Its claws were in my knees, my neck, my chest. Its jaw stretched over my head from my hairline to the back of my skull
I spent most of my early life without direction. Raised in Minnesota, my family was so large I have six siblings it felt as if it was survival of the fittest and I began acting up for attention. I had my first beer in kindergarten, my first joint in seventh grade and my first line of cocaine at high school. I was making my parents cry every day. Aged 24, I threw everything in a van and left for Colorado. Three months after arriving, I was broke. To help clear my head, I often hiked through Roxborough state park, about 15 miles south-west of Denver. There are no dogs or bicycles allowed there. Its just you and your hiking boots. From the top of the mountain the view is breathtaking mountain ranges as far as you can see. Id never felt a sense of calm like I did up there.
On 30 April 1998, I was 50 yards from the top of the mountain when I saw a long, brown tail poking out from behind a pine tree. There hadnt been a mountain lion sighting in the park for over a year, but I immediately knew thats what it was. I froze, watching the tree. The mountain lions head would come up and look around, then it would go back to whatever it was eating, its jaws crunching through the bones of its kill.
I started backing away, keeping my eyes on the lion. You couldnt carry a firearm in a national park at the time, but I did have my two-and-a-half-inch utility knife and I started folding out the blade as a precaution. Then the screwdriver loudly snapped back into the case. There was the mountain lion, its yellow eyes looking at me as though it knew every thought in my head. The ears were slanted in attack position, its teeth yellow splinters buried in black gums.
I opened my mouth to say, Hey, you can have this mountain, Im leaving but before I could, the mountain lion smashed right into my chest, knocking me off the trail. Its claws were in my knees, my neck, my chest. Its jaw stretched over my head from my hairline to the back of my skull. There was no pain, only the smell of rotting flesh, the smell of death.
I stabbed at it with my knife, but its hide was too tough. I saw blood on my hand and realised Id stabbed myself through the palm. The lion ripped a gash under my left eye, then bit my head again. All I could see was blood.
Feeling the lions face, I found its right eye and pushed my thumb through the eyelid all the way to the muscle at the back of the eye. I managed to get my knife free and stabbed at the top of its head before pulling myself to my feet and running away, down the trail.
Blood covered my clothes. At one point I turned and saw the lion watching me from the bough of a tree. But instead of the lion I thought I could see the face of God. I ran on, screaming, Help. 911. Lion! Two women dragged me to a medical helicopter near the visitors centre. Eight minutes later I was in hospital.
I spent six hours in surgery. It took 70 staples to close my head wound the hospitals record. I had wounds across my neck, chest, thighs, shoulders, arms and stomach, but Colorados hot, dry air had clotted my blood and stopped me bleeding to death.
I was able to walk out of hospital four days later. At this point, bloody footprints were all park rangers had found of the mountain lion.
Almost a year later I received a phone call saying a female mountain lion had been cornered in a nearby garden. The lion had a one-inch scar on the top of her head and was missing an eye. I had the choice to have her shot there and then. Arguing that shed just been defending herself, I persuaded the park rangers to set her free.
Id hurt people through being malicious and careless, and the lion hurt me through natural instinct. In a way, it had more of a right to live than I did. The whole incident changed my life for the better. I gave up drink and drugs, and found religion. Ive been saved twice, once from the lion and once from my own self-destructive urges.
As told to Tom Ward
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