May 2021

“What lurks in shadow”

Trapped in the unnerving stare of a desert mountain lion.

*This cougar was photographed at Living Desert State Park; it is not the cougar I encounter in the story.*


I arrive at a park most have never heard of, and fewer still would even attempt to pronounce.  Staggering rock formations created by volcanic ash and forged by eons of wind, water, and ice surround me in all directions as the hot Arizona sun beats down from above.

Welcome to Chiricahua National Monument — the “Wonderland of Rocks”.

Irrational as it is, I always get a twinge of anxiety my first day in a new park.  Even though it is still early, I am acutely aware that I will have just 2-3 days to explore this entire park, determine the best places for sunrise, sunset, and Milky Way, and capture some special moments.

The athletes among you may know a similar feeling just prior to a game or event.  Though you have trained and practiced and are ready, there are some butterflies that cannot be ignored.  This could be the best night of your career where every shot falls and every ball bounces your way, or it could be a disaster where nothing seems to go right.  This is how I feel when exploring a new park with an expectation of delivering high quality images on a tight schedule and completely at the mercy of the conditions nature provides.


When making notes for the inevitable travel guide I would be writing to Chiricahua National Monument, I must admit that the first line written was “Unique landscape.  Neat to see, but not very photogenic.” 

As odd as the rock formations were, featuring an endless view of pinnacles, columns, and balanced rocks, it is much like trying to photograph a forest.  Each tree is beautiful, but it is difficult to capture a forest in a frame.

My first day of hiking concluded with 30,000 steps logged (about 10 miles of hiking).  Usually this would be the end of my day, but Chiricahua National Monument was just designated an International Dark Reserve TWO WEEKS prior to my arrival.  While the sun was down, the camera would not rest until nearly 4:30am.

Having knocked out most of the short hikes the day before, I had one big journey ahead of me on Day 2.  What I had learned from a stop at the Visitor Center is that the hike ahead of me, a 7-8 mile roundtrip to the Heart of Rocks loop, was considered the best hike in the park and one of the best in the state.

Though I had not scouted the location yet, I already had a plan: I was going to hike the trail to Heart of Rocks as well as all nearby detour options to determine my favorite place for sunset.  Then, I would stay through until nightfall for some Milky Way over Balanced Rock.  I was pushing in all my chips on this one, hoping for a good sunset and clear night skies all in one go as I knew I would not be attempting the 8 mile hike again during my visit.

With my backpack fully loaded with essentials (as well as a few beers to fulfill my photography obligations to Michelob ULTRA), I hit the trail in the latter hours of the afternoon.  The first 2.5 miles of the hike left me completely underwhelmed and I feared this would be a bust.  Finally I arrived at a detour to Inspiration Point — you really can’t ignore a name like that!  15 minutes later, I was staring over a valley of pinnacles and instantly knew I would be spending at least one sunset at this special viewpoint.

But there was more to see first! I doubled back to the main trail and continued the final stretch to the Heart of Rocks loop, my smile growing wider with each nearing step.  The ranger was right, this is definitely the most special place in Chiricahua.

I suddenly found myself wandering through a colossal-rock forest.  Everywhere you looked were geologic marvels:  an impossibly balanced rock to your left, a stone grotto to your right, and sweeping westerly views in the direction of sunset.  

It was decided then and there that I would be staying put through sunset tonight and sticking around after for some Milky Way photos…. or so I thought.


The sun was setting and I was in my usual frantic scramble, bouncing around the rocks trying to find creative compositions and frames to maximize the glorious light.  As I adjusted my focus for one shot, I heard the bone-chilling sound of a rattle nearby. 

Fortunately, I currently found myself on high ground and the rattlesnake was nowhere to be found.  Clearly I had upset it somewhere in my wake while bounding amongst the rocks.  For the rest of the shoot, I could not stop seeing twigs, rocks, and sticks that I swore to be diamondbacks in the moment.  Then, as it got dark, another rattle… this time, it was not a stick, and it really wasn’t happy.  

I was able to retreat easily enough and even snap a quick picture of the Western Diamondback that had politely informed me of his location and unwillingness to be stepped on.  The ambient light was fading quickly and my energy and enthusiasm were fading with it.  After two long days of hiking in the desert heat and nowhere near enough sleep, coupled with a new fear of being bitten by a rattler, I realized I just did not have it in me to wait around 3 hours for the Milky Way to line up with my foreground and then hike the 3.5 miles back.

In an uncharacteristic move, I took a photo of the scene I had scouted and a screenshot of exactly where the Milky Way was set to align at 11:30pm.  I decided I would shoot the sky from up at the top at that exact moment instead and composite it exactly where it was going to be.  I always prefer to capture a moment than to create it, but on this occasion, I was willing to accept it as the best option.

I will never know if this decision would prove to be the best, or worst decision I ever made, but I know for certain it was a memorable one.

With my headlight fixed but still not on, I began walking hastily back to the van, hoping to get as far as I could in the light of twilight while I could move briskly.  About half a mile later, I found myself stumbling a bit and decided to switch on the headlight.  I also figured I would record a voice journal as I have been doing throughout the trip to take my mind off the long haul ahead and record some thoughts.

Click to hear (part of) the recording…

The cougar’s eyes glowed in the light of my headlight momentarily, then it sleeked off into the bush.  But I know better.  Cougars do not like direct confrontation, they like to stalk.  They want to see the back of the neck.

I know enough about mountain lions to know that it was not just going to disappear.  Cats are curious.  Best case scenario, it watches from afar until its curiosity is satisfied.  Worse case scenario, it has cubs nearby (it is spring time after all) and sees me as a threat and/or a meal.

