What I would Risk My Life For

Some time back I was honored to write a guest blog post for The Dihedral. In it I wrote about my earliest rock climbing experiences and also why I stopped climbing.

A couple of days ago I saw the video made by a trail runner of a mother mountain lion fiercely warning him away from her kittens. Why a person would stand there making a video still befuddles me, but other than that, he basically did everything right. The entire encounter came about because he saw one of the kittens on the road and stopped briefly, took a picture, spoke into his phone, all this when he should have kept going.That brought mom out of hiding and she responded to the perceived threat to her kitten(s) by chasing the guy away. Lots of Internet noise ensued, and some news stories reported that she was “stalking” the runner.

She was not. She was chasing him away. If she’d been stalking him, he wouldn’t have seen her. He would have felt her first.

My favorite headline for this story is from the New York Times, “Utah Man Meets Cougar, Chasing and Swearing Ensue.”

In one of my iterations I worked at a wilderness park in San Diego. Among the stuff I learned in that experience was dealing with mountain lions, hiking, biking and just BEING in mountain lion country.

Sometime during that period, I began dreaming of them and in one dream I was in the space between two mountain ranges in East San Diego County, the Lagunas and the Cuyamacas. There was a herd of cattle in a field north of Cuyamaca Lake. In the dream I watched a mountain lion stalking a calf. Strangely, the lion saw me, stopped chasing its dinner and ran to where I had parked. I was afraid and tried to leave, but the lion let me know I shouldn’t be afraid of it.

From then on, I dreamed of mountain lions often, and when I had my mental breakdown, I hallucinated a mountain lion sitting beside my bed in a glow of blue light. I somehow knew she was protecting me from what was ahead.

After I recovered, the mountain lions never left my dreams. Even now I sometimes dream of them. But back then (in the 1990s) I had a dream in which a mountain lion was waiting for me in my front yard and told me that my mom was an alcoholic. This was two years before I learned that in fact my mom WAS an alcoholic, that was the year my mom died.

I really, really, really wanted to see one in real life. I loved them even though I KNEW I had only dreamed them (and taken classes). I had seen tracks in the snow on Cuyamaca Peak X-country skiing the first year I lived in San Diego (1984) and again along a stream in the Beartooths in Montana where I was X-country skiing. I knew the lions were in “my” world.

Since I always hiked alone with dogs people were often warning me with gruesome stories, “Did you hear about that woman who was attacked by a lion in the Cuyamacas?” I later learned THAT woman had a T-bone steak thawing in her backpack. The cougar wasn’t pursuing the woman, but the fragrance of dead cow she carried with her.

Rangers up in the mountains saw them often and told me stories like one day a ranger was bringing in her lawn hose and a mountain lion was playing with the end of it like a cat with a string. Attacks on humans were exceedingly rare as were sightings.

So, even though I knew to make noise on a trail, and I had a goat bell from Switzerland I clipped to a belt loop (still have it) hiking in bear country (never mind the jokes about “How do you know a bear ate a hiker? The bells in its shit.”), for years I made sure the bell was muffled. I was perfectly happy to risk my life for the chance to see a mountain lion. I wanted it more than I wanted to live.

On August 4, 2004, at about 6 pm, I got my wish and it was perfect. I also learned in those minutes more about mountain lions than I’d learned in my classes. I learned that when you hike at about the same time every day you become part of the lion’s world. That cat knew me and the ONLY reason our paths crossed was because I was late. That cat knew my voice, my smell, my dog’s smell. When I spoke to her, she simply stopped in her walk to the pond and looked at me. Her response was as if she had understood my words.

I was on a hill heading to a trail that passed a pond. She was coming down from a pile of rocks on her way to the pond to drink. We were about 40 feet apart. I stopped on this hill, calmed my dog (Siberian husky/wolf, Ariel) and made my dog sit. I spoke to the cougar who was looking at me. I just said, calmly, “I’ve wanted to see you for a long time, but that’s all I want. Go back up into those rocks so we can pass.”

She turned and did exactly that. I felt no fear continuing down that trail, and when I turned, I saw her on top of the rocks, calmly watching me. I’m sure when I was out of sight, she got her drink. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Later I met a woman on the trail and I said, “There’s a mountain lion back there by the pond.” She said I shouldn’t be silly that there were no mountain lions up there. I didn’t argue. I just thought, “If that makes you happy, you believe that, sweet cheeks.” A few years later the rangers posted a sign at the trail head that mountain lions had been seen up there.

