Barreling through

Trying, anyway. Everything is conspiring against Roo. She’s feeling worse and seems more swollen. We left Nashville this morning and are now at a rest stop between Cincinnati and Columbus. If she’s going to feel worse yet tomorrow, better to get as much of the drive done as we can. The hundreds of miles upon miles of damaged roads are worse than the blistering sun. It makes it impossible for Roo to rest. Friends Jim and Virginia found the right oncologist for Roo it see in Maine. I have a call in, hopefully she’ll see Roo as soon as their office is open. I’ll keep you posted. 


Sad news.


Yesterday, when Roo rolled around in some nice green grass, I noticed a terrible swelling of her vagina. She’s swollen up there before, but never as badly. It happens when she itches herself by dragging her butt on something she might be allergic to. Usually, a dab of a special antibiotic ointment that Dr. Stokes gave me takes care of it.

Last night, when I was saying goodnight to Roo and telling her the same silly things I always do, I felt a swollen lymph gland in her throat. It was around 1 AM, and though I’m never ready to go to bed that early, I was going to try to because she hand’t been feeling good. I was chalking it up to the heat and the long drives. 

Orville died from lymphoma, so feeling a swollen lymph glad gave me a shock. I spent the next half hour online, where all sorts of veterinary sites reminded me that swollen lymph glands could just be infection-related, and what with her being swollen down under, I hoped that was what it was.

We had to leave the campground where we were, north of Nashville, because it’s Memorial Day weekend and every last spot was taken. The coppers over there had been unnecessarily pushy about it, so I was glad to leave anyway, though I tried to extend through the weekend in the hopes it would give Roo a little time to get back on her feet.

To our rescue through Facebook came Pamela, who responded to a desperate feeler I posted on Facebook for a place to camp in the Nashville area. It was a short drive to her place. Pamela is new to the area herself, but as a Golden parent — she has two sweet, beautiful Goldens named Taylor and Chulo, and has had several others over the years — she already has the line on veterinarians. She found out where Roo could go to be seen as soon as we arrived and parked the trailer.

Twenty years ago, my Labrador Orville and I were in Germany. Any time I walked Orville, he would come and sit under my legs whenever I stopped walking and I would scratch his chest. That happened many times every day. At five o’clock that afternoon there was something that had appeared suddenly on his chest. It was hard and the size of a golf ball. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a feeling it was bad. I found a country vet nearby. The waiting room was filled with patients. Dogs, cats, birds. 

When our turn came, the vet, who was a stark, grey woman of about 65 wearing steel-rimmed spectacles, worked with cold German efficiency. No pleasantries, no greeting, just, “Wass ist löss mit ihm?”  What’s wrong with him?

I showed her the gold ball on Orville’s chest and she felt it and said, “Lymphoma. He’ll be dead in six months,” and called for the next patient. I walked out in a daze.

We returned to the States right away and Orville got the best care possible. At one point, at the University of Colorado’s oncology department, a vet told me that only one dog had been cured of lymphoma, and she chalked that up to the fact that never once was the disease discussed in front of the dog. I had already blown that. Orville’s dying was killing me, and I had discussed it with his vets in front of him. I’m not saying that killed him.

The German vet was right. Despite the chemo and all the other treatment, Orville died six months, more or less to the day, after the German veterinarian said he would.

The vet was near Nashville, a half-hour drive from Pamela’s house, and Pamela kindly accompanied us. The vet felt Roo’s glands and said that it was more than the mandibular glands in her throat that were swollen. All her lymph glands were swollen. I hadn’t known where they were, but she showed me, and I could feel them. 

The next step was to aspirate the glands so the fluid could be examined. Roo was such a good, brave girl as two syringes were placed in her throat, one at each of the glands, and tiny amounts withdrawn.

When the vet came back, she said that a colleague more versed in these diseases said that additional fluid should be drawn from the glands in her back legs. By this time, Roo was tired and preferred to stay on the cool floor, but again she cooperated and stood stock still for the needles. I tell her several times each day that she’s the best bear in the world, and she showed it again.

