Perhaps if I was able to take a picture of this moment, then you would believe me. Maybe if I could capture every minute I told myself “this is it,” and posted it on Facebook, perhaps people would realize how much our lives were on the line. Maybe a year from now, I’ll look back on this experience and be ok with it being a cool story, but today, it isn’t just a cool story, I am happy to be alive. I am lucky.
The day was beautiful and we were enjoying ourselves. Previous to our bike ride we went wake boarding, hiking and snowboarding. Earlier in the day I was bitching at my boyfriend about petty bullshit that would soon be so insignificant to my whole existence. A selfish moment. A typical millennial toddler like fit that was unnecessary. As I write this, I feel guilty. Maybe I deserved being in a shitty situation because I was being a selfish asshole. Maybe all of us need a shot of reality.
We were participating in an all day event that captures a handful of Colorado activities. A fun filled day with a large group of friends called the Coloradathon put on by an organization called Charge Harder. It’s mission statement describes my life perfectly; “It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or a beginner, It doesn’t matter what challenge in life you’re attempting, and it doesn’t matter how hard you charged last time; you can always find a way to CHARGE HARDER this time.” Charging harder in any sport that we attempt or anything that we do in our lives is what my boyfriend (Justin) and I do on a daily basis. It’s part of why we work well together. We are a team and not only does he support me in my attempt to “be one of the boys,” he pushes me to keep a strong mentality, to be a tough chick, to never be a princess.
We arrived at Elk Meadows Open Space for our last activity of the day; mountain biking. I was training for another marathon and each of these activities was cross training for me with mountain biking being the most challenging. I could feel my nervousness as we gear up and look up at the sky. It’s about 5:30 pm and the clouds have rolled in, it’s thundering and lightning and about to rain. Though it wasn’t the smartest to go out in such conditions, we went anyway.
We had the option of doing one of three trails; a beginner, intermediate and advanced ride. I told Justin prior to the event that I wanted to do the advanced ride. If I was going to charge harder, I was going to give it all that I have. I wanted to earn my beer at the end. Being the supportive boyfriend that he is, Justin was excited that I wanted to challenge myself. Once we reached the point where the advanced riders split from the intermediate, the only person that I could visibly see was Justin. As I always do, I told him not to wait for me and that I didn’t want to hold him back. However, as he always does, he waits for me to catch up and then proceeds a bit further. I don’t think most guys would do this. Especially in such a competitive group filled with testosterone. I knew I was the only girl on the advanced ride which means; 1) Justin will wait for me no matter what 2) I’m slower 3) I cant wimp out.
I was keeping up with Justin fairly well and we were both feeling great. All that I could think of was that I gotta keep pushing so I can be proud of myself. I gotta finish this ride….for me. We climbed and we climbed and even went past the scenic overlook. This is when things started going downhill – no pun intended. Why haven’t we reached the turning point back down the mountain? Why are we still climbing? We both became a bit frustrated. The darker clouds started rolling in and thunder and lightening started surrounding us. I started to panic a little. We decided to head back down the mountain because we had no other choice. I could tell Justin was ready to get out of there and the pressure was on to book it downhill. The problem was that this was a technical ride. Going down these rocks was much more difficult for me than going up them. This is when things turned for the worse.
I come around a corner to find Justin standing on the path very still. He tells me to take my bike and move very slowly off the path. “There’s a fucking mountain lion!” I panic even more but I listen to his every word. He starts yelling and growling at the mountain lion and I join him. I’ve never yelled so loud in my life. I used all my force to create the most obnoxious noises from my mouth. We start to head down the hill with our bikes. I’m shaking and my heart feels like it’s going to burst. The hill is covered in trees, rocks and mud now that it’s starting to rain. In a rather helpless tone I say “Justin” as I carry my bike down the hill. He tells me that it is going to be ok and to keep walking. I end up in front of him and I look up at his face. His pupils are dilated and his face tells me that he too, is scared shitless.
For those that don’t know Justin, he is a happy go lucky guy, goofy and is always smiling. His face at that moment was one that I’ve never seen before. We were looking at each other as if it may have been the last time. That’s when I saw the mountain lion for myself. Close enough for me to feel uneasy, I see just it’s face above me. It was staring at me in the eyes and more panic soaks into me. This lion is stalking us. We keep heading down the mountain and I’m on the verge of having a panic attack – something that I’ve yet to feel. Justin stays calm and quiet and tells me that it’s going to be ok. He tells me; “if this thing comes after us, I want you to use your bike as a barrier.” I nod and say ok. I have to listen to him. At this point, I realize that Justin is more concerned with my safety than his own. He’s ready to fight the lion so I can get away but I can’t lose him. “This can’t be it,” “This cannot be how we die.” I’m not ok with any of it. Every little thing is running through my mind at this point. Justin is behind me and that’s unsettling.
