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Lion Tracks

by John A Wickham


Early May on a day-hike into the backcountry outside Leadville, Colorado, I clumsily negotiated less of a trail than a rude obstacle course of knee-deep snowdrift islands, murky puddles, and slippery mud.  On the return trip I turned before the setting sun beneath Homestake Peak, ready for an inspiring diversion. 

mountain lion paw prints

Instead, I noticed between my legs large animal tracks, interwoven with my earlier boot prints.  A massive creature had recently crossed my path, the mud fortuitously preserving the fine contours of its prints.  A close inspection of width, depth, and unique patterned registers ruled out lynx and bobcat.  Double-checking my tracks guidebook confirmed fresh hind and fore paw prints of a mountain lion.  

My heart shot up, lodging into my Adam’s apple.  The tracks’ direction trailing elk hoof prints suggested this predator may be shadowing something else.  Yet dusk was near and my jeep a mile off.  I managed to muster excitement into a kind of anxious courage.  My entire body became uncannily focused, fully engaged.  Along the path ahead I scanned the shoulders and tree limbs, unlocked the pepper spray, then clenched my walking stick as a makeshift club.  Beyond into the forest I intensely surveyed the play of light and shade.  I defiantly marched on, darkness closing in.  I made haste while attentive to avoid a provocative trot.  No birds chattered nor wind whistled.  Only the crunch of my deliberate steps.  Hearing a sudden shriek behind I whirled ‘round, readying my primeval weapon—only a tree limb recoiling from my backpack.  After straddling a log-bridge over a flooded stream, my car was safely in sight.

On the motorized journey home I felt compelled to turn within, reflecting on a strange sensation.  The lion loomed as a ghostly phantom stealing across my path, brazenly breaking into my unwitting route and frivolous thoughts towards civilized comforts.  Perhaps a reminder that on Nature’s level field the rules permitted stalking me as prey.

Such an experience!  But what to make of this encounter?  Overindulgence in the mind’s foreground is a peculiar and overrated modern fetish.  Something nagged deeper in the background, more fundamental than mere fascination, awesome respect, or a close-call.  But further obstacles lay strewn, like the trail, to obscure the course of my intuition.  The base instinct that contact with such a sentient and powerful being in the wild demanded exploration and lucid expression.  It was not enough to energize my senses, sharpen my thinking, and return vitalized.

Slowly awakening within were bits of meaning towards subtle truth.  It felt at once authentic, yet oddly alien to even this ex-urbanite self.  Was it an ancestral stirring that tapped our ecological unconscious?   Was it a dormant relic of our genome re-situated within the timeless drama of a mythical “circling-back” with man as prey?

This stark role reversal became an emphatic metaphor of a revived dialogue and kinship with an earthly world where for millions of years in the wild these counter-players evolved our minds and framed our society.  A stumbling hike through a thawing high-country Spring had found a watershed.  It streamed an enchanting mytho-poetic world that accepted me back home as a long-lost relative.    

Suspending in time the moment of this intimate wild encounter became a catharsis.  An antidote to our overly rational, mechanized mindset that insists in shattering life’s significance by reducing it to separate parts— to dissolve every life into nameless, faceless subatomic specks in an unseen world of quantum physics.  Although science has much to its credit, it cannot answer our competing needs, as eloquently posed in Thoreau’s Walden,

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. . . .We need to witness our own limits transgressed.

And perhaps the wild encounter implanted me within a timeless, forever recurring natural process.  A psychological bulwark against the devouring Western ideology of history where nothing is the same but wholly contingent, confined to arbitrary places and times.  We are driven to histrionics “finding our identity” in a narcissistic chase for ledger space in the book of notoriety and cheap immortality.  Others avoid anonymity by searching clues in an illusion of identity by clinging to a distant branch of a family or genetic tree.  For a few dollars one can borrow an identity by tracing a Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA to Genghis Khan, a Mayflower Pilgrim, or some esteemed dead dignitary.  Others submerge an identity crisis in an external frenzy of extravagant consumerism, spectator stimulants, enrapture with the speed and power of machines, and the voyeurism of “reality TV” shows.  

Nor is the extreme sports craze worthy of emulation.  Advocates may be quick to suggest theirs is a modern version of connecting with our bygone Paleolithic urges where survival depended on mastery over Nature’s wild beasts, as if unconsciously reenacting the slaying of a Mammoth or giant Bison latifrons.  The analogy has but superficial appeal.  Today’s outdoor adrenalin fanatics hunt only the big game of ego, relegating Nature to a theatrical prop.  In reality, the craze is the offspring of materialistic mutants fed a steady advertising diet of loudness, immoderation, and insatiable appetites for perpetual newness and exotica.  These misguided enthusiasts are actors in their own blockbuster adventure movie, thrill-seeking product endorsers.  They pretend a racy and risky lifestyle alone has redeeming value, then worn like a hood ornament of the self.  They are emblematic of a numbed society overscheduled, oversold, and overstimulated.  The masses no longer see, taste, nor feel the subtle wonders and mysteries that Nature daily unfolds, nor unearth their buried message. 

This dilemma does not compel us to abandon urban civilization.  We need not retreat to an enclave of new-age primitivism and mumble a nostalgic mantra in mystic reverie.  But it does urgently require society to realize that wholesale abandonment of Wild relations over shallow relations with machines, ultimately detours us from our full-blooded humanity.  The environmental movement has lost its way in this vital quest to uproot the noxious spread of modern indifference.  While the disease progresses, we chase our tails on crisis management and remedial band-aids.

The first step is to realize that the foundational self begins with the grounding discipline of habitual inter-action, both physically and mentally, with wild Others in their natural context.  The primary focus is our common, shared identity with these extended kin in a natural home we never left.  This radical reorienting is unpopular because it raises a mirror reflecting the shocking absence of a divine halo over the face of progress.  So reliance on reciprocal relations with the wild is closeted away like an unruly and demented sibling who might embarrassingly expose our savage upbringing. 

I did not venture into the backcountry to tempt fate with a lion.  I came to reach the late Spring snowdrifts to see the Mountain Marsh-Marigolds, Globeflowers, and a Pasque Flower.  They are the most hardy of wildflowers, defiantly pushing their way through melting snows, puddles, and a still brutal alpine clime.  The first pioneers to redecorate a drab scene with elegant blossoms of yellow and purple, as if the overture to a heroic play of timeless renewal against all odds.  But unfortunately, we sometimes need a jarring experience to awaken our native intellect, like stumbling upon lion tracks.  It may be a necessary ‘Act I’ of the play to heal the inhumane division between the modern mind and its natural habitat.

Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1996)

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004)


John Wickham lives in Evergreen Colorado, where he is a part-time civil rights attorney, and occasional film-TV composer in the Western/Native American genre.

Since 1998 his published work has included essays in Indian Country Today and Mountain Gazette (Frisco CO), a feature article in American Indian Quarterly (Winter 2003) and OP-Eds in Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.  His writings explore Western attitudes towards Nature and offer resolution for the resultant ill effects on Self and the environment.

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