On human nature
We drive to the ghost town the day the mountain lion dies. I read about the euthanasia online, outside the coffee shop—nauseated, suddenly, waiting for a latte in the winter sun. It’s unseasonably warm, the kind of warm you know you should be grateful for but feels like hives. I’m scrolling for details on the memorial when our friend texts: “Keep me updated on your eta we’re trying to launch a car off a cliff at sunset.”
Matthias waits on the front steps of our apartment. I have coffee and he has coats and cucumber salad and twice-baked potato boats. He’s half-filled the boats with silky, herb-specked filling, and gently twisted the rest of the filling into piping bags for later. I take off my black platform goth boots and put on red cowboy boots.
To live in modern Los Angeles is to have entered into some forefather’s pissing contest with the natural world. Facing annual months-long wildfires and perpetual drought, the city counters with facilely manicured lawns and palm tree-shaped cell towers. The Los Angeles River was prone to flooding, so from 1938 to 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers methodically encased it in concrete. “The Big One,” the earthquake that will decimate us once and for all, lurks in the back of our minds like a nagging obligation; the Pacific Ocean’s crust of multimillion-dollar real estate is dotted with tsunami warning signs. And then there is the wildlife: three thousand green-cheeked Amazon parrots that scream and shit on cars from the Palisades to Pasadena, their exact provenance unknown. Deer grazing the gravestone bouquets at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Predator apologism has been hardwired into L.A. as long as the entertainment industry has existed, but coyotes are among Los Angeles’ most polarizing iconography; on NextDoor, sightings invariably invoke flurries of posts alternately advocating for their protection, or their eradication, or the eradication of the concept of outdoor cats. The neighborhood spins out into a fear that feels like reverence. Part of me believes coyotes are a sign of good luck, though I couldn’t tell you where I heard that. Los Angeles is also one of only two major cities in the world where large cats live. Mumbai has leopards. We had P-22.
In February of 2012, a mountain lion materialized, ghost-like, before a motion-activated camera on a Hollywood Hills game trail. In this first photograph, the puma is dense with muscle, tawny-brown with large dark paws and a swayback that seems, in its easeful grace, to convey the confidence of the apex predator. His face is in profile, turned to the left to survey the brush. His visible eye is milky in the flash of the camera. The biologists behind the Griffith Park Connectivity Study, who had set up the wildlife cameras, were shocked: there were no known mountain lions east of the Cahuenga Pass, and there was no clear path into Hollywood.
A month later, the mountain lion was tranquilized, tagged, and named P-22. His blood was drawn, and DNA confirmed that his father was P-001, a dominant male who roamed the western Santa Monica mountains. Mountain lions are solitary and territorial; geographic limitations have already led to birth anomalies and brutal infighting among Southern California’s cougar community. P-22’s first few years are a mystery, but at some point, he traveled fifty miles from the Pacific—oak and sage scrub, salt air and pollution haze—into the urbanized eastern tip of the mountains, better known as central Los Angeles. To accomplish this, P-22 had to traverse two separate ten-lane freeways.
As an Angeleno, it feels important to impress upon you that the freeways in question— the 405 and the 101—are never empty. Supporting up to 370,000 cars a day, the 405 is both the busiest and the most congested freeway in the United States. I was born just east of the 405 and later moved west, to a cliffside neighborhood nestled in the Santa Monica mountains. The neighborhood was beautiful and a little stifling, and as a cagey teen, I would drive aimlessly around the city, listening to music. The solitude of nature made me anxious—I had never in my life been out of earshot of other humans—but driving felt both familiar and like I could truly be alone. Occasionally I’d park at one of L.A.’s rare pedestrian bridges, walk to the middle, and look out over the interstate. The collective force of the cars swayed the chain-link fence beneath my splayed fingers. I wonder whether P-22 padded over the purl of rushing traffic and thought, like I did, that it sounded like the ocean.