I had a conversation with my father the day before. There were a few things and people that were frustrating me. He told me that I need to let those things go. “Don’t worry about those little things, Becca” “It’s all bullshit and this life is too short to hold onto them.” Those words and what they represented became real at this moment. My little fit earlier in the day was no longer valid. The man standing behind me is the love of my life and I was about to lose him. I was about to lose myself. My mind was doing one thing but my body was doing another. Adrenaline redifined itself for me. Holding it together in the state of fear became more than just something I saw in a movie, our lives relied on it. I could 1) become the hysterical crying girlfriend and curl up in a ball like I wanted to or 2) swallow every nervous breakdown I was about to have and stay strong for survival.
We continued to walk down with our bikes until the walk became increasingly more steep and difficult. I told Justin that we just needed to leave our bikes and leave. We did so and got past some rock cliffs where we were hopefully no longer visible to the lion. We could see up ahead that there was an open space that connected to the road. This was where we needed to be. At least there is a desination point. We followed a stream down the hill. I kept slipping because it was raining and muddy. My breath was heavy as if I had asthma. At this point I was crying but trying to swallow the tears. Justin told me to pick up the largest stick I could find and I grabbed one with a pointy edge. He too grabbed a stick.
We finally reached the open space. Some relief sets in but a new panic comes on. We had to keep moving slowly in case the lion was still following us but we were then surrounded by strikes of lightning and thunder. There were few trees and we were in the middle of the storm. Finally we reached a point where I felt comfortable dropping the stick. I was becoming more comfortable releasing my emotions but felt that I couldn’t have that release quite yet. We were still a ways away from the road and it was difficult to walk on the muddy, unmarked ground that we were on. We began to run and I could tell Justin was slowing down. This is where being an endurance athlete came in handy. My body kept going even though I was shaking, exhausted and sore. As a runner, I’m use to pushing through the pain. I didn’t feel the cold nor hot, or sore or stiff. My body was still separate from my mind. All that I can remember is that I kept mumbling “we have to keep going” “we are going to survive this” “we are almost there.” I was probably reassuring myself more than I was Justin. Keep steady, keep calm, watch your footing. I was relieved to see the road getting closer but uneasy being an easy target for the lightening.
We finally reached the road where a few friends were to pick us up. This is when I lost my shit. I was finally able to feel everything that just happend and let every emotion go. Justin and I hugged repeatedly and told eachother “we made it.” I’ve never been so happy to see cars and asphalt roads. Did that really just happen? It felt like forever and yet went by so fast. I’ve never been in a situation where keeping myself stable and without panic was so difficult. How did I manage to keep it together? How did Justin manage to get us through that experience?
The rest of the night was awkward and I felt paranoid and out of sorts. Justin and I met up with other friends at Black Hawk and we stayed close to each other. We could have gone home at this point but we both were so weak from the shock and needed to decompress and get some food. Walking through parking garage and casino almost felt like a culture shock. Throughout the night we hugged each other and grabbed each others hands. We shared the same look of disbelief. At dinner the story was an “epic adventure” that contributed to the days mood but in our minds and in my bones, it was a close call. An experience that was about to change my mind and my attitude going forward. I could barely eat a full meal as my stomach was crawling with anxiety. What I did want was a shot of whiskey.
We went to the bar and we made cheers to our lives, to each other and to being able to hold the drinks in our hands. Nobody was going to fully understand what we were feeling at that moment. A shot of alcohol which is normally a bit strong going down my throat became a blanket of warmth and made me feel alive. We left the casino feeling exhausted and without comfort. Do we tell our families about this yet? No. We were still absorbing the situation. Our drive home was quiet. I don’t think either of us noticed that we weren’t talking until we were half way home. We were thinking the same things. The what ifs and what could haves. All making this situation a bit more scary. What if Justin was further away? what if I was by myself? what if Justin was by himself?
We made it home in one piece (physically and emotionally.) We both sat on the floor hugging our dog, hugging each other and looking at each other like we never have before. I wanted to cry and hug our family members but it was late, we were exhausted and I probably would have a meltdown. That wasn’t something either of us needed.
Encountering a mountain lion isn’t unheard of in Colorado. What I realize is that people could be in worse situations than us. I realize that there are more traumatic experiences in this world. However, I do feel like a different person now. Mine and Justin’s relationship has changed. It has progressed. We are lucky that the circumstances weren’t different. I’m lucky that I have such a supportive partner, friend and co-pilot. I couldn’t have asked to be with a better person in this situation.
After this experience I have not only become more aware of my surroundings, and the time of day that I am out on my next adventure but I value life so much more. It is amazing what happens when a person is in this type of situation. Everything that was once important is all bullshit. What becomes important in times of fear and panic are those things we take for granted. Speaking to those who are there for me the most. Watching my dog play with his favorite toy, feeling the sun on my skin, smelling my mom’s perfume, hugging my dad, laughing with my sisters, and watching my niece and nephew grow up. Continue to grow with Justin; My rock, my main squeeze, my partner in crime. The one who would get attacked first before he’d let that mountain lion put a scratch on me. Value your life, appreciate those who won’t leave you in the dark, and let the bullshit go. Our time is limited, but we are still alive.