a few people got the extended version last night, but here's what i'd like to share first in this medium.
i stopped driving and decided to set out on foot somewhere off of the 166 freeway between pismo beach and bakersfield. this is a semi-arid place, light foresting, but a lot of it still looks like desert.
every rib i took in school for wearing the boy scout uniform was worth it, because by my first night out there i'd found a freshwater spring and constructed myself shelter under a large pine tree. hadn't eaten anything, but i wasn't really hungry.
sleep was fitful, as it was cold out and i was wearing cutoff "shants" and a t-shirt. usually i woke up about every 2 hours or so, refluffed my grass/pine-needle bed, and went back to sleep.
on the second night, i did this and then noticed three animals in my shelter with me, roughly house-cat-sized. one of them sort-of-meowed; sounded like it had the worst sore throat on record. i thought for a moment-
. o O (ok, these are either feral cats, raccoons, or skunks. so i need to either not worry, be cautious, or exercise EXTREME F***ING CARE.)
but they didn't hassle me, so i poured them out a bit of my water supply into a tin cup i'd found and went back to sleep.
woke up again as scheduled- now there are 6 of them. still mildly nervous, but they're still leaving me alone, so whatever.
wake up again and dawn is approaching- i was in a valley so i couldn't see the sun yet, but the sky overhead was a few hues lighter. there are now, at closest count, a dozen of these small animals roaming around the floor/on top of my lean-to/in the branches of my shelter tree.
. o O (wtmf is going on here?)
then i look outside the shelter and there are two more animals, these closer to the size of the police k9 german shepherds. one of them stands up and i see that it has a long tail and is moving in a very... feline... manner...
this had just sunk in when the one i'd decided was Dad turned to look at me. he was smooth black from head to tail, the kind of absorbent black you imagine a black hole looks like; no light escapes.
then he opened his eyes and stared into mine, and looking into those golden orbs with the black slits felt like i was in a stare-down contest with god himself. if he'd wanted to, he could have reached a paw out and placed it on my shoe without getting up.
i remembered handling my pet snake- Nervousness and its big brother Fear mean you are Food. so i sat there motionless, eyes locked with this animal, for what was probably 5-10 minutes but felt like half an hour.
after that it apparently decided i was neither breakfast nor a threat, and turned away again.
i decided i was safe, rolled over, and succeeded in going back to sleep after another half-hour or so. (make no mistake; whatever i was projecting, there was a low-level animal part of my brain that was saturated with the kind of terror that empties bowels.)
i wake up again and it's daylight. the shelter is empty. i look outside and Dad is still there, facing away from me- Mom and all the kids are gone.
not wanting to alarm him in any way, i decide verbal communication rather than movement is probably the wise choice here.
"what's up, cat?"
he turns his gaze on me again for a few moments- then he stands and near-silently pad, pad, pads away.
as near as i can tell, that is how i babysat for, and was subsequently bodyguarded by, a family of mountain lions.