David Petersen lives with his wife, Caroline, and a series of dogs in a little cabin on a big mountain in the American Southwest near Durango, Colorado. Prior to leaving behind a conventional life, Petersen was an officer and pilot in the U.S. Marines.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A man, a dog, a snowy mountain—deep-winter thoughts as a new year approaches.
December 23 2013
New Year’s Eve already, again. Stepping out through boot-deep snow.
Here on Spring Mountain it’s traditional to celebrate the final evening of each calendar year with a good stiff hike, accompanied by whatever hounds are currently at hand and up to the effort. This year, I’m down to Mr. Otis, since Angel dog is 13 and on her last leg and that last leg is lame. While Otis is nine, which in big-dog years makes him a borderline senior like me, he, also like me, still thinks he’s a stud. In fact, old Oats frequently wins compliments as a supremely handsome example of the Labrador breed, even in his muzzled grayness. He’s been blessed with glossy black hair (recently, a visiting Alaskan trapper friend made my wife Caroline nervous when he stroked Otis appraisingly and remarked on what a “fine pelt” he has), long sturdy legs (Dr. Woody, Otis’s personal physician, calls them “mountain legs”), clean white teeth and a broad intelligent head (as opposed to the rat-nosed look of lesser Labs). So why ruin the ruse by revealing that his mother was a Golden Retriever?
Of course, for O and me to take an evening hike together is hardly unique, insofar as he walks me most every evening, the high point of most every day. The high point, at least, when the weather is pleasant and calming, or nasty enough to be exciting because it’s scary enough to offer a reminder that nature always bats last: say, a wildly showy electrical storm, wind like a low flight of fighter jets screaming through the trees, a blinding whiteout of blowing snow and swirling frozen fog. Barring any of that during the moody holiday season—deep in the white gut of winter, with its foreshortened days, crackling cold nights, delaying snow and precious little wildlife to animate the scene—a walk in the winter woods can often seem more effort than entertainment.
This New Year’s Eve, this final evening of yet another year of our whirlwind lives, we are healthy, happy and celebrating—a boy and his dog striding up this comforting old mountain while ruminating on the past, pondering the future and, with every step and breath, offering active praise for the blessings of the moment. And glory be, after the first hard few minutes and the catching of my increasingly elusive second wind, I sense that this is to be one of those sweet retro intervals when my aging mortal shell, rather than dragging behind and slowing me down, lifts me lightly along, like a buzzard climbing a summer thermal, up and up on a free ride to heaven. Suddenly I am young again, high as a hippie on the pure animal joy of self-powered movement. At least for the moment.
We climb eagerly on, Otis and I, running occasional short sprints, choosing the steepest routes simply for the sake of their steepness, running uphill in the snow. As we near the top, 9,500 feet above the sultry beaches of southern California and a vertical gain of 1,500 feet from the cabin—with only a few dozen minutes remaining in the day, less than a half dozen hours to go in the year, an unknown number of years left in our lives—a light of impossible beauty laminates the sunset sky. The churning, shifting spectrum of pastels—blue, lavender; purple, pink, red to fiery orange—seems almost sentient, somehow feminine, ineffably alive.
When we finally reach our goal—a rocky point overlooking a snow-covered lake—I stop for a look around. The awesome grandeur of such vertical landscapes makes one feel rightly small. And such feeling-smallness, by exposing the false front of our feeling-bigness, feels real good to me.
Impatient as a puppy, ever the anxious seeker, Otis flashes past, brushing against my snow-dusted pant cuff as if to proclaim, “Look at me, Dad! Here I go!” running in widening circles. On his third counterclockwise circumnavigation, the 80-pound goofball surprises a congerie of ravens, which in their panicked flush startle the hell out of me, as I had neither heard nor seen them there, clustered on the ground behind the low rise to my right. Righteously alarmed, the overgrown crows hurl themselves skyward as one dark body, a flapping black cloud that rises in brief solidarity then flies abruptly apart, like a fistful of scarves flung into the wind.
How I do love ravens! At once the most clever, adaptable and confident of birds and the most joyful heralds of death. Like Otis and me, ravens perceive themselves as far too handsome and wise for their humble lot in life as scroungers, kidnappers of robin chicks and carrion eaters. Yet they, like O and me, don’t merely endure but always find ways to enjoy. What most humans view as hardship, ravens see as play. Everywhere good I go, from Alaska to Mexico, ravens are there.
Even so—this late in the day, this deep into winter—these gregarious birds should by now have retreated to their nocturnal roosts to perch on limbs like so many lumpy black leaves, feathers fluffed for warmth, among the sheltering boughs of Douglas fir or ponderosa. Suddenly, it occurs to me that these preeminent scavengers may have been feasting late on a holiday gift of frozen flesh. Dead elk or deer? Dead coyote? Dead …?
Winter: the dying time of year.
I hurry over to investigate. Approaching the spot where the birds had been ganged on the ground I find … nothing.
