I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Robert Lowell, Skunk Hour
One night when I went out to the dumpster, I rounded the corner and saw a large black tail perched atop a white striped body ripping open a plastic bag. It took me less than a second to back out and run over to another dumpster. The garbage raider missed my presence and did not take aim.
We have plenty of skunks about in the summer. Sometimes I smell the rotten, nutty scent on a summer night or when I am driving down a highway. Mephitis mephitis roams the neighborhoods and country roads looking for fresh trash or road kill. Though I do my best to make sure that the trash bag gets into the dumpster, neighbor kids who are too short to reach the lid or too scared to stay long in the dark sometimes drop their loads on the concrete pavement inside the enclosure. This is where the hazard comes.
Some of us collect anecdotes of stupid hikers at Whiting:
I met him just as he was coming off the Edison Trail in Whiting Ranch, a small, spindly man with no hair, shorts, a short-sleeved plaid shirt, and a pair of earbuds blasting Beethoven as loud as he could stand it. A few months before I had met a mountain lion on this very trail, so I stopped him.
“There’s deer up there at the end of the trail,” he said, waving his arm in the general direction of nowhere in particular. I have to admit that I was surprised that he saw them.
“There’s also mountain lion up there,” I said, motioning to his earbuds.
“Oh yes,” he shouted with a smile and went on his way.
Birds subdued their calls. I saw no tracks other than boots and bicycle treads, so I dedicated the day to understanding the landscape. My pocket notebook was filling up with entries about the geology of Whiting Ranch — how the ridges north of Dreaded Hill came in waves, each of them consisting of a different geological formation. A loud buzz startled me from my observations. A blue-black insect the size of a bumblebee shot out of the sage scrub and zoomed down the road toward me, zigzagging before it hit me. I followed it — first by sight, then by foot — as it flew a little further and alighted on the stubble at the edge of the road.
Mountain Lion Track, July 7, 2014
Few people walk the Edison Road except diehards like me who can face a walk back uphill from a dead end. Few people means many animal tracks.
So the other day I discovered a bonanza in the dust. The mule deer which had been absent for several months were back. Their double half moon footprints crowded the edges of the trail (for some reason they didn’t like walking down the middle). Throw in some coyote and the x-shaped tracks of a roadrunner plus a possible bobcat and it made for a good day for tracking. After I climbed the hill from the cul de sac and started on my way back down the other end, I saw them. The first impressions left me uncertain. The loosness of the dust plus the waffle stompers of another hiker had obscured them somewhat. But after rounding the bend beneath the first electrical tower, I found hard evidence. They were about the size of the palm of my hand and there was no mistaking the rounded, bean-shaped toe prints: A mountain lion had followed the deer. A new apex predator was in residence.