A mountain lion was recently hit by a car near here. Drivers stopped and watched the juvenile cat, which lay in the middle of the road. Eventually, stunned but unhurt, it stood up and bolted for the woods.
As I read the story, I was reminded of a nineties summer hike I took in a Cascade Mountain wilderness east of Seattle. That part of the Cascades was like a rainforest, muggy, tree leaves dripping with moisture, and banana slugs crawling on bark.
I got about five miles into a narrow canyon when I came around a curve in the path, and there in front of me was a man in rags. He just stood on the edge of the path and stared at me. As I walked by him, I said good morning, and he responded with a deranged scream: “You’re late!”
And he charged. For the first and only time in all my hikes, I reached for the sheathed Bowie knife I carried in a side pocket of my backpack. “I don’t know you,” I shouted. “You’re dead if you come nearer.”
I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth, but I knew my fight or flight response had kicked in. It was a standoff, the knife between me and the scraggly man. He stopped and stepped back. I told him if he followed me, I would hurt him. He didn’t follow, but I kept looking backward for miles. I was as scared as I had ever been.
But all that looking back got me out of another situation.
I was passing along a melting, snowy ridge, a small waterfall of melt musically muddying the path, drowning out the forest sounds. I glanced behind me. . . A tawny shape was slithering along, just the top of its back showing, stopping every few feet, headed for me. It was a mountain lion, crawling on its belly like a housecat. It saw me facing it, and it stopped then stood, its hindquarters quivering.
I reached in my jeans pocket for my keys, and I held them out and jingled them furiously. The cat’s quiver ceased, and I started singing in my highest octave some aria—I don’t remember which one—and then I jogged toward the cat, keys ringing, aria resounding, surely the first aria ever sung in a wilderness, and the cat leapt and ran off, disappearing into the forest.
Noisemakers, singing: these are in the handbook of what one does if encountering a lion or a bear. Not a grizzly bear, mind; it will eat you. I have never seen a grizzly in the wild. I have seen plenty of black bears, including one which came walking along the Appalachian trail in Virginia, me going in the opposite direction, and the bear just sauntering on by and disappearing.
In midafternoon, I had to walk the same path twelve miles back to the car. I knew the lion would not return. I also knew the crazy man might well be in the spot where I met him. But he wasn’t. I got back to the car and drove west, passing the town where “Northern Exposure” was filmed then driving by Twin Peaks. Yes, that “Twin Peaks.”
The most dangerous animal on earth is Man/Woman. There is no animus in nature, but there is hunger, something to keep in mind. If there are cubs, turn and walk back, as a mother will soon appear, and she will come after you. Mostly, when one meets strangers, we all introduce ourselves and share sightings and stories and food. The wilderness is high church for some, a hiding place for others.
No human generated art or architecture can match the carving hand of God.
“You’re dead if you come nearer.” I learned something about myself on that hike. The experience reminded me of the Richard Connell short story masterpiece, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which I read as a kid, and which informed me about my own dark and moody father.
I lost the Bowie knife because I forgot it was in my backpack at an airport, and Homeland Security took it and grilled me—who was I, where was I going, why did I need a knife—then let me go and sent me notice of a hefty fine.
If I’m ever lucky enough to see a mountain lion again, I imagine myself opening my arms and welcoming it, and holding it and taking my chances. I would be gravely disappointed if I died in bed.