In the fall of 2002 I moved with my wife and our infant son into a blue house on the Cache le Poudre River outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. We’d both finished graduate degrees at this point and I was working full-time as an academic adviser, making under $30,000 a year. I spent much of my time in meetings and had come to measure a meeting’s success according to what kind of food was provided. Muffins meant nothing much was going to happen, pot-lucks were happier, and sometimes the boss would bring in Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was usually a good sign.
Our son had been born the previous May and was already big, already crawling and close to walking, learning to explore the world. We’d lived, at the time, in a tiny 800–square-foot house and my office was the ottoman. At night I often slept on the floor, behind the easy chair, because I couldn’t sleep with the baby in the bed. I’m a large man and a light sleeper who usually needs the noise of a fan to fall asleep. In that house I felt cramped and confined, pressed into a tiny cage. We needed a change, needed more space. That’s how I stumbled across and ad for the blue house.
The house, an old cabin converted into a two-bedroom rental, was painted sky-blue and perched above State Highway 14, ten miles up the Poudre Canyon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. For the eight months or so that we lived there, we existed somewhere in the penumbra between civilization and wilderness, safety and danger, sanity and madness.
We moved to the hills away from the bright center of Fort Collins and out of our tiny house. We moved closer to the shadows of human life, and this new house—existing as it did in the margins–seemed like the kind of house we were supposed to want. We thought of ourselves as adventurous, nature-loving faux hippies who didn’t need the traffic and noise and crime of the city. We should have loved it. We should have embraced the adventure together. We should have been happy.
A bright white deck skirted one side of the house and lurched out over the highway that ran just below our feet, just a sneeze away, between the house and the river. If you fell off the deck, there was a good chance you’d end up on the pavement. But standing on the deck, back from the edge, the highway was so close, you couldn’t even see it. You just heard the cars growl past in the night. If you blocked out the noise, or stood out there early in the morning, you could pretend it was just the river rolling and tumbling past. In the fall the blonde hills were splashed with patches of purple undergrowth and the river turned a deep milky green.
Right away we had problems with the house. Somehow it looked different on the day we moved in—smaller, darker, danker, cold and empty. It had lots of brown wood paneling and an ancient death-trap propane heater that, when the heat came on, roared like a jet taking off.
There was a telling moment that day, one of those moments from which there is no return; we were carrying boxes up the steps and cramming our furniture inside. I lingered inside, unloading boxes in the fading light, watching the space fill fast. My wife came up the stairs and stepped through the door.
A look crossed her face. I watched her try to push it away, watched her try to suppress the rising darkness. I could see it all. An unmistakable distance settled over her, and I knew she was retreating before we’d even settled. I knew she’d already left and I felt like I was looking up at her from the bottom of the canyon.
We tried to make the best of it. We tried to appreciate the outdoors–often hiking around the foothills with our son in a backpack. And it was idyllic at times, peaceful and quiet. Mountains and canyons were our backyard, a river in the front. We both lost pounds by the dozen by carrying the baby up and down trails, dragging the dog along with us. But the romance faded after a while and we settled in for a long winter.
As close as we were to the highway, we weren’t too far from the wilderness and new kinds of danger—a rushing river or rolling fire. The house where we lived was, in fact, later threatened by a huge wildfire in 2012. Most ghostly and psychologically troubling of all threats, though, were dun-colored pumas lurking in the undergrowth. Mountain lions. Big cats. This was something new, something I hadn’t predicted. We might have moved out of the city but we’d also leaped into the lion’s territory and moved into a lower status on the food chain.
The attack tales–people pounced upon, eaten, mauled—haunted me. I read the stories on the news and replayed the images over and over in my head, hoping it would help me protect my family. A ten-year-old boy, hiking with his family in Rocky Mountain National Park, runs ahead of the rest, around a bend in the trail, just doing what boys do. This is often how it starts. Seconds later the father comes upon a lion dragging the boy off into the brush.
I didn’t want to live in fear. I knew the statistics. I read all about it. I knew that we had invaded their habitat and not the other way around. And I knew that attacks were uncommon and fatal attacks rare. But as we moved in that first day, the landlord—a bleached-out tweaker, the wife of a local attorney who liked to talk about herself a lot—felt the need to tell us about the scores of mountain lions roaming the hills, snatching pets from yards and terrorizing the humans. She made it seem like they were camped on the roof of our house, licking their chops, just waiting for a chance to pounce on our baby. We stood there in the driveway, my wife holding the baby on her hip, and I wanted to tell this woman to shut the hell up, to stop and think for a minute about what she was saying to her new tenants, new parents, new aliens to this country.
