“What it is, is a dream. For a lifetime of years.” Steve Forbert
“My own friend and companion, when I was little and didn’t yet have a sister, was Mitzi. We ran in the fields and huddled together through thunderstorms. I gave a great deal of myself to Mitzi, and she faithfully reflected that self-back to me, helping me learn more about who I was and, in those early days, what I was feeling. When she died, she went on teaching me—about loss and grief… and about the renewal of hope and joy.” Fred Rogers
“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” TS Elliot
Coffee spoons I am intimately familiar with when it comes to navigating through each day. But if you were to ask me, I would tell you most emphatically, that I have measured out my life most preciously with pet dogs. Dogs that have seen me through all kinds of transitions; from new jobs to in-between jobs to married life. And each time I try desperately to fudge the exact age of my adopted pound pup so that I can say to some passing stranger, that he is a year younger than I suspect he actually is.
But let’s think about this. Only one decade span to spend with a loved one? Come on. Doesn’t seem quite fair does it?
What can we do? Pay astronomical vet bills to eke out every week and month we can? Just live in denial perhaps?
Or learn the art of making time go slower? Hmm. I like that last one. I repeat—“learn the art of making time go SLOOWWEER.”
Surely the outer edges of old age for our pets is a stage that we all dread playing out.
Yet it is also a time of rich reward forged from a great friendship going the full distance.
And by the time the last chapter plays out, it feels even more like love doesn’t it?
When all your family dogs have trained you well enough to appreciate every facet of travel it becomes second nature to enjoy every aspect of being together. This includes the long and short of it when it comes to hiking.
So by the time old age creeps in, you are content for the most local of trips; after all the trails and sidewalk routes have already been blazed many years over (of course I am aging too and don’t mind a short cut or two when I am feeling particularly stiff).
After all, you have become conditioned to pause at any time.
Eventually you become so unified with your pet that you BOTH react intuitively together like Rogers and Astaire—reading each other’s minds. This means you enjoy taking turns indulging in liberal amounts of sensory loading and spiritual reflection. You wait for your pet to finally pull out from that exquisite smell he or she is decoding, and your pet waits for you to finish hugging a tree or staring up at the sky.
You become a completely predictable, highly erratic tandem act of interval trainers—one minute going fast and the next coming to a complete stand still.
Together you are active responders to the outside world. You aren’t just passing through space to get somewhere with your hand held owning your affections. The world around you IS your medium, IS your focus, and IS your canvas. A special communion deepens all the way across your extendable dog leash that crackles with the energy voltage of a power line. Hiking in other words, becomes a social act intended for communicating with the world and clearing out the cobwebs in your heart.
Just a side note: While I have no evidence to back this up, there is no doubt in my mind that my dog Ranger and I have long ago attained the status of having achieved unparalleled, legendary status as a hiking tandem when it comes to memorizing all the many mazes of Sugarland’s suburban hiking trails.
But the truth is; we were special not because of any superficial exploits, but because we were uniquely being US when we hiked and explored.
The sky was the limit and we saw to it that it stayed that way!
We can’t label our locations properly; but we are intimately familiar with so many routes—each grove of trees, every twist of a creek and every perfectly contoured grassy hill to perch on. We moved together instinctively, less as a function and more as a celebration.
And we not only found escape—we found answers.
And when you have been together so many years, the past and the present all become intermingled into one long series of active “BEING.” You end up liking yourself more when you are attached to the other end of a dog leash. You find a world of pet owners to nod to and make small talk that never feels canned or calculated.
The art of hill perching; (or the act of sitting or lying on a hill for you “lay”men) that used to be the half time break from a long hours hike, has simply become scaled back and enjoyed just as much in a yard nearby or just a few feet beyond our door. You don’t bond LESS just because you can’t venture out as far.
That’s because the fine art of appreciation and observation remains strong in any setting. The moon and the trees and the stars are just as authentic and inspiring close by the house as they are 45 minutes away. The lamp light along the street is just as evocative and mysterious a block away as it is from 2 miles away.
Boredom is simply not in the equation or part of the vocabulary with this developed habit. Not when you have had a life time of slowing down and inspecting every landscape you inhabit with your 4 legged friend. You become a studier of the most micro level scenes, from birds to little bugs in the grass.
I believe it would be a hollow achievement if all we exercised for was to win some Fitbit competition or to become some kind of Iron Man–fulfilled only by going to extremes of physical deprivation in order to be happy—or going the fastest or losing the most weight.
In my book, dog walking is the best exercise known to man for extracting meaning out of ANY distance.
And if anything, the joy and sense of achievement is even sweeter in the latter stages when your old pooch manages to still pull out some good streaks of walking. It’s more icing on the cake. It’s extra triumphant!
In my case that meant not needing a towel to hoist Ranger up from a laying position or, in the more extreme conditions, walk behind, supporting him most of the way with the towel underneath.
