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My encounter with a mountain lion

This is the first in a series of entries toward a book of dispatches from the strange world of divorce and dating.  I am juggling three different titles for the book — Please Enjoy the Music (While Your Party is Being Reached); Cheap, Pray, Love; and, finally, Agnes Louise and Ethel Mae’s Granddaughter gets Divorced.

I am dating a bear who goes over the mountain, to see what he can see.  When he introduced himself to me at Beyu Cafe, he told me he is a “traveler,” and that seems quite to be the case.  Preferably on foot.

I was determined to learn to hike, and to keep up.  I took on the challenge as something of a dare, and friends who have seen me in action know that I am quite the dare-devil.  But I am also not terribly keen on the great outdoors.  There are lions, and tigers, and bears, and trees that grab your clothing.  This Dorothy is better generally when perusing the streets of the Emerald City.

But, well, I really like this bear, and, according to many friends with divorce advice, I am supposed to love God’s creation up-close-and-personal more than I generally do.  And hiking sounded like much more fun than composting, which I am still doing, even while grumbling about it.  When the bear suggested we hike down and camp on Linville Gorge, I started doing my push-ups and purchasing some cute, weather-worthy items for the trip.  (One must accessorize a hiking trip, of course. I found a fuchsia warm under-layer and matte black, water-resistant outer-layer in the children’s department of the Great Outdoor Provision Company, thus saving quite a bit.  The floral and striped socks were from a darling boutique in the Carr Mill Mall.  And I picked a stay-on-forever — granted, probably icky nanotech, but, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do — lipstick that matched quite well.)

The bear put the full-loaded backpack on my back before we started off.  Does this work?  Does it seem too heavy?  Too heavy?  No way!  I am all set.  After all, haven’t I been training for this trip all summer?

I told a friend early on in this process that I would look like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 before the next summer.  And I have come close.  I have met many women who recommend a tattoo to mark a major life transition like the one I have been through.  But intense, physical pain just isn’t in my tool kit.  So I have instead gotten bangs, and highlights, and, thanks to some good help from yoga at Patanjali’s Place and great shoes from 9th Street Active Feet, I have embraced my love of running.  I am now almost to a 7 minute mile, and preparing to run the City of Oaks Marathon.  Pushing myself around Duke’s East Campus track each morning has helped me discover the courage to keep going through the myriad of details of divorce.  It has helped me take step-by-step the circular round of healing, one foot in front of the other, sometimes sprinting and sometimes just slowly making my way.  So, physically, I was prepared for this.

Did I mention that I am afraid of heights?  Look up Linville Gorge.  It is quite a hike.  I have to steel myself to be driven across the Linn Cove Viaduct.  It is beautiful, but, well, it always feels a bit like parachuting to me, in a car without wings.

And I have to mention one other detail.  I was on my period.  Sorry if that was TMI, but TMI (and blood, and bodies) is generally my specialty, so, there you have it.  As the bear explained on the drive there, hiking or camping during that time of my cycle would mean that we would likely have the additional blessing of God’s non-human creation.  Meaning, we would likely “see wildlife.”  See wildlife?  What the Flying Burritos does that mean, I pressed him.  He shook his head slowly, gave me a reassuring look, and told me I didn’t really want to know details.  Just be aware of my surroundings, he said — be alert.  Gulp.

I am generally against topography, being wary of anyone who would try to map other people and their homes, and I was intoxicated by the mountain air, so I didn’t really pay very close attention to the map the bear showed me at the welcome station of the gorge.  I should have paid attention.  I was dancing around, noticing with delight the beautiful little flowers that grow on the path, when the bear said, again, that I should pay attention to the details of the particular descent we were going to make into the gorge.  Here are the lines of demarcation, showing the descent . . . I can do it!  With you as my guide down that gorge, dear bear, I can do anything!

Here, in telling the story to Kara, she noted – like any good Kierkegaardian – that Romanticism can kill you.  Hegel leads to Heidegger.

But I did it.  I climbed down Cabin Trail, which is really marked off for very experienced hikers, and back up again.  It was more like rock climbing than hiking, actually.  And, if I don’t really do hiking, or heights, you can bet I don’t do rock climbing.  But I did it.  In one day, down and up, because our intended campsite was washed out.

Because I spent the summer looking for any decent Romantic Comedy to help me navigate the world of dating a little better (stupid idea), I had tapes running through my head at various points, envisioning an audience saying “No!  Don’t do it!  Turn back!”  Or cheering as the heroine and hero make their way through the adventure.  I am not sure what the audience reaction would have been to the washed-out-campsite, but I knew what my reaction had to be.  After the bear and I had spent four hours getting me and my pack down the gorge, step by step, flower by flower, little rock to big boulder, we now had to turn around, stay reasonably cheerful, and follow the trail (such as it was) back up and out of the gorge before dark.  Did I mention that I am afraid of the dark?

