The Santa Rita Mountains are an underrated mountain range. They can be seen from dozens of miles around, but the draw of a national park directly to its north tends to lure visitors away. They hold a secret though. A secret that crawls through the most remote parts of the forests, avoiding the few visitors that hike the trails, and lives a lonely life of solitude. Locals call the secret, El Jefe, or, The Boss. This is the name given to what is believed to be, as of this writing, the only known jaguar in the entire United States.
Jaguars are the largest cats in North or South America, using both continents as their range. It’s the only cat native to the area that roars. No one knows just how many jaguars roamed the U.S. before the European invasion, but historical reports and fossil records show they survived from the coasts of California, as far north as Colorado, and as far east as eastern Texas (a state so big you have to specify where in the state).
El Jefe patrols the forests and hills of the Santa Rita Mountains, serving as a mascot for wildlife recovery, having fled his home population from 150 miles south. Thanks to a less paranoid government at the time, the U.S.-Mexico border was relaxed enough for a wild animal to try to repopulate a small sliver of its historic habitat. These mountains lie directly beyond the town of Patagonia along the Arizona Trail.
I knew this going in. Had I been better prepared with my electronics and not had my setup with them resemble the average computer programmer’s desk, I might have bought an extra day’s worth of food to try to catch a glimpse of the rare animal. To camp somewhere remote and wait. To relax enough to stay up into the night hoping to see a large, shadowed, four-legged body prowl from one shadow to another. To catch a photo of such an incredible animal. Screw photos. Just to see it in the flesh! Just to see a wild cat’s silent movement with such grace and stealth over terrain that no human can avoid making even slight noises.
I spent a productive night in Patagonia, resting, recharging electronics, eating, sleeping in a bed – basic things that were quickly becoming luxuries. The next day, I ate a large breakfast filled with sweet carbs, posted a few blog posts, then began back on the trail out of town.
The trail into the Santa Rita Mountains isn’t so much of a trail as it is a long series of dirt roads, the bane of all hikers. There’s comfort in more natural terrain, not a flat unnatural surface built for unnatural travel. (There’s a reason your back hurts when you sit in a car for too long.)
I spent midday and early afternoon on these roads. Mile after mile of dirt roads. Then some cattle, thirsty animals greedy for water in an environment known only for the opposite of water. I sometimes wonder if the cattle themselves would be dumb enough to put themselves in that type of environment or if it’s just humans that make such a ridiculous decision.
Regardless, the roads soon came to an end and a trailhead waited as the sun began to offer some decent light for photos. I continued on the trail and in a rather sandy part of the trail I noticed some unusual tracks. There were a couple of cars at the trailhead so quite possibly a dog was with some hikers. There’s a trick to knowing the difference if the tracks are in fact made from a dog though.
Dogs can’t retract their claws, so canine prints, whether wolf, coyote, or a sweet unconditionally loving version of the prior two will always leave the imprint of their claws. Felines on the other hand have no reason to walk with their claws extended, and so they never do. Likewise, the pads on their paws are more spread out than a canine’s.
I took another look with less of a passer-by mentality. This was a big print. Huge in fact. And it was definitely not made from a dog of any sort. I took a picture with my phone as opposed to my DSLR. To this day, I still don’t know why I was so lazy with that print. I saw a few more in the sand. Definitely a cougar or something larger. I had no way of knowing though. I had already exhausted my paw print knowledge. My attention was also broken by two things: two hikers and their dog; and no more sand.
I continued up the trail, hoping for a glimpse of the animal that left its mark. Being a wild feline though, it was either watching the humans walk by from an invisible perch, or tucked away in a place inaccessible to humans. Such is the way of the wild cat. At least when they have room to roam.
This was an area I wanted to pay special attention to with my camera. Whether through obliviousness or indifference, a company wanted to create an open-pit mine in the mountains. Let me rephrase that. A company wanted to put another open-pit mine in the mountains. So what if there’s the country’s only jaguar living there. There are dollars to be made! Profits to be increased! Shareholders to please! How else can profits be made if we don’t turn a blind eye to the natural world? Better stated, how are we going to power the clean revolution to save the planet if we don’t mine uranium by destroying the planet?
And so, with all the thoughts to myself that I could ever possibly want, I found a place to camp in the fading light. Would I be alone tonight? Would I get a visit from El Jefe, The Boss? Would El Jefe continue to be the boss of his domain, or would he be permanently removed from his job in favor of short-term profits?
I would probably normally be concerned about sleeping along the path of the largest cat in our two adjoining continents. Fortunately though, hiking all day tends to wear you out, as does a restoration of a more natural cycle of sleeping when it’s dark.
I woke up the next morning both happy and sad. Sad that I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of El Jefe, but happy that it didn’t happen while being abruptly awoken in the middle of the night. Onto another day, up and over the Santa Rita Mountains, and a few more days bouncing in and out of their northern foothills. There were still chances to see him, but they’d grow slimmer with each day.