The last manmade structure shrank to a black dot in my rearview mirror as I drove down the cracked and pitted 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. Although I had explored the region before during my time off from work, this particular turnoff had escaped my attention.
The next forty miles of deeply rutted tract led me into vast stretches of high desert wilderness in this remote and untouched part of Utah. Red rock slabs, towers, pinnacles and cliffs soared into the cobalt blue sky. The crisp air smelled pungent with essence of pinon pine wafting into my nose.
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 in the road, 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 how I ended up in this part of the world.
The year before, in 1971, I left behind the life I had known back east and headed off to the Southwest, having no idea I would be entering a world I never knew existed. The Bureau of Indian Affairs hired me to work as a 4th grade teacher at a boarding school on the Navajo Reservation. I was twenty-two. It was my first real job.
The school was located in the town of Chinle, Arizona, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Many of the children in my class spoke no English. When I made an earnest effort to learn Navajo, I was instantly invited into the homes of my students and their families.
Weekends, when I wasn’t exploring the backcountry, I drove one or two of my Navajo students home in my 4-wheel drive vehicle to their isolated log and dirt hogans scattered throughout Canyon de Chelly. Over the course of the school year, I had driven every student in the class to their homes. As their families became comfortable with me, they invited me to participate in their lives and daily activities, including their religious ceremonies. The remoteness of their homes in the canyon kept age-old traditions alive. The food, dress, ceremonies and outlook on life remained the same for many generations.
I loved participating in the 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 people, 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.
I was the only person around for miles and miles. Of course, if the car broke down, I probably would die from dehydration. But, given my youth and adventurous nature, 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 sure that no one else was near, 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 songs to the moon until the goddess of sleep overpowered me.
I dreamed 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, it began overpowering all my senses. When I felt my back on the rock, I realized 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, 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 was barely breathing 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 appeared on the horizon. Amazed that I was still alive, I filled my lungs with air and let it out ever so slowly while I looked all around me. There were no tracks visible on the sandstone rock. When I began stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, the hair stood up on my neck. 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 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 lions were trying to communicate something to me that I didn’t fully understand. When I drove to Gallup to go grocery shopping—a two-hour drive each way—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 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. 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.