Stalked Under the Stars

Considering the amount of time people spend working, enjoying what you do for a living is a solid step in the pursuit of a happy life. Fishing has always been one of my great passions, so I’ve been blessed to find a career that is both viable and fulfilling for me. However, all work and no play makes for a dull boy, so each summer, I take four months off to pursue my life’s other big passion: traveling. Most of my blogs are related way or another to fishing. That makes sense, since they’re posted on my fishing website. However, once in a while, a story simply has to be told. This is one of them. 

When I was twenty-three and in grad-school, my childhood best friend and next door neighbor (since I was three) became my roomate. His name is Todd, but his nickname was, “Hippie”. He had long, blonde hair, wore tie-dyes and Birkenstocks and had a penchant for a little bit of partying. He was also a brilliant biology student and super knowledgeable in botany, geology and earth sciences. In many ways, he was like a quirky and hilarious, walking encyclopedia. 

We wound up living together for three years and they turned out to be some of the most fun and laughter-filled of my life. Hippie had lived in Eugene, Oregon for the past few years and he absolutely loved it out West. He had driven cross-county more than once and had spent a considerable amount of time following The Grateful Dead on tour. He regaled me with lots and lots of great stories from “the road”, so to say that I was intrigued was an understatement. 

We decided to take a road trip during our first spring break as roommates. While most of our peers headed South, for coeds and tropical beaches, we grabbed our tents and sleeping bags and headed up to the Ozarks. The trip was a smashing success and we had a blast, but it only whet our appetite for more. We weren’t back home for long before we were planning our next adventure. Over the next few months, we pored over maps and books and started planning a big summer excursion. Every time we discussed it, the excitement for the trip would build.

By the time our last week of classes had come, we were bursting with anticipation. When summer break finally arrived, we packed up my Jeep Cherokee, fueled her up and headed West! The trip was absolutely epic and we made it all the way from Florida to Seattle and back. We had so many great, story-worthy memories that we could have written a book (think Fear and Loathing in America). But this particular post is about one very special evening that we spent in the high county of Utah. 

We were passing through the desert of the American West during the first couple of weeks of August and it was HOT. We were raised in  Miami and we were used to the heat, but desert swelter was an entirely different animal. We quickly got into the rhythm of waking up at sunrise, making coffee and breakfast, breaking down our tents and setting out on a short hike. Then we’d jump in the Jeep and make tracks. We’d run the a/c and stereo during the heat of the day and drive until the scorching heat outside started to subside. We’d find a good spot at our latest destination, set up camp and then head out on a hike.

We’d find a beautiful vantage point to watch sunset from, watch the moonrise or the appearance of stars for a while and then head back to camp for the night. We tried to avoid civilization as much as possible on this roadtrip. Except when we were visiting friends, the idea was to stay away from places with lots of people. Most National Parks in the summer are exactly that, so when we did visit them, we’d try to keep to the more isolated, backcountry areas as much as possible. When we got into Utah, we spent a day in Arches and it was spectacular, but it was also one of the most popular National Parks in the West. There were way too many people around for our taste. During Hippie’s previous road trips, he had found that National Monuments tended to be more scarcely populated than National Parks. We had read about one called Natural Bridges. Not only was it fabled to be one of the most beautiful places in the U.S., but also one of the most remote. That was right up our alley!

The road there from Arches was desolate, to say the least. After we passed a tiny speck of a town called Mexican Hat, it became high desert, no-man’s land. Hippie was taking his turn driving and I was the “navigator”, armed with our good old fashioned AAA book. While perusing our future track, I came across something I had never seen before. It was a bit alarming. I said, “Ummmm, Hips, I think we have a problem. It says in the book, ‘AAA STRONGLY advises travelers to avoid this road’. That can’t be good.” Apparently, the way ahead took us to something called the Moki Dugway. 

It turns out that the Dugway was created for and used by trucks in the 1950’s to haul uranium that had been mined in the area. After pulling over and conferring with the map, we realized we had no choice but to take it. What we found when we got there was a single lane of dry, waffled gravel, with a thousand foot drop, hair-pin turns and no guard rails. We were wide-eyed and nervous as we started down the “road”. As we drove, we quickly realized that if we went more than five miles per hour, the waffled track would cause the back end of the Jeep to start skipping out from under us and towards a thousand foot tumble off the cliff face. We hugged the side of the mountain, held on with white knuckles and prayed that we’d survive the descent. We finally got through the Dugway, after what seemed like forever. To this day, it stands as the most terrifying drive of my life. 