I admit that she scared us and, at first, we kept the dog inside or in the tiny fenced-in yard. I worried obsessively about the big cats when we were outside with our son. I hovered over him constantly. I was glad that he was still learning how to use his legs, still toddling around and mostly attached to one of us. I didn’t want him to be independent in the woods. I didn’t want him striking out ahead of us around one of those bends. Not yet at least, because you never knew when he might not come back.
On July 17, 1997 ten-year-old Mark David Miedema was hiking with his family in Rocky Mountain National Park, a couple of hours away from where I lived with my girlfriend in Breckenridge. The family had taken the North Inlet Trail to Cascade Falls on the west side of the park. The trail skirts the edge of Summerland Meadow, a popular feeding spot for deer and elk. On their way up to the falls that afternoon, Mark had sprinkled peanuts along the trail in his best Hansel and Gretel. As the family made their way back down the trail, Mark ran ahead of the group following his map of crumbs. He was only a few minutes away but far enough out of their sight that none of the adults could see what happened next.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. just at the edge of Summerland Meadow, Mark was attacked by an 88-pound mountain lion. He suffered bite and puncture wounds to his head, face, and neck; and evidence suggested that he fought off the attack, at least for a while. A lion will typically try to quickly break the neck or crush the skull of its prey. When the family came upon him, Mark’s legs were protruding from a bush beside the trail. The lion had his head in her mouth and was trying to drag his body further off the path.
I’m just retelling what I read in different reports. You can read all of it online, or most of it at least. There are a number of sites that collect stories of fatal mountain lion and/or bear attacks and they are filled with dark little horrors of language clipped from news reports, sentences such as, “A cougar tore apart pieces of five-year-old Carmen Schrock’s skull at a campground near Metaline Falls, Washington,” and other snippets that are captivating in their detached, objective reporting of gruesome attacks, many of them on children, made even more disturbing by the listing catalogue form they use. I had a hard time looking away, not clicking links and chasing stories down rabbit holes. It was bad.
I lost whole hours, days even, to their morbid march of facts and information. I was pretty sure this made me a terrible person. I didn’t know if my reading and retelling these stories is another kind of attack or an act of empathy. I hoped it was the latter, but some days as I combed through each story for the strange, grotesque, or odd details, I wondered if I wasn’t just another kind of predator, hunting for the attack stories. In fact, people who knew that I’d been interested in this stuff for a while would sometimes send me links to news reports of people being horrifically mauled by predators. There were a lot of them. In fact, if you paid attention, they seemed to be happening all the time, all around us. And I ate it all up.
When the lion that killed Mark Miedema was later tracked down, shot, and killed by a professional lion hunter, a necropsy showed that she was pregnant with two cubs. I had no idea what to think about this fact, in part because it seems too strange, too sublime and specific, to be true, and also because it seems like the stuff of story and not reality: the unpredictable and inevitable ending that we expect from great fiction.
The truth is that we’d moved into a lions’ den. We were tempting fate, homesteading in the penumbra, encroachers, trespassers, and some days we felt utterly alone in our pioneering. When we hiked around the 40 acres we leased and in the county park across the river, I kept the dog on the leash and carried a large walking stick. I bought into the fear and the hype. I’d even found the bones, fur, and blood of deer on the hillside behind our place and wondered if there was a big cat that hunted up there.
One morning during our regular walk, the dog came trotting up to me with the forelimb of a deer in her mouth. She dropped it at my feet and wagged her tail, and I thought, this is fucking crazy.
I imagined the cat perched on the rocky outcropping behind our bright blue house. He was the color of rocks and grass, the color of a ghost. His whiskers twitching in the breeze, he gazed down into our son’s bedroom, watching him sleep, waiting for his chance.