So, the question, what do we risk our lives for? I don’t know if women think about this when they get pregnant, but many risk their lives to bring another life into the world. We risk our lives on the highway whenever we head out. Now we’re contending with a virus and an erratic populace of people who believe it and those who don’t. Today when I was out getting a flu shot etc. — specifically because I don’t want the flu — I thought about that mountain lion and how much I loved her. Somehow, driving home, it all came together. I don’t think the virus is worth my life. That’s what determines my current choices.

I thought of the interminable comments I’d read on social media about how animals are unpredictable (they are not). How everyone should carry a gun into the wilderness because it’s kill-or-be-killed out there. It’s kill-or-be-killed everywhere, just differently in the environments we’ve designed and (believe) we control. IMO, too many animals are killed because they are “inconvenient” for humans. I thought of all the comments I’d gotten when I wrote about the lion, “She wasn’t stalking the guy. If she were, we’d have no video.” The comments I got basically said, “How do YOU know?” I didn’t think it was worth my time to explain WHY I would know, but I did think about how we don’t consider that others have knowledge and maybe we should ask questions instead of feeling threatened, shooting people down, not listening.

And, you know, if I hadn’t been a little late that day, I would never have seen her. She and I were utterly predictable. I learned that from her, too.

This is the best thing I’ve read on the topic by the Cougar Fund.

29 thoughts on “What I would Risk My Life For

  1. I was worried about solo hiking because of the risk of mountain lions, so I inquired what self-protection was a good idea. Pepper spray is a bad idea, the vendor claimed, he sold me stung gun, but of course, that is not going to work. The man said the electrical discharge creates a noise and ozone that are supposed to frighten away all beasts. My idea was to carry a low caliber pistol. I explained to my son that it isn’t for shooting the cougar, but in hopes the report scares it away.

    • I think with mountain lions, the best defense is noise. They don’t want to meet us. When I lived out there and there were attacks on humans, it was usually for a reason like the woman with the steak in her back pack. I am sure the fires have created havoc in their world, too. Air horns are apparently pretty effective, but I just used (use) a bell on my pack. The ideal situation is not to run across one. Since I always hike with large dogs, that was another thing…

  2. I read in some news about the San Diego area that a mountain lion was spotted jumping up to a second story apartment patio and dragging away a pit bull, whose partially eaten carcass was found a few days afterwards, somehow breaking its chain.

  3. What an amazing abs exhilarating read Martha. Wow. Animals are indeed predictable (unlike some humans I know). They have a way of understanding and spirit about them if only we’d listen. The experience you had was meant to be. It has been in the making for some time. What a beautiful exchange of understanding and appreciation. On another note, I tested negative for Covid-19. I had been under the weather and love my family and friends too much to NOT get tested. I just want to do my part. πŸ’šπŸ€—πŸ’•πŸΆ

  4. This is lovely. And it’s irritating, this attack on knowledge. Why can’t people just be happy to have learned something new?

  5. I saw that report – and video – on the news as well. There was no stalking. Of course a mother mountain lion is going to get pissed and follow him. If it was me, that’s what I’d do. Duh. But the guy taking a video? Kind of bizarre. Your story is riveting – meeting up with the mountain lion after all that time. So very cool.
    What do we risk our lives for? That is the question of (this) year, isn’t it. Measuring risk and assuming risk never seemed so front and center before. I have to decide about seeing my kids in December. Traveling and how to go about it. Or not. And the risks involved. Feels like playing roulette. πŸ™

    • I feel like I play roulette every week when I walk down the alley to teach art to the kids. I may stop. Tomorrow I’m wearing a mask. For me it’s, “I love you but not that much.” I don’t think it would be the same if they were my kids. It would be a far more difficult decision.

      • If it was anyone else but my kids, it would not be a difficult decision. But I think I’m not getting any younger and anything could happen anyway (that’s me trying to rationalize and I know it). So round and round I go. I hope wearing a mask helps you with the art class kids. It’s been such a fun time for all.

  6. As we gobble up more land for housing and encroach on their territory we will see more human-cougar conflict. Yes, the mountain lion is just doing what lions do, and people will be stupid about it. I’m glad you got to have a respectful and distanced encounter….

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