One year ago something happened that changed my life. Something that I think of every day. Something that I carry around in my body, my mind and my soul. I’m sure not all people would give it that much of a meaning. I didn’t really choose to do so, it chose me. It’s a part of me whereever I go and whatever I do.
One year ago I was given a second birthday. At least that is what it felt like when Gordon and Dave came down from Sunrise Mountain and found me just before they crossed Sunrise Creek on their way down to the Clouds Rest junction. They gave the word “trail angel” a meaning far beyond the normal meaning all thruhikers come to enjoy. They saved me from what I thought was gonna keep me caged forever and what I thought was gonna kill me.
One year ago I spent 13 hours with a mountain lion. I started calling him or her “my mountain lion”. But really he or she ain’t mine. “I’m his or her” would suit more but I guess that’s not how it is either. The mountain lion was absolutely beautiful. I was inside my tarptent, he or she right outside. Yet as the hours passed by -and I can tell you, they never passed by more slow than they did that night- in my mind my tent gradually became my coffin.
I cannot tell for sure we spent exactly 13 hours together. It could have been longer. When I talked to the animal I saw moving behind a bush just 10 or 15m away and asked it to come out and show its beauty to me, it was still light. I guess it must have been around 7 or 8 pm. We looked eachother in the eye for about half a minute. I stopped breathing the moment my eyes saw not a deer but a mountain lion coming out from behind that bush. When Dave and Gordon passed by and I yelled for help as loud as I could it must have been around 8 or 9 am the next morning. As I hiked the JMT without watch or cellphone I had no idea of time. Several times during the night I wished I would have brought a watch, so I could have hold on to something.
That night appeared to me being a black hole, it felt like unendless falling into an empty space without time. Though there were tiny mental branches I held on to, they kept me above water, inbetween the moments where I felt like drowning. Before I left for the JMT I had talked about mountain lions to the man I had fallen in love with, and I kept on to his words “I can’t imagine a mountain lion biting through a tent”. I prayed. I surrendered. I begged. I made promises. I visualized a wolf patroling around my tent and keeping me safe. And I held on to the only thing I felt that I could do and that was banging my pot… for hours and hours and hours. At the same time I kept asking the universe what lesson could be that important that it has to come to me in such a cruel and hard way. My first night all alone in the wilderness (at least that was wilderness to me) ever and I got to spend it with a mountain lion. I had slept alone in woods in Europe, but we don’t have bears or mountain lions. We have deer and boars and mice and other adorable little creatures finding their ways through the forests.
The morning of the same day I had left my camp in Little Yosemite Valley at 7am to make sure I’d reach Half Dome before the big herds would start pulling themselves up the cables. I had been taking it easy, taking my time on top of Half Dome, having a lazy lunch when I got back down. In the afternoon I started walking up along Sunrise creek. At some point I thought I went wrong, so I went back down to check and to find out I was right after all. I started doubting myself. I started asking myself why the heck I was doing this shit on my own. And I felt confirmed this journey was all about trust. Trust trust trust, I still hear the word pounding in my ears with every step I took. I kept on hiking towards Sunrise mountain, looking back a few times and watching how Half Dome became smaller and smaller, a raptor circled the sky above me. I told myself: “Girl, you gotta trust. This is your path. It’s all about trust. You can do this.”
Just before I left for my solohike, I had fallen in love. After being alone for almost 3 years and divorced for 5 months, finally someone had found the way to my heart. Though I had been dreaming of hiking the JMT (and PCT) for years, I wasn’t eager to leave. We had just spend 4 days together and now I had to leave him for one month. I was afraid my luck was gonna leave me and he would be gone or change his mind till I’d come back.
While hiking up towards Sunrise camp, I knew there was nothing I could do but trust. Trust trust trust. Trust that he would wait for me. Trust that I was doing the right thing. Trust myself and my capabilities. Trust that my injured knee would hold up and my body would carry me to the top of Mount Whitney. I had travelled a lot in my life before, but never had I taken on a solo adventure like that. I needed it. I needed to prove myself that I could trust myself, that I was strong, that I could survive on my own. O well it seems a bit foolish now but don’t we all have these needs sometimes?
When the raptor circled above my head, I had to fight back my tears. I felt lonely and tired. I looked for a place to camp but it just didn’t feel right. So I kept going till I crossed Sunrise Creek, right at the foot of the steep ascent of sunrise mountain. I decided to put up my tarptent where Wenk’s guidebook indicated the last few campsites for the next couple of miles. I was tired (mostly my mind, my body could have kept going) and I didn’t feel like climbing a lot more. So I picked my campsite to the left of the trail, a bit hidden behind bushes, not really visible from the trail. After putting up my tent, I looked for some sticks and branches to put around my tent, like some kind of protection wall. O hell it were just a few branches but I thought maybe bears wouldn’t cross them. Then I made myself dinner which consisted of the breakfast I hadn’t eaten in the morning. I had difficulties swallowing it down. I wasn’t hungry at all. I felt uncomfortable and felt the urgent need of getting in my tent as soon as I could. So I hurried, swallowed my food down, hid my bearcan to the right side of the trail and got into my tent. I started writing my journal. That’s when I saw something moving in the angle of my left eye, behind the bushes between me and the trail. Some people may call me crazy but I talk to all animals out loud. I talk to chipmunks, squirrels, birds, deer, beetles,… I tell them not to be afraid of me, I tell them how beautiful they are, I tell them all sorts of things. When I saw something moving behind the bushes, I assumed it was a deer, ’cause when I had arrived on that spot, there were a handful of deer grazing. They had disappeared all of a sudden but at that time I didn’t question that (now I assume that is the moment the mountain lion showed up). So I started talking to the deer and I said: “Hey beauty, come out, I wanna see you. Show me how beautiful you are.” And o yes the animal that came out was beautiful, but it wasn’t a deer, it was a mountain lion. With a beautiful bright beige coat, a slender yet strong body and an impressive tail with a black dot at the end, hanging down and wagging from one side to the other in an elegant way only cats can move their bodies. O and its face and its eyes! I will never forget. People ask me for pictures. I don’t have any but the picture in my mind is one of the strongest pictures ever!
