The face of misery

Its two in the morning. The night is not passing quickly enough for Roo, who is asleep on that side of the dinette in the camper. I am driving her insane by making godawful noises on a mandolin. It's a good thing she doesn't have a shotgun. She might do something rash. Instead, she has tolerated being ignored by her good-for-nothing Daddy while he stares at a screen and taps away at that metal box, the one where cats sometimes appear. Does it really take that much tapping, hours and hours of it every day, to lure the occasional cat onscreen? Why? Where do they live? Do they like the tapping? Is that what makes them look out of the box's window? They seem to come so rarely, no matter how much he taps. Tonight, like most nights, no cats have come. Not one.

Her wait for the next morning — when she can start harassing that otherwise useless Daddy of hers to take her somewhere so she can kill someone, anyone, at this point a teaspoon-size mouse will do, or even one of those uncatchable tadpoles — is dragging by at the speed of the death of the universe. In the meantime, she has a suggestion. A way to improve things, to help her overlook the shortcomings of her unkind Daddy and that round noise box she would like to make him watch her chew to splinters and bury deep in a bottomless ravine she converted to a graveyard in Idaho. A slice of salami might turn the trick. Or a cookie. She gives me this look until the message is clear.

It doesn't take long. And then we are back to waiting for the new day to dawn.

Roo's Threefold Path to High Consciousness

Possibly because of the shortcomings of her puppyhood, Roo got the whole Cleanliness-Next-to-Godliness thing backwards. In her view, cleanliness is the work of the Devil and needs to  be undone every day. And like any great devotée, her struggle never ends.

On a graph, Roo's daily journey would appear as a perfect sine wave, undulating from the peaks of the pristine condition to which she is restored by thorough hosing and brushing in the evening, through her overnight dreams of mud pits in which she has to claw her way to a depth of a thousand meters to catch a mouse made of salami — mud so severe and adherent that no Daddy could wash it out even with command of all the seas and oceans — until the next day, when she sooner or later manages to find the dirtiest hole within galloping distance and soaks in it.

It's a little early in her career to rule out surpassing her recent performance, but, the other day, Roo might have peaked. She'll try to top this every day — and of course the hope of achieving an even more profound state of filth and stench will give her something to live for, but it's not going to be easy.

First, she reconnoitered the Atlantic seaboard to determine which section contained the densest accumulation of rotting fish and seagull carcasses. With their abundant oils she anointed herself. Then, after a little mud hunting, a technique which has never produced a single victory over a mouse, she resorted to trudging through a deep agglomeration of algae on nothing more than a rumor she heard from a poodle. That is The Wheel of Life, as it applies to Roo.

The photo below is of Roo being roused from her ensuing meditative state. A dim voice is calling to her from a distant galaxy. It seems to be saying, "I SAID GET OUT OF THE CAR THIS MINUTE, ROO! YOU ARE REALLY IN FOR A HOSING DOWN!"

Alas. It is only a voice. Not even one from this galaxy. Is it not the role of the mystic to discern those of true calling from those that would lead you astray? Must one heed even The True Voice before it clips a leash to one's collar and exerts a force more real than mere annoying intergalactic bleating about how the whole car stinks worse than the hold of a blubber ship in the early stages of a cargo fire? Is one ever completely dirty? Is it even possible to become perfectly dirty? Is that what is meant by Grace? To do that, would a dog have to mop up all the dirt in the world? What would happen to the rest of the world then? What about all the dirt in the universe? Can a dog ever satisfy the powers beyond? Wheels within wheels. 

One can only contemplate. All that is known is that eventually the leash is clipped to all. It is certainly clipped to Rooki, anyway. The Devil has work to do. 

Travelin' Dog Blues

Can you smell that wind a-blowin'?                                                                                                                                             Smell my fur standin’ all up on end?                                                                                                                                         Lucky for him he filled that bowl with chicken                                                                                                                     Before I poked a coupla holes                                                                                                                                                            In whatever                                                                                                                                                                                        His name might be.

I’m a traveling’ dog,                                                                                                                                                                       Dirtiest dog you’ll ever see.                                                                                                                                                            Just a traveling’ dog…                                                                                                                                                                      But never show your mouse to me.                                                                                                                                        Cause a travelin’ dog will squeeze that mouse                                                                                                                       Until he’s in whatever the past tense is of “be.”

