Written by Christopher Boyce
Like my long-dead ancestors beyond living memory, I enjoy an innate fear of lions. I love the terror they invoke in me. I suppose it is in my genes. The sight of mountain lions out in the wild lands causes my pulse to spike. Still, I treasure every encounter. To me, they are the ancient ones who made their way in this country long before humans took over. They are mostly hidden from us, but still dangerous and significant.
One morning last autumn, I bundled up and went walking down the Crooked River. It had been hot and dusty, but the previous night’s rain had made the trail damp, soft, and silent. There was no breeze and thus no man-scent to swirl about in the juniper woods.
Wearing sneakers, I stepped soundlessly down the trail, stopping often to look and listen. Above me, ravens caw-cawed from the great canyon cliffs. The river gurgled by in its pools and eddies. And then, abruptly, anxious deer barked not far ahead in a close meadow.
I froze so as not to spook them. The half-dozen bucks seemed ready to bolt. But as I studied them, I sensed I was not the cause of their alarm. They were not looking at me. Their eyes seemed unfocused, but their ears and nostrils twitched, all intent on listening and smelling. And so I did as they did. I unfocused my eyes and listened.
Seconds passed. Nothing moved. The ravens above me fell silent. All were watching. Something else was here.
From the corner of my eye, I awakened to the flicking of two small black triangles thirty feet beyond me in the brush. I looked intently, barely breathing. The black, flicking triangles became the fur on the back of two ears attached to the great head of a mountain lion.
He was enormous. He had been stalking the deer ahead and was now peering at them over the sage. He had not noticed my silent approach from behind, but there I was. Way too close. Breathless.
For several minutes, I watched him watching them. Every little while, the tip of his tail would tremble, causing my heart to quietly pound. I dared not move as I watched the mountain lion begin to inch slowly toward the bucks. Now I could see his entire body, stretched out from the jaws of his skull to the end of his long tail. This was a fully grown male lion, as big as they get.
He crossed over the trail in front of me in a crouch and crept up into the escarpment above without a sound. Like a ghost, he worked his way around the herd of deer to come upon them from the other side.
He had never seen me. I turned and walked quickly out of the canyon.
When I reached the top of the cliffs, I sat upon a stone seat fashioned by the ages. I marveled at all I had just witnessed and counted myself among the most fortunate of men. I had truly become free. I know now that freedom in this modern world is, at best, a fleeting thing. But at that moment, I felt what I believe is the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to be left alone.
There was a time when I was locked away for a quarter century in a hell on earth. Ten years of that was in solitary confinement. It was the longest of journeys, but somehow I survived the isolation and the chains. Today, I search for mountain lions in the granite cathedrals of the Crooked River Gorge. And I am free.
Christopher Boyce, the subject of the 1985 movie The Falcon and the Snowman, spent 25 years in prison for espionage. He is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman.