Recently, my respect for photojournalists and their craft has increased greatly.
When Dax, a friend of mine from my "real job" at the buffet, asked me if I wanted to meet his hard-drinking, truck-driving, exhibitionist, lady-friend who has a pet 500-lb African lion, it was difficult for me to decline.
I grabbed my camera and notebook, hopped in Dax' old rattletrap Ford, and headed toward the farmlands beyond Airway Heights.
Dax, a heavily-tattooed, ex-biker type whose past acquaintances have names like ScarLip Chuck and Lenny the Wrench, offered some useful advice: Don't be shaken if Darla is topless, or bottomless, or both - it's just the way she is. Think twice if she offers you a drink, unless you're prepared for a "long, strange trip." Don't make any sudden movements -- wild creatures (I presume he meant the lion) can be unpredictable.
We pulled off of a gravel road and into a cluttered homestead, where we were greeted by ten or twelve yapping dogs. Wisps of steam puffed from their mouths. It was very chilly.
"If I remember correctly, one of them might bite," said Dax. "Not sure which."
Darla's spread is littered with broken-down cars and ancient farm equipment, weathered out-buildings, a tiny hut of a house, and a few small trailers so obviously unlevel that I experienced vertigo as we stepped by.
Dax called out a few times. Finally, Darla emerged from one of the trailers. She rubbed her eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. The attention of the dogs shifted from us to her. She is fortyish, short and stocky, fully dressed.
"Get my message?" asked Dax.
"Oh, hi," she said, but didn't answer the question.
Suddenly, from behind me, there was an enormous roar that could only come from an equally enormous creature. In a caged area behind the house, a lion - as large as any I've seen in a zoo or in photographs - yawned greatly, exposing a mouthful of teeth as long as my fingers.
At first I felt a bit sorry for this noble beast, penned up like a common milk cow, but as Darla related the story of "Kitty" it was as if she was describing a house cat: It sleeps with her on her bed, it purrs when content. She obviously loves him much.
I pointed to my camera. Darla nodded in the affirmative. We, along with a few of the dogs, gathered at the edge of the fence. I snapped a few shots, though the sky was overcast and the light wasn't very good.
Then, for just a moment, the sun escaped from the clouds and illuminated this odd collection of earth creatures in a magical way. I clicked frantically as the lion stood and shook its mighty head, emitting a guttural growl like an odd prayer to the sky.
I thought to myself that it is opportune moments like these when great photos are taken. I directed my camera to Darla to get a quick reaction shot. Her face was glowing with sunlight as she told of the enormous amount of raw meat that Kitty consumes daily. I was about to take the shot when her demeanor changed abruptly - to a look of horror.
I lowered the camera. Darla began to sputter, "L-look out! He's gonna…" and she TURNED AND RAN. I looked at Dax who was as confused as I. Then we turn simultaneously to witness the terrible sight of Kitty's enormous, golden butt facing us directly, his tail pointed straight to the heavens. "…SQUIRT!" yelled Darla as a stream of steaming lion urine shot from the business end of the mammoth beast like a fire hose and HIT DAX DIRECTLY IN THE FACE…
Dax is soaked and dripping, hair hanging in his face, his arms out like he might try to fly away from this unfortunate scene - and all I am thinking is "Yes! Yes! I'm safe!" It was true -- except for a few inconsequential droplets, I've escaped unscarred. Darla emited a squeak-like noise, which I took as a laugh, so I laugh as well. Soon all of us, even Dax, are laughing (which he showed is hard to do with your lips tightly shut).
We say our farewells to Kitty and Darla. Dax understandably needs to get home. As we drove off, Dax asked if I got some good shots.
"Yes," I said, "but, I did miss one good one."
"I'm glad," he said.
As we drove back to Spokane in silence, both of us imagined the photo that wasn't -- Dax' horrified face at the right of the frame looking left, and on the left, that awesome stream of feline pee heading right.