Taking risks pay off because, after the risk — broken leg or not — we know more about reality, including our own limitations. Risk teaches us and transforms us. The only risk is not taking risks. This risk was worth it though it did indeed lead to a “broken leg.”
Sometime in the late ’80’ I read Hyemeyohosts Storm’s beautiful book, The Seven Arrows. At that time I spent a lot of time in Montana where my mom was living. Montana is full of Indian culture. I was also hiking almost daily at Mission Trails here in San Diego County, an urban park but also a wild place saturated with Indian life and history.
I was also somewhat confused inside. My marriage was disappointing, though the man I was married to was beautiful and good. I was not making any progress in my career. An important ingredient was missing from my life, and I tried to fill that emptiness with hiking through a landscape haunted by Indians. Literally, I think. The Kuymeyaay, the local tribe, also believe that area is sacred; it is where Father Serra used Indian “slave” labor to build the first water-reclamation project on this continent. As I hiked, I felt “them” all around me and saw their ghosts, eternal relics, in the grinding holes in the rocks around me; an ingenious dam they built of three boulders in a narrow defile to hold water through the year (it works). Cuts and wearing of rocks along a stream showed a place where they may have turned the yucca into fibers for rope and sandals. A stand of oak at the end of a canyon gave them their staple food; the stream and river were lined with willows they used for houses and storage. Hiking in Mission Trails and reading The Seven Arrows inspired me to look for my spirit animal. I got my wish, in a long, scary, beautiful journey.
It began with a dream I had in Montana while visiting my mom. In the dream, my mom, husband and I were driving on the highway out of Red Lodge heading up to Beartooth Summit. From my back seat window, I saw a mountain lion. I spoke up, but both of them said, “Oh don’t be silly. There is no mountain lion. What would a mountain lion be doing so close to the road?”
After that, dreams of cougars recurred frequently. In one, I was on the road from Julian to the Laguna Mountains, north of Lake Cuyamaca, near where Hwy. 79 meets Hwy. 78. A mountain lion was attacking a herd of cattle. It noticed me by the fence and came to me. I was frightened and drove away. It chased my car. I stopped and the dream cougar said I shouldn’t be afraid of him; I was not prey. In the dream I drove a red Ford Escort, even though, in life, I had a truck. The Escort came a few years later, after my mom died. In another dream, a mountain lion came to my front yard in City Heights to tell me that my mom was an alcoholic, and I should not give up my life to care for her. This was more than four years before I learned that my mother had long been in fact, a secret alcoholic. Not all the dreams were prescient, but all were beautiful. Dream cougars led me to rescue hawks that had been blown down in a storm. They walked beside me on the trails that filled my dreams, deep snow in the chaparral, skiing beside a cougar, mystical hikes in impossible landscapes, the Swiss Alps, years before I ever thought of going to Switzerland.
I did some research into the significance of a mountain lion as a spirit animal and learned that its gift is balance, their graceful leaps suspended by their long, heavy tail. I painted a life-sized cougar on the inside of the topper of my 1988 Ford Ranger, the focal point of a mural of rocks, sky and hawks. When I changed phone companies, and they asked what number I wanted, I asked for 7862, p-u-m-a, not realizing those had been the digits in my mom’s phone number.
I had seen his tracks three times. The first time here in California, skiing on Cuyamaca Mountain in 1985. The second, skiing in the Beartooths in Montana; the third in the chaparral dust at Mission Trails. I was almost satisfied with that, the confirmation that he prowled where I prowled, but deep inside I wanted more and I began hiking from dusk into dark at Mission Trails with the dim hope of encountering a mountain lion.
I knew there was a good chance I might see one if I just kept going. One of my friends canceled a hike with me because a cougar had been sighted at Mission Trails. I heard her on my cell phone say, “I suppose you WANT to go and you think I’m a coward.” Well, I did want to go, and I thought she was selfish. The likelihood of our seeing the cougar was minimal; the possible reward incredible.