— This puerile verse was found on a random page in Roo's journal, dating from her days in Louisiana. The attached photo was paperclipped to the page, the margins of which contain several clumsy caricatures of rodents in subterranean tunnel systems and rudimentary trigonometric calculations — almost all of them, it should be pointed out, incorrect — attempting to predict their potential vectors. Ominously, two of the rodents have been scrawled over in furious red crayon slashes. From what can be made out by sneaking peeks at the folio while Roo sleeps (and then trying to remember how she tied the ribbon that holds it together), this work appears to be part of a longer epic poem she's been struggling with, modeled on Homer's Odyssey, titled Travelin' Dog Blues, by Howlin' Rooki Lou the Bayou Kahoo, a name most likely inspired by the Delta Blues she so loves to sing in graveyards or when she reads Eudora Welty stories. While the task of pointing anyone’s plagiarism out is never pleasant, the wistful description she includes near the end of the text, in which she describes going home after many years of trials and wandering only to find that she is unrecognizable to everyone but her old and ailing dog, is more than I can stomach.

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Roo and the Wolf

It seems that people with rescue dogs say, “If only they could talk,” more than people who raise a dog from puppyhood. That’s because they do talk. Not in words, but with such a complete range of expressions, that we more or less always have a good idea of what they’re thinking. So, naturally people with rescue dogs, especially damaged ones, wonder what they would say if they could recount the stories of their lives. The fact that dogs are so expressive is what made those old pictures of them playing poker funny. The idea that they could ever put on a poker face was ridiculous — on the face of it. Dogs always reflect what they’re thinking or feeling in their expression.

There are people who hold this against dogs. I’ve heard cat people denounce it as an indication of what servile conformists dogs are. There’s no answering something as ridiculous as that. A dog’s expressiveness might be the loveliest thing about them. And it’s certainly one of the reasons we get along with them so well. It’s a pure form of communication.

Which is why what happened a couple of nights ago made me wonder.

Lately, I’ve been working until three or four in the morning. That night, I was through writing and Roo was up on the bed. There’s a limit to how late a dog thinks you should stay up, and Roo was reaching hers. My Labrador Orville used to come out of the bedroom around three, stop at the door and look at me, announce that the was putting his foot down with a loud exhalation through the nose, then come and sit down right in front of me and stare at me with an expression that said, “Enough. At this point you’re being silly.” He would turn his head and shift his weight on his front paws and let out a couple of long, grunty sighs. Roo wakes up and bats at the bedcover with her paw until I take notice of her. Normally she’s lying on her side, and, being too tired to lift her head, she cants it in my direction and puts the available ear up. She gives me a solemn look, as if she’s disappointed to learn that I’m making another one of the mistakes she observes frequently. 

“What are you doing over there, Bearface?” I ask her, and she takes the kind of deep breath you take when you’ve gone beyond the point of explaining the same thing over and over again to an idiot. Her rib cage rises slowly and then flattens as she lets the air out. She stretches.

I was backing up my computer and had just discovered some videos that I never downloaded from the camera. They were from last summer. To save disc space, I preview them to delete the useless ones. They were more or less all of Roo being Roo. Roo jumping in a river. Roo climbing a rock. Roo digging a hole. Roo passing the camera with the feet of a mouse sticking out of her mouth. The sound from the clips came over the laptop speakers and her ears were moving, but she hears stuff over the laptop speakers all the time. 

There was a video I would probably have deleted, because all it was was Roo running up a hill and back down, but, as soon as it played, it was like she had been electrocuted into action. She bolted off the bed and started going crazy. Her eyes went from glassed-over to bright alert instantly. She jumped up and down the way she used to when she was a puppy, and the way she still does to pounce on someone in high grass, up and down with her paws in front of her like a bunny’s. Her tail was wagging fast. She didn’t look quizzical, the way she does when she usually hears an animal in a video. She looked happy and astonished. Happy to be hearing again something of extreme importance to her, and astonished that there it was. Something lost, found.

The video is from Colorado. You can tell from her body language that she’s happy, but all she does is run up the hill, turn around and run back down. She looks like she’s having fun. If there’s anything odd about it it’s that she doesn’t stop to check out whatever she ran up there for in the first place. Even if she was just running for fun, which she does all the time, she always stops to check if there are any mouses nearby.

When the clip stopped, she did another thing she has never once done before: she started barking at me. And then another thing she has only done two or three times in her life, and not in years: she jumped up to put her paws on my thigh to get closer to where the laptop was on the table. Roo just doesn’t put her paws up on things. If she wants to see a dog in a car, she will stand on her hind legs, but won’t place her paws on the car. In the video of her picking out a toy in a pet store, she does the same thing, never placing her paws on the bin when she selects the hedgehog at the end. I can’t even get her to do it. It runs against her grain.

I played the video again, and as soon as she heard whatever that squawk or squeal is at the beginning of the clip, she started bouncing all over the camper like a mad dog. The expression on her face was as happy as I have ever seen her. Somehow, she understands that I can do something to the silver box I’m always tapping away at to make the sounds come from it again, and she didn’t let up until I had played the beginning of the clip — the part with that squeaking or squawking or calling— 50 times. She couldn’t get enough of it. Finally, I told her enough. She kept complaining. She paced up and down, sniffing at things, at the computer, at me, at the table. She bopped me with her nose, which she has also never done before or since. When she finally started to calm down, she sat, straight-backed and ears up, and stared at me, wide-eyed with her tail brushing the dollar-store rug.