Puppies and young dogs can be stubborn for very exuberant reasons. Older dogs can be stubborn due to much different ones; like sitting longer and sniffing longer and not wanting to part from a cherished position.
The way I look it at is they’ve earned the insubordination.
Both types still force you to hone your patience as flip sides of the same coin.
What our dogs help us do is to open up our spiritual antennae’s to see all the sacred beauty of the world around us. They filter out the ego and the obligatory part of dog walking completely; until you become thoroughly convinced that together–you and your pet truly are unique specialists, and the best “US” pair of hikers in the entire universe. And that’s not bragging. It’s just being happy.
And as TS Elliot says you also discover the seemingly contradictory state of “being still and still moving.”
To do this we must constantly work at halting the tendency to worry about what will come next and bridging time to time; as if happiness only existed in the past when we were somebody else. We just need to enjoy the shared journey together.
Because contrary to what our overactive egos tell us, we really can’t control much else anyway.
I know this the hard way because as I finish writing this, I must sadly report that my dear Ranger has passed away. The unthinkable, that I feared for so long, finally happened.
And of course, surprise surprise–it happened sooner than I wanted to handle or accept.
I wasn’t exactly in denial; but as his travel buddy, it was my job to always keep a positive spin going in the hope that his days would extend to weeks and his weeks to months. I guess I always figured that his body had just ONE MORE–big hike left in the tank.
I say this because Ranger did have some wonderful comebacks. Just weeks before his passing in fact, he was stubbornly launching forward; yanking on his collar, beating me in the battle of the wills department once again, as he desperately craved revisiting our favorite spots once again. And I indulged as much as seemed possible.
So now his pain pills are still in the bottles. The feeding trays and water bowl are empty and ready to go. I am measuring every item in the house by what came before and after his passing. My last grocery trip when he was alive. The last dog biscuits he was supposed to enjoy.
And I fight bouts of feeling oddly guilty and incomplete; as I begin to hear the crickets croaking and the softer smells of spring rescuing us from winter. Revisiting those old trails we shared together brings back a mix of disbelief and nostalgia that translates into melancholy. I feel like a dog walking widow.
I beat myself up with questions: “How can I walk through those same forests without Ranger?
“Why couldn’t he have made it to the spring?”
It’s in those times of replaying sad thoughts that I try and force myself to visualize myself in a wrestling match on the inside. I consciously work at reversing my mind set from the “wrong perspective”—the one that pins my spirit down on the mat–the one that distorts the legacy of what a great life Ranger had and how blessed I was to have him—until I can right myself (and restore myself) back on top of the “negative thought cycle” opponent that robs me of my joy, so that I can ultimately win the match.
And it sure does take discipline to beat this wrestling opponent on certain low days.
So I need to finish this essay that I started as a meditation on the agelessness and durability of dog hiking. Each decade or so spent with a dog is the most precious time capsule one could ever look back on.
So I will end where I began—like a great loop trail. In fact, back in the day, whenever I was at that point of grabbing my car keys or the dog leash; I would trigger it all by using the most upbeat inflexion possible to prompt Ranger, by calling out as an open question or statement, “BYE BYE!?”– which to my wife’s constant embarrassment, was not a very alpha male or age appropriate way of saying “It’s time to perambulate!”
But over time, the “bye bye” ritual turned into less of a command and more of an invitation. And its meaning was not confined anymore to “STARTING” or “LEAVING.” It came to signify a kind of amorphous, call for constant movement, beyond mere coming or going–kind of like the classic word “ALOHA” which means both “hello” and “goodbye” in Hawaii.
Kind of comforting isn’t it when you think of your life as one long continuous loop trail in which the crossing of the finish line merely takes us back home to where we started in the first place.
Sharing that full journey with Ranger was a sacred privilege that made me a better person. Dogs have a knack for stripping us to our core, whether we are 6 years old, 16 years old, 26 years old, or even 56. And just like the variety of our hike lengths, I think of Ranger as being both far away up in heaven yet also very close up and personal, way deep inside.
Because love remains when distances adjust. And it is a stronger, far more tangible thing than mere memory (which is very tenuous for us humans and very conditional).
And while it might sound a bit precious and grandiose (to the uninitiated), I truly believe that a special pet like Ranger even grants us access and insight into the very nature of God Himself; with all the endless grace and love that goes along with it. People may rescue dogs as the bumper sticker says, but I’m here as a diehard believer to tell you—DOGS surely do rescue people. And always at the right time because we will always need what they supply.
Watching dogs pack so much happiness and adventure into their short lifespans is instructive and challenges us to match their faithfulness till the very end. The pain is only temporary but the spiritual dividends go on and on. And that is indeed a great foundation to live by and pass on to every new soul we touch and every relationship we forge in the future.