Who knows? Who gives a flapping croak? Not Otis, who has already whiffed some new and intriguing scent and is off hounding after it, headed conveniently down-mountain, the way we need to go. With twilight fading fast I turn and follow his lead, the prints of my big insulated rubber boots shortcutting Otis’s switchbacking slashes in the snow, like a drunken slalom skier. Dogs, like preachers, politicians and real estate whores, never run straight unless they’re being chased. But Otis has disappeared, coursing far ahead. Perhaps he’s cut the pungent trail of a pine marten, like the one he and Caroline saw on this morning’s walk together. In fact, Caroline admitted to having seen the sleek, cat-sized, tree-climbing, rodent-hunting weasel only after Otis had tracked its scent to the base of a tree and his animated excitement, urgent whines, and upward panting stare had lifted her gaze away from its normally grounded fix. While a hunter, like me, peers up and away, scanning the horizon for broken hints of color, pattern or movement, Caroline, a gentle gatherer, focuses closer at foot, stalking wildflowers, mushrooms, animal spoor and other rooted prey. Alone, each of us is half blind. Together, we see near and far.
No matter. Wherever my dog-son has gotten off to, or why, he is out of my sight—an intolerable breach of Petersen doggy etiquette. I refuse to yell, clap or wolf-whistle in the woods, any of which would rudely shatter the tranquility I come here for, disturbing the critters and destroying the very treasures I seek. Instead, I stop and peer around—waiting, watching, straining my ears into the ringing silence for the rhythm of panting breaths, the soft thuds of paws on the snow. I chuckle out loud when I catch myself sniffing the air, as if I were a dog or a bear. This thought, in turn, reminds me of Dersu Uzala, the charismatic wild-man protagonist of Russian explorer V.K. Arseniev’s 1910 classic adventure memoir, Dersu the Trapper, a mostly true story beautifully made into the 1975 Academy Award–winning film Dersu Uzala by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Dersu is an aging aborigine of a dwindling hunter-gatherer tribe, the Goldis, who are animistic (nature worshipping) foragers of the Manchurian taiga. The scene I’m recalling takes place one bad winter day while Dersu is out boar hunting with the captain. When Dersu misses an easy shot at an animal he can pungently smell but barely see, the old woodsman wails in pidgin Russian, “Capitan! My nose sees better than my eyes!” in sudden realization that he is going blind.
The point being that that’s the way our big boy Otis see his world: nostrils first. Could we dwarf-nosed human animals experience for just one hour the world as a dog, deer or bear perceives it—in shape-shifting layers of Technicolor scents, far more vivid and varied than even the most stunning sunset sky—that brief, epiphanous window of wonder would alter our outlook and actions forever. For all our manipulative cleverness, we really know so little of life.
Growing uneasy with Otis’s ongoing absence, if not quite worried (he knows the way home from anywhere up here and would yelp for help if in trouble), I venture a soft, birdlike whistle, poorly imitating the bright spring rondo of a mountain chickadee. Inappropriate though it is for the bottom of December, it will alert Otis, if he hears it, that I am here.
Sure enough, within moments here comes the Oatsmobile, a graceful flowing streak of ink sluicing across the snow, sleek as liquid silk, contouring cross-mountain full-bore: big ears flopping, jaws agape and cheeks flared wide, gums spotted pink and black, long tongue lolling, ivory fangs flashing a delighted canine grin—four score pounds of pure animal joy.
As with the other animals in my life—and my life is peopled with animals—I envy Otis his freedom from burdensome ambition, from debilitating regret, pointless worry and egoistic longing for public recognition and personal immortality. For him, life is now, to be experienced—chased, caught and played with; chewed up and swallowed, digested, and always celebrated—not some Calvinistic adversary to be feared, conquered, intellectualized, rationalized, fantasized or dogmatized.
Panting and pleased with himself—“Here I come, Dad! Such a good boy, me!”—Otis stiff-legs to a stop at my side and raises his snow-frosted mug for a pat. Which of course he gets, plus a kiss on the head and a few soft words of encouragement to Stay with me, knucklehead!
Looking to our left, eastward as we go, light-years beyond the saw-toothed silhouette of the Continental Divide, we see Jupiter come awake: a blinking benediction in blue. At least I think it’s Jupiter, not being much on stars (or planets either, obviously). I mean, there are so many of them. And all so far away, untouchable, ultimately unknowable, thus largely removed from my life. “One world at a time,” said Thoreau on his deathbed to the hovering preacher. “One real world is enough,” echoed Santayana a century later. I feel much the same. Yet how gratefully each night do I greet Orion (a bowhunter, like me), who at the moment, still hidden below the horizon, is gearing up with bow and dagger for another night’s go-around with that ballsy old aurochs (a Taurus, like me), the two of them battling clockwise across the nocturnal firmament. Forever.
Shaking me from my reveries, Otis suddenly stops, goes stiff-legged, raises his muzzle, sniffs and licks his slobbery chops—tasting some delicious promise that’s as yet invisible to me. Explaining himself with an excited Whoof! he deserts me and bounds ahead, barreling down the hill. Following quickly after, I, too, soon smell the spicy incense of aspen smoke, perfuming the lucent night.
Excerpted from On the Wild Edge: In Search of a Natural Life © 2005 David Petersen, published by Henry Holt and Company. Reprinted with permission.
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