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.

Fun with Fissures

California has naked geology in many places, fissures where the earth has broken apart. In these spots, Earth’s oldest rock is brought to the surface by seismic activity. Sometimes these fissures opened up a fresh-water spring.

It was fun hiking between the two highest “mountain ranges” in San Diego County. The ranges themselves had resulted from a combination of pulling and folding — like laundry? In between were fissure/valleys, often with small streams and springs.

Satellite view of where the Cuyamaca Mountains and Laguna Mountains pulled apart.

You can kind of see what I mean on the map — the area is actually pretty small — maybe only 16 square miles. It is exactly between the two ranges and near the spot where they split (to the north). There are two creeks (Indian Creek and Lucas Creek) and at the lowest part of these valleys is a small pool.

I had several hikes that took me to that pool — it’s important when you hike with a hairy dog that they have chances to cool down. One of my hikes took me to the mountain top from which I could see both ranges. The trail is on this map but hard to see. That mountain is in the lower left hand corner facing, pretty much just opposite the direction arrow.

There are a few ways to reach the fissure — one is going down the Noble Canyon Trail which is a mountain biker’s paradise so not the most fun hike, BUT once off the mountain bike trail, within earshot of the stream, there were (before the Cedar Fire) some very ancient manzanita.

Molly and me and the Grandfather Manzanita near Indian Creek, 2000? 2001?

One afternoon, hiking with Ariel, my white husky/low-content wolf, as I sat eating my picnic lunch against a hillside and Ariel swam, a mountain biker came thundering down the slope. He couldn’t see me, but he saw Ariel and crashed his bike. He came tumbling down the hill. Ariel just stood in the water looking at him. I got up and said, “Are you OK?”

“Is that a wolf?”

“No. Siberian husky.” I wasn’t given to advertising Ariel’s genetics. Ariel got out of the water, shook and walked over to say hi to the guy.


Another splendid fissure was in Mission Trails Regional Park, a spot now called “Oak Canyon.” In my mind’s eye, the Kumeyyay, while they were under the dominating thumb of Father Junipero Serra and building his damned dam on the San Diego River, retired to that canyon every evening for their dinner of wild bunny and acorns. Morteros and small cisterns litter the Precambrian Gneiss revealed in some seismic moment eons ago. It’s one of the only spots in that summer-sere place that is cool in the afternoons because of the deep shade of the canyon walls. The Indians had blocked the flow of water from the seasonal stream that runs through it with ONE round boulder, a dam that held water for their use 12 months a year in elegant simplicity.

The featured photo is my dog, Truffle, swimming at the place I named Indian Kitchen, Oak Canyon, Mission Trails Regional Park.

My dogs loved it.

Oh yeah, me too.


Manzanita and Rocks

The manzanita in this photo was a destination for Molly and me — a minor destination. The kind where you stop, look in awe at a hundreds of year old immense beautiful plant, sit down, give your dog some water, get up and keep going to a real destination. In this case, our destination was a small spring fed pool in a narrow fissure between some of the earth’s oldest rocks up in the Laguna Mountains.

I’ve known some rocks that are more than 1000 million years old — very common rocks, the bedrock of the Earth, pre-cambrian gneiss. They offered a lot of good lessons in patience through change.

Truffle Swimming

Truffle “fishing” in a seasonal pool in the “Indian kitchen”

These particular rocks had been used by Indian tribes for hundreds (thousands?) of years for all the things Indians can use rocks for — weapons, tools, cisterns, grinding holes, laundry. A person who was paying attention could imagine a small band of Indians doing their chores with the help of those ancient rocks, grinding acorns or maybe releasing the fibers of yucca to make sandals and ropes.

In October 2003 an immense fire — 273,246 acres — swept through parts of Southern California — both of these places, in fact. The ancient manzanita was burned to the ground. The oak trees north of this seasonal pond where my dog is swimming were burned to the ground, too. But the rocks — except for some staining from orange fire retardant — were still there, still the same. And the manzanita? The roots hold a manzanita’s life. By spring, shoots of the future had already emerged. I wonder what she looks like now, 15 years later.


My Marathon

A long time ago in a far away place my dog Molly and I hiked a marathon. We didn’t set out to do that, but by the time we finished, that’s what we’d done. It was December in the year 2000 or 2001. Molly was already a pretty old dog — 12 years old. She was my best friend. She was — to me — much more than a dog though being a dog is already a pretty amazing thing. I thought we’d hike 7 or 8 miles, but the day was so beautiful, windy but not too windy, just windy enough to clean the air an bring the sky close. As we hiked, I’d think, “Wow, I wonder what THIS looks like today” and we would go there. Fortunately, there was drinking water on the trail from a good well that flowed into a trough for the dog.