Now, as long as there’s sound to go wth the picture, Roo will watch a cat on YouTube and be fascinated. That’s not unusual. But this was different. I’m positive the sounds she heard in the video of her running up the hill reminded her of something specific. Of some time when she had experienced some kind of joy or mystery or even regret. Maybe she was warned off by someone in a bush or in the air or farther up the hill and later she realized she should have stuck it out and always hoped for another go. Or, maybe she thought that if she were as experienced a predator as she is now she would moved in.

Or, it could be that her sense memory of how she felt when we were traveling the West was triggered. There are places Roo likes more than other places, but she likes any place where she can run and hunt and stay cool either by swimming or lying in the snow. Places where there are lots of wild animals are her favorites. In any stretch of forest that is void of potential victims she’s bored. But, her reaction to hearing this video (she had no interest in watching it) reminded me that she was happiest out west.

By last May, no matter where we went, people said it had never been as hot as early as it was getting. The combination of my mission — to travel as much of America on backroads as possible — and the temperatures began to determine the route. To run the air conditioner requires being plugged in to power, and that means campgrounds. The best places to camp are never campgrounds. The best places are in the forests and deserts and mountains, but then you can only do this only when it’s cool enough not to need the air con. My decades of flying light aircraft, in which temperatures, and the rate at which they become cooler as one climbs, focused me always on the goal of finding higher altitudes. In a small, poorly equipped camper, altitude creates all sorts of problems. The refrigerator doesn’t work. There is virtually never a cell signal. The nearest fuel might be eight hours of dirt tracks away. The nearest vet 15. Things break or leak or run out and you’re stuck. A blown tire, because I have damaged arms, would have meant a stranding. At one point, the fuel system on the car developed a problem. The only way to fix it was to hike uphill for hours in search of unobstructed ground where a cell signal might make it over the mountains. Finally one did, and I exhausted the cell phone battery while I figured out how to do the repairs. We had to hike back in the dark because Roo is terrified of flashlights and when she’s terrified she is unable to move. But even that was good. Roo loved it and behaved in a solidly soldierly manner.

Still, the risks were excessive by any standard. Struggling up the sides of mountains with an 18-foot box in tow was an unfolding bet on a longshot. But, it takes those risks, and that kind of effort to reach the most spectacular American territory. Sure, there are magnificent mountains with highways at their feet and they are beautiful. You are not in them, though. We camped at tiny jade or emerald-colored lakes surrounded by 400-year-old cedars and in wildflower meadows where the only sign of other humans were 150-year-old tins (I know this because I was able to identify a can that had a serrated edge on it used to strike matches). We camped on mountain passes, at sheep stations, at the fallen grey timbers of ghost towns about to evaporate entirely. We camped beside rivers where the trout — who are smart and curious fish —had never seen humans and swam over to stare up at you. No trout on any of the rivers where people fish would ever do that, let alone those with twenty hooks in their lips and jaws left there by fishermen too lazy and cruel to bother to do anything more than clip the lines and leave the hooks in the ones they release. One of the most storied fisherman in the country once spent an hour removing more than forty hooks from an old trout in Colorado, standing on a small rock in icy water to keep the trout submerged.

It wasn’t always worth it, though there was really only one camp that was downright bad. Bad because it was in a stretch of dank, hideous forest just north of Dismal Lake, which had to be named for the clouds of mosquitoes there, so many of them that any exposed skin was instantly covered by what looked like a new, writhing, crawling, dying skin. Even when you’re careful to breathe through pursed lips, several get through and you have to spit them out constantly. No one who knew any better would ever enter that forest more than once, and because of that, the only remote spot to camp, a filthy outpost, covered in molds and fungi, filthy in ways you normally have to travel to the filthiest state to see. (That would be Louisiana, where there is so much pollution and roadside garbage, where every thirsty, angry-looking egret you see is brown from the waterline down from wading in an oil spill or impromptu wastewater dump, where nitrogen and urea dust hazes the air and etches at your eyes and the new-growth forests that replaced the long-gone oaks and maples are ripped and shredded from gasping ground in what is clearly an act of war, land that is then replaced by mountains of half-incinerated detritus left by the kinds of freelance garbage haulers and tire burners the Louisiana system encourages. You can drive for hundreds of miles on Louisiana backroads without ever once losing sight of fast MacDonald’s wrappers, used Pampers, beer cans and rotting mattresses. Louisianans seem not only inured to the filth, but to have developed a sense of national pride in it.)

