A close encounter in the Devil’s Garden

George Brown
It was midday when we arrived at Arches National Park. The weather couldn’t have been better. As we turned off the main road and headed toward the visitor’s center we were greeted with an awe inspiring view of massive red cliffs rising majestically above us to meet a brilliant blue sky sprinkled with just the right amount of fluffy white clouds.

The sun was bright but it was a dry heat and after a brief stop at the visitor’s center we excitedly struck out to explore and experience the grandeur of the arches and the other extraordinary features of the park.

Four hours slipped by quickly. While we weren’t tired of exploring, our bodies were telling us it was time for a rest so we headed into Moab to check into our motel and find a quiet place to have dinner. That quiet place was the Moab Brewery where we enjoyed a delicious meal, the effect of which was to rejuvenate me to explore the deeper recesses of the park at sunset while Yvonne relaxed in our room with a good book.

In less than an hour I had arrived at my destination, the Devils Garden, located at the very end of the park highway. With backpack over my shoulder, I headed for Landscape Arch, first passing by and pausing to take pictures of Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch.

By the time I reached Landscape Arch at the end of the sandy gravel trail it was about 7:00. I realized I might not make it all the way to the Fiery Furnace and Dark Angel spire before dark, but I hoped to at least reach the Double-0 Arches. Doing so would require traversing a primitive trail up a steep rocky outcrop that reminded me of one of those scenes from a wild-west movie where the bad guys hide to shoot at the stagecoach as it passes by.

Hiking trails are typically rated easy, moderate, and strenuous. I soon realized that primitive is a trail rating somewhere beyond strenuous. As I began my climb to the top, the only evidence of a trail was the well-worn places on the rocks from numerous hikers who had passed that way before, all of whom I decided must have been no more than half my age.

After 30 minutes of scrambling up the rocks, sometimes clinging to scrub roots and almost crawling to pull myself up a little further, and at one point squeezing through a narrow crevasse barely large enough for me and my backpack to fit through, I finally reached a plateau where the trail leading to the Double-0’s becomes easier.

As I paused to rest, two young men and a young woman arrived returning from the Double 0’s. From the look on their faces I could tell they were surprised (and secretly I hoped impressed) by the fact that an old man could have ascended this primitive section of the trail. I was winded but managed to take only slow short breaths to avoid revealing that I was exhausted.

The young woman asked how far I planned to go, then before I could answer volunteered that it would take another 40 minutes just to reach the Double-0 Arches. With the shadows rapidly growing long around us I realized I needed to turn back now to avoid being stranded alone in the dark in the Devils Garden. The young people asked if I wanted to accompany them, no doubt worried about my getting safely back down the rugged trail, but I told them to go on that I would be along after I rested a bit.

I drank one of the three bottles of water I had in my backpack then began descending the trail. It proved to be easier than I thought and I was soon at the bottom. By then it was dusk and as I looked around I realized I was probably the last person still on the trial.

I picked up my pace but had only gone a short distance when I spotted a jack rabbit crossing the trail ahead of me. When I arrived at the spot where the rabbit had crossed I looked for his tracks, but instead of rabbit tracks I saw several large paw prints in the sand at the side of the trail. At first I thought someone must have been walking a very large dog, but then I recalled that pets are not permitted on the trails.

As I bent over Indian style to examine the tracks, I heard a rustle in the scrubby bushes on the other side of the trial. Darkness was nearly upon me and from the bushes two green eyes glowed like giant fireflies not more than 25 or 30 feet away. My heart leaped into my throat as I stood to my feet. I no longer needed to examine the tracks to know I was in the path of a mountain lion that was tracking the jack rabbit I’d just seen.

I slowly took a few steps backward until my back was against a large bolder and I slid to the ground in a kneeling position, not knowing what to do next except to wait for the cat to make his move.

And move he did, not rapidly as though he would attack but slowly, and eyeing me as he approached the trail. I was struck with fear but knew not to turn and run. Instead, and I cannot tell you why, a peculiar idea came to me. I slowly reached into my backpack and retrieved a bottle of water and the little tin bowl I carry to give our dog, Lily, a drink when she hikes with us. As the cat stood motionless in the middle of the trail, I slowly opened the bottle of water, sat the bowl on the ground and filled it with water, then slid it forward a few feet in front of me.

In a moment the cat began to approach. I don’t know how I kept breathing but somehow I did as the cat, eyes fixed upon me, slowly approached and began drinking from the bowl as harmlessly as our little kitten at home would drink a bowl of milk.

It only took a few laps with his large tongue for the mountain lion to empty that little tin bowl. Then he raised his head and made a low half growling half purring sound before turning and walking from the trial in the direction the jack rabbit had gone.

I’d have given anything to have been able to slip my camera from my pocket to take a picture of that mountain lion drinking from Lily’s little tin bowl, for once being able to capture a picture that would prove the truth of my frightening and seemingly unbelievable encounters with fearsome critters, but I can only imagine the reaction I might have received by raising my arms and having the flash of the camera go off in his eyes. So once again I must leave it to you my faithful readers and friends to know that such a story is too amazing to be untrue.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.