I knew our chance of even seeing a mountain lion—much less being attacked by one—was pretty small, but still I found myself wondering why we had decided to risk the odds. At my most panicked moments, my imagination took over and sometimes it surprised me how detailed and violent my protective fantasies became:
It begins with a swift attack. The cat latches onto my son, but I am there in a split second, punching wildly at the cat’s face. He releases and turns on me. I tell my boy to run. He is hurt and dazed but he escapes somehow, out of the scene, and I focus on the animal. He leaps at me, aiming for my throat, and rakes me with his claws. He clamps his jaws down on my left arm. With my right hand, I press my thumb into the cat’s eye as hard and deep as I can, until I feel membranes bursting and cells collapsing. The cat twists, snapping bones in my arm. He claws at my belly, but I keep thrusting, turning my thumb and pushing nail-down further and further into the eye until finally the cat releases its grip and bounds away, mewing and spitting, pawing at the damaged eye.
I found myself engaging in these sorts of fantasies far too often. It was a strange sort of defensive imagining. In the end, of course, I always won. I always fought off the predator and protected my son. Thus are the narratives of fatherhood. Since fear is primarily a psychological phenomena and danger often a matter of interpretation, I wondered if imagination–if storytelling and essaying–was the best defense I could muster.
Into the Half-Wild
A few years before we moved into the blue house, on October 2, 1999, three-year-old Jaryd Atadero, hiking the canyon with a group of adults, disappeared without a trace. Bright-eyed and curious, he’d run ahead of the slow adults in his group, exploring the woods—engaging in the kind of mesmerized stomp into the brush I’ve seen from other kids.
Toddlers love the woods because it’s so easy to get lost. Too easy perhaps. It feels safe, comforting, and distant from the obvious evils and dangers of civilization. The adults assumed Jaryd had joined the other group ahead, that he simply chose another circle of safety. But he never made it to them. Nobody knows for sure what happened. He just disappeared. Massive search efforts, lasting days and then weeks and then months, turned up nothing. No evidence: no tracks, no signs of struggle, no blood. Nothing.
At least for a few years. Then they found him, or rather: parts of him.
On June 6, 2003, shortly after we’d moved out of the canyon and back to Fort Collins, Jaryd’s scattered skeletal remains, his tattered red jacket, and his shoe were found. Some hikers discovered the remains, not far from the trail but well hidden in thick brush and rocks on a steep hillside, a place that would have been difficult for Jaryd to reach on his own. Though it was nearly impossible to prove, pretty much everyone concluded that Jaryd had been attacked, killed, and eaten by a mountain lion. They don’t know precisely when it happened or how long he was lost before he died.
It’s a horrible story. But after living in that canyon, the part of Jaryd’s story that really troubled me was not the mountain lion acting like a mountain lion. That was bad and worried me plenty, especially with my son becoming more and more mobile, close to walking all on his own. The fear that developed there instead related to another part of Jaryd’s story, a part that seemed to speak more to the nature of the half-wild, the mild penumbra in which we lived, and where Jaryd died.
When the boy was lost, before anyone had noticed, before they began searching, Jaryd stumbled across two fly-fishermen working a hole in a nearby creek close to the trailhead. These men, annoyed by his innocent noise, worried he would frighten the trout and shooed Jaryd away, telling him to be quiet and go back to his parents. They were fishing for chrissakes, and they had to be thinking, Come on, where’s this kid’s parents? He’s scaring away all the fish.
They were the last two people to see Jaryd alive.
The half-wild has a strange effect on your understanding of self and society. That little boy didn’t belong there. But he wasn’t really their responsibility. Not yet. After all, the trail wasn’t far. There was a parking lot not too far away. His parents had to be close, too. Why else would he be there? It was a well-traveled path, popular with city folks who drive up for a day hike. They just needed to get him away from their fishing hole.
In the half-wild, where everyone goes to shed his social responsibilities, individualism is the norm. Survival is your responsibility. Deep in the wilderness, away from most trails, in what you might call the “backcountry,” those fishermen would have most likely reacted differently. They would have been far enough away from civilization that their sense of collective duty to fellow human beings could have extended to a little lost boy. They probably would have protected him, fed him, kept him warm and searched for his parents.
But in the half-wild what happens? There’s an odd suspension, a dangerous dallying between the individual and the social, between right and wrong. This is no place for welfare, no home for the weak or those easily lost and dependent. People retreat to the half-wild to shed their responsibility to others. Surely those fishermen weren’t bad men. They meant no harm to the boy. But something had shifted out there, or at least in the managed wilderness of the canyon.
In the half-wild, the in-between, the rules lose definition and boundaries. They become hazy and porous, prone to collapse.
Read Steven Church’s Letter to America, with his daughter Sophie, as well as his essay “Living through the Tremors,” in Terrain.org.