Night closes quickly, falls like a curtain. There is no moon tonight, and the few stars that can be seen near a city are hiding behind clouds. The trailside trees vanish. The familiar canyon vanishes. Our world consists of a double circle lit by our headlamps, too many night sounds, and our imaginations…
An owl hoots on our right. A reply comes from further up the canyon. A few minutes later an owl flies over, so close, so big and so silent, that it startles us to a standstill.
“Did you see that?” B whispers. Somehow the dark forest makes you feel you should whisper.
“It was huge!” I whisper back.
We continue on, struggling along a trail recently trashed by rain, unseasonably warm temperatures and a lot of horses. Do you know how deep a 1200 pound animal sinks in mud? We focus on each step, keep our eyes to the trail in front of us. B stops.
“What was that?” he whispers.
“I didn’t hear anything. What did it sound like?”
“Like a growl.”
Great. I ignore the goosebumps crawling up my spine and go straight for my favorite weapon. Denial.
“Maybe it was the stream.”
He doesn’t answer, just stands there trying to get his headlamp aimed in the direction of the sound.
“Hmmm,” he says, then starts going again.
We started running in the dark about a month ago, when the days got too short for after-work runs. We started in a paved canyon that is closed to cars for the winter. On that first run we didn’t see a single deer in a canyon where we usually see dozens.
“Why aren’t there any deer?” I whispered to B on that run.
“I don’t know.”
This lack of deer made us nervous. Were they hiding? We know there are large predators in our mountains. We’ve seen very large paw prints, both canine and feline. So, being effing insane, B did some research.
Some facts about canines: There are no wolves in our area. Okay, wolves would be really really cool, but terrifying to see on a trail at night. Coyotes are generally afraid of people. This doesn’t make me feel any better because a coyote attacked a security guard at a copper mine that is approximately one stone’s throw from the paved canyon where we did our first night run. The one coyote I have seen on a trail run was quite large, as big as Clayton the Malador, and therefore terrifying to see on a trail at night.
There are foxes, too, but they’re just adorable and fluffy and not scary at all.
Some facts about felines: There are mountain lions in our area. Many, many mountain lions. Mountain lions absolutely LOVE our area. I love big cats. I love mountain lions. I would love to see one. I would NOT love to have one attack me from behind and bury it’s teeth into my neck. Yep, that’s what they do. Mountain lions are generally afraid of people. Does this make me feel better? No. Mountain lions begin hunting at dusk and hunt during the night. They seldom attack humans. When they do, it is usually a solitary person. I run alone a lot, but not at night. When a mountain lion DOES attack a human the person is probably on a mountain bike. Or running. That’s right, running. It really sets off that killer kitty instinct when they see you running. There are bobcats too, and they are apparently bad-tempered and aggressive, but not really big enough to kill you.
Cats of all sizes have a fear of dogs and will probably avoid a person with a dog even if that person is slow-moving and delicious-looking. But we don’t take our dogs on night runs. It’s hard enough to run a dark trail without a leashed beast pulling you around, and we’re afraid of having them off-leash in the dark.
Enough facts, back to the muddy slog through the dark and terrifying canyon…
We try to make it up two miles, but the trail is just too muddy and annoying so we turn around about a half mile short of our goal. Heading back down is always more scary to me. I feel like now I have my back to whatever is out there even though I really did all along. We come to a crossroads and stop. One side trail doesn’t look too bad. It looks downright passable.
“Where does that go?” B asks me. In a whisper, of course.
I tell him. We head that way. It’s a steady climb, and muddy, but better than the other trail. We run for about fifteen minutes before it gets too slimy to continue. B takes this opportunity to answer nature’s call and I scan the trees with my headlamp so he doesn’t get attacked mid-pee. Then I scan the trail we have just come up. You know how people say they were so afraid of something that their heart stopped? That’s what happened to me at this moment. My headlamp is highlighting a very clear, very fresh, and very large cat print.
I stutter something to B and he comes to take a look. I start back down the trail, pretty quickly, assuming he’s following me.
Remember, he’s effing insane. He’s following the cat tracks up the trail. So I run back up the trail. I really don’t care to be alone right now. The tracks disappear into the trees after a short distance. I imagine the cat circling around to the other side of us and waiting.
The run down is slow, but my heart rate is fast. I carry on a comforting monologue in my head. There are plenty of deer this year… and turkeys… tons and tons of turkeys. Why would a mountain lion bother eating a human with all of those delicious turkeys around? That sound? That breaking branch sound? Couldn’t be a mountain lion, they would never break a branch, they’re silent… so silent you would never even hear them coming up behind you… whoa, no don’t think about that.
We make it to the car, both of us alive. I don’t like fear. I don’t like horror movies, haunted houses, scary stories, any of that. I REALLY hate clowns. I sit in the Durango for a minute. My heart rate slows, I relax.
We made it. We’re okay.
I hate being afraid. I hate it.
So why am I so excited for my next night run!?!