The camp north of Dismal Lake had been squatted on by an extended family of thirty or forty brutal rednecks, equipped with half a dozen broken ATV’s, old pickups, a truck carrying a rusty 400-gallon home propane tank, all covered in a network of torn blue tarpaulins. One of them, the prototypical American cracker who lives at the center of everything that is wrong with America and always has been, came to see me in his ATV. When even the wind is sick of a place it develops a sick, rotting stench, but even that wasn’t enough to overpower the cloud of beer breath that preceded this man’s arrival by twenty feet. He accused me of being a “child raper” and the next morning took a shot at us as we left. 

But that was the only time it ever got anything like that bad since Roo and I headed to the mountains after I spent a night in the hospital in Utah. After a week of being told by the insurance company to forget the cardiac testing prescribed for me, I developed what some people might consider a reckless attitude about towing a trailer. I don’t believe it was, though. I was careful and knew that I could always get out of any place I had gotten into, even if it meant backing up for long distances. When signs warned that the road ahead was too narrow or steep or broken for trailer traffic, I ignored them. The signs were intended for the drivers of large trailers. This tiny onecould make it. In a continuation of a mistake I’ve been making for 35 years, the more difficult a road looked, the more likely I was to try it. Roo, who is generally cautious, never counseled against any turn. We ran into trouble a few times. A 75-foot tall pine tree had fallen across a track somewhere in Idaho and I had to back up for a mile or so before there was a place to turn around. On some other mountains we encountered impassable snowbanks or mud drifts that would have swept us over the sides. One section of road we came to had simply fallen down the mountain, leaving other but the inclines of the rocks as the terminus of the roads approaching from either end. That night we came to a stop with the front wheels in Idaho and the rear in Montana, and, as the camper happened to be level, we just stayed there to regroup until the morning. A surprised rabbit — just when he thought the coast was clear, a blonde wolf appeared — happened to stick its head out of the bushes on the Idaho side. Roo chased it back and forth between Idaho and Montana a few times before the rabbit remembered where the escape passage was.

But what distinguished our western travels more than anything else was what a different dog Roo was. the first sign of this was the way she sat when we were driving. Usually, even if she’s not sleeping in the car, she prefers to lie down. She might pick her head up and look up at what she can see from her low position — treetops or sky,  second stories of passing buildings — but that’s about it.

In the mountains, though, Roo preferred to sit up at full attention. She was absorbed. This was best for her when we were on the most broken tracks, because those required going the slowest, and she could hear everyone in the bushes we passed. I could only hear the screeching of the failing brakes made as the steel vibrators ground at the discs. But Roo saw things and heard things that constantly fascinated her. She loved many of those places.

In the lower Forty-Eight, no mountain reaches 14,500 feet. To put that in scale, the high peaks of the Himalayas are all over 25,000 (Everest is 29,000). And while there are some paved roads up around 10,000 feet and a couple that are higher, like the breathtaking traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park (like all National Parks, useless places for dogs, who are never allowed to be off-leash and banned from most of the best places completely), if you want to get up high in the American mountains, you have no choice but to take a chance on logging tracks. There are stretches of them that aren’t too rough, but for the most part they’re hewn in chunks out of the rocks of the mountains where the big trees were felled a long time ago and have been degenerating in violent weather ever since. They have deep ruts in them and loose stones. They are not maintained, and often the trees or brush on either side spread inward to cover the track completely. In those cases, I would have to clear a way with the only tool I had, a pair of pruning shears, and hook bigger branches out of the way with bungee cords. While I did that, Roo would run around.

Roo acquired a deep education about bears and marmots and the big birds — the eagles and ospreys and hawks. She knew about the elk and the antelope and the bighorn sheep. She knew about beavers, and though she seemed to understand how dangerous they were, I’m not sure she wasn’t just taking my word, nor am I convinced she wouldn’t try one on for size sometime. She knew about lots of things I could only imagine. I know she knew, because of the way way she sat at attention for two or three hours on end while we crept along at minimum speed, the trailer rocking from side to side in the rear view mirror. She heard or smelled it all. She was living at a zenith of dog experience. She ran some terrific risks. Usually I let her, because I believe in keeping her from dangers she can’t understand: traffic, electricity, culverts, gratings, dams, traps. When it comes to precarious ledges, I leave it to her, unless there’s an abrupt drop that she might not see. I don’t like her getting close to bears, but she has only chased black bears and not the one we saw in the forest one dusk on the Idaho-Washington border 500 feet south of Canada, where everyone operates under constant caution because of grizzlies. Whether that was a grizzly or not I don’t know, but whoever it was made her half-moan and half-howl in a way I have only seen one other brave dog do and turn away with her tail down. Wildcats would be a bad thing for her to encounter, but so would lightning strikes and those would be more likely. Big ungulates could lose patience with her in a hurry, but she is no longer as prone as she once was even to chasing deer. She’ll chase them a short way to race and to let them know who’s boss, but without any intention of trying to run them down, as she did when she was a puppy. Roo is in possession of a sophisticated, and by now experienced, understanding of the wild. She does not think an elk is a squirrel. And as for snakes, rattlers thin out above 7000 feet and are a rarity at 8000. There are none at 9000.

