I woke to the sound of crunching.
It took me a minute to remember that I was in Baja, two weeks into a semester in the backcountry of Mexico. The cold, dewy night kept the two other members of my small group close enough to hear their quiet breathing over the chewing.
Hold up. Chewing?
It was only then I realized that my life was going to end.
At this point in the trip I was still terrified of every creature we came across, since we’d already seen scorpions that I still have nightmares about, a black widow spider, a herd of suspicious-looking donkeys, an unidentified snake and something our instructors called “tracker bees.” The most poisonous things in my hometown in Minnesota are the mosquitos in June, and that’s only because of their sheer number.
What the hell chews and moves like that in Mexico?
My half-asleep brain immediately jumped to mountain lions.
We were camped in an odd spot, different than the places we had slept before. My group camped on the banks of this dry river bed, across the non-existent river from the 13 other people on our semester, where we’d found a little clearing in the thick vegetation. We never used tents, leaving us without even a protective layer of nylon.
After two minutes of frantically thinking about how to inform the other two we were about to be eaten by a giant cat, the thing in the brush moved again. I held my breath as it came closer.
That’s when I remembered that mountain lions are wily bastards and can’t possibly let themselves be heard. I quietly looked and felt around for my headlamp, my brain running at a mile a minute.
I found my headlamp tucked under my sleeping pad and turned it on, slowly propping myself up on my elbow to get a better look over the other two sleepers. Terrified, I shined the light back and forth, but all I could see was brush.
I laid back down, trying to convince myself that I was dreaming. I actually pinched myself like I was in a 50s movie.
Suddenly a conversation I’d heard earlier that day came tumbling into my mind.
“OH my god, dude, I just saw the biggest bull I’ve ever seen in my life!”
“Down that way!”
“How big was it?”
“Seriously enormous. Its horns were huge!”
A BULL. Not a mountain lion! Of course it was a bull, you idiot, they chew and they’re not sneaky!
However, that relief was short-lived as I remembered the “huge” and “enormous” parts of the conversation. I couldn't decide what to do, so I turned to the girl sleeping next to me and nudged her.
“Hey Grif? Griiiiiif?”
Poor Grif woke to me nudging her and saying there was a giant bull in our camp. It took her a minute to process what I was saying, and to roll over to grab her headlamp. Even with both of our lights we still couldn't see anything but leaves. Since he was closest to the danger and a wily bastard himself, we turned to Tom and nudged him awake too. He shined his red light over to where the chewing had gotten louder.
Two big shiny eyes looked right back at us.
We yelped, not expecting anything that creepy. The three of us tried to come up with ways to get this thing to go away, when Tom remembered his hiking group’s run-in with some cows earlier that day. Our instructor had told them that sometimes the cows in Mexico are scared of humans and keep their distance, but some are more bold. For those, you have to throw rocks to spook them.
Tom picked up a rock next to him and threw it at the boulder sitting in front of the bull. Grif was wary, telling us cows don’t have good night vision. If we made this thing mad and it charged, all of us were toast.
At that point I started getting mad. I was NOT about to get trampled by some bull whose head was bigger than a tire. I came on this trip to sail and kayak, and wasn’t at all interested in dying during the backpacking section. I would not be taken off this trip and not graduate and go home to stupid cold Minnesota because of an encounter with a bovine.
Tom picked up a bigger rock and missed the boulder, hitting the leaves by the bull’s leg. The beast lifted its great head and stared at us.
This thing clearly could not care less about the rocks flying by him, and kept stepping closer to us with his mouth full of greens.
One last rock a little too close, and the bull took off. It sauntered to the rocky river bed, where its heavy hooves clunked across the uneven terrain.
Grif, Tom and I laughed nervously, switched off our lights, and zipped ourselves back into our sleeping bags. Eventually the click of far off hooves lulled me back into sleep.