A few dozen people, mostly women, many blonde, warmed up for yoga class as I searched for the one whose face once was mangled.
It had been a few years since I'd seen Anne Hjelle when we met mountain biking. She wore a helmet and sunglasses, but a pink scar curving below her left cheek told me who she was – the woman who'd been mauled by a mountain lion in Whiting Ranch. And I'd blurted her name, feeling bad immediately.
This time, I couldn't find Hjelle.
"Hey, David, over here."
For a moment, the sunlight caught Hjelle's face in such a way the old scars reappeared. It spoke to the testament, "Time heals..."
But the mind is another matter. Fear can hide in the deep recesses and suddenly surface with such power it blocks us from doing what we want.
Five-foot-four with the lithe, athletic body of the personal trainer that she is, I wondered what kind of shape Hjelle's spirit was in.
Hjelle was mauled by a mountain lion on Jan. 8, 2004. Only hours earlier, on the trail she was riding, the 122-pound mass of muscle had killed and partially devoured another rider, Mark Reynolds, 35. The animal's fangs punctured Hjelle's neck, missing vital arteries by millimeters. Five operations and 200 stitches and staples later, it remains a miracle that Hjelle is alive – and can see out of both eyes.
Sitting outside, after yoga, Hjelle explained how, moments before the attack, something moved with such force that the air around her seemed to shudder. A split-second later, that something was holding her head with the force of a vice. Hjelle knew only a mountain lion had that kind of strength.
"If it hadn't been for Debi, I'd be dead," Hjelle matter-of-factly told me, referring to her riding partner, Debi Nicholls. It was Nicholls who literally pulled Hjelle from the beast's jaws during a tug of war on Cactus Trail.
Pulling up her sunglasses, Hjelle explained that the nerves below her left eye remain damaged, and she'll need surgeries the rest of her life. She said it like the former Marine she is, a vet simply reporting the facts.
What about fear?
"I deal with it every time I ride," Hjelle said, adding that she and her husband, James Poindexter, often run or ride Orange County's back country. Generally, she says, the fear goes away after a few minutes. Sometimes it takes little longer.
I was reminded about my own fears since the attacks. When on trails, particularly at night, there are times I'm convinced a mountain lion is about to tear me apart – even though the Department of Fish and Game says that since 1890, only 16 people have been attacked by mountain lions in California.
"Fear is not the problem," Hjelle wrote in an e-mail after our conversation. "It's our reaction to the fear that matters.
"In an effort to get back to mountain biking after the attack," Hjelle stated, "my first step was to hike Cactus trail with armed Sheriff's deputies and wardens.
"My next hurdle was to ride my bike down the trail accompanied by my husband and about 20 other riders. My next trip down Cactus was with one other friend."
For the Mission Viejo resident, her Christian faith is part of the equation. "I know God does not want me to live in fear."
The rest of the equation might boil down to who she is, or rather who Hjelle, 37, chooses to be.
"Many people are living in fear due to high unemployment, bad economy, dwindling retirement savings," Hjelle wrote. "Whereas, others are opening new businesses, starting new careers, finding a way to survive.
"Risk takers are simply unwilling to remain stagnant."
Hjelle grew up in a Minnesota hunting family. She decided to become a vegetarian when she was 10 years old. She joined the Marines escorting a gal pal to the recruiting office. She met her husband at a mountain bike race in Julian.
I've heard people say they wish they could be more adventurous, but they just aren't wired that way.
But talk to Hjelle and you find a regular person with regular fears.
"My worst nightmare is to speak in front of people," she told me, laughing at the confession. And yet, Hjelle gives motivational speeches.
"I believe the ability to overcome fear comes through overcoming fear."
It may sound like a Catch-22, something impossible when you can't overcome a fear in the first place. But there is a path to conquering the mental obstacles we build.
First, Hjelle asks why she is scared about something and assesses the true danger. Depending on the situation, she says some fear can be good.
"When my husband teaches women's self-defense courses, he says that women should pay attention to their intuition."
But many everyday fears – failure, loss, embarrassment – get in the way of discovering our potential, Hjelle said.
"When I go mountain biking, I aim to tackle at least one new challenge each time I ride," Hjelle said. "My heart races. I wonder if I can do it. My past failures flash through my mind. I am keenly aware of others watching me – but I push my fears aside and go for it anyway."