Fair warning - this post isn’t about Bearface, Jr. It’s about Bearface, Sr., my white Labrador Orville. I was reminded of this tonight because of my nose.
Unfortunately, I have to give you a little background. I am one of those people who is always drying up and cracking. Heels, lips, fingertips, nose. That’s a bad one. As soon as my nose dries up I feel like I’m stuffed up with a cold and I get bloody noses. If you ever feel like you’re too moist and decide to get dried up, try the desert or the mountains. The effect lessens around the tip of wast Texas, where the black rocks are, and northward around Wisconsin, unless it’s winter, in which case it’s bad.
This means I have to use lip balm all the time. The problem is that the smell of the average lip balm annoys me. You see, years ago, my head was knocked back and forth between a WWII Willys Jeep and some hard boulders in the Himalaya. This caused my short-term memory and my sense of smell to disappear. How on Earth it does it is anyone’s guess, but the brain began to rewire itself, and during that period came olfactory hallucinations. I kept asking the nurses and doctors what that smell was and they would say, “What smell?” I would say, “You can’t smell that horrible stench?” “Mmm, no,” they would say, and continue with whatever they were doing, tightening up the appliances drilled through me with a pipe wrench or turning off the bell I had rung and telling me it’s wasn’t time for painkillers yet. My sense of smell came back, but I was left permanently hypersensitive to some smells. Take, for example, the mediciney-eucalyptusy malodor of ChapStick. I am forced to use it when there’s nothing else. When I do, I feel like Saddam Hussain is personally bombarding me with chemical weapons.
So I’ve always been on the lookout other lip balms. Back when Orville and I were living in Boulder, we were in a store that had something called Nanak’s Lip Smoothee at the register. I picked up a tube of it, and that was that. It was like an unguent prepared for a Pharoah. In Boulder I could keep it on hand. Otherwise - forget it. You have a better chance of finding a goldfish in a can of Pepsi than you do of finding this stuff in a store.
So. One winter day, when Orville was still young but already an experienced dog of the world, he and I were hiking on an isolated trail up around 8000 feet on a mountain near Taos. We had been going up there for a few days and had never seen anyone else. It was pines and dark rocks and thick fresh snow, and if you don’t believe me, ask Roo if there is anything a retriever likes more than the snow. Bearface - he is only Bearface Senior now that there is a Junior, was running around like a madman. His favorite thing was to snowplow with his nose, sending waves of snow up on either side of him.
I don’t like guns any more - a change due to a few years of thinking about a couple of guys standing next to me cut in half by machine-gun fire - but back then I did. I had a pistol with me and I was doing a little plinking. Gunshots didn’t bother Orville at all.
Suddenly two wolves appeared out of the trees and boxed Orville in. One got at the front of him and the other at the back, and started sizing him up for an attack.
My first thought was that Orville could handle it. Not if it came to an actual fight with the wolves. That would have been bad. What I had confidence in was his ability to talk them down. As dogs go, Orville was like the guy you’d put on the street with a megaphone to talk a jumper off a ledge. He had walked beside elephants and been eye-to-eye with leopards, he had swum with needle-beaked gharial crocodiles. He had had the satisfaction of having his nose flicked by the tongue of a coiled rattlesnake. I stopped in my tracks in the snow and thought, “Better let him handle it.” There was no thought of shooting at a tangle of canids, if it came to that. I remember dismissing the idea, or at least relegating it to the level of an emergency so dire that it might not have mattered anyway.
One of the advantages a dog who spends his whole life off-lead has is his clearer connection to his environment. He doesn’t have the input of a human tugging at his leash to cloud his judgement and make him have to worry about what the human is going on about in addition to a threat at hand. Usually they take a human’s fear of them getting close to another dog as an instruction to fight. It’s the worst thing you can do. If there’s one thing I learned from Orville (and there isn’t - there were millions), if you want to end a dogfight, the first thing you have to do is drop the leash.
