When you were a pup, Animal Control caught you in an alley behind a casino in “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Reno—the city that never sleeps. Just before Halloween, when the desert nights were turning cold, they found you bone thin and wheezing as you tipped over bins of trash for something to eat, your lips cut on the jagged edges of tin cans. Better to bleed for a bean dried to the bottom or for a careless smear of leftover sauce than go hungry another night. You ate paper when there was nothing else.
They put you in a truck and hauled you to a gray building at the edge of the desert. You slept behind wire on a concrete floor, close to the chamber, the room that would be your end because who would want a sick dog?
I drove to the shelter, hopeful I might find a good dog, and arrived just hours before they would lead you through those chamber doors. I knelt in front of your cage as you pressed your body against the wire so I could feel your thick coat. I saw your eyes wet with fever, felt your nose hot and dry.
I recognized myself in you. Both of us anxious and unsettled. We shared common demons. I posted your $15 bail and an orderly handed you to me on a thin leash.
As the snows fell that winter, I drizzled tincture of thyme on your tongue, a plant bright green and bitter, but you swallowed it. Thyme cleared your lungs and brightened your eyes—you were cured.
Our first four years together we lived in the Sierra Nevada and spent every winter snow-camping in Desolation Wilderness. Over every mountain mile, you carried your own pack, your long legs bounding through snow.
Summers, we took road trips, climbing mountains in my old loaded-down VW campervan, my eyes glued to the temperature gauge, yours on the road. You never doubted we’d get where we were going.
When I got my first university teaching job, we moved to southern California and lived on an old sailboat, the Whistledown. You loved to get the morning news, all those stories carried to you on the salt air, and the way the boat rocked at anchor. Weekends, when we sailed to the Channel Islands, you stood at the pulpit in your bright yellow life jacket, captain of the world, your mouth stretched into a wide grin as you watched dolphins surf the bow waves. You never barked, holding yourself still to watch those greyhounds of the sea.
Once, when a storm caught us too many miles offshore, demasting ships in the traffic lanes, I was sure the Whistledown would roll and I put you in the galley to wait out the gale. Twenty-foot swells pounded the boat like blue muscle. After hours pitching in confused seas and water spraying inside the cabin, we reached the mainland. My legs still wobbled, but you, you climbed into the cockpit and shook the damp from your coat, ready to go out again.
You weren’t afraid of anything–except the vacuum cleaner!
We hiked through wildflower meadows in Glacier Peak, made snow angels in the Wallowas.
One winter, we set out into the mountains, but an unexpected blizzard overtook us. In the lateness of the hour, we were lost. During that freezing night, when I didn’t think I could go on, you let me hug you for warmth. Your cheerfulness, your belief that I would never fail you, made me realize what I had to do. I stood and kept walking. After hiking nineteen hours, morning light revealed a familiar drainage, a stream that led us out.
First thing I did was buy cheeseburgers. For both of us.
When you were 11 years old we hiked the entire 30-mile Wildwood Trail in Forest Park, that green ribbon of woods above our city. For the first time you slowed down at the end. But we made it!
When you were 15 and thin as an old man, we could only walk to the end of the driveway and back. Then, when you were almost 16, we could walk halfway up the driveway and back, and afterwards, you needed a long nap.
And then there were no walks at all.
Your hind legs had given up, but I gladly carried you.
On a winter day, just weeks before Christmas, I held your head in my lap and heard your last breath. I bent down to kiss your eyes, but they were already going cold. You’d entered that place of long dreams, where your legs were strong again, you chased squirrels and climbed mountains.
And I’m right there behind you.