Russell Is Out There

By John King, May 2021

We buried Russell out at the end of the dunes, where he always headed when off-leash. The digging was good, all sand, a bit damp, which helped avoid cave-ins. I got him good and deep, well away from any critters who might dig for him and succumb to the drugs that had been used to euthanize him.

I took his collar off to free him on his journey, but replaced it with his tracking collar. I don’t know why I did this. I don’t think straight all the time. When my parents died and the house we grew up in was sold, I thought about calling the old number, just on the off-chance that Mom or Dad would pick up wherever they were out there in the void. I never did. I guess I placed the tracking collar on Russell for the same reason I considered calling my old number: just to see what might happen.

Nothing happened for a few days, and then I got a ping from the hand-held tracking unit. It was late at night and I could clearly see the lit-up topo map, with Russell’s track moving up along the Mad River on a dirt road. He traveled for an hour or two and hung out at our favorite pool, then the track disappeared. I fell back in bed with my mouth open. Russell was out there, somewhere, just like I had always hoped!

It began to get interesting as I tracked Russell in his journeys. I got a hit one day and found he was out in the stars. This is not a function I believed the tracker could do. I was astonished and elated! He was moving fast, and not always in a straight line. He appeared to be bouncing from point to point like a pinball toward his destination. When he finally stopped, the tracker’s topo map zoomed down to a watery planet. The topo map on this planet was all blue; there were no islands or land masses. Russell’s track looped around here and there, and I knew he was having the time of his life, swimming with the same look of profound joy on his face he always had whenever he went for one of his long swims.

GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!

Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

I began to prepare an assortment of gear for the different jaunts we used to take with Russell and Bella, our slim Pit Bull mix. I had a day pack with snacks and juice for a possible trip up the Mad River, and my backpack was loaded with three days’ worth of gear for a trip into a secret spot I had stumbled on in the Trinity Alps. Or if he headed out to his favorite dune spot, we could all just load up in the car and jet out there.

illustration by John King

These were Russell’s favorite spots. I figured that the next time Russell pinged close to home, I would try to rendezvous with him. This would be a long shot, I knew, because his visits seemed to vary from hours to days on end, and if I did find him, he may be just a glimmer, or even invisible

I had my chance a day later when my unit pinged that Russell was at Dragonfly Camp, our secret spot along the North Fork of the Trinity, a place he just loved. It was early morning and still dark, which was good. I could get to the trailhead around 10 in the morning, pack in and have plenty of time to set up camp and look for Russell.

Using game trails, I clambered up the ridge and straight down the other side, then took a side course to get to my hideaway. It’s a beautiful spot, with deep pools and no human tracks, only animal imprints, and a few ancient pieces of mining equipment here and there.

I leaned my pack on a rock and went to find Russell. His favorite spot was just around the big rock cliff that pushed into the river. A rock shelf angled up above the water, along the back of the big rock. It was a good spot to see all around and far off down the river.

As I turned the bend, Russell was there—or most of him was, at least. He seemed to shimmer in and out of focus. He was very glad to see me and I was very glad to see him. We sat together up on his perch, the sun warming us, the green moss soft underneath us on the warm rock. It was wonderful. At times, he would snuggle for a hug, and I could feel his muzzle against me, and the soft fur on his head.

We did a few things before it got dark—walked along the river and crossed it to get to his favorite meadow, swam in the river, and shared oysters and whiskey in the evening beside the fire. I was glad he was hanging in there through the hours and hoped it would last a bit longer.

As I climbed into the tent, Russell followed and we hunkered down together. I felt extremely fortunate to be spending any time at all with Russell. As I began to nod off with my arm around him, I breathed in the Zen way that Russell had taught me. His night breathing was a quick intake of breath and then a slow escape of air through his closed mouth. It sounded like humming, or purring. As I did this, Russell did it too, and then slid forward, pushing his grizzled muzzle against my face as we both dog-purred away into the night.

Sometime later, I knew Russell was gone. It was heartbreaking but it was okay, too. He was out there. My dog had not disappeared into nothing. All my dogs were out there and with me, not only in my dreams.

It’s a hard concept to consider when I look up into the sky at night, trying to fathom what all this is. This tiny blue world amongst an eternity of stars, all the creatures here on Earth, all the things that must be out there in all the universes. It’s complex and utterly wonderful.

I wonder about the big bang, too, which might be real or not, and then I think, “Well, what was there before the big bang?” Or, for those who believe in God (or Gods), what was before God? How can there be something where before there was nothing? The only thing that makes sense to me is if time isn’t real. Then there is no before or after, just now. This actually doesn’t help, and also makes my head hurt.

We got a last ping from Russell a week later. He was out at our dune spot. Regina, Bella and I jumped into the car and took off, hoping he would stay long enough for us to get out there and see him. It’s a beautiful spot, with interesting plants and hawks and fox, rabbit and small critter tracks everywhere. Russell was there, bounding through the dune grass and Bella charged after him. She missed him so much.

We followed their romping and got to give Russell lots of hugs on the way. As Russell led us toward his grave, he became increasingly dim. Then, a hundred yards before his resting spot, Russell was gone. We could all feel it. Bella raised her head and sniffed the air.

We crested the low ridge where Russell was buried and found his tracking collar lying there in the sand. Russell had given me a few weeks of calming insight into his new life through the tracking collar. Now we both knew we didn’t need it anymore.

Imagery: John King