Without a lab report, the vets weren’t in a position to make a specific diagnosis. But they said it’s all but certain that Roo has lymphoma. It’s the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, so they said though there was chance of getting a result tomorrow, the chances were that it would come on Tuesday. They didn’t have a microscope with a built-in camera, but one of them took some surprisingly good cell phone photos of Roo’s smears and sent them to a pathologist colleague. Once again, they didn’t pronounce outright that Roo has lymphoma, they just all but said she did:

These images are highly suspect for lymphoma due to there being a majority of intermediate and large lymphocytes, presence of nucleoli, and mitotic figures present in some of the images. We will let you know as soon as we have the report back from Antech lab where they can evaluate the entirety of the slides. Thank you for entrusting us with sweet Roo's care - we all loved meeting her today.

Roo is not in pain, but she’s uncomfortable. The driving is hard on her and the heat has always been hard for her to take. I don’t know where to take her, where to go. She needs to be in cooler weather, but cooler weather is far away. But it won’t get any easier on her as time goes by,

Towards the end of Orville’s life, when we came back from Germany for his treatment, we had no house, only an airplane hangar in Longmont, Colorado. Orville didn’t mind, really. It was a pretty good place with lots of space. The only thing it didn’t have were windows.

But when Orville started to slow down, especially on the few days when his chemo laid him low, I began to feel that the windowless hangar was no place for a dying dog. It seemed that depriving him of the simple ability to at least look outside was wrong. A friend found us a little farm house nearby. 

When Orville and I went to see it, I said to him, “Hey, Orv, do you want to live here? Should we live in this house?” and he answered the way he always did to let me know he understood or agreed with something. He hopped up to give me click on the nose. Not long after, he lay on the crabgrass in the little yard, more and more by himself in the last two days until he died. It was awful watching him out there. I had the feeling that he knew he was dying as he lay there looking at the mountains far away.

Now it is Roo’s turn for me to get her out of another aluminum box. I don’t know where, though. It’s been a problem. It’s a bigger one now.

Until Roo has a firm diagnosis there is nothing to do. The vet said that getting the swelling down with prednisone would make her feel better right away but would “close doors” on chemo treatment. So, in the meantime, she has to suffer through it. 

She’s lying on the floor, panting, as she has these past few days. She gets up for a brief walk and seems okay. But she’s not. Barring any miracle from the lab, my poor, sweet Bearface is dying. She’ only seven-and-a-half. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.

It’s hard to see the letters now as I type those last words. At least I’m only typing them, because I’ll be damned if her cancer is ever discussed around Roo. I stopped the vet from discussing it more in front of Roo today. I suppose it’s insane to hope that will really do any good. I can’t imagine that hearing people discuss your upcoming death can do much good, either.

On the banks of the Mississippi


If you’ve got any spare cash lying around to invest in a sure thing, don’t listen to all the liars on the radio trying to sell you pieces of scrub land in Colorado or smoothie franchises. All you have to do if you want to clean up is go long on air conditioning manufacturers. They’re going to make a mint. 

Roo thinks she died and went to hell. For the first time in at least a year she bailed out on her shotgun seat and went in back. Here we are in mid-May, and already the bottom half of the country is in the 90s. It’s murder out here. Everything from Atlanta to north Florida is going up to 100 this week, but that’s only a few degrees hotter than it’ll be for 500 miles north of that. Everyone all the way up to Cincinnati is going to get broiled. And just wait until July and August for the real heat to sink in. The country is going to turn into a raging tenement fire.

Not too surprisingly, the refrigerator in the camper had it up to here with the heat and called it quits today. All the special bones I stocked up for Roo in Oklahoma are shot. Nothing goes bad as fast as bones. I don’t know how I’ll explain it to her. Tomorrow morning I’ll be performing surgery on the fridge, here on the banks of the Mississippi near the Tennessee-Missouri-Kentucky border. We landed in an especially humid place favored by a breed of famously vengeful mosquitoes. It’s a miracle that they managed to get rid of malaria in this country, but they did, so at least that’s one less thing to worry about.

We made it to Mountain View (if you didn’t read about the difficulties getting there, here’s the story). I’ve never seen any place like it. Everyone in that town plays some kind of instrument. Roo and I walked down to the the city park, and there were two jams going on. One of them featured the guy who owned the RV camp where we stayed. He played the mandolin, and man, could he play. Even Roo, who has earned her profound hatred of the mandolin the hard way, was soothed by his playing. I laid off playing the thing after that, mostly out of shame after being reminded of what it’s supposed to sound like, but also to let Roo live with her good impression of the mandolin for a while. Not that it could fool her. If I ever take the thing out again she’ll be right back to wanting to chew it to pieces like a rat skeleton.

All the businesses in Mountain View have banjos or fiddles on their signboards. There are even a couple of guitars up on pegs in the grocery store in case anyone needs to break out in song as they move from the produce section to the meat racks. The campground office looked like it was one of the barber shops when I was growing up in New York, with dozens of framed pictures of celebrities on the wall. Instead of Soupy Sales and Burt Reynolds these were all country and bluegrass players. All the pictures were inscribed to the mandolin-playing owner. They all probably all tried talking him into joining their bands, but I guess he prefers to stay in Mountain View.

But there is a downside to Mountain View: ticks. Trillions of them. Last night, after the thunderstorms hit and Roo squeezed in next to me on the dinette seat in the camper, I felt one on my arm. It was a minuscule nymph. Once you find one tick you start to imagine that they’re crawling all over your body, so, even though I had checked earlier, I checked again. I had nine more.

Some of the ticks were too small to identify, but there seemed to be a variety. The good thing about getting so many different ticks all at once is the chance you get to study their different temperaments. When it comes to outright surliness, the Lone Star tick is in a class of its own. They attach themselves to you like a suture, and when you try to rip them out they hold on until your skin is stretched out in a little tent as if you’re being poked from the other side with an ice pick. When you finally get them, they’re so ticked off that they start fighting you and you have to be careful not to let them get the upper hand because they’ll wrestle you straight to the ground and start punching you in the face. Those Lone Start Ticks are a real son of a bitch, but, with the heat getting turned up the way it is, it’s their world now. We better get used to them.

Every person to whom I mentioned anything about ticks in Mountain View agreed that there seem to be more of them now than there have ever been. The woman in the office at the campground had just mentioned the need to watch out for them while I was checking in, and just then one started crawling up my arm.

“Speak of the Devil,” I said.

“Oh!” she said. I flicked him away and another one started crawling up the same arm. They were advancing like a Fifth Column.

We weren’t going to stick around anyway. My doctor in North Carolina has decided to stop writing prescriptions for me without my coming in to see him, so we probably have to go there. But with this heat, I don’t know. That, and if I pick up my mailbox full of threats from the government and various banks it’ll break the spell of ignorance.

So, our next destination is unknown, beyond the certainty that it won’t be Switzerland.


The Master of Dead Reckoning Runs Out of Road

These days you could use a cell phone to navigate in a light aircraft. But before GPS, beginning flight students had to learn to rely on paper maps. We learned how to identify features on the map and to correlate them with what we saw on the ground. For example, you’d see a road on the map beside a town with a radio antenna. Then, you’d look around to see if anything on the ground matched up. You’d mark your course with a pencil on the map and study the landmarks you expected to find along the way. A water tower here, a small town there, an intersection of two freeways. You might follow a road, if there was one, or a river. You could see how your pencil line angled towards a lake or a hilltop and see if it lined up from the cockpit. Navigating by means of nothing more than a compass and a map is called dead reckoning. I became, if I say so myself, a master of dead reckoning. Eventually, I would stretch it to the point where I could cross mountain ranges in dim moonlight and nail a course with the precision of a World War II bomber pilot. It’s always been a point of pride.

I loved that part of flying, especially since I had always been an amateur of maps. I have a collection of them covering the entire surface of the world, huge things, four by five feet each, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other maps I’ve picked up around the world. Nothing has ever fascinated me more than maps. So much so, that the first time I traveled around the world, I chose my route by looking at a Times Atlas of the World and choosing the places that were the most alluring on the poetry of their names as they appeared in the pastel gamut of those lovely maps. Do not try that. Things like that are reserved to the Masters of Dead Reckoning.

Early in the training of any pilot, right after establishing a rough ability to take off and land and keep the airplane from plummeting unnecessarily to the ground, the student begins to learn how to fly cross country. The flight instructor shepherds the student through the phases of flight planning on the ground — charting the course on the map, anticipating the effects of predicted wind on speed and heading, airport information, fuel calculations, weight and balance — and then sits in the co-pilot’s seat for a flight to and back from some nearby airport. 

In the 1970s, when I learned to fly, there were something like 14,000 airports in America. Many of those are gone now, but when there were that many, they gave flight instructors the opportunity to pull the same time-honored trick on every student. They would command you to fly to an airport that had another one that looked just like it nearby and see if you tried to land at that one by mistake. There were a few like that in Connecticut that my instructor tried to fool me with, but it never worked. I, like most students, figured the trap out and avoided it. I was not yet a Master of Dead Reckoning, but I was on my way, and no such silly error was going to mar my progress.

Then came yesterday.

Roo and The Master of Dead Reckoning left the Eureka Springs area and headed east at an altitude of zero feet above ground level. Temps were in the mid 90s, and, without a cloud in the sky, it was a real broiler for Roo. She won’t lie down in the shade of the back seat on cross country rides. It’s part of a strict dog ethic as she sees it. She won’t do it, no matter how badly she gets roasted in the right seat.

On top of not having cooled off in days, her paw was also bothering her. Even in the air-conditioning she had been panting non-stop, all through the night. On her walks she had been slowing down to the speed of a wheelchair with a flat. Still, she insisted on the front seat where she could make sure I heard her grunting and groaning as she became more uncomfortable and annoyed.

Between Roo feeling bad and the fact that we’re just drifting now from town to town to see if we can find a place to land, I selected a destination only 100 miles east, a place called Mountain Home, a town that takes great pride in being the center for folk music. I don’t know if it is or not, but as a failed mandolinist, that drew me and I thought we might as well have a look.

When we got there, there was no sign of anything but a few miles of the same Family Dollars and Pizza Huts as anywhere else. It didn’t seem like much of a town at all. But there we were.

We went to a small campground in a state park east of town. The vibe was bad. A couple of drunk crackers, extra hot in the high temps, were yelling at each other about who forgot the motor for their bass boat. Each blamed the other and they were at an impasse that looked like it could take a bad turn, even this early in the day’s Bud Light cycle. They had a little chihuahua who was participating in the fight and who was occasionally told to shut up but wouldn’t. There was another camp nearby and we drove over to try that one. It was much nicer, even though the woman attending the pay station was prone to distraction and took 25 minutes to check us in because a park ranger threw in a remark once in a while, like, “Looks like we’re starting to get a line going here,” as the traffic at the gate backed up, and that would derail her and the only way she could get back on track was to start from scratch. Sometimes something else would go wrong even without being asked anything, like forgetting to enter whether my card was credit or debit. It didn’t matter. Somehow she had to start all over again every time. My name, my phone number, my address.

When we drove into the campground it looked familiar. Then I remembered: Roo and I had been there once, in cooler weather, back when this journey began. When you start running into towns as tiny as Gamaliel, Arkansas twice, you’ve run out of road. As unthinkable as it might be, the Master of Dead Reckoning had run out of road. Clear run out, as they might say here in the Ozarks.

Roo’s paw was starting to finally look a little better. There was a good scab on it and I was estimating that within a week she would be as good as new. Seeing the lake here, she was miserable. Being kept out of a lake in which you know from experience is perfectly okay to swim in is an insult to a dog like Roo. And in this heat.

On her walk this morning, though, she put her paw down. She had to get in that lake. She lay down on the road staring at it, panting with a tongue long and inflated by the heat. She wouldn’t move. She broke me with that and I let her in.

Roo hasn’t been in the water for weeks. She dunked her head underwater and swung it from side to side, washing her face and getting the water in her ears and eyes and coming back up for air snorting and looking happy for the first time in a long time. She dunked another forty or fifty times for the sheer pleasure of it. She must have really felt she needed a good wash. She might have been right, too: her paw looks better now than it did before. Maybe reducing her body temperature was the key but the Master of Dead Reckoning was too stupid to know it.

I took advantage of Roo’s good mood to dremel her claws, clean her ears and trim the fur from her paws. Back in the camper I got online to try to figure out just what in the hell it was that Mountain Home was talking about with all that capital-of-folk-music stuff. I figured I’d at least have been able to buy a pack of mandolin strings here. I would justify the expense on the off chance that fresh strings might produce a tone less annoying to Roo. I owed it to her to try. I looked up music stores in Mountain, leaving the rest of the field blank, because why bother when there’s autofill on the online app, another town named Mountain View popped up. Fifty miles south of here. Mountain View is the music town. Not Mountain Home. The Master of Dead Reckoning had flown to the wrong airport. He did not have to admit this to the dog, however. As far as she was concerned, my navigation had been perfect. As far as she was concerned, it was about time. She had been worrying that the Master of Dead Reckoning had forgotten something as simple as getting her to the water.

