On a Christmas week in the early 70’s I solo hiked into Linville Gorge in the North Carolina mountains. Hatchet and knife, compass and tent, food and flint, mummy bag and canteens. I left my VW bug on the rough road that led to Wiseman’s view, where one could view the Brown Mountain Lights (spectral light from a servant’s lantern as he sought his lost master a century before – see the Tommy Faile song) and stars at night, the laurel-tangled wilderness and white Linville River by day. I wasn’t looking for ghosts but was on one of the many self-discovery treks and rides of the decade, the kind of “roughing it” that looks foolish and a little dangerous decades later. As I said, ghosts were not my pursuit, but I thought just for a spell that I “encountered” either a living eastern mountain lion or the ghost of one.
Panther, painter, catamount, puma (Quechua for “powerful”), cougar. We have many names for felis concolor, but when I was a young man the prevailing theory was that North America had given birth to two subspecies, one eastern and one western. The latter had thrived, and the former was vanishing due to diminishing food source (deer, coon, possum, squirrels, even grasshoppers) and shrinking territory, due to human encroachment. Although scores of residents of the far hollers, swales and peaks would swear on a Testament that they’d seen one, still photographs and film footage were rare and questionable, assigning the animal a legendary presence as much as a zoological one, much like the “Lord God bird,” or ivory-billed woodpecker of the swampland further south. In short, a ghost cat as much as a resident.
The cougar is a large and graceful “ambush predator” that can weigh 200 pounds and leap 20 feet, cover 25 miles in a night’s hunting and snap a neck with its mighty jaws. We still read of occasional attacks out west and see news clips of the effects – torn carcasses covered over with brush as caches for further feeding. The cats gravitate to high ground and love shadowed shelves, caves, crevices, Mostly solitary, they are born with blue eyes that turn green (legend says: at first kill; scientists say, if nope). They’re tawny as their African cousins but with white and bisque underside, black facial markings and a long, heavy, crow-tipped tail that drags and bounces on the ground, making their trail in snow more than the lobe-and-petal paw prints.
Besides their fierceness and near-invisibility (“rare” to “endangered,” and as of last month officially “extinct”), I believe the feature that keeps alive their presence or spirits hunting and haunting, feeding and filling the highland night in the minds of Appalachians and tourists is the scream. A panther’s vocal chords (closer to fiddle than bass) lack the range to roar , but it’s howl-scream is blood-chilling. You can’t hear it by extrapolating on what you know of house cats, and it’s generally claimed to sound something like a woman in labor just as she completes an excruciating birth. I’d heard it (or some facsimile) in movies and TV (often on the dependable Rawhide) since I was young, and it never fails to shiver through me and raise my neck hairs.
So there you have it, a putatively indigenous murderous night wanderer in the season of hibernation that puts some feasts out of reach, and an exhausted young man with substantial imagination and no firepower beyond sparking steels. I’d pitched my camp on the Linville’s shore by rugged rapids, collected wood and built a dry fire, eaten my beanie-weenies and apple, filled my canteen, read by flashlight from my beloved camp-rough copy of Treasure Island (young Jim’s pistol ball knocks Israel Hands from the crow’s nest again) and lay back against my branch-and-brush chairback to practice surveillance on the stars. It might have been nine or ten o’clock, and there was no moon. An hour or so later I heard it, but not the same as in the movies. The growl/yowl/scream/screech was the perfect chord of hunting. The three-part sound carried claws and fangs and the fetid breath of a big beast. Not just primal but primitive, and it carried a harsh note of absolute and immediate need. Upriver. A hundred yards away? Closer? I was terrified, and all I knew to do was hack away at the understory and feed the fire, let it do my roaring. Did I say it was cold? Must have been, given the way I was shaking. Flurries swirled off and on during the night, providing even more strangeness from which my eyes could conjure a cat from blurry foliage and adrenalin.
I passed a restless night, chopping, stirring the coals, sharpening a spear (futile but distracting) with my Gerber, seeing movement in shadows, green eyes in the night, always aware that the cougar is expert at stealth, with a sudden rush at the end. For a while I sat on a rock in mid-river because I knew the animal called by hill people the “catamount” did not much savor a swim, but I couldn’t stand the wet wind away from my fire, and I had to keep the flame high.
Before dawn I was so exhausted I crawled into the red tent with spear, sheath knife and hatchet all close at hand. I planned to feed the fire every half hour, but I soon fell asleep from effort and fear, and it was almost nine when I woke, the real snow having fallen late, maybe three inches. When I poked my blue-tobogganed head through the flap, three crows on a nearby limb seemed the remnant of night, everything else pristine, contoured, somehow comforting. I survived, through no art of my own. Maybe, I thought, I’ve just outlasted another fit of my imagination, a misinterpretation of wind honed on rock, but maybe the threat had been real, and dire.
I mustered my courage and began to scout upriver, spiraling, seeking signs. When I found the tracks about 150 yards away, I was double-punched, as I realized the animal had been there after the snowfall, while I was asleep. Talk about a chill running to the heart. But then I felt relief: by my reckoning the prints were too small, not deep enough, though the span of its leaps was too long for a cub. The answer had to be the bob-tailed common bobcat (Lynx rufus), a lesser critter, half the length of a panther, both more familiar to me (even these days, on winter nights, one will visit the stone wall around my property) and uninterested in as big a target as I present. The relief I felt was considerable, but not without a note of regret. A panther would have been of more consequence, both a more instructive memory and a better story.
When I did see a panther in the wild, it was 1988 in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and I was walking along a dry ridge at midday, a day pack and Winchester slung over my shoulder. To the north, across an arroyo maybe an eighth of a mile away I noted, scanning with my field glasses, something irregular along the buff-colored ledge. Kneel, strip off my gear, focus. An unmistakable cougar/ mountain lion/ puma (Guinness lists some 40 names) in profile, larger than my 180 pounds and staring right back, probably – given the wind direction – smelling my sweat, my deodorant, my whole soup of human scents. Its head was turned to the side to scout my ridge, but it soon swiveled and walked along its path, no hurry, no concern, mutual disinterest. My pulse had raced at first glimpse, but that passed quickly. I had at least seen a western mountain lion in its native habitat, but it actually didn’t quite match the swarm of rubythroats which later that day developed such a threatening, diving interest in my scarlet long john top that I had to strip it off.
These narratives and speculations matter to me because, after holding out long after other agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally declared the eastern panther, if there ever was such a separate subspecies, extinct. Case closed. But I don’t want to give up on the ghost cat. Survival against the odds, a clever predator lurking and bounding on the margins, both mischief and mayhem. A magical being who, like Faulkner’s bear Old Ben, you will only see in the Appalachian deep woods if you stray, if you become like the cat “a wanderer.” I’m getting too old and infirm to get out there and see for myself, but I cling to our beautiful monsters, especially the indigenous ones. And it’s hard to prove a negative, a nothing that’s there. I keep my field glasses close to hand, just in case, but I’m also ready (if rain, if snow, if any wet weather allow) to pile on the fuel and let the flames claw at the sky.