Before setting off on my hike, I opened the door to the campground outhouse and the dog leaped out, bug-eyed and grinning maniacally. “Someone must have cut him free,” theorized the fellow who had camped in site No. 3. “He barked all night, tied up to that tree over there.” “Look at that mangled rope around his neck,” his buddy countered. “He must have chewed his way to freedom.” My theory: Someone shut him up in the outhouse so he wouldn’t get run over on the nearby highway.
As I started up the trail, the dog followed at a safe distance, gobbling up crumbs from my snack breaks. On our return to the parking lot, he retreated to the forest across the creek, watching me warily. Two men in a pickup helped me wrestle him into the car. I couldn’t leave him behind. In rural Utah where I was living at the time, dogs are kept for hunting, not as a surrogate child-rearing experience. My neighbors caged theirs in the backyard and fed them scraps from the dinner table. The next hiker tempted to rescue him might treat him the same.
“A rock chewer and at least a year old,” the vet surmised after inspecting his mouth. How long he had been living in the mountains, I could only surmise. Was he abandoned? A runaway? Or did he tumble out of a pickup bed, a common occurrence?
From my perspective, his chipped teeth demonstrated an impressive set of survival skills. I named him Beast in hopes of transforming him into a beauty once he was neutered and trained. The neutering, though, made little difference. He still mounted every dog in sight. But eventually he made peace with my house. It was no longer a prison to be fled before I could drag him in, squirming and tugging in the opposite direction, but a restaurant that served two meals a day and a motel with a more comfortable mattress than his previous lodging in a cage or the underbrush.
For a dog that had interacted with few, if any, humans indoors, he was surprisingly trustworthy. The local newspaper dubbed him the Pied Piper of our community for his remarkable ability to lure children out of their yards without parents protesting. Everywhere we went, adults stopped us to ask, “Has your dog had a stroke?” “Does your dog have epilepsy?” A reference to the tongue dangling out the right side of his mouth. “No,” I would patiently explain. “He was born with a deformed jaw and his tongue sticks out all the time.”
On one of our first hikes together, Beast vanished as I was making my way down the interminable switchbacks to the parking lot. I shouted until my voice gave out. I finally heard him barking hundreds of feet below the trail, in dense scrub oak. Fearing he might have caught his collar on a branch, I abandoned my route for his. Hours later, I arrived at the parking lot as the sun was setting, bloodied from shoulders to shins, my knees throbbing from the steep, gravely pitch. I would never find him. Weeping, I knelt and reached behind the rear tire for my keys. A wet nose grazed my hand.
Since then we have climbed 150 mountains in two states. He always makes the summit first. In his youth he would take off–a dark speck racing across a distant ridge, a hurtling marvel of strength and coordination. He could bash through anything: willows so thick we wished for machetes, piles of rock as ready for action as a battalion on the march. As we age, we both have to take our joints in consideration. Nowadays he rarely wanders off. On the return trip, we stick so close together, I have to shove him aside with my knee occasionally so we don’t trip over one another.
On hikes with friends, he still patrols the line, making certain the rabbit up front is not pulling too far ahead of the tortoise-at age 64, me. Last summer we had to accommodate the recently diagnosed arthritis in my right knee and his hips. If we overdo it, I recline on the sofa afterward, icing my swollen knee while he snores like a locomotive at my feet. I have to shake him sometimes to wake him up. His eyes open, and in their mirrors I catch a glimpse of my tenderized face as I help him up.
At bedtime, I call him until a thunk announces his awkward exit from the living room chair. Like my sideways steps on staircases to spare my knee, he is adapting to the undeniable limitations of aging. I suspect his cataracts are worse than mine. Nuzzling my calf so he won’t lose me in the dim light, he follows me up the stairs and down the carpeted hallway to the bedroom. He curls up on the cushion on the floor, his former nest on the bed out of reach now.
One of these days one of us might not wake up. The actuarial tables stack the odds in favor of my outliving him. But, as with so much of life–from marriage to good health–it’s best to take nothing for granted. This realization has inspired another routine; before switching off the lamp on my nightstand, I listen to the lullaby of his snorts and sighs, its melody steeped in ten years’ worth of memories.
Photos by Jane Koerner