I cautiously continued along the trail, spinning around like a lighthouse constantly.  I hoped not to see it, but was always expecting to. 

After a few minutes of this, I realized I could never get all the way back to the van spinning in circles the whole time.  My plan was to pull out my secondary flashlight to hold behind my head.  As mentioned, cougars like to stalk, so I needed to appear as though I had eyes in the back of my head at all times.

While fumbling around in the backpack, I glanced behind me and saw two golden-yellow eyes approaching no more than 10 yards away.  The puma paused mid-step when my light hit its eyes. 

I immediately stood up tall, raised my tripod, and began to growl.  If I was lucky, it would reach the conclusion that I was not a prey animal and saunter back into the bush. 

I was not that lucky.

We remained gripped in our stand-off for what felt like a full minute or more.  At this point, I knew I would need to establish that I was not defenseless, but also did not want to provoke the animal.  I took two very slow steps back, breaking the freeze.  That was all it took.  The moment I stepped back was the moment it began its aggressive approach.

At this point, I knew what to do and had to just pray that it worked.  In one motion, I scooped up a large rock and launched it hard at the lion.  The rock thudded into the dirt inches from the cougar’s face, startling it and causing it to quickly dart away. 

I blindly threw another one in the direction of its retreat, hearing a thud followed by a bit of a commotion in the darkness as it ran away.

As quickly as I could, I got that second flashlight out and continued up the trail, spinning in circles throughout to check the high ground and my rear at all times.  

An hour later, the adrenaline was flushed by dopamine as I set eyes on the van and knew it was over.

I slumped into the backseat, inexplicably locking the doors quickly behind me as if the mountain lion were going to break in and finish things.  

For the rest of my time in Chiricahua, I forced myself to continue hiking and even shooting some Milky Way.  I did not want to let one close encounter scare me away from doing something I love, but I must admit that the peace that comes with shooting the stars has been stolen for the time being, and has proven challenging to regain. 

The fear of what lurks in the shadow continues to creep into every shoot, but I am slowly and consciously regaining control over it.  

A couple of things that are worth noting and that I’ve learned:

  1. If you encounter a cougar, DO NOT RETREAT.  Also, DO NOT show the back of your neck for any reason.  If it does not relent, throw things at it to show you are not defenseless prey.  Don’t have a rock? Throw your shoe, for real.  Last resort, throw that cell phone, you can always retrieve it later. 
  2. As terrifying as this encounter was, it is important to know that in the last 100 years, there have only been a TOTAL of 125 cougar attacks in North America.  Of those, only 27 were fatal.  In other words, be armed with knowledge of what to do, as I was, but by all means keep hiking!  Your odds of ever seeing one are rare, being attacked rarer still, and even then you have an 80% chance of survival.  Ships are safe in the harbour, but that is not what they’re built for.

I originally wrote this on the 19th of May from a shaded table at an empty church on a hot Arizona day.  I am revising it 10 days later with plenty of ups and downs to reflect back on.

In most moments, I have come to accept this adventure for what it is, rather than focusing on what it was supposed to be.  The career-launching, overnight-success story I was imagining has not been the reality, but that is on me to reconcile.

On my good days, I am content.  I am able to acknowledge that being paid to photograph nature and a few product shots is a huge achievement.  It is an opportunity I would have been thrilled with had this been all I was expecting.

On my bad days, however, I get caught up in all the photography restrictions, lack of personal freedoms, and a feeling of being trapped and alone out here.  On those bad days, even when I try to focus on enjoying the beautiful places I find myself exploring, I am unable to escape the anxiety I feel from the pressures of delivering high-quality content while being so tightly confined by commercial permits and the NPS.

To try and manage the swings, I have made an effort to give myself a lot more down days where I just stay put and work.  Usually when I travel, I make an effort to be ready for every sunrise and sunset, and to see as much as possible where I am.  But that was exacerbating the stress.

Instead, I try to make sure I spend at least 3 days each week just posted up somewhere comfortable, preferably with indoor AC, where I can work on projects like this very Moment of the Month.  On those days, I don’t even look at the sunset so I can’t get hung up on what I missed out on shooting.

I find myself looking forward to when this is over and I am able to hop back into an unmarked van, with Sophie riding shotgun, and explore with a feeling of true liberation again.  No schedules, no permits, no obligations except for those we self-impose… truly empowered to chase the moments that beg to be photographed.

In the meantime, I continue to recognize in times of clarity that it is up to me to make the most of this for what it is, not what it was supposed to be.

If nothing else, there will clearly be no shortage of stories to tell when all is said and done.


Enjoy these additional photos taken in the month of May from Chiricahua National Monument and White Sands National Park.

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White Sands Gallery

Chiricahua Gallery



White Sands Gallery

Chiricahua Gallery

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Find out everything you need to know to plan your visit to the International Dark Sky Reserve of Chiricahua National Monument or the desert wonderland of White Sands National Park.


This month’s Photo of the Month was “A Moment of Redemption”.

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There is not much news to announce as the Pure Gold CEO journey rolls onward and we continue to count down the days for Sophie’s appointment at the embassy.

Her interview is on June 21 and if all goes well, she’ll be able to fly in and join me for the second half of the trip!


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Where to Next?

The Michelob ULTRA journey continues onward to California, where I will spend the entire month of June exploring the parks there.

Photo of author
Written by
Adam Marland is a professional travel blogger and landscape photographer from Oregon. After over a decade of experience as a freelance travel photographer, Adam found national acclaim when he became the National Park Foundation's “Chief Exploration Officer” in 2021.

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