I often think about the basics of the word “encouragement.”  I try to encourage my students for the hard work of prophetic ministry.  It is hard out there for a Methodist minister, what with all the mapping we generally do, trying to quantify the performance of the gospel.  But most often the work of ministry is day by day courage: speaking out of a place of truth when the easier path is paved with convenient untruths politely spoken.  That day in the gorge, the bear encouraged me to take little step by little step back up before we were eaten by wildlife.  And, well, he also had to carry my backpack most of the way, because I kept feeling like I was going to pitch back over the gorge with the weight on my back.  It was a palpable feeling of being en-couraged, and I liked it, even while I was very, very scared.

Fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself therefrom for the future, which seems to come under the notion of daring. Therefore fortitude is about fear and daring, as curbing fear and moderating daring. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ss Q123A3)

What Thomas doesn’t say here is that if you restrain your fear in order to act, that fear may just get redirected into verbiage.  My dialogue (at times monologue) with the bear as I clambered up stone by stone was something like this:

We aren’t going to die, right?  I mean, we are going to get up and out of here and I AM going to get to wear that pretty red dress I bought second-hand at Dress with Ashley Griffiths, the one the precise color of the leaves you just noted are your favorite part of hiking this time of year, right?  I have pretty red lipstick that color too, and it matches, and I WANT A CHANCE TO WEAR THAT DRESS FOR YOU!  I don’t want to die!

I also drew on my love of Rage Against the Machine.  That line “Anger is a Gift” came back to me as I got really, really pissed off at the mountain for being so steep.  I was NOT going to let this mountain win.  Damn it.  I was going to get up and out of there alive.  (Yes, I am being melodramatic, but it was sort of an experience ripe for melodrama.)  At one point I started singing out loud to the rocks (and to a very patient bear) a song I had learned at Mt. Wesley in Kerrville:  Jesus is a Rock and he rolls my blues away.  The blues.  I know why people sing while struggling physically.  Well, keep singing and make it up the next set of rocks.

Since the sensitive appetite is moved by the command of reason, so that it may cooperate by rendering action more prompt . . . virtuous persons should employ anger and other passions of the soul, modified according to the dictate of reason.  Accordingly the brave man employs moderate anger for his actions, but not immoderate anger. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ss, Q123A10)

Here is a trick I learned that might preach.  You be the judge.  I could not take in the whole vista.  It was just too much.  I could not take in the whole Big Picture Panorama of Linville Gorge (the reason why people hike the darned thing in the first place), because it made me feel very, very small, insignificant, and scared.  But I could note the little steps: the little purple flowers that looked like tiny bells and the caramel colored slug, and the camel-back cricket and the tiny patterns of sprightly green moss on the tree I was grabbing for leverage up.  And when it started getting dark, and I couldn’t see the micro-beauty of my toeholds, I sort of lost it.  The bear told me that we only had about the length of two football fields to go, which made me cry real tears.  Two football fields isn’t very far, right?  But it felt almost straight up at that point, and it was getting dark.  I thought I had hit my limit, but I hadn’t.  I kept going, step by step, even though what I really wanted was for two large firefighters to come down and carry my tired patooky out of the gorge on a stretcher.

I have never been so happy to see a car.  I danced like a whirling dervish on the dirt road up to Wiseman’s View (I know, you can’t make this stuff up).  I danced and sang praises to every saint I could remember, including some I just made up on the spot, while the bear collapsed on the ground and finally let me see what carrying 100 pounds (my pack plus his) up the gorge had done to him.

Then we heard a very weird noise.  It sounded like a really scary-crazy person trying to make a sound of an animal trying to make a sound of a baby being strangled.  It was really, really creepy.  Amy Laura, that was either a turkey, or a mountain lion. I could tell from the bear’s voice that he didn’t think it was a turkey.

I really hope my mother won’t read this, because she will never forgive me for having put myself in a situation where I could even see a mountain lion behind bars, much less without bars, but, there you have it.  We climbed all the way down and back up Cabin Trail in Linville Gorge being tracked by a mountain lion.  The footfalls of a turkey just don’t sound like the footfalls we heard.  After a half hour or so, we decided to go back down to Linville Falls and find a cozy inn with a real shower. As the headlights turned down the road, we saw the telltale eyes of a large cat, there in a clearing, just watching.

Let’s just say that the bear and I have a very different reaction to this little ending of our story.  Turns out he was quite excited about the promise of a close encounter with wildlife.  I was acting sort of like bloody bait, not to put too fine a point on the matter, to attract local scenery, and we were able to take home a story about the most elusive wildlife there is in them thar parts.

Male students who read this blog might like to know that we listened to the Carolina Panthers’ game on the ride home.  I only lectured for a little while on the evils of corporate football.

  • Misha

    I like “Cheap, Pray, Love.”

    “Have pity on the general, the king, and the captain

    They know they’re expendable, after all they’re men”

                                                  – Loudon Wainwright III, “Men”

  • Anonymous

    Have you been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls . . . Miss Amy Lorelai Hall? =)

    Hegel leads to Heidegger and Kant leads to Nietzsche. Backpacking with bears leads to . . . ?

