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Imaginations running wild

A news item caught my eye last week, as it appears the citizens of Eleanor, W.Va., believe they have a mountain lion in their midst and have been talking about it on social media.

According to a report by WOWK in Huntington, one woman who says she spotted the big cat in town last month prompted others to retell stories of alleged mountain lion sightings in the state.

One person posted a story, which WOWK reproduced:

“Not long ago, I had mentioned that on one of our many trips from PA back down to visit family in Charlotte NC, I remembered looking out the passenger side window down into a ravine well below the side of the mountain highway in WV and suddenly seeing what looked like a female African lion walking along the railroad tracks. By the time it registered what I was looking at, we were too far past to stop. Amazed and puzzled, I didn’t mention anything at the time. This would probably have been in the 1990s and either on the section of I-79 soon before getting on to Route 19, or somewhere on Route 19 near the northern end, long before getting off near Beckley. … It was a long time later before I realized that what I had seen was not a female African lion but a mountain lion.”

That story was told by Jean Claar Bassett, of Charlotte, N.C.

West Virginia Department of Natural Resources officials say it’s not possible. The eastern mountain lion is extinct, and there is too much of a gap in territory for a western mountain lion to have wandered over. A friend of mine who is familiar with native wildlife said the only scenario in which it could be a mountain lion is if one had a escaped from a “Tiger King” style zoo somewhere in the region.

But it’s more likely residents are seeing something else.

It reminds me of a trip I took years ago, to Shenandoah National Park (not so far away from West Virginia, in terms of roving wild animals). A ranger was talking about some hikers who had spotted a deer carcass dragged up into a tree. Their conclusion was that a big cat of some sort — a mountain lion, for example — must have done it.

That ranger, too, said if it was a mountain lion, it was one that had escaped from captivity and not been reported. This would have been at about the time Bassett said one was spotted in a ravine in the southern part of West Virginia, so who knows?

Wonderful as it might be to learn an extinct species had simply been hiding from us all this time, the truth is probably something much more mundane.

Still. I was driving south on I-77 a week earlier, and about the time you pass the first toll plaza after Charleston, things get … wild … down there. It’s easy to look up at those hovering hills, without a human structure in sight, and imagine a mountain lion lurking just beneath the tree canopy. Or Bigfoot, for that matter.

Don’t look up and let your mind wander for too long, though. Those turns can be tricky. I watched a poor traveler towing a camper weave and wobble and nearly lose it until I felt comfortable to pass. Then I glanced over and the guy was pale as a ghost and mouthing words I can’t reproduce here.

I just smiled.

Adventuring in West Virginia is not for the faint of heart.

But it’s the kind of place where it is easy to believe the improbable. It’s easy to imagine there is a mountain lion, a Mothman or even a Sheepsquatch rustling just on the other side of a thick stand of trees. We’re used to embracing the wild and fantastic here.

Let’s remember that this weekend, as we Mountaineers who are always free celebrate our country’s Independence Day.

To heck with the old, boring and “safe,” we’re meant for something more imaginative than that — unbelievable, even. We’ve just got to find it.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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