We arrived at Natural Bridges National Monument and it really was in the middle of NOWHERE. It’s located in a rocky, dry, high desert region known as Cedar Mesa, and seemed completely devoid of people. After the entrance, there was a tiny campground with a dozen sites, but no running water or amenities to be had. Branching off from the campground was a nine mile loop road that passed three natural bridges and a Native American ruins site. According to the display on the side of the road, a “bridge” is created by water, while an “arch” is created by wind. Who knew?

The loop road had a gate on it, with a sign that said, “Closed at Sunset”. It was well into the afternoon, so that gate threw a wrench into our regular evening routine. After a very brief discussion, we decided that we were going to spend the evening doing the loop. Locked gate be damned! Without a second glance, we left the entrance behind and headed out on our adventure. 

We were full of anticipation as we drove the few miles of the desolate road to the first stop on the loop. It was called Sipapu Bridge and it was named by ancient Hopi people who had inhabited the area. A sipapu is a round hole in the floor of kiva hearths that symbolized where their ancestors first emerged to enter the world. We parked on the empty little lot and threw together the essentials for our hike. In our packs we had our jackets, hats, headlamps, a compass, binoculars, a can of bear spray, water, cheese & crackers, granola, some canned beer and a bottle of red wine. With that, we locked the Jeep and began our trek. 

The scenery was more and more breathtaking as we descended lower and lower into the valley and closer to the land bridge. The striations in the layers of rock were full of earthy pastel colors and were absolutely beautiful to behold. We gazed up at the monolithic bridge with wonder, as it was difficult to grasp the incredibly vast scale of it, looming above us. After hiking around the awe-inspiring feature, we found a flat rock perch, about three quarters of the way down to the valley floor. We sat down and made ourselves comfortable. I opened a bottle of wine, while Hips spread out the cheese and crackers on a nearby rock outcropping. We gazed out over the gorgeous valley in front of us, passed the bottle back and forth and enjoyed our appetizers contentedly. As the sunlight began to fade and the colors of the surrounding rocks became more and more surreal, I was sure that there was no better happy hour to be had in the whole wide world.

In the last few minutes of daylight, we spotted movement in the valley below us. Out from the scrub came a majestic and massive mule deer buck. He was oblivious of us as he foraged on some of the sparse greenery on the ground in front of him. We took turns studying the beautiful animal more closely with our binoculars, as he picked his way along the scrub. The steep terrain around us made the light fade extremely fast. In what seemed like seconds, stars began flicking on around us like someone had hit a switch. Natural Bridges is renowned for its fantastic geological features, but it’s also famous for one of the darkest and clearest night skies anywhere on Earth. We had timed this trip to one of the outskirts of the world to coincide with the Perseids Meteor Shower. It was the night of August 12th, 1996 and the peak rate of the meteors (about 150 per hour) was upon us!

As beautiful of a spot as the base of Sipapau Bridge was, its gigantic mass made star-gazing difficult. We packed up our things, strapped on our head lamps and headed up the path that led out of the valley and back to the Jeep. We jumped in, I started her up, pulled out of the lot and headed deeper into the loop road ahead of us. We drove through the pitch black night and passed the parking areas for Horse Collar Ruins and Kachina Bridge. Finally, we pulled over at the last stop on the loop, Owachomo Bridge. We had chosen it as our final destination because it was beautiful and iconic, but also because of the wide open landscape around it. Owachomo is the Hopi word for “rock mound”, and there was a large one at the east end of the bridge. We figured this would be one of the most ideal places on the planet to view a meteor shower. We’d soon find out!

When we got out of the Jeep, the darkness was thick and absolute. You literally could not see your hand in front of your face. We turned on our headlights, found the trail and began the descent into the valley below. The path was steep, with lots of switchbacks, but it was easy enough going, as we made our way down. The echos of our footsteps seemed to bounce off of the porous rock beneath our feet and out into the canyon around us. We eventually found ourselves with an enormous, open area above us and with nothing but rock underfoot. We stopped, turned off our head lamps, sat down and leaned up against some boulders. As our eyes adjusted, we were absolutely floored by what we were presented with. The night sky in front of us was like nothing either of us had ever seen before!

