Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award). She writes and teaches in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Wellness: Health Care
An examination of coming to terms with our worst fears
December 16 2015
The way we loved her—my husband and I —ended in a fierce custody battle when we divorced, both of us threatening the other with lawyers and lawsuits. Which, of course, was ridiculous, since animals, as we found out, are not family but property. Which made Riva Jones technically mine, since I’d adopted her before the marriage. But as we all know, in matters of the heart, “technically” and “legally” are muddled, and a dog qualifies as a matter of the heart.
When we fought, Riva would come over and rest her head on my knee while she looked up at me, her eyes saying, Please be happy. She, like most dogs, was family, not property. And that’s why I agreed to share custody of her. My ex loved her the way I loved her, and no matter what kind of meanness I could muster for him at the loss of our relationship, I could not take Riva away from him, nor could I take him away from Riva. So after we broke up, we traded weeks. He lived across the highway and it was easy enough. We saw her through two major surgeries, costing us $7,000; she saw us through new partners, engagements, broken engagements and a marriage. She loved us just the same. She accepted her two-household life. She loved the girlfriends of my ex (even though I told her not to), and she loved my new husband.
After three years of the weekly dog swap, my ex announced that he was moving three hours away. I figured I’d just keep Riva full-time, but he figured otherwise, and fought for her. Motivated by the leftover guilt of leaving him or the fact that she loved him too, I agreed—we would do the dog swap once a month. For three more years, we met on the side of highways, at rest stops, in the dark corners of gas stations.
It seemed like we were trading contraband— who would have guessed that we had pulled over to trade off a German Shepherd? My new husband resented waiting in the gas station parking lot or on the side of the road. I do not know what the girlfriend thought. But Riva always seemed happy to get into one car or the other, never complaining, never even looking back. I wish I had just a little bit of that kind of acceptance, that sort of living in the moment, the attitude that says: “Okay, this is what we’re doing now. Fun!”
At 12, Riva started cutting trail on backcountry ski trips so she could keep up. The last time I took her skiing, she ran down the skin trail instead of following behind us, diving in and out of the fresh snow like a porpoise. When she disappeared, I shouted for her for an hour, afraid she’d fallen in a tree well. She had taken the easy way down and was waiting for us at the car; she sat, smiling, as if to say, That took you a long time.
I took Riva on her last summer hike when she was 14, which, in retrospect, was ambitious, though even our vet had called her the “Wonderdog.” My plan was to hike the two miles to Meiss Meadow from Carson Pass and then back again. It was hot, she was tired and her back end kept giving out. I sat in the shade with her, stroked her head and told her it was okay. I am sure that my ex and Riva took a similar hike—one that was a little too much.
By 15, Riva was blind and deaf. She became incontinent and was horrified when she realized what she had done. I tried my best to tell her it was all right. Nobody was mad at her. No one had ever been mad at her. We tried everything, including installing a doggy door and layering plastic over the floor of one room, with pieces of old carpet on top so she wouldn’t slip. That lasted until she pooped, stepped in it and smeared it all over the carpet pieces and the plastic. Then, the dog whose bed had been right next to mine for 15 years had to sleep in the garage.
My ex got a new job, one that required travel, so the last six months of her life, Riva stayed exclusively with me. I resented my ex on the days I had to clean the house, my shoes and her fur. I resented it when she had to sleep in the garage. I resented it every time I had to help her up and down the stairs, every time I had to go outside and stop her from barking at imaginary things, which prompted the neighbors to call animal control, even the police. Once during that time, I needed a break and called my ex; he said he could not take her. My husband said, “Riva is here to teach you something. It’s her last gift.”
I made a list of all the things I loved and how many of them I could do without and still want to live. Perhaps I could go without skiing and hiking and running, but not reading, not spending time with family and friends. I came up with a number: 30 percent. If I could still do 30 percent of the things I loved, I would want to live.