So — and I know how many people find this appalling, and don’t care — I let Roo act on just about every impulse programmed into her DNA. She is allowed to run and hunt. If she was inclined to far wanderings it would be another matter, but experience has also taught her to stay close. 

And, so, it was in the mountains, in places where we saw no one for days on end, where Roo ran the most and where Roo was the most fascinated and engaged. 

The degree of her engagement in those environments might have been intensified by the deprivations of her puppyhood. She carries from that time a failure of wiring, a development that never took place, that makes unseen, artificial noises frightening to her. She’s still always concerned by an approaching car at night, for example, though not enough to hide. But natural sounds, other than thunder or winds high enough to make a forest roar, don’t worry her. I think there’s some relief or encouragement for her in being able to comprehend a wild environment. Or, it could be that when she was isolated as a puppy she regressed to the wild state in the way that some behaviorists believe dogs do when they are neglected and never made it all the way back. I think that’s what happened to Roo. She is in some ways a wild animal as much as she is a dog. She is more comfortable in the wild than anywhere else.

When we camped in remote mountains, Roo stayed outside until last light, lying with her head and ears up and her eyes on the trees or hills. It would have been clear to anyone who saw her that she was a part of that wild. I could imagine a wolf at the end of a day doing the same thing before calling it a night. And later, I could always get her to go outside after dark by pretending to hear something and saying, “Roo! Did you hear that?” And she would jump up without hesitation and hit the ground at the bottom of the step at full tilt and bark, just for good measure, in a deep and assured tone. One time, in bright starlight, I watched her bark like that and be surprised by the returning echo. It made her wag her tail and do it again. When she came back she was all smiles and looked at me like she wanted to know if I heard it, too.

I know that she might get hurt one day. But I also know dozens of dogs who tear ligaments chasing frisbees at dog parks and dogs who get cancer in cities and dogs who die of boredom or from whatever it is they feel when even in their dreams they no longer hunt or swim or run or explore or scavenge. I don’t want to get in the way of Roo being a dog.

Some months after leaving the west, Roo started again to refuse to go outside after sunset. In Oklahoma she did, once or twice, but her heart was never in it. She doesn’t trust the night. It has nothing to do with darkness, in which she can see just fine. Roo doesn’t trust something about the night. She’s convinced that bad things can happen in the night. It has to be some memory that paired bad things with night. There might have been a drunk in there, somewhere, because anyone with liquor on their breath frightens her more than anything.

All of this places me in something of a quandary. It’s time to get out of this camper. I can’t take it any more. And, just like at the end of the first Roo story, four years ago, the idea of returning to the Northeast is still the one I have in mind. Of course, we’ve already tried that twice and it doesn’t work.

Playing that video, though, and the way Roo reacted, makes me wonder. Roo, who started off as one of the world’s millions of miserable dogs, is, I’m proud to say, a happy dog. When she was young and damaged, any small fright would knock her into depression instantly. A loud noise could panic her for a day. The rest of time, even though she started to learn to have some fun by chasing a fly or tearing up a toy, she was always on edge. She had bags under her young eyes that lasted a long time. She wore a serious expression. Any smile from her was a notable event. Now, Roo is never miserable (her fear of thunder doesn’t count; lots of otherwise normal dogs have that, too, and it by now she’s able to get over it quickly. It comes from Roo having transitioned from an unnatural state of cruelty and hunger and heat and concrete to gentleness and countryside. Dogs have a hellacious component to their spirit, and they need to exercise that as much as they do their legs. Hers had been totally suppressed by fear. While she still worries about even small noises she can’t see, she runs along the crumbling edge of a ravine as fast as she can while the rocks fly from under her paws over the ledge. She is confident now, and competent. She has learned about rough currents and steep rocks and challenging animals. She’s never mean to people or dogs, never aggressive. She doesn’t approach children, but is glad to let them pet her when they ask if they can. She considers herself a prankster and loves to play jokes on me every day, to the point of being annoying about some of them. She is a dog of the first water. 

And when she does all of that, her expressions of happiness — her laughter, her bright eyes, her prancing gait — are always bright. But they never shined more than when she was in the mountains. So, when she heard that wild call in that video, it brought it all back to her. 

It makes me unsure of what to do. It’s not that she won’t be happy wherever we settle, if we ever can. It’s possible that we’re just going to have to stay in the trailer for a lot longer, which isn’t a problem for her, though she would like to have some space to retreat to to be alone when she’s tired. I think that’s the only thing about it that bothers her. She learned to be alone when she was a puppy and she still likes to be alone a little every day.