Her swimming ban is lifted. And tomorrow, the Master of Dead Reckoning will load her up and take her to Mountain View, America’s Capital of Folk Music.

Eureka and beyond


We finally left Oklahoma a few days ago and headed northeast. Roo’s paw is still giving her trouble, and so I was going to stick around a few more days in case she needed to go back to see Dr. Stokes. But then, when I kneeled down in the grass to repair something under the camper, I felt several sharp little pinpricks in my knee. I had no idea. It was burr clover. It’s so pernicious that it stuck to the bottom of rubber-soled sandals. It was so bad that it had turned into the reason Roo had stopped wanting to walk there.

She had become more and more unwilling to go outside, and I was putting it all down to the surgical wound. But it wasn’t, not after a couple of weeks. It was that she was getting pinpricked endlessly while walking on the grass. Walking on concrete she was fine. She only wanted to go for walks if we went to town, where she could walk on concrete and asphalt. I felt terrible for not realizing how bad it was. Something must have blown that breed of weed in this year. It’s all over that part of Oklahoma and there’s plenty, though not as much, where we are now in Arkansas. Roo is so tough that it has to be bad for it to hurt her. I suppose that with all the pain from her paw surgery, she just had it. She was tired of taking chances.

Our first stop is a small town in north Arkansas called Eureka Springs. It’s beautiful small town, one of the few in America that is still filled with the houses built when it boomed around 1900. Most of them are bed & breakfasts now. A couple of old grand hotels are still up there, lording it over the town from the highest hills. 

Just about all the towns that we’ve been to in rural America that are still pretty and vibrant tend to be liberal oases in red states. Bisbee, Arizona and Eureka Springs are the best examples. Artists, writers and artisans settle in, neighborhoods are beautified and the tourists come in to spend their dough. In the case of Eureka Springs, there are good schools, museums, restaurants, and tons of shops. Everyone with a B&B seems to have NO VACANCY signs out front, though, from what I understood on the local grapevine, the B&B business is filling up with sharks who are taking over City Hall and the Historical Commission to rig the rules so they can rake in some more money. There was a funny example of this in the local paper, in which there was an article about a vicious commission meeting in which threats were leveled, pressures brought to bear over unauthorized construction — and when I read the name of the person whose attorney was making the threats, the name sounded familiar. It was: it was the name of the paper’s publisher that appeared in the byline of the other story on the page.

Everyone I spoke to there told me that the main thing about Eureka Springs was that everyone not only knew everyone else, but knew everything about them and what they were up to. It was even printed on an apron for sale in town: The great thing about Eureka Springs is that even if you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else will.

The other thing that Bisbee and Eureka Springs have in common is that there is almost no room to clutter them up with more houses. They’re both built into rocky hills that can’t handle anything bigger than what’s there. So, while prices will probably always tend upwards over time, they can’t reach astronomical levels because even if they ever let you tear the old houses down, which, so far, they won’t, there wouldn’t be enough room for sizable houses. It’s a lucky thing, a form of built-in protection to keep Eureka Springs and Bisbee from turning into Jackson, Wyoming or Telluride, Colorado, once magical towns that are now indistinguishable from the average strip mall, where instead of Subways and a laundry, there are pearl jewelers and boutiques for rich hippies surrounded by the same beige McMansions in there same subdivisions as in Kansas City or Phoenix or San Diego. Once the centers of those towns get scooped up, the subdivisions follow and if you got kidnapped out of one and returned to another 1000 miles away you wouldn’t know you’d changed neighborhoods. The area surrounding Eureka Springs will probably undergo the same kind of transformation one of these days. The small art galleries and coffee shops there now will be replaced by Edward Jones financial advisor offices. As soon as a high-end jeweler opens and starts selling gold jewelry instead of silver, the end for any of those towns is nigh.