I made a list for Riva. She could no longer chase chipmunks or swim, but she could eat treats and relax in the sun. From what I could tell, she was at exactly 30 percent. That’s when I started googling “When to put your dog down.” During this period, my friend Sandra came over. When she saw Riva, she said, “You have to put that dog down.” She was not being mean. Sandra is unflappable, and she is not one to couch her opinions in euphemism. She has an aging Pit Bull, Luna, who goes everywhere with her; they even went out together last Halloween, both dressed as witches. Sandra said, “When it’s Luna’s time, I want you to tell me.” I should also say that in addition to old age, Riva had Cushing’s disease, and her spine was a column of stones. Her belly was bloated and her fur matted with old age. Her milky eyes probably no longer looked intelligent, but I had not noticed. At one point that evening, Riva had fallen on the slate floor (recently installed because of her incontinence) and cried, and I picked her up. This, from the dog who never complained. Sandra said, “Put that dog down. You can’t let a dog lose her dignity.” I knew Sandra was right, that she was only trying to encourage me to do the humane thing, but of course I could think only this: That is coming from a woman who dresses her Pit Bull in a witch costume.
I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “It’s your decision to make. And you have to do it alone. Riva would want that from you. She expects it.”
But I called my ex, and we decided together that we would put Riva down in one week’s time. He would come to the house. The vet would come to the house. I put in for a day off work. But still, I kept searching online for something that would make things easier, something that would tell me when it was time. Again, I googled “when to put your dog down” and landed upon lists and surveys, which I took for Riva Jones, checking whether or not she ate or wagged her tail when I got home (the answer to both of those, by the way, was “yes” until the very end).
All week, I fed Riva steak and chicken and rice. I doubled her pain medication. I spent as much time with her as I could, and she improved. The weather had warmed, so she was sleeping on the deck, happy in the spring Sierra air. Some days, she could walk a half-mile up the trail behind my house. My ex came over, and we ended up sitting on the deck, sharing a bottle of chardonnay with Riva at our feet. We caught up on our friends, but talked very little about Riva. I wondered why he didn’t spend the time on the ground with her, but figured that we all deal with these things in our own way; maybe he didn’t really want to admit she was going, could not bear to say good-bye.
He came again the next day, the day before the appointment, and we took her walking. She made it about a half mile. We saw a bear, and she seemed happy to be among the wakening wildlife. We didn’t talk about the appointment, which was how things had always been between us. But after he left, I cancelled it. I told him we’d wait and see, take it day by day. My ex went home.
In the end, it really would be my decision to make. Among the survey questions on the “Should you put your dog down” test was Did you make euthanasia appointments and cancel them? I now checked “yes.” Riva was now at 50/50, the point at which, according to the survey, one should “put the dog down.” But did it count? Did I make a mistake when I made the appointment in the first place? So I waited.
I am here to tell you there will be an answer to your question, “When should I put my dog down?” but the answer cannot be found on an Internet survey.
There is only this: On a Thursday morning in April, you will wake up and your dog will be throwing up. By the time you leave, she will seem fine. But still, you ask your dog sitter, who is also a vet tech, to check on her during the day. You will run a poetry slam in the evening and will not be home until late. When you call your husband after work and before the event, he will say your dog seems fine. You will ask him what the dog sitter’s note said—she always leaves detailed descriptions of what goes on.
“No note,” he will say.
“She always leaves a note. Find it. Tell me what it says.”
“I didn’t see a note.”
“Look on the counter,” you will insist.
“No note,” he will answer.
You will leave it alone, knowing something is wrong, but you are in charge of an event, so you will choose to believe that your husband is telling you the truth.
He isn’t. He knows you have to go to the event. The note says your dog has been throwing up. But your husband checks on her and she seems to have improved, so he doesn’t say anything.
When you get home, you will find your dog on the porch, dry heaving. Though it will not have snowed for months, on this night, it will be snowing. You will find your dog outside, trying to throw up over the deck. She will know better, even then, to make a mess outside. She will be shivering, and tiny frozen flakes will be caught in her fur.
You will coax her inside, start the fire and ask her to lie on her bed. She will be dry heaving, and every once in a while, yellow bile will come up. She will froth at the mouth, and you will wipe the fur around her face with a towel.
So here’s when you know: when it’s too late. Which is what you tried to avoid with your googling late into the night. You will apologize to her over and over, telling her how sorry you are for not having the doctor come to the house and put her down.
But you could have not done that. You needed it to get to this.
You will call your vet, and because you live in a small mountain town, the office is closed. You will be directed to the vet hospital in the nearest big city, more than an hour from your house. You will call the hospital, and the woman on the other end of the line will encourage you to bring your dog in. “Her stomach could be flipped, and this is extremely painful,” the voice will say. You don’t believe this, but it will make you cry harder. “But she probably won’t make the drive,” the vet tech will say.
You will ask, “Why would I force my dog into a long car ride she probably won’t make?”
“You should bring her in,” the voice on the other end will answer. You will hand the phone to your husband, and he will talk to the vet tech in the other room. You cannot, in fact, do this alone.
When your husband hangs up and comes back into the living room, you will ask if you are going to drive your dog to the big-city vet. He will say no. You will say, “Call Sandra. Ask for her gun.”
He will say, “What? I am not calling Sandra. It’s after midnight.”
“Call Sandra and ask for her gun.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Just get her gun.”
This is when you know it is time to put your dog down: when you have never shot a gun in your life, and you’re willing to illegally fire a bullet from your unflappable friend’s pink .22 into your dog’s brain.
Your husband will call your friend Sandra, and after she figures out who’s calling her so late at night and asking for her gun, she will say no way. She will tell you it is illegal to shoot a handgun in your town. Unflappable though she is, she will not let you shoot your own dog.
So you will pull your dog’s bed, with her on it, over to the couch, and you will sleep next to her on the couch. She will dry heave for a while but then fall asleep, mercifully, until 7 am. For the last time, you will sleep beside her.
Your husband will leave for a meeting. It will seem, for a minute, that your dog has stopped dry heaving, frothing at the mouth.
But she hasn’t.
You will call your local vet, and the receptionist will say the vet cannot come to the house, but you can bring your dog to the office any time. Your eyes will have that sandpapery feel. You won’t know why, but you will feel the need to shower while your poor dog is suffering in the other room. Maybe you just want to make sure. Maybe you will get out of the shower and she will have stopped dry heaving, and she will be better!
So you will dry off and get dressed and you will realize you can’t wait for your husband to be done with his meeting. It is time.
You will lift your old dog from her bed and carry her down the stairs. She will not resist you. You will put her on the grass, and she will sniff around and go to the bathroom, and this last act of normal doggy behavior will nearly bring you to your knees.
You will call her, your voice cracking. She will see the hand motions you now use since she can no longer hear you, and she will look into the car as if she might try to jump into it. Before she can try, you will lift her into the car, and put her on her bed. She will smile, knowing she is going somewhere.
You will call your ex, telling him you are on your way to the vet … that it is time. You will call your friend Eve, who has three dogs, because you figure she might offer you some words of wisdom, and she does. She tells you to have them do it in the car. She will tell you that is how she has had all her dogs put down.
When you walk into your vet’s front office, everyone will know why you are there. The front office staff will tell you they will help you carry her in. You look around at all the other pet owners with their animals who will have to watch this. Your vet will agree to come out to the car. You are thankful for your friend who told you to have it done that way. You will go out to the car, open the back and sit with your dog in the morning sun.
The front office person will come out with paperwork. He will ask if you want your dog’s paw print. You will imagine them sticking the dead paw into a mold and quickly say no. Then you realize that your ex might want said paw print, so you call him.
“Do you want her paw print?” you say when he picks up.
“You know, they make a plaster imprint of her paw.” Then you add, “But they do it after she’s dead.”
Your ex will agree that the $79.95 paw print isn’t needed.
“But you are doing the private cremation, right?”
“Yeah,” you will answer.
“Call me. Later.”
You agree that you will.
