them inside the pit as a ladder for the lion to climb out. The poor animal was terrified, shaking.
The lion eventually climbed to the rim of the pit and stood there for a long time on the branches looking around at the forest, its head silently turning in the quiet morning air with a real slow fluidity that almost looked machine-like.
The little cat waited quite some time before venturing out. Then it finally crawled ever so slowly from the pit and crept off in slow motion, slinking, super leery, as if not wanting to provoke a chase and get eaten should it run for freedom. Then it did bolt and was gone.