WHEN YOUR BACK'S AGAINST "THE WALL".
“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a Happy Tune…..so no one will suspect—I’m Afraid.”
The wind was unforgiving and dark clouds were hanging low as I reached the top of one of the highest mountains outside Datong. Exhausted, I knew it was time to call-it-a-day. My watch read 5:00 PM but my body said it was much later, probably because of the early darkness. As I unfolded my tent, I was concerned that the strength of the wind could carry my tent--like a parasol--up and over the mountain’s edge. Deciding to move closer to a small hill of rocks for protection, I hurried to connect the aluminum poles with the ground, hoist the tent and place my belongings inside. Within minutes heavy rain started falling, forcing me inside to prepare for a stormy night. As the tent fluttered and swayed around me, I prayed that my weight and that of my possessions, would anchor my nylon shelter.
Using my flashlight, I followed my commitment to write about each day's activities in my journal. Proudly I entered my mileage of 36 miles and noted most of those miles were uphill! While checking the map for tomorrow’s trek, I realized the sounds of rain, dripping off the tent, had triggered my bladder.
What an inconvenient time for a bathroom call! Going outside on such a stormy and dark night seemed too much of a challenge. Smiling to myself, I thought--- if I only had male parts, I could just open the tent flap, take aim, and, in a few minutes, be settled in for the night. But, thinking of the “what ifs” only prolonged the evitable. Taking a deep breath, I climbed outside into a riveting, cold rain, pulled down my tights and, unceremoniously, squatted. Seconds later, I hurried-back inside.
As I was zipping the tent flap closed…I heard it. It reminded of a childhood visit to the St. Louis Zoo and watching a tiger pacing relentlessly back and forth. That tiger howled that very same ear-piercing cry. Soon, it cried again. This time it was more of an anguished scream! I panicked, realizing the cries were coming from a high place very-close to my tent. The next cry seemed louder and even closer.
Cautiously, I pulled the zipper open on the tent flap and aimed my flashlight into the black rain. I aimed the light on the rocks nearby-- then stopped. There, encased in the small spotlight, I saw two slanted yellow eyes, a wide-opened mouth, and a full set of long, white, pointed teeth. Looking farther-down, I could barely-see two muscular legs, dominating a platform of rock, approximately 15 feet above me. Temporarily-paralyzed by the bright light, the massive Black Cat looked statuesque, as if molded from black marble. I turned off the flashlight and quickly zipped the tent opening—closed. My body was shaking from head to toe as my brain frantically-raced through lists of possible solutions to the dilemma around me. I had to do something now… but what?!?!?!?
Long ago, I'd seen photos of China's famous animals, now extinct. I recognized the animal outside as a Black leopard. This extremely large and dangerous animal could destroy my shelter--and me--with one swipe of it's powerful paw. Unprepared for such an encounter, I only had a whistle and a Swiss Army knife. I reviewed my options.
For some crazy reason, I remembered the dogs in Beijing. Waiting to start my Great Wall Adventure, I ran the streets of Beijing every morning, and saw many owners walking their dogs. I "spoke" to the dogs in my usual “hi, sweet puppy, you are so cute,” voice but, unlike American dogs who usually responded with wagging tails, the dogs of Beijing squealed in fear and ran away.
I laughingly remarked to one pet owner “I’m sorry your dog doesn’t speak English.” The same pattern kept repeating itself on my journey of The Great Wall. Entering villages in search of food and water, I tried to befriend village dogs but, they ran from me too. Dogs, everywhere, were always my friends---but not in China!
I knew this situation was different and not the simple challenge of a dog but--just maybe--my look, my smell, and my voice could scare him, like a Chinese dog. I unzipped the tent opening. The faint spotlight showed the unwelcome visitor now at ground level, only a few feet away. Placing the whistle to my mouth, I blew with all the breath I could muster, again and again. The Leopard appeared startled and ran back to his rock perch. The slanted eyes never shifted from my face. Remembering the dogs, I tried talking in my usual “sweet baby” voice. The animal twisted his head from side to side, puzzled at the unfamiliar sounds.
Five minutes later, wet and cold, I clicked off the flashlight and closed the tent opening. Both frightened and cold, I shivered as I tucked my sleeping bag around me to consider my plan. I would open the tent flap every ten minutes and, in addition my “doggy” dialogue, I’d interject some singing and whistle-blowing. The idea would be to keep the animal startled, confused, never-knowing what to expect. Still trembling, I counted the minutes.
Sensing movement outside the tent, I didn’t have another minute to spare. The animal had climbed from his ledge and joined me….with only a tent wall between us. I began singing, moving the flashlight above me, all around me. On and on I sang-hymns, show tunes, even nursery rhythms. I alternated with whistle blowing and hand clapping-- anything to keep the large animal confused and off-center. Not only did I hear him but…I also felt him as he brushed the tent walls with his strong body but… I never stopped entertaining.
At some point during the endless night, the sounds stopped--the tent ceased to move, like the animal had left but…. had he? Thinking he might be trying to “outfox” me, I kept performing until the rain ended, the winds died, and the rising sun topped the mountain. Cautiously stepping into the outside’s daylight, I saw evidence of the Leopard, everywhere. The ground was covered with overlapping paw prints and the tent’s sides were smeared in a thick, muddy design – like a child’s finger-painting. What a night!
After that unforgettable incident, I never felt completely safe, again. Every day and night, I reminded myself to "Expect the Unexpected".
PS. After my journey of The Great Wall ended, I lectured at Beijing University and shared some of my experiences on China’s beloved Great Wall, including my night with the Black Leopard. Soon after my talk, a professor mailed me a Beijing newspaper clipping that had appeared during my Great Wall Journey. The front page article stated: “Black Leopards, once believed extinct, have been sighted in the mountains of North China. Rare sightings of Black Leopards have recently been reported by villagers living near The Great Wall.”