The dust hits us around Lancaster. It rises, phantom-like, on either side of the highway. It diffuses the daylight so that the landscape is a flat gradation of pink and tan and the mountains grow dimmer as they near the horizon, like the world is subtracting itself layer by layer in front of us. The outlet mall signs, stacked one atop the other, are stained brown as a pack-a-day smile.
Most towns in the basin could be ghost towns. Reefer and Mojave and Jawbone zip by, separated only by invisible lines and seconds of radio song. The buildings are low, wind-humbled, and dot the landscape with no discernible pattern or infrastructure: someone rolled the dice and walked away. Some buildings have plywood propped in the windows and others don’t bother and you can see straight through to the soft pink nothing on the other side. Kern County’s welcome sign reads “Where we honor veterans.” Jawbone has “Jawbone” written in white rocks on the side of a hill. Pearsonville is marked by a thirty-foot fiberglass woman wearing business casual. Apparently she’s a Uniroyal Gal, one of a handful across the country, a tribute to a long-gone hubcap empire. Beneath the ruddy dust, her hair is blonde and flipped at the tips like June Cleaver’s. According to the internet, if you were to stand under her skirt, you would see red underwear.
We drive parallel to the railroad tracks, and I marvel at my misplaced nostalgia for the railroad and the haunted mining towns— for the old ways of destroying the planet, the future promised to us by the past. The hills roll at a slant, like they’re very slowly moving toward something.
Pumas are by nature evasive; they’re solitary hunters, nocturnal, near silent when they move through the brush. Among their litany of names is “ghost cat.” P-22 stalked the Hollywood Hills with eerie inconspicuousness, but he was outfitted with a collar that calculated his location eight times a day, gathering signals from orbiting satellites. Photographs and travel logs transformed the mountain lion into an icon for a better Los Angeles, a city that didn’t see nature as an affront to its ego. There were, naturally, some challenges. Male mountain lions usually maintain territories that average about 200 square miles, while Griffith Park is eight square miles and each year hosts over five million hikers, picnickers, dog-walkers, tourists, fitness influencers, and pot-smoking teens. At one point, P-22 nested—or became trapped— in a Los Feliz mansion’s crawlspace. It’s suspected that he broke into the L.A. Zoo and ate an elderly koala. Still, Los Angeles loved him. He was a coloring book, a Jeopardy! clue, and the face of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a vegetated overpass that broke ground in April of 2022 and promises to help future animals safely echo his journey over the 101 freeway.
Our friend is a musician who met her boyfriend, a ghost town renovator, while exploring caves in which to record an album. (Caves and mines are geographically similar, if spiritually divergent, and the ghost town has both.) At the turn-off to the mines, we pass her driving into “town”—Keeler, California, population 6—to pick up some guests whose car won’t make it up the mountain. We unroll the windows to wave hello and dust fills the car; we quickly roll them back up, but the air is dense with it, like we’re trapped in some kind of perverse arid snow globe.
The ghost town sits in the mountains above Owens Lake, between Lone Pine and Death Valley. Owens Lake is a salt flat now, a great basin of dirt and salt and the occasional tuft of salt grass, shallow pools of mineral sludge, bands of blue and white and red. Driving through the high desert at golden hour, the landscape looks prehistoric. It’s hard not to think about our tense co-existence with Southern California—the fires, the droughts, the Big One—and wonder whether this is how it should be; whether the land’s quiet impermeability is the correct order of things.
It is not, in fact, how it should be. Owens lake butts up against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, and was once flush with mountain snowmelt. In 1913, William Mulholland—namesake of one of Los Angeles’ most famous streets—rerouted the lake into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, diverting its water to the city. Owens Lake is now owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It is the largest source of dust pollution in the country.
P-22’s positive impact on Los Angeles is immense, but I’m not certain the harmony we felt was always mutual. In 2015, he consumed rat-poisoned prey and contracted mange, necessitating intervention from the Park Service. Mountain lions are solitary creatures, but they are compelled to find mates, and there’s evidence that P-22 was, at least occasionally, lonely. A Los Angeles Times article wrote of his advances:
He has tried to catch the attention of female mountain lions with scratchings in the dirt, raked piles of leaves marked by urine, feces, secretions, and with an occasional purr and chirp. But there has only been silence in return, not the coupling that researchers describe almost lyrically, when a male and female lion’s GPS coordinates nearly merge and stay together for a week or so.
