This is how it begins: a text from Big Kid’s friend that the previous evening he saw something massive by the guardrail on the highway we live near. Not just something.
“He thinks it was a mountain lion,” Big Kid says.
Once upon a time, mountain lions were part of the New England landscape, just as they still are in the West. But colonists and their descendants did what they did throughout this country: they hunted, they killed. They eradicated. The last identified member of the eastern subspecies was shot in Maine in 1938. U.S. Fish and Wildlife announced them officially extinct in 2011, and removed them from the the endangered species list in 2015.
In 1997, DNA from scat found near a beaver kill at Quabbin was tested and proved to be from a mountain lion. In 2011, tracks found in the snow at Quabbin were verified by three independent trackers as being from a mountain lion. A few months later a young male was hit by a car and killed. His DNA revealed that he had begun life in South Dakota, 1,800 miles away. Those are the official reports. Around here, the number of people who claim an unofficial spotting is…not insignificant.
We used to have a game when I was a kid. Or less a game than a prize list for spotting various wildlife. At that time, bear and mountain lions shared the top slots. The reward for spotting either as we hiked with my parents was $50. The price made it clear that our chances were nonexistent. The estimated black bear population in the 1970s was down to roughly 100 members; mountain lions were unheard of.
There are now 4,000 or so bears living in Massachusetts. We see them several times a year. The same holds true with moose. My parents used to drive to upper New Hampshire to watch them. Now we have them living at the end of my street.
With the return of forest to Massachusetts, so too returned the forest dwellers. With protection and assistance, so too have returned the eagles and the loons. A gray wolf, a species that has been extinct in Massachusetts since the 1800s, was shot by a farmer an hour or so from here. DNA results suggested it came from wild stock, not captive.
For my family, there remains just one goal. We’ve seen the rest. Only the mountain lion torments us still. According to Massachusetts officials, our wait to spot one is likely only a half step up from watching the waters of Loch Ness daily in the hopes of sighting a fin. That doesn’t change our minds. We’re dedicated.
When the text came through, Small One already had her list of questions to ask. The first, the most important: was there a long tail? While waiting for the answer, we notified my dad. We found the measuring tape to pack. We debated bringing the casting material. We paced, watching the snow melt in the yard. If we wanted to find tracks, we needed to head out soon.
Finally, the answer came back. Yes, the long tail was the most notable thing, aside from the size. With that we’d knocked bobcat out of the running. While waiting for my dad to arrive, we gathered the few other details about location we could. A guard rail, a possible side road, an approximate distance.
I’m sick with a cold. We’re all sick, but Small One was buzzing with the thrill, so we headed off. I dropped my dad and Small One at one end of the stretch of road. I went back and started walking from the other end. Along a two lane highway. At what passes for rush hour here. I was painfully aware of the narrowness of the shoulder of the road as I examined the snow for tracks. Not just that–I was watching for the appearance of two people I love dearly, who I would willing walk along endless highways for, and who were…not visible at the meeting place.
I walked a bit faster. I hopped the guard rail and slid along the drop in the melting snow, happier with the idea I might fall into a marsh than into the path of a truck. The tracks I saw were few, and definitely not what we wanted. Then I found human tracks leading into the marsh, and heard my loved ones coming back up to the road.
The result of our time walking the highway? Coyote tracks. Bobcat tracks. Otter tracks. And, at the turn off the road and into the woods to head toward home, moose tracks. No mountain lion.
But you know, it really didn’t matter. Unlike Ahab, our (slightly) obsessive quest is built of love, not revenge. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I daydreamed of a female mountain lion lazing in the nearby rocks. I’m a lackadaisical tracker at best, but my child is a fierce one, as is her grandfather. They share a similar disdain for trails, a need to touch their fingers to the depressions made by pads in the mud, in the snow.
For me, though, the potential and the material are almost the same. I’m immensely grateful when I find signs of wild ones: tracks, scat, strands of hair caught on a fallen tree or a den mouth. At the same time, it’s enough for me to believe that maybe the big cats are traveling, that maybe some are already here. That the possibility of their presence was the gun on the mantle introduced in the first act of my life, and I’m promised its return before the end of the final act.
Both Small One and I were awake for long stretches of the night, nursing our colds. When we compared notes in the morning, we looked at one another, grinned. I said, “I know we’re both sick, but do you kind of feel like we should go out looking again today?”