It’s one thing to read about mountain lions from the comfort of the car, squinting at a faded placard outside of Henry Coe State Park.
The plaque made it clear: we were leaving safety. Its topics included “Camping During the Tarantula Migration,” “How To Avoid the Feral Boars,” and “What to Do If You See a Mountain Lion.”
“It’s only a problem if the lion sees you first, am-I-right?” I joked to my husband Matthew. We had a long night hike ahead of us, so we didn’t linger to read, but rolled the car forward.
Our daughter, asleep in the backseat, was 4 months old. We couldn’t wait to introduce her to backpacking.
That June the California hillside rippled tawny-gold, dotted with ponderosa pines. Our souls needed to escape the city for a while, to be out here where poppies glowed red by day and a jillion stars shone out His praise by night. Stripped of cell phone coverage and its attendant addictions, we could steep in the tangible goodness of God’s creation.
But like Aslan, this creation was not tame. Take the mountain lion, for example.
Talk about fearfully and wonderfully made. A mountain lion’s body is up to 200 pounds of dense, tensed muscle. Its claws can sheath for speed while running, or unsheath for clutching and ripping prey. Hind legs can springboard horizontal leaps of 45 feet; fore legs are dense and agile for lightning-quick pivots. Every detail of the skull, from broad cranium to compact, wide-opening jaw, is designed for a lethal bite.
No wonder that, to the Cherokee the mountain lion was Klandagi, “Lord of the Forest,” while the Chickasaws called him Ko-Icto, the “Cat of God.”
We had taken this, and other dangers, into consideration while planning our trip. We mitigated what we could. But for some families (in increasing numbers, it feels like) the goal is zero-risk parenting. A friend of ours recently decided against a backyard garden because “We don’t know that there’s lead in the dirt, but we don’t know that there’s not.” For her, the reward of just-ripe tomato and crisp radish is not worth even the possibility of risk.
But can we really remove all risk from life? Are we even called to?
I think of Abraham, called not to snuggle into cozy ol’ Ur but out, into a strange land and an unheard-of path to fatherhood.
I think of Mary, called into the unknown of mothering Messiah, knowing that “a sword would pierce her soul.”
I think of my own parents, always asking God, “What adventure would You have for us?”
Yet as we drove slowly up the unlit switchbacks and I doubted. Look at her back there, just sleeping, so vulnerable, totally dependent on our skill and wisdom for her survival. How much risk are we supposed to take in pursuit of worshipping a wild God? Especially now, with children?
Yes, I felt comfortable in back country. I’d spent my childhood racing up and down the Appalachians, glorying in my young strength. But one is not nine forever. Now, I had these new mom legs. Varicose veins starburst in one leg. My thighs had grown thick and soft; great for cushioning a sleeping infant, not great for scrambling up the dust and scree of a Northern California ascent. And with a baby strapped to my chest…What if I couldn’t hack it anymore?
Then we rounded the bend and saw it.
Matthew hit the brakes hard.
There on the asphalt, three feet from our car, stood a mountain lion.
It paused, gazing cooly into our headlights, utterly unfazed. Everything about its body said power. It gave the impression of concentrated strength, a sort of total competence beyond even its impressive size.
It twitched its tail (thick as my arm.) It blinked.
Then with a twitch of its massive shoulder, like a shrug, it turned and padded across the road and down the hillside, disappearing into the scrub.
Matthew and I exhaled. What a sight! Hallelujah to the Maker of such power and beauty! Praise for His untamed glory!
Then, a serious talk. Should we turn around and drive home? Or proceed?
Matthew whispered, “Well. This guy went downhill. We’re going up. That’s got to be good, right? It’s rare to see one, which also decreases the odds of it happening again.”
“Except that it’s still in the area,” I pointed out. I’ve never trusted statistics. Math doesn’t know everything.
We kept inching the car up the hill even as we debated. We weighed the unlikely, horrifying risk of mountain lion attack against the certain benefits of creation’s balm. We asked God, our Champion, to protect us and the Spirit, our Counselor, to lead us. We asked the Lord to stop us if we ought to be stopped.
I don’t know if that’s the right way to make such a decision, but that’s what we did.
Wheels crunching, we rolled into the gravel lot, parked, and put on our packs. Our daughter woke up as we wedged her into the carrier, but she didn’t cry. With her pointy knit cap and twinkling eyes she looked for all the world like a tiny wood elf. She kept turning her head to see, whenever a leaf fluttered, a night bird called, or a cricket chirruped beside us.
Heaven and earth together were humming their holy hymn. Our little one was listening.
We set out for the summit campground.
I have never hiked so alert. This must be how deer live. Every rustle in the bushes said the cat was back and stalking us, right outside the beam of our headlamps. I could feel the adrenaline tingling in my arms, my toes, my spine. My hiking pants shushed and whispered against each other, still alive, still alive, as I took one step after another through nodding grasses as tall as my hips. I patted my girl’s back through her carrier, soothing myself more than her. Matthew and I held hands, for comfort but also to appear larger to any predators.
To scare off anything lurking, we talked loudly, our own cowbell. As the trail unfurled, bringing no threat, our talk moved gradually from town things to mountain things. We marveled at the embarrassment of stars overhead, scattered like Cyrano de Bergerac’s coins, a grand gesture of God’s reckless abundance. As Matthew stood guard, I paused half-way up the mountain to sit cross-legged against a tree and nurse our baby by moonlight. Sage, roasted in the day’s heat, laced the night with a dusty spice.
Every breath brought wonder.
We climbed on. I couldn’t bound along the trail like I used to. These were mother legs walking me up the mountain. But I wasn’t thinking about varicose veins anymore. I was just happy they were doing their job.
We climbed on, looking for level ground on which to pitch our mortal tent. Still alive, the crickets sang to our Maker in the dark, still alive.
We climbed on, grateful for strong lungs and un-torn limbs. How beautiful on the mountainside are legs that work!
Maybe proximity to lions awakens gratitude.
Maybe we need exposure to danger to remember that we are not in control, but God is. God knows our dangers and is their ruler. So we are able to walk with Him through the discernment process, sometimes choosing safety, other times choosing risk, seeking His Spirit at every step. And we need His Spirit, because there’s no decision-making computation that spits out the same formula every time. The Lord’s faithfulness is not formulaic nor His goodness bland. He is the Adventure we’re invited to join.
NOTE: Henry W. Coe State Park, in California, “Hosts more than 34,000 hikers and campers each year. There are about 200 miles of dirt roads and trails in the park, and the most common danger faced by visitors is exhaustion from attempting to hike or ride too many steep trails in too little time, or with too little water or food” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_W._Coe_State_Park).