Our Hollywood lion represented the small flutter of wild within us, and the possibility of a verdant, wildlife-filled Los Angeles. He also represented our compulsion to create celebrity. We tagged and tracked him, liked and shared him, bolstered his mythology while whittling his existence down to a few square miles. Piecing together an accurate image of P-22 feels a bit like looking at those photos of deep space, which are actually years of radio waves overlapping one another to finally make a complete image; when you look at a photograph of the milky way, you’re looking less at an object than at time itself as it stretches into the dark. It requires a lot of scientific research, and a decent amount of faith.
The ghost town is an assemblage of wooden buildings and the half-dilapidated memories of buildings, snow-dusted chaparral, trucks and Jeeps, ATVs, propane tanks, and a sheet-metal chapel with a Christmas-light star. Great mounds of earth mark the old mines. We park behind an old tank-like vehicle and squirm into our snow jackets. The switchbacks went quickly: the dry lake glitters with salt and snow below us, and across the basin, we’re eye level with the setting sun. The air is sharp. It smells like gunpowder.
Immediately, there’s a hustle—a long-haired kid in a Carhartt beanie tells us to come shoot guns up the mountain. He jumps in an ATV and we get back in my Subaru and follow him up a winding slope to where a gray sedan squats flat-tired in the middle of the road. A quarter way up the hill above it, a handful of people in winter coats take turns aiming rifles at it. Apparently, a trio of YouTubers who adapt beater cars for four-wheel drive had recently visited the ghost town, and when one of their projects turned junk on them, they abandoned it. This is the car that we’ll push off the mountain, but first we can shoot at it.
In the 1920s, archeologists discovered a large and confounding pottery cache in present-day Czechoslovakia. While the 26,000-year-old site revealed intact tools and jewelry, its statues—over 10,000 bears, wolves, and voluptuous women—were uniquely and uniformly fragmented. The figurines were a mystery until 1989, when the academic journal Science published evidence that the statues were crafted in a durable clay, but the clay was treated so that it would burst at high heat. The figurines were created specifically to explode, creating what a 1989 Washington Post article called “prehistoric performance art, or perhaps even a religious ceremony.” The itch to destroy, and to find joy or prophecy in the destruction, is at least 15,000 years older than agriculture.
We make introductions. The only person we know besides our friend is an acquaintance who hugs me with one arm, a pistol in his other hand, and then kindly offers to show me how to load his gun. The bullets rip through the clean high-altitude silence, warping the air, whistling through the canyon long after you pull the trigger.
We’ll pipe the filling over the potatoes in delicate loops and bake them and eat them and drink A&W mixed with bourbon and play flip cup on a long wooden table near the Christmas tree. We’ll wander down the clammy tunnel of an old mine to a small recess where someone has dragged a sofa. We’ll keep our voices low for the sleeping bats, who curl above our heads like question marks. We’ll tell ghost stories. We’ll drunkenly decorate a Trader Joe’s gingerbread house. I’ll toss all night, feverish, certain of a phantom presence. But first, the car.
The car is to be launched off the opposite side of the mountain from the way we came up, into miles of rocky mesquite wilderness. At the edge of the mountain there’s a small square of Astroturf, a freezer bag of golf balls, and a putter. Ours is a small flash of destruction, Neolithic clay in fire. The ghost town renovator will scrap the metal eventually, and until then, shoving the car off a small cliff seems no worse than leaving it to rust in a driveway.
There’s an old law on the books that anyone can mine public lands through a simple petition, the ghost town renovator tells us; recently, global corporations have been petitioning to mine under shell companies, and he’d recently blocked one such petition for this land. The corporation had planned to “heap leach,” a technique which involves spraying the landscape with cyanide to leach the gold from it. “Like sugar and water,” he tells us. He can’t undo the mining town’s past, but he cares about its future.