I’d learned from my years hiking in the chaparral that wonderful things happen when you inject your presence into the wild clock. In my hikes at Mission Trails a pair of redtails learned that when I arrived — at about the same time every day — my dogs would help them hunt by chasing critters out from under bushes. They perched on the same boulder waiting for me every afternoon – or waiting for the dogs. I often hiked with these birds flying beside me close enough that, as I hiked the top of a ridge, I could see their eyes, their feathers, their mouths, the motion of their tails.
I normally hiked alone, or with dogs, and sometimes people on a trail asked me if I were frightened. I said I was more afraid NOT to hike than I was to hike alone. I really didn’t have a choice. Even with a few friends to hike with, most hikes were solitary. As a nod to the danger, I attached one of the little goat bells I’d brought back from Zürich to my keys. An idiot warning system since I made sure it was completely muffled when I hiked.
When I moved up to the mountains in 2003, I hiked daily in the Lagunas. I knew there was even a greater chance of sighting a cougar up here. A ranger, pulling in the garden hose at the ranger station, had found a full-grown, female cougar playing with the end of it, just like the household cat. It should have been beautiful and amusing to the ranger, but because of the deaths, the ranger was scared.
My hikes were, typically, a short 3 mile hike when I didn’t have much time, and a longer hike, between 8 and 12 miles, if I had the time. The short hike was a morning hike, and the long hike later in the afternoon; in this way the day cooled off as I tired. In my morning hikes I often crossed tracks with a bobcat as she went for a drink, caught a squirrel or headed up a hill after visiting the pond. Late afternoon was all about feral cattle, rattlesnakes and ground squirrels, but the light was beautiful and the air was soft and I had no complaints about anything. Occasionally, at either time, I caught sight of deer.
About 6 p.m. on August 4, 2004, I was walking back from Lake Laguna down a small slope toward the pond. In front of me, about 50 feet, I noticed a shadowy shape moving against the rocks. The sun was in my eyes making it difficult to see. I lifted my hand to shade my eyes. The animal stopped and crouched very much like a house cat caught doing something it shouldn’t. For a moment I couldn’t really SEE what I SAW. The reality of it could not penetrate a brain that had waited so long. Then I realized what — whose! — silhouette I was seeing. I stopped, Ariel, my white wolf/husky hybrid, beside me. I spoke to the cat. “I have wanted to see you for a long time, but that’s all I want, so please just turn around and go back into those rocks until I get past you.” She looked toward me and then turned around and went into the rocks. Ariel and I continued, facing the rocks constantly, you can be sure. 30 feet on the other side, I stopped to see the mountain lion sitting on top of the outcropping looking at me. It was then I realized I had been a part of her world for a couple of years. I had only seen her on this day because I was not hiking at my usual time.*
I came home transcendent over my good luck and filled with love for that cat.
2004 was the last year I was able to hike the way I had been hiking for most of my life. As the weather cooled, I began having problems I’d never had before. My back and quads were increasingly painful as I walked. More and more often, a short hike felt like a long one. I had to lift my right leg into my truck, and when I got out, I had a very hard time standing up straight and walking to the house.
In November I was on the floor of my house, poking the fire in my stove to re-energize the coals, when the phone rang. I could not get up to answer. I crawled across the floor and pulled myself up using the door jam to the kitchen. I missed the call. From there was the long slow process of misdiagnoses, physical therapy, and months of excruciating pain before discovery of osteoarthritis in my hip. This was caused by trail running and a lifetime of sports injuries. I had hip resurfacing surgery in 2007. My hip is now as good as new, but I have changed, and will never again hike as I did before. Only very recently have I understood what happened that day in August, and the cougar’s lesson of balance. I see that moment now as a perfect benediction. If I had not gone, relentlessly, for years and years, wearing out my hip and knees, I would not have seen her. What would my life have been without the journeys? I don’t even want to think about it.
And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion. And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two humans And never miss them. Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim yellow mountain lion! D. H. Lawrence, "The Mountain Lion"
*The top photo is EXACTLY where I saw her. I was on the top of the hill; she was coming out of the rock outcropping, moving toward the pond. When I last saw her, she was on top of the outcropping, and I was looking back at her. This on the Sunset Trail, hikers only, roughly 4.5 miles.
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