Thousands of stars and the Milky Way lit the sky like it was on fire. Our amazement grew as our increasingly adjusting eyes registered more and more of the celestial world around us. We were sitting there, trying to take it all in, when suddenly there was a flash of light that was so bright that it actually threw a shadow on the boulders around us. A gigantic meteor lit up the sky and burned a bright, yellow/green, as it carved its way across the night sky. It seemed to go on forever, until it finally winked out, leaving a misty trail of ice and dust in the atmosphere behind it. We were in awe, but before we could collect our thoughts, another one tore across the sky! Time stood still as the heavens above us continuously rained down like a laser light show of the gods. 

It could have been an hour or it could have been two, but at some point I realized that our eyes had adjusted incredibly well. We could see the shape of the valley we were in and the geological features around us. There was a hump-like formation in the distance that rose out up towards the sky. Suddenly, Hippie stood up and said, “Follow me!” With out a word, I was on my feet and following his shape and the sound of his footsteps, on the porous sandstone rock beneath him. I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t fully register our situation. We were in the middle of nowhere, walking on top of rock formations, millions of years in the making, in the pitch dark, with no lights on and with no idea where we were headed! Finally, I ascertained that we were on top of the hump on east end of Owachomo Bridge. The very one it was named after. We stood on the hump, gazing at the sky and watching meteor after meteor fall for a quite some time. “Come on!”, my fellow star gazer declared. And without hesitation, I followed him into the dark night, once again.

I could faintly see that the “path” we were following was beginning to narrow, when I had a realization that floored me. We were on top and at the midpoint of Owachapomo Natural Bridge! We were on a formation that was nine feet wide, one hundred and eighty feet long and one hundred and six feet above the gully floor! We carefully stretched out, side by side, laid on our backs and once again took in the view above us. The stars had been falling like the end of days, but the rate of the shower seemed to have increased by the minute. Our minds would be blown by the most brilliant meteor we’d ever seen, only to have it topped by and even brighter and longer one! We laid like that for hours, both of us lost in the surreality of what we were experiencing. 

We were at 6,500 feet above sea level, the atmosphere was dry and thin and the temperature had plummeted. We had donned our jackets and hats, but the cool night air had begun to sink into our bones. After crawling over to the edge of the bridge and peering down with amazement into the darkness below for a while, we carefully shuffled back from the empty space below and got to our feet. With only the starlight to guide us, we worked our way back down the bridge and off of the formation. “Let’s go to the bottom and look back up at it for a while,” I suggested. We made our way through the darkness and scampered our way down into the giant crevasse below us. 

Moving and climbing down the incline had gotten our blood flowing again. We were no longer chilled and we were glad for it. When we were directly beneath the bridge formation, we stretched out on our backs on the canyon floor and gazed back up at the sky. The heavenly fireworks show was still in its splendor as we stared past the dark outline of the slender land bridge above us and out into the heavens. “I can’t believe we were just up there!”, I said. “Ya, it’s crazy, right?”, replied my long haired companion. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend an evening. 

We laid there stargazing for an undeterminable amount of time, when my ears registered a sound from the gulley below us. It was barely discernible, but it had been so quiet for so long that it may as well have been a gunshot. I could tell Hippie had heard it too. We both froze and craned our ears to hear. There it was again, definitely from down below us! The rock we had been walking on was porous and it made a hollow sound when you walked on it. What we were hearing was making that same sound, but it didn’t have a cadence like foot stops. It was more like an occasional “thump” and then it would go quiet. Some time would pass and we’d hear hear it again; “thump”, followed by quiet. It was extremely eerie. And it was getting closer. 

The glories above us had been forgotten, as both of our attentions were laser-focused on the sound emanating from below us. What on earth could it be? Whatever it was had closed the distance on us. A sickening realization started creeping in on me and I shared it with my companion. “It’s big!”, I whispered. “Definitely”, he rasped, with his suddenly dry mouth. We had both ascertained that whatever it was, was leaping, landing, stopping for a while and then leaping and landing again. That’s why we were hearing those hollow, intermittent, “thumps”. It made a final jump and thump and stopped less that twenty feet from us. We could see its shape, but couldn’t quite make it out. Time stood still. After what seemed like a long time, I made a move. I grabbed Hippie’s shoulder with my left hand, reached up with my right and twisted my headlamp lens to, “On”. 

There was a flash of stark yellow and white light and what came into view was absolutely horrifying. In the circle of light were two big, bright red eyes and an open mouth, with large, white fangs. It was nightmare fuel and I had seen all I could take. I snapped the light off again. A huge mountain lion was sitting upright, a pounce away from us and staring directly into our souls. Hippie and I stood frozen in our tracks like proverbial deer in headlights. We were speechless and the silence was deafening. Until it wasn’t. The sound of, “Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”, came from deep inside the animal in front of us, like a giant house cat in front of a warm bowl of milk “Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”, it continued. 