If it made her so happy out there, and if there’s nothing other than whatever the attachment is that I have to the Northeast driving another attempt to go back there, an attempt I know isn’t likely to succeed anyway, why wouldn’t I try to let her live in the kind of places that made her feel the best?

One reason is that I can’t take it. It’s too much physical work. Hauling water, dealing with weather, maintaining this constantly breaking camper, having to get provisions, not many of which will fit in here. Even taking a shower or washing a fork requires planning. It’s impossible to get other work done when all the time is taken up with those things. I don’t want to go back, not to the far mountains. It’s more isolation than even I can take, and I have spent many years in near-total isolation of various kinds. Those mountains and those deserts can weary anyone. I’m pushing 60 and half crippled. It’s enough.

But — one more butif you ever get the chance to try this, do: An old logger I spent a little time with in Idaho told me about a river he used to like to fish when he was younger. It is the Clearwater, and, like all the mountain rivers, it has many forks, and those forks are all fed by countless creeks.

The old man was sitting in his ATV, drinking a beer. We were talking about rattlesnakes and airplanes. He was one of the best guys I ever met. Not that he would ever say so, because no one would, but you could tell that when he was a logger, he would have been the guy everyone would have wanted on their crew, solid and goodhearted, and now, his logging days 30 years behind him, he was the kind of man his kids brought theirs to see, converging from the distant cities where they now lived. He sat at the center of a family, completely opposite from the one I had, in which he was a sort of magnet, a center to which they all returned.

“You get you up there to the North Fork of the Clearwater, if you can, and I think you can,” he told me. “That is, if you want to see what God had in mind when He run these rivers through here. You get that dog up there. Let her in that river. See if she likes it.”

He outlined an area of about 500 square miles on a map. “Get you up in, oh, up around here, somewheres. Do some poking around. Hell. Couple more beers and I might just come with you. Don’t tell the old lady, though. Who’ll feed the hummingbirds?”

It took a few days for Roo and me to drive up there. Good roads ran the main forks. We followed tracks along smaller creeks. It was hard going in places. Roo was never more wide awake, sitting up in her seat the whole time, motionless, serious-looking, focused on the water and the rocks and always seeing and hearing things inside the forest I couldn’t. A place like that is like every museum and every book in the world rolled into one for a dog. And it was everything the old man had said it was. One of the most beautiful places on Earth. It might be the place where, when the planet is packed with people and all the water most people will ever see or taste will come out of a plastic jug, and every inch of land that is habitable will be under shoebox apartments and parking lots and implement yards and insurance offices and megachurches and tattoo parlors, this will still be there and it will be the same. In the winter it is under 15 feet of snow and there is no place for any settlement of more than a few warming sheds for the loggers. Until humans learns to move mountains, these mountains will see to it that no city will ever be built there.

The spot Roo picked to run into the river was wide and shallow and if the water had been still, you wouldn’t have been able to see it. I have fallen into a river half as cold as that one was, and the shock of it paralyzed my ability to breathe. It was just right for Roo. She likes to dunk her head underwater and swing it from side to side. She did it over and over again, deeper and harder. This water’s most amazing quality was the way it cleansed her. She air dried quickly and looked like she had been bathed for the Westminster dog show. Her fur was radiating shades of bright gold. The skin on her belly was as pink as a puppy’s. I don’t know why, but the water — somewheres up in there — purifies a dog, and, as good as it was to me, no one appreciates that more than a dog. Make sure you get your dog good and dirty before they swim that water. You’ll see for yourself. They’ll come out looking like no show dog ever could and feeling like the top wolf in a pack.

We left there on a dirt track that turned to mud and climbed to a pass in the mountains. It wasn’t at a high altitude, maybe 6000 feet or so, but the road was tight and winding and the logging trucks had chewed it up. Wet snow started to come down and a slush built up. The trailer fishtailed. I got off the road, into a small wildflower clearing, but the ground was soft and there was no hope of getting the camper level. After I got Roo dried and fed — she didn’t need a brushing; not only had the river cleansed her, it seemed to have brushed her into a coat as bushy and full as a bear’s — she was in one of the best moods of her life. I was beat, though, and I sat down on the thin foam of the dinette, but she wouldn’t stop smiling and batting at me and coming over to put her head on my leg and look up at me with her tail wagging. If we had been hit by a meteor at that moment, Roo would have died the world’s happiest dog. I probably would have experienced a brief instant of relief between the time it hit the roof and flattened us.

Later that night, when it was not yet quite dark, Roo heard something outside. She put her nose to the door and stared at it. Usually she looks at me for an opinion on whatever she’s heard, but not this time. I opened it. She saw something and raised her head and ears and stood still with her tail in the air. She stood perfectly still. After a minute or so, I realized she was in a staring contest with someone. It went on for long enough that, without breaking it off, she slowly lowered herself to a sitting position. I kept trying to sight along the back of her head to see who she was seeing, but all I saw was wet fog scudding along the rocks topping of a nearby hill. 

