For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve been an amateur photographer. As most any photographer will tell you, it’s all about opportunity. When a unique visual presents itself, you take it, because it may not come again. A Saturday night in October gave me just such an opportunity — had I been ready to take it.
It was moonless, clear: I thought it a perfect night to attempt long-exposure shots of our star-filled skies. At about 11 p.m. a friend and I headed to the Santa Ynez Valley; it was the closest and darkest place I knew. We quickly found a spot on lower Stagecoach Road, a fairly open spot next to a field and devoid of nearby homes, dark and very quiet. In retrospect, it was maybe a little too quiet. As we got out of my truck we both noticed the intensity of the darkness; it was spooky, and if you let it, your mind could wander to some pretty scary places. As our eyes adjusted to the absence of light, we began to see familiar objects; the intensity of this dark place started to fade. Putting aside our trepidation and remaining true to the task at hand, we wasted little time setting up my equipment. I was soon shooting the brilliant night sky.
Although I was aware of it, I tried to ignore it, but soon my curiosity got the better of me; something was moving around in the underbrush near my truck. Assuming it was just a skunk or a raccoon, I grabbed my high-powered flashlight and poked around a bit in an attempt to identify the culprit. My intention was to simply identify whatever it was so we could rest easy that it wasn’t some creep with an ax or something else that might want to harm us. After several minutes, the sounds faded, and I returned to my camera.
Then it happened again … and again. Each attempt to find the source of the sound yielded nothing. It was at this point I heard a different noise; it almost sounded like a soft cooing. My first thought was that it was a wild turkey or perhaps an animal in heat. The sound seemed to be moving away from us, but originated by my truck again. We had parked next to an open field surrounded by both scrub oaks and full-grown trees. As I looked out over the field and scanned it with my flashlight, the sound seemed to emanate from the right, behind the old oaks and scrub. I turned my flashlight off and decided to just listen. The cooing had either stopped or moved so far away that I could no longer hear it. I waited two or three minutes, then headed to my friend to tell what I had heard.
By now, we’d been there about 30 minutes, taking five or six long exposures without success. I was working my way up through exposure times: 15 seconds, then 22 and 30, 38, 42, and so on. As the shutter clicked for a 47-second exposure, the sound returned; now it sounded sizable.
Alarmed, I decided to retrieve my .32 caliber Colt that was safely double-locked inside my tool chest. This was not an easy decision to make; however, considering our relative remoteness, our inability to identify the source of the noise, and the fact we could not quickly leave because of the camera equipment, I decided it was reasonable to protect us against the unknown. Plus, I have used handguns and rifles since I was 7 years old. I am extremely safe, well trained, and an excellent marksman. I never think it trivial when deciding to arm myself.
Just as before, the sound was coming from the right side of the field; but it was louder, more brazen this time. I pulled out my strongest flashlight and removed my sidearm from its holster and began to move across the field — but I decided not to chamber a round. As I reached approximately one-third the distance across the field, my flashlight shone upon something green directly in front of me. “Eye-shine … something’s watching us,” I thought. As I quietly called to my friend, one glowing eye suddenly became two. I could see the eyes blink slowly several times. I continued forward and could now see they were almond-shaped eyes. I was almost sure of what I was seeing; uncertain, however, I continued.
With the intensity increasing in my voice, I called again to my friend to come quickly. With no response after several seconds, I called for the third time; this he heard and immediately came running. “Look directly in front of me, and tell me what you see”, I said.
“I can’t tell what it is — I don’t have my glasses, but I do see those two fuzzy green things there,” he replied in a nervous whisper.
“Run and get your glasses. And hurry. I need you to see this too!” I said in a hushed but stern tone. Once he left, I continued my slow traverse across the field in an attempt to identify what was behind those eyes. In the time that he was gone, I had moved more than halfway across the field. Those almond-shaped eyes were still intently staring at me, blinking slowly.
Then it happened, I must’ve taken three, possibly four more steps, and the face came into view. Like being hit by the proverbial Mack truck, the realization that I was standing 20 feet away from a full-grown mountain lion took shape in my brain! Having retrieved his glasses, my friend saw what I had just seen and said, “My god that’s a big (expletive) cat!” We then both heard a low guttural growl.
Heart pounding, I said, “I know, back up — we’re leaving now!” I slowly backed away, keeping my eyes, gun, and flashlight trained on those green eyes. As I continued backing away, the eyes slowly rose from an apparent crouching position. They hung there ominously for but a moment; then vanished in the abyss that surrounded my light. I saw only a glimpse of the lion’s long tail as it left its position under the oak.
My thoughts now turned to getting the hell out of there! Even though I was armed, I had no intention of tangling any further with this mountain lion. We were guests in the lion’s house, and we had just worn out our welcome. I just wanted to grab my stuff, throw it in my truck (ever so carefully), and leave this spot the way we had found it.
My friend and I both assumed that the lion wanted nothing to do with us and was simply a bit curious about our noise and lights, but we weren’t sure that, still curious, the lion might circle back around toward the road and pay us another visit.
I don’t think time has ever moved quite as slowly as it did at that moment. As I hastily tossed my equipment in my truck, my friend stood watch for any sign of the lion — time slowed to a crawl. We were gone in what was probably the longest five minutes of my life. I drove slowly up the road a few hundred yards, turned around, and headed toward the bottom of Stagecoach Road. My spotlight in hand, I illuminated the areas I thought the lion might be, but we were not to see it again.
We drove in utter silence until we both suddenly burst out with our excited thoughts on what had just happened. We still relive the encounter every time we talk, and we are both certain: we will carry this experience with us forever.
That last picture I took? The one with the 47-second exposure? It came out absolutely perfect: a beautiful representation of the star-filled sky, the only one that came out at all. It’s a lasting reminder of an unforgettable night.