There’s no telling how long this standoff went, but our eyes had started to readjust to the dark and we could once again see the large shape of the animal in front of us. With one hand, I slowly reached back to the outside pocket of my pack and grabbed my bear spray. With the other, I grabbed the large knife I that I kept on my belt. A moment later heard Hippie’s knife slide out of its sheath. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him take a knee and pick up a large rock with his other hand. Now, both armed, we took a tentative step backwards and then another, in unison. The heavy purring continued non-stop as we carefully backed away.  

Little by little, we picked up our pace and started to work our way up the gulley. We were shuffling sideways, so as to not turn our backs on our nocturnal companion. We stopped and listened, but the purrring had stopped. We didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but  moments later, we discerned the sound of a hundred and fifty pound mountain lion bounding up after us. “Thump”, pause, “thump”, pause, “thump” pause, and once again, it stopped within twenty feet of us. Like a nightmare Groundhog Day, the “Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”, sound resonated into the night and put a chill into our hearts. 

That’s how it went for what seemed like an eternity. We’d work our way farther up and out of the gulley a few hundred feet and then stop and listen. Each time, the lion would bound his way up after us, stop within twenty of us, and start its eerie purring sound. And so it continued. As we got higher up, the gulley wall got steeper. Now when we stopped, I started to notice that the lion was beginning to veer off a bit. Instead of showing up below us, it had begun bounding up and stopping parallel to us. We realized that the animal was trying to get above us. We weren’t wildlife experts, but we knew that wouldn’t be a good thing. We started moving for longer distances at a time, stopping to listen and then moving up again, as it was still bounding. We definitely did not want it to get above us. 

We finally got on level ground and within sight of the parking lot. We made our way to the Jeep and stopped just outside of it. I slipped my backpack off of my back and fished my keys out if the zippered compartment. As I did, we saw a shape slowly making its way across the lot towards us. We climbed in the Jeep, leaned back our seats and cracked our windows for ventilation. A few moments later, from just outside of the Jeep, we heard the now familiar, “ Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”, coming from from our feline friend. 

We laid back in our seats and got comfortable. The purring continued on and on. It was the last sound I heard as I drifted off to sleep. We woke with the morning sunlight shining through the windshield. We gazed through the glass, out into the dimly lit parking lot, but there was no sign of our nocturnal companion. With that, I yawned, stretched and wiped the sleep from my eyes. I pulled my seat forward, turned the key and fired up the Jeep. I put it in drive and we eased out of the lot and into the dawn-lit mesa. 


In 2016, exactly twenty years after being stalked under the stars, my girlfriend Wilmarie and I took a fantastic ten day vacation. We flew into Denver, rented a little SUV, worked our way west, and eventually flew home from Salt Lake City. During the course of the trip, we visited Arches National Park, drove past Mexican Hat, braved our way down Moki Dugway and visited Natural Bridges National Monument. We arrived at the monument in the late afternoon and it was incredibly nostalgic for me to be back there. We set up our tent at a site in the small campground and I drove us out onto the nine mile loop road. We passed by Sipapu Bridge and Horse Collar Ruins, and I pulled us over at the little parking lot for Kachina Bridge.

My mind was racing as we got out of our vehicle and laced up our hiking boots. After all, I’d been imagining this moment for as long as I could remember. We found the trail, began our descent and worked our way down into the valley below. The fading light of late afternoon helped bring out the magnificent hues of the ochre colored stone around us. Suddenly, we were in view of Kachina Bridge and its beauty was absolutely spellbinding. I was thrilled to see the awe in Wilmarie’s face, as she gazed, wide-eyed, at the magnificent behemoth towering above us.

When we got directly beneath the bridge, I suggested that we should make a cairn to memorialize our visit. “You find the rocks and I’ll stack them”, I said. It wasn’t long before we had a nice, little monument going. “We just need one more rock for the top”, I proclaimed and she scampered off to find the final stone. When she turned her back, I reached into my pocket, found the ring and put it on top of our pile, with the diamond facing her. “I found the perfect one!”, she exclaimed as she bent down and picked up her chosen rock. When she turned back around, she found the ring on top of our pile and me on one knee.

And the rest, as they say… is history.