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We were overdue for a vacation when my fourth-grader pleaded that we go away for Thanksgiving break.“Anywhere. Even somewhere cold,” Jacob tendered as a concession, knowing that our Dalmatian, Sketch, and I preferred brisk air, whereas he, a southern California native, tended to chill when the mercury dipped below 70. I had barely felt like getting out of bed, let alone town, since the blistering day months earlier that JP, Sketch’s father, shed his last hair in the parking lot of a Palm Springs veterinary clinic.
In the three years since I’d adopted Jacob, he had grown to love my dogs, and especially JP, almost as much as I did. “I miss him, too. But he’s gone,” he said in the resilient tenor of a boy who had endured more heartache in his 10 years than I in my 40.“Far away.”He looked up to the heavens, and I realized that it was not only grief that had numbed my nomadic nature, but also guilt at the thought of leaving behind the spirit of my spotted traveling companion of 14 years.
* * * * *
Heavy flurries were blanketing the mountainside’s majestic evergreens and slender, white-barked poplars when we arrived in Aspen, Colo., a getaway our family had always found to be welcoming to dogs and kids—and surprisingly affordable for passers-through—despite its ritzy reputation. Sketch bounded out of the car and over a snow bank to greet an elderly Schnauzer,who was exiting the lobby of our hotel, the Limelight Lodge, and nipping at the soft flakes falling all around her. She made an obliging,wobbly effort at meeting Sketch’s playful advances lunge-for-lunge. “Getting old is tough on them,” said her owner, a young-looking, middle-aged woman, wincing at the obvious discomfort the activity caused her pet.
Tougher on us humans, I thought.Sketch still had the temperament and energy of a puppy, and was seemingly not prone to his breed’s hip dysplasia or hyperthyroid conditions. But he was going on nine, and I was determined that he would be the third and last dog I would love … and outlive.
* * * * *
The following morning dawned bright and frosty, and Jacob’s and my sights were set on the powdery slopes. There was no shortage of dog-walkers-for-hire or canine activities at Sketch’s disposal— dog trails, off-leash parks, dog-watching in the pedestrian mall, even an après-ski wine-and-cheese “yappy hour” for dogs and their people at a neighborhood tavern— but I was intrigued by the hotel manager’s recommendation of a day of pampering at Aspen Wags to Riches. The proceeds of the pet salon sustain its adjacent no-kill shelter, which rescues dogs and cats from around the country.
We were greeted by Bo, the shelter’s cheerful, 13-year-old mascot, a retired sled dog. One of his floppy ears stood straight up and he sniffed the air, but he appeared otherwise indifferent to Sketch’s faux alpha posturing and close inspection of his stomping ground, particularly the glass-walled cat room in the reception area. The latter is a zoo-like haven that houses a dozen or so adoptable felines, some playing with toys or comrades, others napping on lush cat beds or window seats … and all, like Bo, unfazed by our assertive dog’s probing nose.
* * * * *
Seth, the shelter’s director, gave us a tour of the facilities and suggested that we take one of the many itinerant (and immaculately groomed) dogs for a walk along the hillside that flanked the play yard while Sketch was introduced to the pack. The shelter encourages prospective adopters—as well as local volunteers, and even visitors who needed a dog-fix—to check residents out of the kennel for leisure time. Jacob chose Lola, a very old Malamute/Lab mix. She was timid, but her eyes twinkled as hopefully as those of her mates.
Once outside, Lola eagerly led us up a steep, unshoveled path. Like Bo, she had worked many thankless years as a sled dog, hauling tourists across the snow, but still had a zest for life on the mountain. She took in the cold, thin air with a more grateful and less winded pant than ours, all the while casting proud glances back down at the fenced-in dogs.Among them was our youthful Sketch, as content in his captivity as Lola was in her few moments of independence.
* * * * *
Later, on Snowmass Mountain, we soared for several petrifying minutes down the practically vertical,double-black-diamond trail that I’d inadvertently steered us to …off the more apt, blue-square intermediate route.
“Yes!” Jacob shouted, as he came to an impressive parallel stop. “We’re alive!” He thrust a clenched fist into the air, exhilarated by his newfound ability.
“For now,” I said tentatively.We were at a fork that would allow us to veer onto a single-black-diamond slope, which I prayed would lead us to a beginner’s green circle!
“Now is all that matters,” he whispered to himself invincibly, propelling his skis toward the white abyss. “Don’t worry. Just…I don’t know…try to think like a dog or something,” he said to me.
Okay…now! I gathered my wits, and plunged.
“But later,” he called back. “Can we adopt one of those old dogs?”
Maybe, I thought.
Photo: Christine Newman