What are those? Eleanor asked.
She was pointing to a pair of paws stuck into the mud of the wet desert floor. They were between the scrub off trail and the melting ice on trail. They were the size of a baseball with large claws extending out. Puppies, I told her hopefully. She shook her head. We were in a valley; there was a long canyon in front of us and a sandscape of rock, needles, and fins on the other side that led to our car. She quickly outpaced me. She was walking with a force I hadn’t seen before, Chaco boots pounding across sand. The sky was still grey and cloudy but there was an added tint to it, and even at 4:30pm night was starting to creep in. It was very quiet. A breeze brushed across sage, the desiccated winter bodies of prickly pear cactus, bunch grass, Utah juniper, and the green leaves of cliffrose. There was a howl behind us.
I told Eleanor it was hikers or a bird. Her eyes said, it’s a cat. We rushed across red rock and pink dirt and orange dust. We rushed down stone carve steps and across a gravel parking lot and into our car panting.
When we’d go home that night, we’d look up wildcat prints and re-learn what we had learned as children: cats don’t typtically have claw marks. They were a dog or a coyote. But we didn’t know that yet. And in our rush to get out we were let with a sunset so bright that we pulled over dozens of times to capture it. We saw cows hunkering home across vast stretches of BLM land that rose with old canyon walls and stone spires. We saw mule deer fan out across fields of scrub and dart like birds over the road. We saw ranchers liftng bales of hay out of their truck beds and photographers scooting behind rocks for windbreaks, and ravens floating like capes across the sun.