We started at the Meadows Information Station on the Sunrise Highway about 9 am. By the time we got back, it was dark and my feet hurt in a wonderful new way. The bottoms hurt when I put my foot down; the tops hurt when I lifted my foot and the top hit the laces and tongue of my shoe.


I checked my map when I got back to my truck and computed the distance. I was stunned. I had walked the distance between the mountain and the outskirts of San Diego. 26 miles. And, I was starving.

Not long after that, Molly was no longer up for a long hike. Time began to tell on her joints as happens with larger old dogs. I think that day was a great gift of long distance spontaneity, my only marathon and I shared it with her. ❤



Rain Shadow

Here’s a photo that kind of shows the rain shadow effect in the Laguna Mountains. You can see where the cloud just STOPS. It’s stopped by warm air rising from the desert and, if we could take the trail a little farther, you’d find we go in and out of winter depending on the location of the cloud and how much moisture it holds. Most of the time, the rain or snow storms would reach the highest parts of the rim along the desert and stop, sometimes dumping three feet or more of snow in the last minute before dissipating. Many people don’t know it snows in San Diego County!

I’m with Lily on the Garnet Peak Trail in this photo back in 2013.If you look a little bit in the distance behind me on the trail, you’ll see there is no frost on the bushes. We continued on the trail and hiked the rest of the way in a sunny day, returning to falling snow.

Lily and me, Garnet Peak, Rain Shadow

The Greatest Hike

Today when I was walking around the golf course and into empty pastures with Bear and Dusty, enjoying the cool breeze and the early winter light, I suddenly remembered another day very much like this one fifteen some odd years ago.

It started out a normal hike about 9 am at The Meadows Information Station turn out on the Sunrise Highway in the Laguna Mountains. I just wanted to go hiking with Molly. I didn’t know for sure where I’d hike or anything, but I was going to enjoy the clear windy December day with my best friend.

She happened, also, to be a dog. Malamute and Aussie. I’d had her since she was 7 weeks old. We were very, very closely bonded and I loved her so much (and she me) that I couldn’t bear the thought of life without her. She was already twelve years old at the time, but in no way did her being signify “old dog.” She’d hiked all her life.

I’d brought lunch — yogurt and granola bars and a soda — and water. There was a good well at what I imagined would be our halfway point and there I could refill our water and Molly could have a good, long drink if she wanted.

We hit the trail, pretty much alone (as always). The Laguna Mountains are 7000+ feet in elevation, the highest in San Diego County. Along the northeast rim they drop nearly straight down to the desert, but at that highest point they make the rain shadow and it’s possible to stand on a trail, spread your arms out and have one arm in winter and one in summer.

Some of the trails go through forests of Jeffry Pine. Others go through manzanita scrub. There are meadows and streams and waterfalls and man-made dams that form “lakes” (big ponds). In those mountains over the years I’ve seen most of the wild things — including a mountain lion — but I never saw a fox. Most of the foxes in those mountains are gray, low fur shadows against the rocks, sage and trees. I’ve had coyotes follow beside me and behind me. I’ve tracked mule deer with my dogs. I got to watch an early morning bobcat carry a dead rabbit to her hiding place.

But that day with Molly was not about wild animals (other than us!). It was about wind, an unbelievably blue sky, silver clouds and how every turning, every familiar turning was new and washed with light that was absolutely clean, clouds close enough to touch. We climbed up Garnet Peak and ate lunch, then back down, back across the road, then down the Noble Canyon trail, right toward Indian Springs, past the most amazing grandfather manzanita, to Indian Springs, back up, hit the well again, then turned to return to the car. Night was beginning to fall. We’d been hiking for 8 hours. As we crossed the meadow, the last bit before reaching the end of the trail, my feet hurt on top and on the bottom. There was one painless moment in between foot fall and foot lift.

We hiked 26 miles on that glorious day. We were both starving.

I’ve hiked in the Alps, the Dolomites and the Cinque Terre and in Arizona, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, but that was the best hike of my life. There was something magical about chasing the beauty of that perfect day with Molly. I’ll be grateful forever for having had that day with my great friend.


The photo is Molly and me by the grandfather manzanita on a short hike sometime the following year.


Since I wrote this prompt not even a year ago, and the first “person” I saw today is the same one I saw last year, I’m going to call this post “The Greatest Hike” my response to today’s daily prompt.