I remember the day I first met my soulmate. She was three years old, and huge. Her pound papers listed her as a lab/husky/shepherd/pointer, which is pound-speak for “giant mutt.” I’m convinced she was part wolf.
It was love at first sight. I couldn’t bring her home right away, and I begged the volunteer at the Missoula Humane Society front desk to hold her for 24 hours. She replied, “Oh honey, no one’s been interested in this dog for months.”
I brought her home the next day.
I remember that first night when she nosed the bathroom door open and tried to climb in the shower with me, unclear on the concept that she actually had to let me out of her sight once in a while. She never voluntarily left my side after that. I named her Alta. (Spanish for “tall girl,” not after the ski hill, which would soon become a repetitive disclaimer.)
Alta became my favorite adventure buddy. I taught her to ride in the back of my inflatable kayak, a process of much hilarity for onlookers—getting a confused 100-pound dog in the back of a tiny rubber boat is no small task. And once we’d figured that part out, I had to strategically keep us as far from shore as possible to avoid her unpredictable flying leaps for solid ground that would send the little boat spinning.
We hit on a solution pretty quickly: I realized she hated wet paws and installed a foam pad behind my seat. She realized boating was actually mobile squirrel watching. I rarely left her at home for a river trip after that. She perched in the stern running rapids like a champ strapped into her extra-large doggy PFD, all of our overnight gear crammed into the bow, me folded in the middle. She’d reach her long neck to rest her head on my thigh on the lazy flat water.
She was a powder hound. Her paws spread out like a wolf on the skin track. I’d bounce on the track a little extra with each step to pack it down for her weight so she could save energy for the downhill. She’d howl while I pulled my skins, anticipating the flight down. She was happiest when the ground was covered in white.
I bought a two-person tent to fit both of us. We adventured all over the West, from Arizona canyons and Utah red rock to Montana mountains and Idaho hot springs. I loved waking up in the wild next to her warm bulk, when she rolled into my arms for our morning cuddle session. She’d stretch out next to me on slow backcountry mornings while I sipped coffee, content to watch the world go by from my side.
My dog was not just a dog. Alta was smart, empathetic, like an extension of me. She was my constant, my shadow. She was my support system and my confidante. When I broke up with the man I thought I might marry, she stayed close for long hugs through what felt like the end of the world. When we moved through three houses in as many years, her presence was what made me feel like I was home. When I restlessly toured through mountain towns looking for a new direction, she explored their streets with me.
She kept loneliness at bay, just the two of us on long nights at home with the music on low. She knew the twists and turns of my days. We took care of each other. She made me a stronger woman, and a better person.
I read a book once that said that we’re born into the same circle of souls throughout time, and once in a great while those souls find their way into the bodies of animals. We don’t always find the souls in our circle with the right timing in a given lifetime, but sometimes we get lucky.
I lost her in November as winter set in, eight years after the day we met. I’d learned in the spring that she had cancer, a difficult-to-remove tumor on her liver slowly eating away at her lifespan. I’d known since March that we were on borrowed time. Every day with her was an extra one to be thankful for.
But I still wasn’t prepared. There’s no way to prepare for this.
She let me know when she was ready. She’d held out hard for me over those last months, and then she went down fast, spent from trying to shield me from the worst. We said goodbye in the same house I brought her home to in Missoula all those years ago, a beautiful closing of the loop of all the other places we lived in between, the rivers we’d run, the sunsets we’d watched reflected in their waters. Her body sank into her bones, and she looked into my eyes until hers slipped closed.
A month later, I retraced the familiar steps of our daily walk to the creek. I stood on the banks of her favorite swimming hole and scattered her ashes into the water she’d loved so much. I couldn’t see for the tears.
I find myself chronicling the lasts. The last time we went skiing. Our last float. Our last backpacking trip.
I miss her every morning when I wake up without her good-morning snuggle, every time I walk through the door to the vast absence of her welcome, every time I get in my truck and the backseat is empty. I’m re-learning how to live without her company.
A close friend told me that when our dogs get old and we have to think about the unthinkable, it helps us come to terms with mortality and understand how to grant death with dignity, compassion, and empathy. Above all, it teaches us how to value life on a grander scale.
And to channel Ben Moon, our dogs teach us that every time someone you love walks through the door, to go totally insane with joy. I miss that the most.
Photos courtesy Cassidy Randall
Cassidy Randall wrote about the emotional impact of avalanches in the winter issue of Adventure Journal. Subscribe to get it now—we guarantee you’ll love it.