The Mountain Lion

I killed a mountain lion.

I killed a mountain lion with a Volkswagen.

Let me back up.

I love Seattle. It’s a torrid romance that started around 1992. This is the year when Butt-Head, of “Beavis and” fame, said, “If you go to Seattle … anybody you see … is cool. We should go dude.”

I had flannel.

Plus, my buddy Steve had moved to Seattle around that time. The newspaper I worked for was swallowed up by its parent company, and I managed to bank three weeks of vacation, and in 1994, with two other friends, Eric and Dan, we set off on a road trip.

Now, I had traveled before this. Not as much as some, but more than others. I had taken the tourist elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and had literally kissed the literal Blarney Stone. But in Seattle, I was buzzing.

“That’s the Space Needle! That means I’m in Seattle!” I said.

“OK, you’re a dork,” said Kris, a girl Dan was hitting on.

The road trip back took Dan, Eric and I through Smith Rocks, Oregon, and Yosemite, where we stopped for rock-climbing. When we returned to Orange County, I still had more than a week of vacation left.

I decided to drive back to Seattle.

“But we just got back…” Eric said.

“I know!”

“You just spent two weeks in a car…” Dan said.

“I know!”

I would ride back to Seattle, and this would be my horse – a 1988 Volkswagen Fox.

Four very powerful cylinders.

Jay Leno assured me, in a Playboy magazine automotive advice column, it would be as reliable as a Maytag washing machine.

You’re damn right I read it for the articles.

The actual results were mixed. This car was apparently built by former Nazi engineers that escaped to Brazil and later managed to entice a work force to trade Ipanema Beach and thong bikinis for an assembly line and eye-protection. In other words, it was designed to be a miniature tank capable of running roughshod over the Low Countries, but let’s just say Ronaldinho wasn’t too concerned about fit and finish.

Typical Brazilian automotive worker.

That said, this car absolutely smoked Simba.

BOOM! HEADSHOT!

About 10 hours into Seattle 2: Electric Boogaloo, with a belly full of Denny’s in Redding, I entered the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in the middle of the night. This is where you finally pull out of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The flat, ribbon of black asphalt gets replaced by a curving ribbon of black asphalt, and you start to climb into the mountains.

You’re not too far from something called the Yolla-Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness. You cannot make this stuff up.

Now, I had just spent the previous 10 hours doing about 80 miles per hour. That’s just what you do in the San Joaquin Valley. If you’re not farming, you’re speeding the hell out of there. But even though I’m driving in the mountains, I still hadn’t gotten “80 miles per hour” out of my system. I was going too fast. In the dark. On a winding mountain road.

My brain had just enough time to register “holy shit, there’s a mountain lion in the road” before I hit it.

Holy shit, that idiot actually bought a Volkswagen Fox!

The lion disappeared from view in a tawny flash, as my car’s left-front wheel went up and over it.

I was still driving. What in the H-E-double-hockey sticks had just happened? Did what I think just happened really just happen? I mean, people hit possums all the time. But mountain lions?

I better go back.

“Hold up there, Sparky,” said the voice in my head.

The voices sometimes call me Sparky. Just go with it.

“What?”

“If you go back, one of three things could happen, and all of them will suck.”

“What are my options?”

“Option 1 is, you go back and the mountain lion is dead.”

And you are sad.

“Option 2 is, you go back and the mountain lion is alive.”

And you are dinner.

“Option 3 is, you go back and a trucker hits you with a Peterbilt, in exactly the same way you just hit that mountain lion with a Volkswagen.”

BOOM! HEADSHOT!

“I’ll take Option 4, Alex.” Sometimes, I call one of the voices Alex. Just go wi … oh, never mind.

Option 4 was to pull over at the next stop and call the Highway Patrol. This was in the Age Before Ubiquitous Cellphones, of course. Someone should go out there with a shovel.

Someone like these guys.

I dialed 911.

Dialing 911 is always an adventure. Not because you’re deeply in trouble. If you think about it, if you’re dialing 911, it’s probably not you, personally, that’s in trouble. Someone else is having the heart attack.

No, your job is to explain why, out of the wild blue yonder, you’re calling for help. And make it snappy, because there’s a cliff, a James Bond villain and a school bus packed with orphans on Line 2.

“I hit a mountain lion.”

“You hit a what? A mountain what?”

“Mountain lion. You know. A big wild … cat … thing … animal. Snarl.

I didn’t actually snarl. But in hindsight, it probably would have helped.

“You hit a cat? Son, people hit little kitty cats all the time. I’m sure you’re sad about it; I had a kitty cat once myself …”

“No, I hit a mountain lion. A cougar.”

No, not that kind of cougar.

“You sure you just didn’t hit a possum?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it was a mountain lion.”

Here’s where a bizarre night turned absolutely Salvador Dali.

“I’m going to transfer you to the Department of Fish and Game.”

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Game is to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public. Why are you calling us, Frank?

“I hit a mountain lion.”

“You hit a what? A mountain what?”

This was my night for the next two hours. A payphone in the middle of nowhere. A series of incredulous Fish and Game officers asking me questions. I bet they were passing the phone around the office in a game of “can-you-believe-this-crazy-white boy.”

“You hit the mountain lion. With your car.”

“Yes.”

“You sure you didn’t shoot the mountain lion? With a gun?”

“No, I hit it with my car.”

“Was the mountain lion in a tree?”

“How am I going to hit a mountain lion in a tree with my car?”

“Well, were you off-roading?”

“No, this was on the Five.”

This five.

Eventually, I had either convinced them I wasn’t a mountain lion poacher, or they got tired of making fun of me (“You actually bought a Volkswagen Fox?”), and they let me off the phone.

Silence. Cold mountain air. Trees.

I drove back.

Looped around on the highway, retraced my steps. I had to know.

I couldn’t find a body. It was dark, of course, and a few hours had passed. Maybe the highway patrol had moved the cat corpse off to the side of the road. Maybe I hadn’t killed the mountain lion, and it had limped off. I don’t see how I couldn’t have killed it. But I couldn’t find it, and wasn’t about to break out a flashlight and really look for it (see Options 1, 2 and 3, above).

Was the car damaged? Nope. Not at all. Not a scratch.

"De nada, irmão."