    I have some friends who will not surf with gals if they’re on their period (I’m stoked to surf with women anytime–but, that’s neither here nor there). They’re worried about you ladies attracting sharks. Though I doubt being “bloody bait” as you so bodily put it (God, I miss taking your classes) attracted the mountain lion anymore than my double X friends attract sharks. Then again, it’s certainly possible. One of my friends who is a zoo keeper told me that some of the male primates know her cycle and become incredibly feisty about it. Make of that what you will. And male dolphins, who already have a bad habit of ganging up and cornering lone females, also seem to be very interested in the ‘scent’ of human females.


    What are you going to do with them?

  • Wsmith

    Bully for you. Linville Gorge kick my backside. Absolutely the hardest mile up I’ve ever hiked.  I heard someone who had done hiking out west  say that ascending the Grand Canyon was comparable. Keep on hiking.

  • Kara N. Slade (admin)


    So . . . readers are divided on the title for this book.  I may have to use all three somehow.  Thank you to everyone who wrote to me!   Tripp, I will NOT go surfing, like, ever, due to fear of waves and sharks.  This story confirms that decision.  Good. Lord.  And, yes, I do love me some Gilmore Girls.  The Green Street Girls are big fans of that series.  That mother makes me look very, very tame. Along those lines, I would like here to answer concerns that some friends have sent me regarding this post.  I have a tendency to be very open about my life.  My facebook page veered toward an unhelpful end of a continuum of transparency.  I was being too open, too transparent about my personal life on that page.  Some friends worry that this post comes close to that sort of openness.  Here are my best answers to their concerns.  

    First, female ministers live in a fishbowl.  As a preacher’s kiddo, I grew up in a fishbowl, and I know that such a life is hard.  For single women in the ministry, dating within a fishbowl is truly icky.  They have lovely, well-meaning parishioners as well as hateful, ill-meaning parishioners watching their every move, with good and bad intentions.  I know women who are struggling with some of their answers on their ordination exams because they don’t know how honestly to answer some of the questions about their personal lives.  I believe that our bodies matter.  It does not quite fit within Christian theology for me to tell my brother or sister in Christ that it is “none of their darned business” what I do with my body and with whom.  The inconvenient truth of the incarnation is that Jesus is God in flesh, and that what I do with my flesh now matters.  The personal just is political for Christians, and how we handle that gently and honestly with one another is a big part of my writing. 

    One way for women within a punishing system of observation and criticism to react is to keep themselves covered, to keep their personal lives very, very private.  I am absolutely supportive of that decision.  But that is not the way that I have chosen.  My decision is to be honest about the struggles of divorce and dating, and in a way that I pray will open up possibilities for other women in the Christian world.  By naming myself as a real human being, with desires and fears and, yes, a dating life, I hope to dispel some of the fear and shame associated with sexuality and incarnate life in Christian ministry.  My own bishop in the United Methodist Church has encouraged me to write this book on divorce in order to help people think through honestly what ministry to divorced people looks like.  We have plenty of pretty books on divorce, and many unapologetically non-pious books about women going through divorce.  What might a truly honest, pious, un-pretty book about divorce look like?  I am trying to write one. 

    This post is also about courage.  This post is about the courage that it took for me to embark on the very hard, very scary work of divorce and the truly terrifying work of dating.  Opening up oneself to the dating life these days is scary.  Doing this in public, as a semi-public figure, is very scary.  But that is what I am doing.  I could have asked this man I am dating to date me in hiding, to pretend when we are out and about together that we are merely colleagues.  I could have told him not to hold my hand while we are walking down Main Street in Durham, North Carolina, lest a colleague or student see us.  But that would not have been very true to who I am.  So, I have posted here a story that I hope will reassure friends and readers that I am dating a good man, and that I am learning a good deal in the process. 

    This post is also about perspective.  It was just too scary seven months ago to take in the whole vista of my divorce.  It was terrifying to see backwards the whole scene of my separation from a man to whom I had been committed for twenty-one years.  How does one begin to grieve such a loss, or deal with such a public embarassment?  The only way I knew was to take things step by step, one day at a time (sweet Jesus) and to hope God was somehow there with me, even when it really, really felt like God was nowhere.  Linville Gorge is a huge vista, and I survived this trip in no small part due to the fact that I kept my eyes on the little steps up and down that climb.  

    I have heard from others that their experience of grief has been similar.  I have heard from other readers that they also experienced a sort of existential vertigo if they took in the entire set of implications of their loss, whether through death, divorce, or some other life struggle.  But, day by day, little step by little step, we move through time and, somehow, heal.  I could only heal by going through the apparently non-productive repetition of my little liturgies of running, caring for girls and dogs, writing, laundry, dishes, that sort of thing.  The answer to the challenge of Linville Gorge was not Huge and Romantic; it was small and patient.  The answer to the pain of my divorce was also small and patient.  For a while this summer, I wasn’t very good at being patient with time and healing, but I am learning. 

    Finally, the story was just too good not to share.  I mean, really?  A mountain lion?  My mom’s family is Irish from somewhere way back a few generations, and she just loves a good story.  I grew up hearing her stories about her own mother and grandmother, and hearing stories that those women told to entertain during meals and such.  I just don’t have it in me to keep such a fun story off the page.

  • Kara N. Slade (admin)

    I’m supposed to post a link to this version of the Slate XX podcast here, also.  So…here:

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