This is my memory of what happened.
In August of 1990 I was just past my 8th birthday, backpacking with my parents in the White River National Forest in Colorado. We made camp for the evening; it was still daylight. We were in a low, fairly clear area, with the land rising up around us; the grass was tall and golden-brown. I had wandered off by myself, I don’t remember why, and was wandering back toward camp when I looked up into the eyes of a creature I didn’t recognize. It was the size of our family dog, Eile, a Weimaraner. But its face was that of a cat. It was golden-brown, like the grass. It had paused mid-stride to gaze back at me. We were maybe 10-15 feet apart, and we both stopped and looked at each other for a few seconds. I wanted to make the moment last. I was always excited to see wildlife when we camped and backpacked; I remember being enchanted by marmots. Then the big cat walked off and I went back to camp. I told my father I had seen a new animal, and he asked me to describe it, and I told him the same description I’ve given here: the size of our dog, with the face of a cat, golden-brown. He was very excited and told me that I’d seen a mountain lion. I knew what a lion was and told him that wasn’t right, but later he found a picture of this different kind of lion, with no mane, and I recognized it. Yes, I’d seen a mountain lion. I remember my father being thrilled, but there was some note of alarm, too; I’d made it out of the experience fine, so there was no sense in being frightened (I think he told me that now that it knew we were there, it would stay away from us), but you might not send your eight-year-old off on such an encounter knowingly. I felt no fear, of course, not knowing anything but that this creature resembled my pets back home. Nothing scary about that. I’ve wondered if it simply wasn’t hungry, or if it recognized my innocence, my fearless curiosity, my lack of intention to do it any harm.
The above is my memory more than 20 years later, of course, and it may be faulty. It’s even possible that I remember the story as family lore rather than remembering the incident itself; but I don’t think that’s the case. I can picture the cat, and the dry grassy field.
Do my parents remember this experience the same way? It’s been a long time, and I was small. In fact, I had to look up the when-and-where using Pops’s travel log (thanks so much, Pops, for keeping one!). I was surprised at the date; I thought I was smaller than 8 when this happened. To which Pops says, “eight is still pretty small!”
They’ve shared their memories for us here.
My memory is such that I doubt if I was there. I either remember the telling of the tale, or I remember telling the tale. The one thing that seems authentic is a flash of astonishment on your face. Maybe I saw you seeing something – and later heard what Hank actually saw, the mountain lion.
I have a “clear” memory of it, which probably has a 50% chance of being accurate.
I don’t remember Karen being there so it will be interesting to see what she says. You and I were on a hike – who knows how far from our backpack-camp given your age. We were walking up over a slight rise when you made some exclamation – I don’t remember what. By the time I looked where you were looking, all I saw was a flash of tawny brown disappearing over the hill and/or into the brush. We were in relatively open, scrubby terrain – not in the woods. This was definitely mountain lion habitat – not bobcat or such.
I asked you to describe what you had seen, and it’s based on your description plus my furtive glimpse that I concluded it was a mountain lion. I remember not having any doubt, and emphasizing to you what a special observation it was. I have and would describe this to others as your sighting, not mine; without your description, I would not have been so sure. I might have reasoned that I probably just saw a deer (no tail flash tho’) or a coyote (no bushy tail tho’).
You thought you were ALONE?!!! Wow; that’s hutzpah – and how very irresponsible of your parents if true!
All of this came back to me recently in reading a few collections of Edward Abbey’s essays. In an essay entitled “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom” (oft-quoted and reprinted; my version comes from The Journey Home), he describes his one encounter with a mountain lion. When he became aware of its presence, he was exhilarated, having wanted to meet a lion all his life (something I’d read in earlier essays). He felt fear, but also:
I felt what I always feel when I meet a large animal face to face in the wild: I felt a kind of affection and the crazy desire to communicate, to make some kind of emotional, even physical contact with the animal.
He tried to shake its hand. And if that sounds crazy, I ask you to go find a copy of this essay and read it all the way through. It’s only 11 pages long. And by the time he wants to shake this lion’s hand, I propose that you might be with him, searching for communion. I certainly was.
Abbey only had the one encounter, and in earlier essays I’ve read, he laments that fact; he waited for and sought that one encounter all his life. It makes me feel that much luckier that I got to see one, too.
Aside from the beauty and grace and rarity of the mountain lion, there’s a question growing out of this blog post about the nature of memory. That, too, reminds me of some recent reading: you may have noticed me raving lately about A Difficult Woman, the Lillian Hellman biography by Alice Kessler-Williams which – among many other things – examines the themes of memory and truth in Hellman’s life. I believe that our memories are fluid and unreliable. It may be that there is no absolutely true memory; it is my experience that people consistently share different memories of the same event. That being said, I think my father probably has it right; we were probably together. It seems more likely (because why would you let your 8-year-old wander around alone in mountain lion country), and I’m inclined to trust his memory which was then mature over mine which was then young… also, inflating my own role to a solo encounter feels like something a child’s memory might do. But it’s interesting to see these different memories, don’t you think?
Be advised: I’m out of town, so you’re viewing pre-scheduled posts until April 9. I love your comments and will respond when I return! But I’ll be out of touch for a bit. Thanks for stopping by!