A few weeks after the first lion sighting, on the first Sunday in May, we started, as usual, right at sunup. It was one of those global warming kind of days - already past 50 degrees before 7 am. The sun had just peeked over the big mountains to the east, bathing the top half of the hogback in amber light.
As I had every time since the sighting, I slowed to look up at the clump of juniper where we’d seen the lion, but of course it was no longer there. On a rational level, I knew it was not going there again. Experts say a mountain lion typically wanders around in a territory that is 25 square miles, so odds of a repeat encounter in the same place were slim. But that particular juniper was burned into my memory, and it was pure reflex to check.
About a quarter mile further up, the road becomes badly eroded and covered with loose rock, and bends abruptly to the west to begin the steep climb to the top. The run had felt harder than usual, maybe a couple too many beers the day before. As we made the turn, I was trudging more than running, breathing hard, my feet clattering noisily on the loose rocks. Dreading the climb, I glanced up to confirm to myself that the end of the uphill was near, just as two mountain lions walked slowly onto the road from behind some bushes about 40 yards away. Zorro and I froze.
The first mountain lion was enormous, larger than any I’d ever seen in a zoo. The second, four to five inches shorter, followed behind, as if to keep a respectful distance. The large lion’s ears turned in our direction, but its eyes stayed straight ahead. That was the only hint it gave that it was aware of our presence. Both were panting slowly through slack jaws, their bellies moving with each breath.
I stood motionless, admiring them. They were magnificent, muscles rippling under gold fur, their long tails curved in identical arcs. The first lion lifted one large paw then another, placing each down very gently, almost as if to soften the feel of the sharp rocks. They looked stately as they walked, very erect and relaxed, and seemed healthy and content. Almost across the road, they both stopped.
Then, ten yards below them and closer to us, a third lion stepped onto the road, and made a quarter turn in our direction. Resting heavily on its front legs, it looked directly and calmly right at us with golden eyes. It too was panting, and I could see its pink tongue sliding back and forth between long white teeth. I glanced down at Zorro, who was staring back, the hair slightly raised on his back. I was trying to figure out what the lion was doing, what might happen next, as its eyes shifted between me and Zorro. Its ears were up and there was no swishing tail, which they say is a good sign. But who knows what lions think?
We were in a standoff, our path blocked. They were not going to run away. Something about the impassive stare of the lion registered deep in my brainstem where murky ancestral memories reside, and the adrenalin let loose as I realized that lion could close the space between us in the blink of an eye. My brain gushed with surreal images and fearful junk. I tried to remember if I had ever read about a lion attacking a man with a dog. I remembered an old Tarzan movie with Johnny Weismuller pinned on his back by a lion, and pulling a knife from his belt and plunging it into the lion’s neck. Then I wondered why the first lion was so large. Was it a female with two cubs, which can hang around for a year or two with their mom before taking off on their own? The lion looked too big to be a female. But males don’t pal around with cubs, and often kill them. I remembered a show on Animal Planet in which three African lions pulled down a zebra, one riding on its back, the second coming up to bite the throat, and a third pulling the rear leg out from under the doomed animal. I wondered if mountain lions attack in groups like those African lions.
Experts say if you encounter a lion to look as big as possible and, if they attack, to resist any way you can. Maybe the perspective of looking up or being chemically-altered by adrenalin made the lions look larger, but I felt especially puny and vulnerable. Zorro shrunk to half his size. I looked around for something to use for a weapon. I could pick up a large rock, but I would have to bend over, which makes you look smaller and could provoke an attack. I realized if those lions were the slightest bit annoyed or hungry, we were no match. The fight-or-flight decison was made: we’d better get our butts out of there.
Without taking my eyes off the closest lion, I walked slowly backwards, stumbling a couple of times, while pulling Zorro, who kept trying to look back, not wanting to take his eyes off of it either. I moved awkwardly backwards until we were around the corner, out of view. I bent and picked up a rock, then continued sideways for another thirty yards, waiting to see if it would come around the corner followng us. I listened carefully in case there was any sound in the bushes above us. Nothing. And then I started down in a slow jog, glancing often over my shoulder. Zorro acted as if he had forgotten the whole thing. For him, it was out of sight or smell, out of mind.
Adrenalin might be a survival mechanism to enable a short burst of speed, but it is an enemy of distance running. I had trouble breathing smoothly though I was barely moving. Gradually we went down, stopping once in a while to make sure we weren’t being stalked. By the time we finally arrived at the car, the adrenalin had started to wear off. I was elated, and couldn’t wait to tell my wife what happened.
Edward Abbey once said that if you see a mountain lion in the wild, you are very lucky. I’ve seen two presidents. One even said good morning to me. I was in a small audience with the Pope. I saw the Beatles twice, and stood a few feet from Mick Jagger while the Rolling Stones warmed up for a concert. But seeing these lions trumped them all. The entire encounter had probably lasted less than 2 minutes, but was one of the high points of my life. I looked at Zorro, who was wagging his tail. I wondered if he knew how lucky we were.