This past week was a stormy one in Livingston: the streets teemed with cowboys, rodeo groupies, buckle bunnies, ranch hands hoping to impress or make a name for themselves, Japanese tourists disgourged from buses, Midwestern families on their way to Yellowstone, fishermen hogging double parking spaces with their Mackenzie boats. From all of those disparate energies, the atmosphere at the Murray was decidedly edgy. The weather mirrored the human element: sun lit mornings faded by early afternoon as the legendary Livingston wind shepherded storm clouds and lightning crowned the northern ridges of the Absarokas.
Tourists might have grumbled about the rain on the rodeo parade or the storm-shortened dance after the fireworks, but locals rejoiced with every drop that fell. The memories of last summer's Pine Creek fire -- the flames that could be seen from nearly every street in town, the civic center housing over a hundred evacuees -- is still fresh in everyone's nightmares.
That fire just missed our meadow Above Paradise: the cemetery where my dog's ashes lie provides a gut-wrenching view of the ridge above Deep Creek where -- by luck or karma or a perfect act of contrition -- a north wind blew the two-day-old fire back upon itself, to later be extinguished by another lucky chance: a brief, early autumn rain shower.
The handful of residents of Above Paradise -- including us -- evacuated during that fire. We left not knowing if we would ever return to the meadow and cabin that we knew, with everything of value that we could transport -- memories not included -- jumbled in the bed of our pickup truck.
At moonrise on the longest day of the year, we returned to a cabin still standing. Stripped of many of its treasures, the interior seemed barren, but was also beset by a troubling number of inexplicable and seemingly unrelated problems: the welded metal of a light fixture had been sheared cleanly apart, the in-feed hose of the toilet had exploded, the inverter for the solar electrical system flashed anomalous and bizarre readings. After two days of damage control, we still couldn't get the electrical system up to snuff, so we consulted an expert who diagnosed the problem: the place had been hit by a stray bolt of lightning.
Much of the solar electric system could be replaced but the batteries -- fancy "gel" things that perform better than acid batteries in cold weather -- had to be special ordered -- from China. If we're lucky, they should be here around the beginning of August. In the meantime, we're muddling along with about 40% power. It's not really too much of a hardship: this time of year daylight stretches from before 5 AM until after 10, and with propane fueling our stove, fridge, and water heater, only the water pump, computer, and cell phone (which supplies our internet) suck the precious electricity.
Sunday, the end of the holiday weekend, was another stormy day: the sky clouded at mid-afternoon and a keening wind ushered in successive storms, including one bout of hail that transformed our tin roof into a war zone and left the meadow as white as a Christmas card. But like almost all storms in these mountains, at dusk the energy quieted. The low sun windowed through the whiskered clouds to tint Mount Delano with gold, then apricot, rose-pink, and finally mauve.
From our darkened second story loft, we watched the flanks of the mountain known as the Sleeping Giant fade to purple. In the day's last light, Tom glanced across the meadow to our "generator" -- the solar panel. "There's a deer down there," he noted casually.
And then, more abruptly: "That's not a deer, it's a puma!"
The big cat sidled around the solar panel and followed the path that Rainy, Ole, and I have worn through the long grass. In the failing light, the animal appeared almost deer-colored, but the gait was a sure give-away: only a cat steps with its paws ahead of its body. Even from above, we could see that the mountain lion was nervous, on guard: although all of the windows had been shut against the storm, the path loudly broadcast our presence.
But still the puma advanced to the bench on the handkerchief of lawn south of the cabin. The house was constructed on an outcrop with an almost cliff-like drop beyond the narrow stone walkway on the east side. The walkway provides a convenient route along the contour of the mountain but its use requires passage within a breath of our house.
The mountain lion paused at the bench, the edge of our ninety square feet of civilization. From where the puma stood, I could see it plainly: the impossibly long tail swishing like a house cat's, the tawny flanks, the backbone a sharply-defined ridge, the comparatively small head. The cougar stood frozen, one front foot planted well in advance of the rest of its body. That foot and the lower part of the leg appeared dark. I checked the other legs: they were all the same chocolate brown color, like a fox's. At first, I thought that the darkness was because the fur on the legs was wet, but the lower belly and chest -- which also must have been damp from puma's route through the rain-soaked meadow -- were the same tawny color as the back.
The big cat resumed his cautious advance, and with two unhurried steps, it had crossed in front of the house to the walkway and out of our field of vision. We hurried to the big north window, hoping for another glimpse.
"Did you see his legs? They're black."
"The tip of his tail, too. And his ears. Never seen anything like it."
We hardly dared to breathe, but in two breaths the cat was in sight again, emerging from the shadow of the cabin, footsteps crunching on the gravel of our driveway, padding toward our truck. In full body view, I plainly saw the black highlights on the points of his body: the lower legs, tail tips, ears, and muzzle; a marking pattern almost identical to a domestic Siamese cat.
Our attempt to be as quiet as possible hit a snag -- the binocular case, jostled off the table, fell to the floor with a clunk. The mountain lion froze, then turned its head. In the half light, I could only make out the darkness around the muzzle. The remainder of the face -- including the animal's eyes -- were a tawny shadow.
The cat, however, saw nothing of us: only the blank, dark windows of a cabin seemingly deserted of life. Despite the fresh scents of dog and human, the house was silent, dark, unthreatening. The lion's long tail swished from side to side like a black-faced, furry viper, and then, satisfied and unalarmed, the puma resumed its journey, past our truck and the picnic table and the woodpile, and on into the night.
When we could no longer distinguish the feline tension of its presence, we drew a simultaneous breath, sighed, and drank a toast to storms.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources