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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.

Almost home.

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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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 40: Jan/Feb 2007
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.
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