It probably won’t happen fast here, though, because the surrounding area is so deep red. Get out into the beautiful countryside around here, in the part of the southernmost Ozarks where you can see why the cliché ‘rolling hills’ was settled on (they look like colossal wagon wheels dropped from the skies and have developed into grassy mounds over the eons and I’ll be damned if I can thing of any other word that works), and you are in Trump country. Flags for Trump-Pence 2020 are already flying, usually in front of the homes already garbaged up with other junk in the yards. But it is pretty country.

We went to look at a few rentals not too far away, but there was nothing workable. One or two were far enough from the nearest Confederate flag-draped hog farm, but that was about all they had going for them. We’ll head out tomorrow. It’s going to be another hot one. Roo can’t stand to be out in it anyway, so we might as well drive.

Dr. Stokes prescribed another antibiotic before we left, and Roo’s on that now and it seems to be helping her, but she’s miserable. Though it has thankfully not been humid or stormy these last few days, this is the first time in her life since I’ve known her that she hasn’t been able to go swimming for weeks on end. The heat is getting to her, and she looks longingly at any stream, but as soon as I remind her that there’s no swimming because she has the hand, as I say to her, she backs off. She knows and agrees. But if she can’t swim, she just wants to stay in the camper all day. She resists going out for more than the basics. She’s getting a little depressed. To keep her from licking her paw, she has to wear a sock all the time, but that she doesn’t mind at all. When I put it on, she looks away, with that stoic look dogs specialize in, in case I do anything that’s uncomfortable for her, which I don’t have to now, but if I did she would let me without complaint, and when I’m done she smiles and plasters her ears way back and gives me a few licks on the face. She appreciates having her paw taken care of.

We will continue to head east and north. Hopefully in another week she’ll be out of her sock and able to be Roo again.

Roo is having trouble healing

Plans to depart this area sooner had to be delayed because Roo’s paw is giving her trouble and it didn’t seem to make sense to drift out of Dr. Stokes’ waters until her recovery was a sure thing. Kid hoped that getting the stitches out on Thursday would be the turning point but it wasn’t. It seemed like everything was going well until Saturday morning. She came out of her corner when she woke up around noon with her paw inflamed and infected. Cleaning it and dressing only takes care of the problem for a few hours until the wound starts itching her. If that happens in her sleep she is too out of it to realize the damage she does. So, she has a gnarly hot spot there now. I’ve dressed it with a toddler sock as a breathable guard held in place with self-adhering bandage higher up the arm. That way nothing contacts the sore spot. If she keeps picking at the wound she’s going to have to be put in an e-collar. I have one with me. The problem is that there isn’t enough room for her to wear it in the tiny camper. She would just get hung up every time she tried to take a step in any direction.

She listens to me when I clean and dress the wound and tell her that she can’t pull the sock off. But in her sleep she forgets, and if she does and licks it, she can turn it into a bad infection right away. She did it last night, and it was oozing pus in the morning. Cleaned again with hydrogen peroxide drizzled in with a syringe rinsed off with distilled water and a light dusting of NeoPreDef, which contains antibiotic, steroid and lidocaine. If she can make it through the night without harming herself it’ll be a good start.

She’s uncomfortable, bored and sad. Tomorrow it’ll be two weeks since had a walk. She’s tired all the time and just wants to go outside for absolute necessity.

We’ve had two days without thunderstorms, but it’s looking bad for the coming hours:


Supercells are not what I was hoping for. They are what they sound like. Powerful and vast, filled with billions of joules of energy, enough to power the planet, wasted as thunder, lightning, hail and tornadoes.  

The stitches came out on Thursday (Roo was so brave and cooperative with Dr. Stokes). We were going to leave on Friday, but her wound didn’t look good and I brought her back to see the doctor. There’s almost no point in leaving until she’s past the rough patch. We’ll see if she needs another round of antibiotics  

”Chigi Bear,” I lean over the side of my bed to talk to her in hers, “you don’t lick that hand of yours. You don’t pull that sock off.” She understands that and complies. She only forgets in her sleep. 

Then I tell her what I tell her every night. “Whose Daddy loves his Rooki up and down? Rooki’s. And who does your old Daddy love her up and down? That’s right, Rooki’s.” She likes hearing that. It puts her right to sleep. I remind her again to leave the sock taped to her paw alone and she backsnorts a couple of times as if to say, “I heard you the first fifty times.”  And then she’s asleep.

She of course knows about approaching thunderstorms long before I do, and it’s when she’s entering that zone of fear that she’s prone to doing the most damage to herself.  