I felt like I understood, and what I thought, and what you will never convince me wasn’t, was that there was a wolf up there staring back at Roo. I’ll admit that’s just prerogative. I didn’t see a wolf. But no other animal ever elicited this response from Roo. It was the response you would expect from an equal. And I know that that wolf stood, and then sat, as if by mutual understanding, the same way Roo did. Across the hill was the mirror of someone still alive in Roo's genes. To the wolf, Roo was the representative of things to come — some good, but others tending to the end of wolves.

It was the wolf who moved and broke off the staring contest. Roo stood. It might have been in salute or admiration or equality or, more likely, some way dogs feel that they will never let us know about even though no one would benefit form the knowledge more than we could. She looked up at me with great dignity and began to take a step backwards from the door but then reconsidered and stopped and went back to the edge. She let out one deep bark, a bark of great, but still benevolent authority. She held her head high, and her bark rounded off into the fog and became part of it and of the mountains and drifted upwards to the higher passes to come where it is still, and will always be, ringing.

She had a long day and went to sleep on her bed, which is in a den-like space next to my bed. She started dreaming hard right away, with her legs flexing and her muzzle wrinkling. I watched her for a while.

And all night, up in there somewhere, the only sound she made, but she made it all night, was the thumping of her tail on her bed. She must have wagged it in fifty dreams.

*          *          *


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From Tadpoles to Pterodactyls: Roo's Delicate Interactions with Nature

Just about every afternoon of her life—the part she’s lived with me, anyway—Roo gets a good walk. Lately, because she has expunged the entire rat population of east Oklahoma and parts of west Arkansas, she has taken to hunting the mud banks of Long Lake. She detected some kind of mysterious amphibious rodent in a labyrinth of burrows down there. They’re probably an undiscovered remnant of prehistory, untouched over the eons because of the impenetrable brambles where they hide. I’ve never seen them and even experienced woodsmen here have no idea what they might be. Even the cows are curious about it and gather on the bank in the hope of finding out what Roo is going to catch. Whether any real victim is tucked deep in the mud and roots awaiting Roo’s pleasure is unknown, but it doesn’t matter to Roo: hunting them is a special pleasure for her, because even she—at some point on any given day the dirtiest dog in a hundred miles—has rarely been able to get as filthy as this makes her. This Oklahoma muck fills her coat with thousands of minuscule, sticky particles, as if every tadpole in the lake was a habitual gum chewer and didn’t care where they spat it. Perhaps this place is on the brink of condensing into something like the La Brea Tar Pits, where sabertooth tigers and wooly mammoths sank in and have been preserved to this day on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles as if they were pickled in Bell jars. These gums and slimes get glued deep into Roo's coat. A hose does nothing until the water pressure is increased to levels meant to quiet schizophrenics.

Once she air-dries and has undergone a thorough brushing, Roo is restored from her preferred condition of being the the filthiest mutt in the country to looking again like one of the lustrous show dogs in the travel brochures for tuberculosis sanitariums high in the Swiss Alps that ocean line companies used to send prospective consumptives.

A couple of days ago, after Roo’s walk and restoration process, we had to go the the market. It was just before sunset, and a mix of fair weather cumulus and wildfire smoke made the last of the light shine pink and gold on Roo as she slept with her head on the arm rest. 

I looked at her and thought, What the hell is this? There were brown spots on the top of her head, on the thick fur covering the part of the skull that makes a sound like two coconut halves clopping together when a puppy skids out of control into a wall, as they all do once or twice as part of their general education. After that, that thickness is, for most dogs, extraneous.

At first I thought I had neglected to flush some of the tadpole gum out of the top of her head, but when one of the spots disappeared in the fur while I was looking at it I knew what they were: no one but a flea—those picayune spawn of the first hellfires of creation—can move like that. 

There were about half a dozen of them crawling around, but you could tell they were reeling, clutching their throats and coughing and gasping for air. Roo was 10 weeks into the 12 weeks dose her flea meds were supposed to last. This squad of fleas had stormed the wrong dog. They were sluggish and unsteady on their feet. I almost felt a little sorry for the pathetic way they seemed to call to each other, desperate for the warmth of a comrade by their side, not such big shots now that they were facing alone whatever it was they would have to atone for in the beyond. One or two seemed to yield to a small measure of serenity—probably those whose houses were in order or the more philosophical ones who had thought it through and reckoned that lives as full as theirs were overdue for an ending. But they all understood equally that they were returning to the dust from which they came and would now merge with all the other dust of the Earth, breaking down into molecules and atoms and each of those in turn to a trillion electrons and entire universes of quarks and gluons, breaking down endlessly until the Earth itself died and froze and this collapsing galaxy collided with another and the remnants of it all were sucked into a black hole and rendered either eternal or eternally meaningless. Every one of them was thinking that same thing. You could see it written on their faces. 

