By far the most approachable and quite possibly the most important book Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote is a little work called Life Together. This book is something of a workable manual on how the Christian life can be lived together in community. In one of the simplest statements he ever wrote, he said:
Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.
Sometimes when we have reached the end of ourselves it is a good idea to get out by ourselves. Jesus himself did this several times, retreating to solitary places to reconnect with his Father.
Just yesterday I felt the need to reconnect with my Father for a couple of days and be alone with God.
I decided the best thing to do was to take my dog Delia and drive up into the mountains. Communing with nature, fishing up and down the river and being alone with my thoughts sounded so good I could not pass up the opportunity to unwind. So yesterday, into the mountains I went.
When I drove up to the campsite, I instantly knew that this would be just what I needed. There was only one other camper in the vicinity and, apart from the fact that the hood of his truck was up, I probably would not even have noticed him.
After camp had been set up, Delia and I took down the river to check out fishing holes for this morning, dreaming of the taste of pan-fried trout and the day of peace and quiet that lay before me. When the sun had set low, my modest little fire put out just the right amount of heat and light to sit beside it with a belly full of chili and strum a few songs on my guitar.
A cup of coffee, a faithful dog, a warm fire and a song by the firelight is just what I had envisioned for the evening. Even the old tired adage all good things must come to an end was so far from my mind I could not anticipate the half-hour that followed.
It started with the sound like an air-horn. I stopped playing to hear the sound. Was this other camper disturbed by the admittedly lack-luster performance he heard? I listened again for the sound. Air-horn again. Could he need my help?
I would have gone over to see what he wanted right away but all of a sudden something else caught my attention. Delia stood at my feet staring off into the middle distance, growling. Could she be upset by the stranger’s presence, still several hundred yards away? No. His air-horn was still sounding intermittently, reminding me of his need for a helping hand. It must have been some sort of animal.
I shined my flashlight into the woods and caught a pair of eyes, staring back at me, about twenty yards in front of me. These eyes, much to my alarm, showed no fear the light or my voice, which was now shouting at the strange animal to leave us in peace.
The pair of eyes did indeed move- only not to escape in fear like so many forest animals. These eyes moved laterally, from my left to my right. After moving no more than fifty feet, the eyes settled back into a fixed stare in my direction. This animal was not afraid. In fact, it gave its first of three otherworldly growls. Hunger seemed more likely than fear as a motivator.
It was then that I realized that my dog had somehow been freed from her rope. I have heard stories that started with a dog growling at a foe while hiding in fear but I am not sure I had seen it in person. The stories, as I remember, did not end well for either dog or owner. I had no sooner opened the door of my truck than Delia had lept to her safety in the front seat. As the creature’s second awful warning sounded, I slammed the truck door shut.
Once the bait in the form of a spaniel-lab mix had been sequestered, I gave one last shrill shout to the beast in the woods. Her third rumble let me know that she was moving on, for now, leaving us in tranquility till her dog appetizer returned.
The predatorial visitor being momentarily run off, I remembered the other camper’s air-horn of distress and decided to drive over and see what he needed from me. I know, I know, helping strangers out in the wilderness seems like a terrible idea, but then again, camping in the wilderness without a gun is also a terrible idea, so the element of surprise should have gone away long ago.
It turned out my fellow-camper had run his battery dead the previous day and, upon hearing my crooning, sent for help. As we waited for his battery to rise from the dead, we made small talk. As calmly as I knew how, I told him about the visitor from the animal kingdom and told him that my best guess was that it must have been a coyote or something along those lines. I wish I could make up the next string of dialogue, but as I cannot improve upon it, here goes:
“Yeah, I think it’s a coyote or something.”
“Oh, I saw a sign not far back that told me to look out for panthers- or mountain lions as we call them. Yeah, there is a lot of wildlife here, I just saw a deer today that was five feet tall if he was a foot.“ He was unfazed by my near-death encounter.
Here he was rambling about a large deer he saw after having only just informed me that the animal I saw was a gigantic man-eating cat. Somehow the size of the deer he spotted seemed immaterial to me.
You know the rest of the story, I am sure. I drove back to the campsite, threw all my stuff in the bed of my truck and got the hell out of there.
And do you know what I did then? I got on the phone and told my friends about the experience. My entire three-hour drive home was spent on the phone. The day that I planned to live alone ended up in the midst of friends and loved ones laughing and recounting the day’s joys and adventures.
Sometimes it takes a mountain lion to remind us of the presence of Christ in each other.