Orville tuned in instantly. He was a solid 85-pounder but the wolves were bigger. They escalated from growling to snarling. Orville gave them a look that let them know that he would prefer to walk away, but would fight if they insisted. I remember knowing that I was going to get into it with Orville, as I had many, many times in Asia when he was attacked by packs of starving pye-dogs who thought he was coming after their garbage piles. In all the times he was attacked, he never bit another dog back. But he also never lost a fight. He didn’t like fighting, but when he had to he would wrestle his opponent onto his back, then threaten his life by placing his jaws on his throat and then let him go the instant the other guy said okay. Your average Labrador is a tough customer. A smart one is one of the toughest dogs in the world. They just don’t let it get to their head.
Another inch, another flinch, and the front wolf would have bitten. The rear one was primed to follow. Just then, a man appeared. He was about 50, with grey hair and a beard. He had an unbelievably bossy attitude. It was the most noticeable thing, not just about him, but about the whole scene. Here was Orville in what was developing into a scene from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom - and I found myself thinking how rude this guy was.
He tromped towards the wolves and commanded them to back off. They didn’t want to. They had their heads down, their ears were back and trembling and their lips up so far that their noses were bent up in the air. They were jamming the air out in growls as loud as engines. Their eyes were wide and riveted on Orville. The man told them to back the goddamn hell off, now. It broke the spell. This time they listened to him. He kept moving closer to the wolves. He never touched them. He separated them from Orville with body language and got them going down the trail.
Orville watched the wolves go. He looked at me. He opened his mouth and let his tongue out and gave me a wag. He stuck his nose in the snow and jammed it full and snorted. He was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. He was one hell of a dog.
At the time, I really didn’t know anything about dogs. Some people think I do now, but I don’t. I think about them a lot, and read some things, but I don’t have a lot of experience with them. At that time I had even less. So much less that I didn’t understand what had happened.
Orville and I returned to the house of the friend we were visiting down the hill. I told him what had just happened. As idiotic as it is, the truth is that I was still miffed. It wasn’t just the way a dogfight will put you in a terrible mood to begin with. It was more. As boneheaded as it was of me, here was a near-slaughter of Orville, with me standing ten feet from two wolves, and the crux of the story was that the guy had been a jerk.
My friend explained that the man was his neighbor and lived with the wolves. They were rescues. He hated having to confine then so he built them a big cage. He took the responsibility for the wolves to heart and he didn’t want them living their lives never getting out of their cage, so he took them for hikes every day on that trail so that they could still get to be wolves. Maybe he was thinking of trying to return them to the wild. I don’t know. What I didn’t understand until later was what he had done - the way he asserted leadership over a dangerous pack on the brink of tearing another animal to pieces. If they had come upon a deer I’m sure he would have let them dine. It was tricky business putting his foot down like that. It was quite something. He had the instinct to be able to function outside the human construct that brings things like rudeness to the moment. His assertiveness was the way he stopped the wolves from getting any idea that he might not be the boss. In a pack, that is something that is up for grabs at any second. His ability to focus like that quite possibly saved Orville’s life, though I believe there is an equal possibility that Orville would have gotten away with it on his own.
We were standing near the front door having this discussion when the doorbell rang. It was the wolf man. He had come over to check that everything was all right and to apologize for what had happened. He was a different man. He even bore a gift. I recognized the box instantly: it was a case of Nanak’s Lip Smoothees. Right next to the wolf enclosure, in a tiny workshop, he worked alone, brewing the best lip balm ever. His name wasn’t Nanak - though I could see how he came to name his balm.
So what’s the point? Who knows. I don’t think there has to be one. I don’t know. The way things work out, the way they connect together, just interests me. If you look out for connections, they will appear. The story of The Dog in the Clouds is a series of connections like that, right from the start. Night clouds part over Kathmandu, sad, wounded guy sees a dog in the clouds. Takes it as a sign and looks for him for two years. Gives up and gets a dog out of the classifieds. Dog turns out to be the dog in the clouds. And on from there. If all that stuff is thrown at us, it might be for a reason.
Heads it means something, tails it doesn’t. I call heads.
I never went back to Taos or saw the Nanak’s Smoothees man again. But I did just find Nanak’s on Amazon. It should be here any day.