Christmas of 1993 found me living as Robert Weaver with my wife Laura in a travel trailer behind the South Forty restaurant at the base of Big Cat Mountain. We were Rob and Laura, a nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show. We had a potted barrel cactus, about three feet high, that we brought in and decorated for the holidays that year. Living there was a major coup for me. Lucky Tailor and I explored that mountain on our first trip to the Southwest. I tracked literary icon Joe Cordoba (Jose Luis Cordoba, also working under an alias) to that restaurant. I thought it quite fortuitous that we lived and worked there.
Lagartija's mother told me about the legend of Big Cat Mountain, also known as Cerro del Gato, many years before on that first smuggling trip. I have heard different versions of the story since. The Arizona Star ran an article a few years ago and muddied the waters with a feature writer's blend of various legends purported to tell the story of El Gato. I prefer Senora Lagartija's tale, and will relate it as such.
In the late 1800's, the Butterfield Stage passed through the gap between Big Cat Mountain and Little Cat Mountain. There was a bandit there who would hide and wait and rob the stagecoach, which frequently hauled gold from California or payroll for the mines. No matter how prepared they were for the attack, the bandito would appear suddenly and then disappear into the mountain, defying chase. They say he was like a cat the way he moved on the rocks, and called him El Gato. In Spanish they called it “The Hill of the Cat” Cerro del Gato. Eventually, El Gato (or some say El Tejano) was killed. But his stash of stolen loot was never found. It is said he hid it in a cave at Cat Mountain.
I've spent thousands of hours exploring that mountain and found much more than I ever looked for. I only found one cave, and I am probably lucky to have survived it.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I was following a wash at the base of the north side of the mountain that had previously led me to water at an old stone cattle tank. I hoped to see Javelina there, and track their game trails to see where they would take me. Once in the wash, below desert level, I stopped for water and smoked a joint and ate a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie. I continued on, and at some point realized I wasn't in familiar territory.
The walls of the arroyo closed in. I remembered it as being quite wide, but before long, the wash was barely ten feet across. The dirt walls were maybe ten feet high. Somehow, with the buzz, I had taken an unnoticed fork into the foothills. I am always curious about what is around the next corner, particularly when hiking washes. So regardless of knowing I was lost, I continued around the next corner, then the next.
At one point, I had just made a ninety degree turn to the left and again about ten feet was a ninety degree turn to the right. About eye level, directly ahead in the dirt wall, was the mall entrance to a cave or dark declivity. It was about a foot and a half high in the middle and stretched to tapered ends maybe ten inches high. It was about three feet long. I approached to about two feet. That's when I saw movement in the hole.
A recent newspaper article had told me about coyote pups suffering from parvo. There was an effort from some organization, to immunize the pups by dropping meat with the parvo vaccine in the desert. I wondered if there were coyote pups in this hole.
It was difficult to focus on the movement in the dark cave, because the sun was high above the arroyo wall. I squinted into the darkness as my eyes adjusted and the movement took shape. I was looking straight into the eyes of a mountain lion from two feet away. The puma's head filled the central opening to the cave. She squinted back at me.
For some odd reason I wasn't scared. Continuing on didn't seem wise. I was worried I might surprise her on the return trip. I backed up to the previous turn, and slowly walked away, being careful not to act like dinner.
But this is a story about a Christmas hike, so we will get back to that.
Partially because of my experience with the lion, Laura and I chose to traverse the South side of the mountain to a trail head that leads to the summit, where we would celebrate the holiday in solitude far above the valley. Rather than follow the desert to the trailhead, we climbed a few hundred feet up the rock and traversed our way east. Along the way we smelled something rank, and looked around for the carcass of a dead deer. I often found skulls and antlers in the area, and that translated to tourist cash.
We were about to search for the corpse, when my eye fell on a bush barely three feet away. There stood a young male javelina, seemingly oblivious to us. Javelina are pretty blind. They smell bad too. We edged away so's not to frighten it, and continued on our way. It was a warm day and I took off my shirt. Laura lamented that social mores did not allow her to do the same. I told her out here on Christmas day, the Javelina cared less for social mores, so she continued hiking topless. We took our pleasure then, clinging to some vertical stones (Merry Christmas), clinging for our lives somewhat frightened and high above the Sonoran floor. Such are the dangers of climbing with a topless Laura.
Once we'd attained the apex of Big Cat, we repeated our endeavors on a long flat rock overlooking the valley, occasionally hearing a large animal moving across the gravels. We dressed hurriedly, sans T-shirts, just in time for a boy scout troop to file past along the peak. Not the large animals we expected. Two of them lingered behind a boulder for another peek. I gave them the thumbs up. They grinned and scurried away. Laura felt forced to adhere to social mores for a bit.
We returned to our little trailer in the desert with our barrel cactus Christmas tree.She never let me nail her on a mountaintop again.