I’m not gonna go through the night again here (though I often do it in flashbacks), those who haven’t read yet the original entry I wrote in my jmt journal, can read it here. It’s the anxious report of a girl still being in a bit of a shock: https://walkingwomad.com/2013/09/23/day-2-and-3-half-dome-and-a-mountain-lion/
I now see a lot of things differently, but I’ll get to that later.
This a video I made 2 days after the night with my mountain lion. My English sucks and I do not always find my words but hell, I guess you’ll still understand most of it. O and there are some wind noises here and there but they don’t last long. Btw I don’t feel as embarassed anymore about peeing in a ziplock baggie the way I did back then haha.
When I came back to Europe after completing the John Muir Trail I happened to meet a Native American who lives in mountain lion country in Washington or Oregon. I told him about what had happened and I asked him about his opinion. He told me he and his people believe that when an animal comes to us and stays with us for a longer time than usual, it is because it wants to deliver a message. He told me it could be that my totem or power animal is the mountain lion and that I’d have to walk the way of the mountain lion. He told me it isn’t an easy path (after one year now I can confirm that, mostly I feel like I’m a limping lion with one blind eye, trying hard but falling often, with hardly any glourious strong moments, not the way a mountain lion should be: strong, elegant, fair, just, focused). Now I know this all sounds a bit new age and far off the ground for some people, but to me it actually really isn’t. ‘Cause aren’t we all a part of one big thing? We are all connected in one way or another. I’m connected with the tiniest grain of sand on a distant shore in Australia, I’m connected to a raindrop that falls in the rainforest in South America and I’m connected to a mountain lion in the Sierra Nevada. We’re all connected in this universe. As John Muir wrote in his ‘My first summer in the Sierra’: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In that night I felt every little string of connection to the deepest of my heart and bones. I asked myself and the universe a thousand times: “What is the lesson here? What is it that I need to learn?” Yet in the same moment, I knew it was all connected, connected to love, to trust, to everything that I am, to every animal, every living being around me, I knew the answer was in me and in everything around me.
O I learned so many lessons that night, and my mountain lion keeps on teaching and teaching. I’m not too good of a student I’m afraid though, cause it feels like after a year the lessons the mountain lion brought me wore down a bit (especially the ones I learned that very night). It seems like after a while I always get caught up again in daily life. Sorrows sometimes seem like mountains too high to climb. So often I no longer feel brave, I feel like I fail more than I do good, I feel like I’m not a good teacher myself very often nor a good leader, I feel like I too often am afraid to share my own opinion in a confident way. Most of the time I feel nothing like a mountain lion. There is so much I need to learn in this life. And my mountain lion is such a fierce teacher.
In retrospect I see things different the way I did that night. Though I guess that’s easy to say not being in a situation that feels life-threatening. In retrospect I often wish I had been more brave that night. In retrospect I often wish I had kept on talking to the mountain lion like I would have when a deer would have come out from behind that bush. I wish I wouldn’t have been that scared. I wish I wouldn’t have been paralized. I don’t know what would have been different. My mountain lion probably wouldn’t have started a conversation anyway, but still. People often call me brave, but boy I am not. I pray that if I get the chance to meet another mountain lion I will be braver, I will continue talking to him or her in an as loving way as I would do with a chipmunk. I pray I will understand its message with an open heart and my head held high. Last year I accepted it with tears and fear, next time I want to accept it with respect and grace. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to do that. Even now, after one year AND knowing there are no mountain lions in the woods at home, I get scared in the darkest of the night when I’m out there. When a twig breaks, my body cringes. It’s about time I make my peace and once again it’s all about trust, trust, trust.
O no, don’t think all that came out of the meeting with my mountain lion is a woman who feels like she’s failing, who feels like she ain’t brave at all, who is afraid in the dark. I am eternal grateful for my mountain lion. Because even when I feel all of the above, at the same time I am overwhelmed with the feeling that a huge and very special gift was given to me that night, that moment we looked eachother in the eyes and connected. My mountain lion and our connection gives me power and strenght on the path I’m walking now. There are a lot of times I think “I spent a night with a mountain lion, I will survive this too, I will get through this too”.
Still I hope one day I will walk my path as elegant, as just, as strong, as graceful and as confident as my mountain lion in the Sierra.
Dear mountain lion, I respect you and I care for you. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, I am grateful for every lesson you teach me, I am grateful for your guiding and your company. I hope you and all mountain lions can continue to live a life in grace, that you are respected by humans and that they grant you the space you need to live. I will always be an advocate for your rights and your worth!