I left the Badlands and headed west into the Black Hills National Forest, which is not far at all. I stopped for a night in Rapid City to restock and catch up in the digital world. Rapid City is a great place. It's a rare breed of town that's big enough to have everything you need but while not being congested at all. The Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore and that brings most of the tourism to the area. I've got no interest in places with screaming kids and tour buses filled with retirees, so I waved at the presidents as I passed by on my way to Wrinkled Rock Climbing Area.
Wrinkled Rock is a natural playground for rock climbers and one of the little -known free camping areas in the Black Hills. There's only a handful of tent pads and they're all too close to the parking area in my opinion, so Lola and I loaded up the backpack and set off to find a backcountry site to sleep for the night. We found an awesome site with a great view, a couple hundred feet off the trail, through a boulder field. We got set up, Lola bullied her way into my sleeping bag and we knocked out super early.
I woke up the next morning around 4:30. It was still dark out but there was faint light on the horizon. I decided to start packing everything up so I could find something to shoot for the sunrise. I tied Lola to a tree, so she wouldn't wonder off in the dark, and started the long process of packing everything for the half mile trek back to the van. I had this bad gut feeling, not Taco-Bell-bad but instinctively bad. I normally can ignore and would never mention such a thing but this wouldn't stop. Lola also kept alerting to something in the woods but I didn't pay her much attention. These things continued on for a few minutes, getting worse with time. Eventually, I clipped Lola to me, instead of the tree that she had been tied to, and started shoving things in my pack. It was time to go.
We hiked the few hundred feet back to the trail, which gave a weird sense of security, and started down it at a pretty quick pace. I knew of the danger of big cats and bears so I had my headlamp on high but everything in the Black Hills sparkles. The ground, the rocks, everything sparkles in the light (it's no surprise there's gold in the area) and I thought there's no way I'll be able to see a pair of eyes in all this. We got within a couple hundred feet of the parking area and make one last turn on the trail. I looked into the woods at the bend and saw the two biggest eyes I've ever seen in the woods, less than 30 feet away, staring right at us. They were huge, round, forward facing eyes that were far apart and high enough off the ground to see over the brush and I could make out a faint head and ears through the limbs. It was a mountain lion - and it was big. Lola, no doubt, looked like a delicious baby deer. I kept my composure, but inside, I freaked out. I put Lola in front of me, pulled out the bear spray and walked backwards the rest of the way to the parking lot. It never took it's eyes off of us and it was completely still the entire time I had my headlamp on it. That was the longest 200 feet I've ever walked in my life. I was shaking when I unlocked the van door, from the adrenaline rush. I started the van, probably woke up everyone else at the tent pads, and we bolted. We didn't go back to that camping area again.
I originally thought "I'm gonna keep that to myself, I'm probably crazy as hell" but after talking to some locals and a couple close friends about it and reviewing it in my head over and over - I'm not crazy. We were being stalked by a mountain lion. I'd read about the dangers of having pets out in "lion country" at dawn and dusk in a brochure at the ranger station and I've seen dozens of documentaries on these kinds of things. I knew better. Tennessee (arguably) doesn't have mountain lions and it's not something I've had to consider before. The Black Hills have over 200 big cats. I found out - we're not in Tennessee anymore.