You also agree to the more expensive “private cremation,” even though a former student has offered to dig a hole in your yard.
Here’s what you need to know if you are afraid of the actual procedure. Don’t be. You will not believe how easy the dying is. Afterward, you will wonder why we can’t let our humans go in this way, with compassion and kindness and love.
Here’s what happens: The vet tech will tell you that your dog will be given something to calm her down, make her “loopy.” You will ask if you can have some. “Only if you want to puke,” your vet will say. “It makes dogs feel great, not so much with humans.” Your dog will very quickly stop dry heaving and foaming at the mouth. She will lay her head down and seem to be in a very happy place. You will pet her and talk to her and do your best not to cry because you do not want to upset her. Then the vet will say she is giving the second injection. You will keep your hand on your dog’s chest, feel her heart slow and then stop.
“We’ll be right back,” your vet will tell you. “Take a few minutes.”
That is when you will bury your face in the fur of your dead dog and you will wail. The vet and vet tech will come back with a little stretcher, they will lift your dog onto it and cover her with a fuzzy ducky blanket that seems at once sentimental and silly, but heartbreaking, really.
The next day, you will relay your story to your running partner, and when you get to the ducky blanket, your voice will crack. You will have to stop talking. Your friend will say, “That isn’t heartbreaking. It’s soulbreaking.”
And so it was.
As with most dogs, Riva Jones taught me how to be a better creature in the world. How to live in the moment, to go with the flow. How to be a friend. How to live and, finally, how to let go.
Even though I wanted to prevent her from suffering even one single minute, I couldn’t. The last 20 hours or so were uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. But I have to believe Riva could see that I did the best I could. Would it have been more humane to put her down a week earlier, when I had made the first appointment? Probably. But as it is, I sometimes wonder if I should have brought her into the vet that morning, had the doctor check her. Maybe she’d be alive today! Those are the irrational thoughts that go along with the here-one-day-gone-the-next nature of death. I even worried that Riva would “wake up” in the vet’s office, scared, wondering where I was.
Everyone says your dog will tell you when it’s time. That you will know. That only makes sense in retrospect. You did it, so it was very much the right time. My ex didn’t send me a check for half the euthanasia or cremation, but he did call me to tell me he would be up to spread the ashes. When I told my husband, he responded, “Tell him no cash, no ash.”
I went back and forth about what to do. Finally, I opened the wooden box (a private cremation comes with a lovely cedar container) and we dished two heaping ladlesful of Riva into another baggie. As I did with my father’s ashes, I sifted through Riva’s remains, hoping for what, I’m not sure. Some feeling that it was her. But as with my father, it was gray bone fragment, and I could make no connection between it and the living being.
When I went to meet my ex with the ash and Riva’s collar, he asked me if I wanted to go with him. I felt like I needed an ending to my story, an ending, in many ways, to my relationship with my ex. We had kept in close contact because of Riva, but that would be over now. I then realized that the day he sat on the deck with me, drinking chardonnay, he was there not so much to say good-bye to Riva as to say good-bye to me.
We hiked up the hill behind the house we once shared. Since her death, he had gotten a dog paw tattooed on his forearm, and underneath, Riva’s name. I refrained from telling him, even in my usual passive-aggressive way, how ridiculous I found that. I saw that even though we both lost the same dog, we both had our own journey with it. When we reached the top, the valley unfolding into the lake, my ex opened the baggie and let the wind take the ash. It swirled around, scattering on the dirt below us. He then drove a metal cross into the ground with a mallet and wrapped Riva’s collar around it. We both sat there for a long time, looking out across the lake.
A woman with a dog came up the trail, and said, “Great spot, huh?” We allowed that it was.
“My husband proposed to me right there,” she called.
“Right where you’re sitting.”
She walked off with her dog, and I said, “Should we tell her?” We both laughed for a long time and then agreed it was time to head back down. When we reached my car, my ex gave me a check for half the vet bill without being asked. And then, finally, we said good-bye.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
June 30 2014
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
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