Yesterday afternoon, J. and I went for a hike in the regional wilderness near our house. It was a stellar day, about seventy degrees, perfect blue sky. The trail was pleasantly hilly, well shaded by oaks; swarms of ladybugs buzzed around and landed on our hats.
We had walked about two miles when we came upon a fair quantity of carnivore scat, which appeared to be made almost entirely of fur. A few hundred yards beyond that, several large feline prints in the mud. A mile or so later, a rather grisly and well-gnawed femur. (A deer femur, we hope, but it sure looked familiar.)
A couple of years ago, after a series of disfiguring and fatal mountain lion maulings throughout California, we happened upon a local news show featuring a pencil-necked park ranger in a silly bulbous hat describing the best way to ensure one's safety from the big cats. Now, it should be noted that there have been exactly eleven deaths from mountain lions in California since recordkeeping began in the late nineteenth century: they are not exactly a common threat. Many adventurous outdoor enthusiasts have gone their entire lives seeking, but not seeing, a single lion. I have had the fortune to see two, both from the safety of my car, and have been told that the odds of my ever seeing another are infinitesimal. However, when one reads the gruesome details of the eviscerated off-road cyclist or the woman who, after a half dozen rounds of reconstructive facial surgery to repair the through-and-through raking and bite marks, said that she was glad to find that she possessed "beauty on the inside," it's hard to ignore the possibility entirely.
So, anyway, back to the park ranger. His advice for anyone confronted with a mountain lion was to look him in the eye, raise one's arms toward the heavens and state firmly, "I'm a person! I'm a person!" This, supposedly, would help the puma differentiate you from, say, a doe or a wild boar.
J. has made a habit of repeating this line, along with the arm placement (think fifth position) whenever I am grumpy and need a laugh. Ahhh. But. When you're a little worried about the actual possibility of being pounced upon by a well concealed puma from the low-lying branches of an overhead oak, it is still entertaining but also somewhat...serious, eliciting a weak smile instead of a loud snort.
When we had reached the 3.5 mile mark, we rested on an open hilltop and admired the view of a little reservoir and miles of unbroken hilly wilderness. Ate a few graham crackers. Shooed a few ladybugs from our persons. Forgot about lions.
Quite unexpectedly, however, we soon heard a helicopter blasting over the nearby peaks, interrupting the pastoral quiet. After a few moments, the pilot began shouting, completely indecipherably, over the loudspeaker. J. and I looked quizzically at each other, shrugged, and kept listening. The pilot clearly was not speaking to us, as he was still some distance away, but we were intrigued and a little worried. What could it be? Fire? (Unlikely; just had lovely rainstorm.) Escaped convicts? (No prisons in the area.) And then the pilot boomed out one final, perfectly enunciated order: "Return from whence you came!"
Return from whence we came? Seriously?
Who uses "whence" these days?
We decided to pack up our little picnic and follow instructions. We didn't really think he was speaking to us; it just seemed prudent. But we couldn't help wondering, Why would a helicopter be patrolling this remote trail? And what would be sufficient cause to demand that hikers return from whence they came? As we were already uptight because of the mountain lion traces, what could be more natural than to think that one had been spotted, and that the helicopter was out to warn us all? (OK, it doesn't make much sense, but we were spooked.)
So, on our return hike, J. and I carefully scanned the trees for large, tawny creatures, kept an eye on the muddy path for cougar-like footprints and listened attentively for any disturbances in the trailside brush while simultaneously trying to come up with a concise modern way of saying "reuturn from whence you came" to pass the time ("return to where you came from" was about the best we could do, but neither of us was comfortable ending with the preposition). We picked up "weapons"--sticks and stones--and swung them through the air for practice.
And, of course, we started the refrain: "I'm a person! I'm a person!" Which morphed into a tandem, "We are people! We are people!" Which, erm, devolved
into a robotically melodic, "We are pee-po! We are pee-po!," a la "We are Devo." Which we kept up intermittently for about an hour, till we heard a heart-stopping rustling noise around the bend. "We are pee-po! We are pee-po!" we shouted, raising our arms frantically, like bank hostages, and exchanging terrified glances. And then...
A family of seven out for an evening hike rounded the corner. We dropped our hands, smiled sheepishly and stood aside. As he passed, the father turned and said, very quietly, "So are we."