I pulled over to the side of the road and plucked them out of Roo’s head. They were easy to catch and after a minute it looked like the last of them had been flung onto Highway 59, where, who knows, uncrushed between the thumbnails of a less magnanimous victor, the fresh air might revive them. 

But that they were there at all was alarming. Usually, when fleas get to a dog, you see one or two. That was when I remembered that the day before I had noticed one on Roo, but as it had been a loner, and as the Bravecto had never stopped working before a full three months had elapsed, I had forgotten about it.

But—here they were. True to their sneaky character. I should have known.

Now, I’m the kind of person who spends half an hour trying to catch a crane bug in the camper without hurting those spindly legs to return them to the outside. One by one I move worms off the road after they wash up in a rainfall. Today a tiny fly landed on my leg—it was a regular fly, but I’d never seen one that small; it appeared to be very young, tricked into a premature birth by the late winter heat wave we’ve been experiencing. It was cold and the fly couldn’t get his wings unstuck. I cupped him in a hand and tried warming him up with my breath. It worked and off it buzzed. The point being, I don’t like to harm so much as a flea. But fleas, unfortunately, started it, as our Dear Leader or any three-year-old would remind us. So, in their case I make an exception. I removed the last of them and prepared to unleash a new round of chemical weapons on them.

But the problem was that Roo’s last dose of Bravecto was ten weeks ago. It’s supposed to last 12. Did it run out? Was it still working properly? Had the fleas developed new countermeasures against these munitions? Or had Roo somehow come into contact with some monster so flea-infested that an unhappy few just happened to be knocked overboard onto her during a skirmish? 

The sight of fleas on Roo instantly brought back the memory of the horrible flea infestation she had on the first night she came to me as a foster dog. Among her many wounds were cuts on the top of her snout where they had tortured her so much that she had tried to scratch the skin off. She still has the scars there. They’re the only visible scars of her troubled puppyhood, and they’ll never go away. And, being scars from flea torture, I’ve always been determined to keep them at bay. Back then, if you ever read the original Roo story you might remember, hours after I applied a topical flea med to her, the fleas panicked once they realized the party was over and, like any gang of riled-up meth heads started rioting and buzzing around her and digging in for one big last hit and sending her into a frenzy. That night it was hundreds of them. Now it was only a few, but what they meant and what they could do to a dog came back to me in force.

I looked it up online and made a call or two. Another dose ten weeks after the last wasn’t going to hurt her.

Now, Bravecto is made in France, where considerable culinary arts have supposedly been dedicated to disguising pesticides as the liver of some delicious animal who all dogs know from their happiest dreams. Bravecto is supposed to be such a delicacy. But, to Roo, there is nothing more disgusting in the world. This is a dog who will outroll any dog in the rotting carcass of maggoty dead fish or in piles of feces left behind by evidently gangrenous forest animals, a dog who will squash the skulls of rats in her mouth the way you might a liquor-filled bonbon. This is a dog who buries a bone and religiously checks it every day and won’t consume it until it has achieved a degree of stench that would kill an oak tree. But Bravecto? She hates it. You’ve never seen a dog go to the lengths she does to spit it out. Even if I grate it into powder and bury one tiny grain inside a piece of cheese, she licks at the cheese until she isolates the offending particle and flaps her tongue around until it flies off. Now that all fat has been removed from Roo’s diet after her pancreatitis scare, I had to slice it into little pieces that I sandwiched between beef strips. It didn’t matter. She ferreted them out and I ended up having to jam the slobbered pieces down her throat anyway. Next time, I’m just going to stick it in her gullet to begin with.

Over the next couple of hours three or four more fleas struggled back up to the surface, but that was that. They’re gone.

I’m not sure what’s next. Water moccasins? They’ll be coming out soon. Screaming pterodactyls? One of those might swoop down grab Roo in her claws to fly her up to eat her in full view up on a neighboring cliff. Who knows. The whole damned country is filled with hazard. There’s danger at every turn. Anywhere there aren’t snakes, there’s someone with a poodle whose toenail polish they don’t want to scuff yelling at you to put your dog on a leash. Anyplace a dog can run free, they risk everything from pit vipers to grizzly bears, from beavers to badgers, all of whom Roo has encountered and, so far, survived. And I have to admit, now that she’s back in the pink, Roo does not look like a dog whose luck is going to run out any time soon.

Still. The best thing would be a year or so up at one of those sanatoriums in the Swiss Alps. If any of you has a room booked that you can’t use, you know where to send the tickets. Don’t tell Roo, though. She thinks she’s already there.

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