A Close Encounter in a Cow Pasture
by David John Taylor
edited: Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Posted: Saturday, February 22, 2003
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We were lost, cold, hungry. What else could go wrong?
I had my forward momentum up, and I hate having that interrupted, but I stopped and pivoted around, my backpack swinging heavily with me. I grunted.
"Put your hand up in front of your face."
"Now what do you see?"
"Um, well, if I hold it up to the stars..."
"No. No," Mason interrupted. "Cowboy, it's dark. It's too dark to keep walking. We're not going to make it to the highway. We've got to stop. Here. Now."
"Mason." I motioned around us. "We're in the middle of somebody's cow pasture."
We had jumped a fence, clearly marked "No Trespassing", because we were sure we'd be on this bit of old road for only a short time before popping out somewhere along Sunrise Highway, finding the trail on the other side that we sought.
Miles later, through several herds of hostile cows, over sawed-down trees, we had no idea where the highway was, nor where the new trailhead was.
The original idea barely rated being called a backpacking trip; Get dropped off at Kitchen Creek at the eastern end of the Cleveland National Forest, then hike west until we made it back to Mason's house in Lakeside, avoiding humanity for as long as possible. It was about fifty miles, and it would include trails, roads, and some bushwhacking. We had first estimated it to be a three-day hike, then four, then five. Ultimately, we would be obliged to violate a few property laws to complete our meander, but we sure hadn't expected to start so soon.
"We should be camping in Noble Canyon," I said.
"I'm going over to that tree over there," Mason offered with finality. "Don't want to set up right in the middle of the road. How's the water?"
"Should've filled up back at Horse Canyon."
Mason grunted and started pulling off his pack as he walked toward the outline of a huge oak. I sighed, defeated, and followed.
Mason had a West German Army surplus gadget that was supposed to be a combination poncho and sleeping bag. He muttered something.
"Sleeping bag's soaked with sweat." His voice nearly shivered. "This is gonna be miserable."
I pulled out my sleeping bag and pad, dwelling on my own misery.
The night started getting dewy cold, the dusty wet smell of oak leaves mixed with old cow patties. Quite a contrast to the hot and humid walk along Sheephead Mountain Road.
"How about your new Danners?" I asked.
"Wish I'd had more time to break them in," Mason answered. "Man, this ground is hard."
I felt both smug and guilty as I squirmed on my mat. Well, he said he wanted to rough it, take only the bare essentials, not even a pad.
I kept looking west, measuring what I could see of the moonless sky.
"The highway has got to be right over there."
"I'm not getting off this road," Mason countered.
"No buts! My legs are still cramping from that stupid stunt back at Kitchen Creek. We should've stuck to the trail."
"The trail takes a sheer drop to the falls, Mason."
"How's your wrist?" Mason asked pointedly.
Involuntarily I touched the wrist I'd fallen on, with the full weight of my backpack while bashing along off-trail. The pain grit my teeth, and I shut up.
Bats fluttered overhead, low enough for us to hear their squeaking.
"Hungry?" Mason asked.
"Hell, no," I answered.
We could hear cattle lowing at a distance. What if, in the night, they wandered over here? I could just imagine feeling a hoof catching my head as I slept, me jumping, the cow jumping. At least I didn't think of the irate rancher with his shotgun for a moment.
"Has it ever crossed your mind, Mason," I started, "That you and I don't have much luck backpacking together. Throw in a third party and we're all right, but just you and me, it usually ends in disaster."
"There's a simple explanation for that." Mason wiggled into his wet poncho. "You perceive yourself to be an Alpha Male in the pack, whereas I am, in fact, the Alpha Male. If you would merely submit and do like I told you, we'd all be better off."
I kept quiet, but my gloom slid to anger and fear and back to misery.
The cows fell quiet. The bats disappeared.
There was a long pause, then Mason pulled himself out of his bag.
"You hear something?"
A whistling, whirring noise, very soft, very low, emanated from all around us.
Mason hesitated, got up, and in stocking feet, walked cautiously to the road. The noise got louder. I followed Mason.
Out from under the canopy of oaks, we looked west, where the sky was open and filled with stars - - and something else.
There was a light, only slightly bigger than the stars, dancing just above the trees, moving erratically back and forth, reversing on itself so fast, it defied physics.
The sound was other-wordly, ghostly, a tremulous monotone. The thing got bigger, and now we saw it was three quivering colored lights, connected to what looked vaguely like a saucer as it blocked out the stars, getting bigger, growing ever closer, coming straight at us even as it bounced back and forth.
Straight at us.
We froze there, the whirring sound now the only sound, suddenly we were not out from under the trees, but out in the open, and just before the thing reached us, Mason chose to utter what I have come to think of as a profoundly eloquent statement.
Suddenly the thing burst over us, fell upon us, tree-top level. For a split-second I thought it had thrown a floodlight on us, but before I could react or scream, it shot past us, the whole underbelly of the Navy fighter jet lit up like a billboard.
The trees shook with the burst of turbulence that followed the fighter.
We watched the jet through the canopy of trees to the east, as it hugged the contours of the earth, the whirring noise, at a different pitch, now sliding away.
Mason started giggling. It had happened so fast my adrenalin only slapped me now. We both laughed and snickered like two school boys that had learned a new obscenity.
"Guess they sound that way when they're so close to the..."
"Bet they come through here all the time..."
That night, In my fitful sleep, I heard a lion's growl, not at a distance, but on the road. The cows started a manic, protesting lowing that simply did not stop.
The next morning, we used all the mole skin we had on Mason's blistered feet.
On the road, mountain lion tracks as big as they get, that hadn't been there the night before, went right past where we'd slept.
We followed the road until it petered out, and we jumped the fence on the other side of this property, bushwacking again. As it turned out, we'd paralleled Sunrise Highway all this time. We didn't hit it until the highway did a hairpin turn. We were about two miles past the trailhead.
With Mason's feet the way they were, I hiked down to Pine Valley and called Mason's wife to come and pick us up.