The last manmade structure shrank to a black dot in my rearview mirror as I drove down the cracked and pitted paved highway without a car in sight. The unmarked turnoff to the left was barely visible between juniper trees and sagebrush, the place where the pavement turned to dirt. I had already explored this region once before during my time off from teaching, but this particular turnoff had escaped my attention.
Although I spent most of my weekends taking the students in my class to their remote homes, this particular weekend I decided to return to Utah to explore the backcountry.
After leaving the paved highway, the next forty miles of deeply rutted tract led me into vast stretches of high desert wilderness in southern Utah. Red rock slabs, towers, pinnacles and cliffs soared into the cobalt blue sky. The crisp air smelled pungent with essence of piñon pine and cedar.
I could tell from the faintness of the ruts that this stretch of road had not been traveled for a long time. Other than the ruts, I saw no evidence of human activity. My 4-wheel-drive Bronco kicked up clouds of rust-colored dust as I meandered along, daydreaming about my life with the Navajo people.
I loved participating in Navajo culture and learning about how my students saw their world, a view that bore little resemblance to that of white people. The culture was earth-based with a strong relationship to the natural world. Animals were seen as kin and embodied special powers. They bore messages for the people they encountered.
Just as I was drifting deeper into these reflections on my life with the Navajo, I saw something tan out of the corner of my eye. A medium-sized coyote with a long bushy tail darted in front of my slow-moving Bronco. In Navajo culture, when a coyote crosses your path, it means something big is about to happen. I couldn’t remember if it was something big in a good way or something big in not a good way. Before I could give it more thought, crimson red buttes and other fantastic geological formations started filling my windshield from both sides, pushing aside all concerns about the meaning of the coyote crossing my path.
Further down the road I remembered what one of the kids in my classroom had told me during our informal discussion about Navajo mythology. He said, “If Coyote crosses your path, turn back and do not continue your trip. If you keep traveling, something terrible will happen to you. You will get in an accident and get hurt or killed.” I thought about those words and wondered if I should turn around and go home. I decided that the Navajo cultural beliefs didn’t apply to me.
I was the only person around for miles and miles. Of course, if the car had broken down, I probably would have died from dehydration. But I was not thinking about those things. All my focus was on this magical place I had entered.
The rutted tract ended at a little spring. I kept driving a few more miles until I came to what looked like a sanctuary of rock formations, a perfect place to stop and explore.
Feeling certain that no one else was in the area, I took off my shoes and all my clothes, relishing the warm air caressing my skin. I climbed up the sandstone slabs with my bare feet, entranced by the red rocks, the enormous sky, the incense smell of cedar. After scrambling around the rocks, exploring caves and crevices, I came upon a little pool of water, a catchment basin for the infrequent rains—a natural bath in the middle of the desert. I cupped my hands and splashed my face, soothed by the cool water. I slipped into the pool and pointed my face directly at the sun with eyes shut but still feeling the brightness streaming in.
After what seemed like a long moment of timelessness, I lay down on a warm slab, spread eagle on my back. All my senses were alive. I turned onto my belly and spread out my arms, crazed with love for the land—and grateful for the solitude.
When the sun went down, a chill quickly settled over the rocks. I put my clothes back on, but not the shoes. I wanted to continue feeling the rocks on my bare feet every moment. I hopped from one slab to the next, on a path that seemed to be laid out for me, keeping clear of the sharp spines of the cactus.
Having no flashlight, I wanted to be sure to find the perfect sleeping spot on a flat rock to spread out my pad and sleeping bag before it got dark. But it actually never got dark—the moon was full overhead, bright and electrifying.
I sat up in my sleeping bag and sang love songs to the moon until sleep overpowered me.
I dreamed that I was in one of the sheep and goat corrals belonging to the family of a Navajo student. We were in the corral looking for a sheep to butcher for a ceremony. There were a few goats, including a Billy goat that smelled rank with the strong scent of musk they have during sexual maturity. We moved through them, trying to catch one of the sheep. The smell of the Billy goat grew stronger and stronger.
The smell was so strong that it began overpowering all my senses. When I felt my back on the hard rock, I realized that I was not in a corral, but wide-awake and in my sleeping bag. Yet the smell of musk had followed me out of the dream and was still filling my nose. Before I could open my eyes, I heard a sniffing sound right next to me.
Without moving, I opened my eyes, and— Oh My God, I am being sniffed by a mountain lion, inches from my face!
His head was so close that I could see his black whiskers in the moonlight, the white fur around his mouth, and the tawny colored hair on the rest of his face. I closed my eyes, frozen in fear, waiting for his claws to dig into my skin and tear me apart. Nothing happened.
Why doesn’t he hurry up and eat me and get it over with?
I barely breathed while my heart pounded loudly in my chest. I stayed paralyzed for what felt like hours. But nothing happened.
By the time I found the courage to open my eyes, it was daylight; the sun had already appeared on the horizon. Amazed that I was still alive, I looked around. There were no tracks visible on the sandstone rock. When I began stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, the hair on my neck stood up. The distinct scent of musk wafted up to my nose—the only remaining evidence of the lion’s presence.
I drove to the nearest town forty miles down the road and, at a gas station, I told the attendant of my experience. He said, “Ma’am, you’re one lucky gal to be alive. Them cats can rip you to shreds in no time. The reason that damn cat didn’t kill you is cause you were too scared to move.” The attendant said that if I had fought the mountain lion or tried to get away, I would for sure have been killed. “Mountain lions go after things that move.”
For months I remained obsessed with thoughts of mountain lions, seeking any information I could get from hunters, park rangers, biologists and other people who had close encounters with them. Mountain lions populated my dreams night after night for weeks. I awoke from the dreams with the feeling the mountain lion was trying to communicate something to me that I didn’t fully understand. When I drove to Gallup to go grocery shopping, I stopped at the library and checked out books about mountain lions. All the stories I read confirmed what the gas station attendant told me. I knew it was true what I was being told, but something was missing.
Why did that mountain lion sniff me up close—right next to my face? Is there another reason he didn’t rip me apart and eat me? Am I still alive simply because I didn’t move?
A few weeks after the encounter with the lion, one of the Navajo teacher aides in the boarding school invited me to visit her grandmother who lived alone in a hogan deep in the canyon where she tended her sheep.
We spent the afternoon sitting outside eating mutton stew and fry bread. My friend and her grandmother caught up with each other’s news, which included the story of the mountain lion.
The old Navajo woman took a few puffs from her tiny hand-carved pipe as my friend told the story. Toward the end of the story, she looked at me with a toothless smile that lit up her ancient and deeply lined face. Her dark eyes were laughing. For the first time during the visit she looked right into my face and spoke directly to me, no longer diverting her eyes in deference. My friend translated her words.
The old woman said that I was “really lucky” the lion came to me. He was my spirit guide. He came to give me his courage, strength and intense focus because I would need that for what lay ahead later in life. She said I would face obstacles in my life, some big and life threatening, and, if I lived through them, I would have “a strong heart and powerful medicine to give to the people.”
The three of us sat in silence as we watched the sun drop behind the canyon wall, followed by the fading light.
When I returned home that evening, I wrote down what the old woman said in my diary. Many years would pass before I recognized the truth of those words.