This recovery is harder on her than I expected. I’ve never seen her want to do nothing but lie in the camper for so long. It makes me worry that this could be the injury that changes her life. That takes the only joy she had in it away from her. She doesn’t want to walk on that paw at all. 

Into the storm


Ten years ago, I flew an open-cockpit biplane from Pompano, Florida to Santa Monica, California, a distance of 2700 miles that began a mile from the Atlantic and ended a mile from the Pacific. The airplane, a WACO YMF-5, was elegant but primitive, a 1935 design with wooden wings covered in cloth and braced by long sets of wire held in place with sawed-off broom handles. Owing to the poor aerodynamics of old biplane designs — fat wings, fuselage and landing gear, a big, round nose and a 60-year-old engine driving an eight-foot wooden propeller, it could only manage a cruise speed of about 100 miles per hour. The tanks contained enough fuel for two hours of flight, but with the wise law that requires pilots to land with half an hour of fuel left in the tanks meant that those 2700 miles would have to be broken up into 150-mile legs.

One hundred miles per hour for a 2700 mile flight does not translate neatly to 27 hours of flying, or, for that matter, 2700 miles. It would take more than that because neither airports nor weather position themselves conveniently. Air masses over the United States move from west to east, so, though the wind at any point on the surface might blow from any direction, westbound flights at low altitude will be subject to a headwind over the long run, and the speed of the airplane’s travel over the ground is reduced by the amount of that wind. In a 20 mile headwind, a 100 mph airplane would pace a car going 80 on the highway. 

The airplane did not have the instruments you need to fly in the clouds, so those had to be flown under or around, rarely over, because the plane didn’t have the power to climb higher than any but the measliest of clouds. It also had a minor engine problem, not a dangerous one, but it was consuming too much oil and the caution that necessitated also meant having to abbreviate flights when the temperature climbed into the red. Crossing the country took about five days and 17 stops.

Summertime flying, especially over areas like the desert that reflect the hot sun from bright surfaces, can result in a lot of turbulence. Turbulence of any amount never bothered me, but without protection of the roof of an enclosed cabin overhead, with just the sky up there and the ground over the sides of the airplane, with the hurricane force of the wind just outboard of the cockpit, I sometimes fond myself holding the stick between my knees to keep the plane level and using my hands to grip the steel fuselage tubes on the sides of the open cockpit. This was out of an irrational — idiotic, really — fantasy that the seatbelt could be induced to fail when a heavy bump yanked me on it and, no longer attached to the plane, allow me to be shot off into the air. I imagined the bolt attaching the belt to the fuselage shearing, or the tab it was welded to cracking. That was one of the two things I would think about in motels overnight: I could feel and visualize the whole process, popping out of the airplane and watching it fly away, a wing dipping and it entering a spiral with no one on the stick, as I plummeted to the ground (the other thing I thought about was cell phone towers, their steel frames and rows of black cables, which I always suspected of lying in wait to clip a wing for me when I flew below their height). You might find this as strange to read as it feels to write, but I’m scared of heights. That was never a problem for me flying other airplanes, probably because of the false sense of security of the roof of the cabin overhead. But in this open cockpit airplane, I hated to get up too high, as if falling from 6000 or 9000 feet would be any worse than falling from 100. I think it was the idea of the long fall to the ground. All that time to reflect. Seeing the ground approach, always faster until the lights went out. The whole thing was stupid, because the things that I imagined breaking were in fact extremely secure. I had checked them ten million times. Yet my mind gravitated to the fact that if you aren’t wearing a seatbelt when the plane pitches over, you would depart the plane at whatever speed it’s traveling at the time. You would simply rise from the cockpit the way a trampoline would bounce you, up — for only a moment — into the slipstream, and then fall the way you do in a nightmare.

