The DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association, diagnoses someone with a Specific Phobia, animal type, when they have a “marked and persistent fear that is excessive and unreasonable, cued by the presence of or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g., animals).” Mountain lion attacks are rare, and fatal encounters even rarer. In fact, there hasn’t been one recorded instance of a mountain lion attack on a person at the Grand Canyon in all the years the Park has been open.
Mountain lions owe their success as one of the most widely distributed large carnivores in the world in part to their secretive nature. They usually avoid people unless sick, unless their territory is encroached upon, or unless they are immature, hungry and without territory of their own. I know this, so my fear of these silent and stealthy creatures is, to me, unreasonable. And it is with me always when I hike alone in the puma’s range. Rangers who’ve been in its territory for years will tell you they’ve never seen one. And neither have I.
In fact, I’ve been more frightened – sometimes downright panicky – of this catamount I haven’t seen than just about anything I ever have seen. I usually spend more time afraid of the demons thought to be but never witnessed, sculpted in the imagination, based on a recollection of a fear that is itself born more often than not of subjective perception rather than of objective experience. That’s a lawyer’s way of saying I make it all up.
When I was in grade school in Chicago, every morning I had to walk by a gas station at the end of my block on the way to school. And these tough guys who owned the gas station kept a vicious German Shepard leashed to motorcycle chains to guard the place when they weren’t there. Only sometimes it got loose and barked at me. I was terrified. I never knew if it was really vicious because it never chased after me. I never got bit. But motorcycle chains? A greasy gas station? That dog must be mean, right? This led to a fear of stray dogs, which became a fear of wild animals, all of it based on the what if’s.
So I decided to conduct an experiment. I drove Highway 89 up to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast circuit of canyons wrestling with plateaus in south central Utah. I found a remote canyon, parked my Blazer, and hiked in about half an hour. I discovered a boulder long as a bus and climbed it. I threw down my backpack and tossed off my sunglasses.
I stood on top of that rock and I shouted: “Hey you, Mountain Lion!”
My voice echoed off every slab of slickrock for a mile.
“I’m skinny and practically hairless and you’re big and strong and can climb stuff! So what! So frigging what! Come out here and kick my ass! I dare ya!”
I sat down and shivered as the hoarse chirps of a lone Mormon cricket sounded out from under a rock. I was really scared now. Rosaries of July sweat flowed down the sides of my neck. I remembered reading in the paper about this playboy who got drunk and went out on a speedboat in the middle of a lake in Louisiana during a thunderstorm, stood on the deck and dared the lightning to hit him. And it did. If lightning could have vendettas, then a mountain lion, which we extinguished from much of its former range, had even more reason to harbor grudges.
I mean, what if mountain lions had a code? They won’t bug humans no matter what, unless you challenge their prowess. What if they’ve got some kind of gangster pride they lived by? Cougars must have egos, too. Look how they make their living.
I quaked and gave myself a full five minutes to live in terror. Every moment, I just knew this tawny cat was going to spring from around the blind curve up ahead and Wham!
But then . . . . nothing happened. I made up my mind right then that my fear made me more miserable than the orneriest mountain lion ever could. I decided there was nothing to be afraid of because I was literally afraid of what amounted to nothing, of thin air. So I decided to have a conversation with my mountain lion. I said to him:
“Yes, Mike,” a voice answered in a British accent.
It was Cat Stevens’s voice, coming from somewhere beyond the willow brush by the creek that wound its way along the wall of the canyon.
“I’m not scared of you, mountain lion.”
“I prefer Yusuf Islam now.”
“Yusuf, I’m not scared of you.”
“Yes you are. You’ve always been. Probably always will be.”
Hmmm. He had me there. I sat on that sun-fried slice of fossilized sand and thought what to say next, but Yusuf beat me to the next words.
“Everyone’s afraid, Mike. It’d be peachy if we could rid ourselves of the baggage before we try something. Seems, though, the only way to let go of the fear is to do the deed we’re afraid of doing.”
“It sounds like what you’re saying is to take more risks, to think less.”
“Of all the celebrities on earth, why would my subconscious choose yours as the mouthpiece for a mountain lion?”
“Well, John Cougar Mellencamp dropped Cougar from his name, so . . .”
And that’s the story of how I relinquished my fear of mountain lions. I haven’t been attacked by a mountain lion since.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just