Mountain lions, like Rashida Jones, are best admired from a distance. Both are beautiful elegant creatures, yet both become deadly when approached. Get too close and something (claws and teeth, a huge bodyguard named Big Bip) turns a magical encounter into a trip to the local ER. Today I want to talk about mountain lions, especially as they relate to my character Melissa in Welcome to Falling Rock National Park.
Melissa is, as hawk-eyed readers have pointed out, a mountain lion. She is interested in abstract sculpture, sleeping, devouring small desert creatures, and the short stories of Richard Yates and Lorrie Moore. Like real mountain lions, Melissa can often be found napping on a warm rock in the morning or in the shade during the hot afternoons. Also like mountain lions, she can only be found when she wants to be.
There is an exhibit at the Denver Zoo (in Denver!) featuring a snapshot of a family on vacation in Colorado’s foothills. The picture seems innocuous at first. However, it has been enlarged and a certain area highlighted to the left of the family. In that spot, not twenty feet from where the oblivious parent and children stand, a mountain lion lurks in the tall grass. The family hadn’t noticed anything amiss until they got home and developed the photograph.
That’s just how mountain lions roll. If they need something, they take it. If they don’t want to be seen, they won’t be. I have been told a mountain lion’s roar sounds like a woman shrieking. Though I’ve never heard it myself, I can imagine it would be mighty unsettling to hear that sound outside my tent, many miles from civilization. When I was in Boulder, I often went running along the mountain trails just outside of town. These trails could not have been safer. They were used constantly, sun or rain or snow. I never walked a snow-covered trail that didn’t have multiple footprints already, no matter when the most recent snowfall occurred. This did not mean they were mountain-lion-free, however.
I was helping a customer at the store where I worked. When I was looking up a book for him, he told me he’d seen me running the other day. “Oh really?” I said, somewhat surprised to be recognized. “Yeah,” he said, then he really surprised me. “I’ve also seen mountain lions on that trail, so be careful.” I did my best to look strong and healthy the next time I ran that particular trail; mountain lions are opportunists like the rest of us and won’t work harder than necessary for a meal.
If you have the luxury of seeing a mountain lion before it rips out your throat, you should make yourself look as big and frightening as possible. If you’re with another person, stand together arm-in-arm and wave your free hands like crazy. Make lots of noise too. The mountain lion won’t go after a big scary creature with two heads.
If I ever have a hard time getting a handle on what Melissa would say in a particular situation, it is only because mountain lions are so inscrutable. Sure, they have to eat, and they sleep a lot like all cats. But there is something more to them. A mysterious core knowledge that may only be known by the mountain lions themselves. It is compelling yet utterly unknowable by the likes of me. I do my best to approximate.