The weather might cooperate sometimes, but this was late spring, and all through the southern tier of the country that meant thunderstorms. It took two days just to make it out of the 600 miles of Florida and into the panhandle because storms built so rapidly in the morning. When there is a squall line of storms you have to wait until it passes. But if the thunderstorms are isolated, as they were all the rest of the way, you can fly around them if you have enough space. How much space you need depends on the severity of the cell. You can’t fly into them, because even the tiniest of cumulus clouds are like hitting a road with the pavement torn up. The big ones can bend wings, pop rivets, put creases in the sheet metal of wings, or simply smash an airplane of any size to pieces. You can’t fly under them, because a microburst of wind might decide to slam you into the ground like a spitball shot from a straw. Jets fly over them, but in an underpowered crate like the WACO that’s not an option. You can’t risk getting too close to the sides because they might let loose with some hail. Otherwise you can fly around them easily enough. Just ask Charles Lindbergh. When he was flying the mail in biplanes in the 1920s he never once allowed the weather to ground him, even though that strict ethic resulted in his having to parachute out of them four times. He always found the wreckage and secured the mail, though.

Of course, where there is one thunderstorm cell the conditions exist for more of them to pop up in front of you while you’re committed to a route between them. Other than only flying where I could see a clear way ahead, I relied on two things for guidance. The main one was a GPS that displayed current NexRad weather radar returns in real time. As long as that worked, I could see if what I was seeing from the cockpit lined up with what was on radar. Whenever possible, I backed this up with a conversation on the radio with air controllers who had weather radar.

“It looks like if you go another ten miles on your present heading and then get to the north side of that cell before you turn south, you should be okay,” the crackling voice on the radio would say. It was nice talking with them. Some pilots don’t like talking on the radio, but I always enjoyed it, especially on solitary flights over the mountains or the desert and even more so at night, when there’s more magic to a voice reaching you as you bore through the clouds or a black sky in a small plane, when the instrument lights reflect dimly in amber and green and blue on the window and there is a depth to the darkness beyond that is like nothing you ever see on the ground. What a privilege it is. It places you on a scale that leaves you in no doubt as to how tiny and insignificant you are. Sometimes you see clouds ahead, or all around you, and see another airplane miles away, and that plane is nothing but a gnat, and you know you are nothing but a gnat, too, flying among mountains twice as tall as the Himalaya.

One storm came up in a way I had never experienced before. It was along a dry line in Texas, a place where atmospheric conditions mix in the ideal way to feed high-power storms. One large cell was off my left wing and another to the right. I had plenty of room. There was another cumulus cloud building ahead, but it didn’t look like it was going to be a problem. Within a few minutes, while I approached it, it grew into a spontaneous mountain nearly 60,000 feet high, as if it were a time-lapse film of a thunderstorm growing. The returns on the GPS’s radar display went from green to yellow to red just like that. There was nothing to do but to turn around — the only way to do any of this is never to leave yourself without a way out, a lesson I now wish I had taken more to heart  — and land at Odessa, Texas and spend the night there, lying on a bed in a motel waiting for the hearing in my right ear to return from the beating it took in the open cockpit from the prop wash on long flights, studying sectional charts for the details of the terrain ahead and thinking about cell phone towers and falling through the air.

These days, no longer allowed to fly, I find myself looking at the radar returns more intently than I did back then. Instead of NexRad on the GPS I see them on a cellphone app, and instead of an open-cockpit biplane, it’s to see what’s coming for Roo in this tiny camper. I don’t know if it would be better not to have the information. But there it is, and I stare at the damned thing all the time, especially when it gets critical, the way it is now. 

We’re expecting three days of thunder, and it’s just coming on now. I watch the screen to see if there’s going to be enough of a break to get Roo out to pee (there isn’t, and she won’t). Roo can’t be left alone with her paw wounded because if I’m not with her she will in her panic try to dig a hole in the dinette seat and it would tear her stitches open. So I have to time showers, trips to the store, getting her out and fed, everything. All around thunderstorms.

Dr. Stokes called yesterday to schedule taking her stitches out and I had to to ask him if we could make the appointment when the predictions firmed up a bit, because Roo would be unmanageable if there was a thunderstorm when she had to go there. Getting her in and out of the car would be impossible, getting her inside the office out of the question, and then she would just flail wildly. How could anyone be expected to take eight stitches out from the webbing between her toes with her like that? Staring at the radar and the predictions, it looks like there might be a break on Thursday afternoon. Dr. Stokes said if the wound looks sufficiently healed, he’ll take them out then. If not, it’ll have to wait until Monday. I could do it, but better to have her see the doctor for proper followup.

Meanwhile, it’s going to be a rough night for the Kahoo. The first of the thunderclaps just landed. There’s no turn we can take. 

We have to fly into the storm.