In mid-December 2022, exhibiting what the National Park service called “signs of distress”—a series of close human encounters and two attacks on small dogs—12-year-old P-22 was tranquilized and taken to the San Diego Zoo for observation. There, exams revealed radical weight loss, parasitic infection, and significant injuries consistent with a recent vehicle collision. The most humane course of action, a National Wildlife Foundation representative tearily announced, was euthanasia.
P-22’s life was special, but his death was devastatingly commonplace. He actually lived exceptionally long for a wild cougar; his publicity paved the way—literally, with the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing —for future mountain lions, but in creating an emblem of one puma, the city overshadowed or forgave its transgressions against the others. The National Park Service’s “Puma Profiles” read like playing cards of human cruelty. P-004: death by rodenticide poisoning. P-008: death by bullet to the head. P-015: death by poaching, head and paws cut off. P-049: death by rodenticide poisoning. P-009: death by vehicle collision. P-018: death by vehicle collision. P-039: death by vehicle collision. P-039’s kittens, P-051 and P-052: death by vehicle collision.
The night before P-22’s final captivity, an anonymous caller reported a collision involving a cougar. I imagine that anonymous caller walking around Los Angeles, fur trapped in the cracks of their headlights. Like Mulholland’s aqueduct, I want to reroute the grief of the city to them. I want them to drown in it.
One kid sits in the bullet-riddled sedan’s driver-side seat with the door hanging open, and another kid drives the Bobcat up behind it and slowly propels the car forward. The sedan’s windows are blown out and the bumper hangs at an angle. Jittering along together, the car and the Bobcat look like segments of one massive metal bug. The Bobcat’s lights create a yolky circle around the car, and everyone on the mountain follows the light to the cliff’s edge, laughing.
The cliff is rocky. The car shudders and stalls. The kid gets out of the passenger seat. The Bobcat reverses over a large rock and tips into the air, nearly vertical, the light spinning. It comes down hard, at an angle, nearly swiping my car, and Matthias runs to re-park. The Bobcat charges forward. The car teeters only a moment. It flips, graceful as a diver, into the cold, clean air.
After, the boys will hop onto RVs and drive donuts until they flip over. The dust will hang around their circle of noise and trap the light like a halo. 160 miles south, Los Angeles curls around itself, a well-fed predator.
A ghost town can be a workaround to mourning the dead by keeping them with you. Ghosts haunt, but humans haunt too. P-22’s body has been claimed by the Los Angeles Museum of History, presumably for taxidermy. A ghost town is also a palimpsest. At its peak in the 1800s, this ramshackle accumulation of wood on a mountain housed a population of 4,000. Los Angeles was nearly the same size at that time, with a population of 6,000. On mirror trajectories, the mining town atrophied as Los Angeles boomed, in no small part because of the L.A. Aqueduct. Looking out over the basin, thinking about dust and cats and cyanide, it’s easy to wonder if the ghost town might not be a specter of the future, too.
When the car hits the rocks, the sound of impact is swallowed by the canyon, surprisingly soft. We walk to the edge and look over. Our laughter ricochets, then quiets. Our car digs into the earth like a fragile monument—like a highway cross.
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I usually link to sources in-document, but I find links a little distracting in narrative pieces so I’m trying something new. Sources from this essay are listed below:
A week in the life of P‑22, the big cat who shares Griffith Park with millions of people
Griffith Park's P-22 mountain lion euthanized
A mountain lion has settled into Griffith Park
P-22, L.A. celebrity mountain lion, euthanized due to severe injuries
P-22’s decade in Griffith Park
A Eulogy for P-22, A Mountain Lion Who Changed the World
Stone Age figurines were designed to self-destruct, study finds
National Park Service Puma Profiles
under the influence is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The beauty of this essay! Loved it.
so gorgeous it's gasp-inducing