More than than the way Roo can run up a 200-foot hill in seconds and fly back down - laughing - through branches and over rocks, leaping fifteen feet at a time at full speed, landing on one end of a downed tree and running its length, timing her fastest footfalls to land on crosswise sticks instead of between them, the thing I envy the most about Roo is how well she sleeps. Try to get her going some morning before eleven. An elephant lying on her side in a mud bank will unstick more quickly, even if holding a blood grudge against her mahout. If she was a teenager I would be wondering if she wasn’t playing hey-mister outside liquor stores and sleeping it off, jammed in the dark crevice between the wall and the bed in this motel. That, by the way, is a little heartbreaking, but that’s Roo. She likes to hide. So do I.
I remember the last time I got a full night’s sleep as if it was yesterday. It was December 16th, 2007. I was booked on an afternoon flight from Los Angeles to Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security detained me when I checked in on grounds of trying to escape with a passport that was set to expire too soon. My passport still had a month on it and I had a return ticket for three weeks before that, but it was a slow day at LAX and the cops, who only smiled when I asked them the obvious question - whether they were high on confiscated peyote buttons - seemed to need the practice. Five hours later they let me go when I agreed to fly north to Reno instead of south to Mexico, in order to meet a six-foot-eight notary in a bolo tie at the gate and swear out an affidavit that read, in its entirety, “I, Brian Beker, swear that I am an American citizen.” $125 later the airline routed me east to Dallas for a connection back to the west and south. The trip took 15 hours. When I finally arrived, to the most magical place I have ever been in a lifetime filled with them, to a place where to get healed, it was necessary to die a little first, but that is another story. The point is about not being able to sleep: a plant medicine I wouldn’t take until the next day went to work from a distance and put me to sleep for 15 uninterrupted hours on the night before I would need it more than ever before or again in my life. But in the 25 years prior to that, or the years since, there has never once been 45 minutes of straight sleep. Too many things have been broken or cut or drilled or removed and dumped in a kidney pan in an operating room. When I move, something wakes me up.
As a result, I am constantly experimenting with various cocktails of acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen - Tylenol, Advil and Aleve. It gets complicated, in the same way it must for 90-year-olds who have to start dividing their 20 or 30 pills a day up themselves. Two of these, one of these, three of these - or one of these, four of those…. A guy running a medical experiment in which I was enlisted some years ago recommended it. I’m always out of one or the other of the pills.
A hard wind was blowing across the desert the other day. Leaning into that wind had set me to limping by the time she and I pulled up to the Safeway in Bisbee. She had to wait in the car, and I knew that wind and the paper cups and beer cans blowing up against the car would spook her, so I rushed. When I got to the checkout, someone had left a bottle of store-brand ibuprofen on the magazine racks. I put it on the belt on top of the salami. Roo is like a Swiss functionary who will only accept bribes in francs. If you want her to come up on the bed, he currency is salami.
In the time she’s been with me, Roo has never once had a day without three hours of walks. Soon, this will kill me, but for now, she likes to to start around noon. Before that, she never even wants to go out to pee in the morning. When she’s ready, she comes out. She shakes. She smiles and gives me a fe wags. She stretches a few times. She changes her mind and goes back to lie down again. Then she gets up and starts to come back but decides to get a sip of water instead. She drops another three or four times while I’m trying to get her harness on. At least once she makes her point definitively by rolling onto her side and making an especially difficult yawn, the kind with the tongue curled maximally and the whole snorkel apparatus wrinkled. Her pupils drift off to the far distance and close. By this time I’ve had it and tell her to get up. Outside, she likes to greet the day by finding the filthiest spot on the blackest pavement and planting the tip of her nose in it as a pivot so she can somersault with a crash onto her side. Then she does such a terrific job of wiggling and grinding herself into the dirt that she blackens both sides of her face and the top of her head evenly. I’ve given up on trying to stop her from doing this. I just have to get the grey out later.
The day after I bought the salami and ibuprofen, we were finally on the way out the door. “Whoops - just a minute, there, Junior,” I said. “I better take some of those ibuprofen.” I had special plans. It was going to be an unusually painful day. On the trail Roo favors, because it follows a river that runs beside one of the most expansive vole networks on the continent, I have to duck under a million branches and work through thorn bushes and get scraped on the forehead and tear my shirts and cut my arms. My jeans are four months old but they look like a coal miner’s. None of this bothers Roo. She can scoot through anything. The worst thing that happens to her is getting a sand spur in her paw. All she has to do then is stop and look at me to get me to stumble and trip back through the brush to get to her and flick it out. It is a hard path, but it is ours. No one but the deer and javelina go as far as we do.
On the way to the trail, Roo and I stopped at the hardware store to pick up a machete. I figured a day or two of the pain from hacking away at the jungle would be worth a clear trail. That was why, on the way out the door, before going to the hardware store on the way to the trail, I popped three of the ibuprofens instead of the usual two and then bumped that with a naproxen. If there had been any tylenol on hand I would have taken a few of those, as per my old experimenter’s advice.
Roo likes to start the day off with a dip, and if there was a faucet she could turn for her bath, she would turn it to the temperature of the San Pedro River. It is perfect dog water. It is cool and alive, and it runs at just the right speed to line a dog up in the stream without muscling her. Roo lies down and plants her claws in the mud and gets the water running under her belly until she feels like she is about to take off. That river is the reason we keep coming back to Sierra Vista. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, a green ribbon lying caught in the cactus and the sand, an American oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. A hundred feet to either side of it will put you back in the desert, but on the river you are in Eden.
The trail is clear for the first few hundred feet upstream. Eventually a plant got in my way. It was just a dry little stalk of straw, but it was time to try the machete out. I whacked it. It swayed a little to one side. I checked the Chinese blade. This wasn’t made at the iPhone factory. This was obviously manufactured by the bitterest prisoners in the Chinese gulag. They didn’t even bother to pretend to put an edge on that thing. I could have bought a board at the hardware store and used that to as much effect.
I was determined, though, and doubtful of my strength and technique, so I whacked away, mostly at detritus that had washed onto the trail during the monsoon - dead stuff and the thorn bushes that love it. In three minutes I was exhausted. I looked back at my handiwork. Nothing had changed.
Roo came over to have a look at me. I saw her through a haze. Dogs are top-flight judges of body language and she hadn’t seen me trudge this heavily since last year. She doesn’t like it, and always watches me go over anything tricky when it happens. It’s rare that I stop on the trail. But Roo? Never. It is a point of pride with her not to sit down on dry land unless the heat is overbearing.
There was no choice, though. I had to have a seat. My head was starting to swim. I went down hard on a rough spot in the dead leaves for a couple of minutes, then got up and pressed on. Whack. Whack. Whack. I had the GPS on the phone on, and we made it nearly a mile before it occurred to me how difficult getting back was going to be.
“Okay, Rooklo, that's it. I’ve got to stop,” I told her. I sat on a fallen tree and leaned my chin on a walking stick I carry. I was going downhill fast. I tried closing my eyes, but I couldn’t maintain my balance on the stick without falling off the trunk. My head became too heavy to hold up. I didn’t want to lie down. I was worried I would pass out. What would I do with Roo? I would have had to tether her to me if I was going to conk out. She’s so gentle that I doubted she would chew her way out of it if I didn’t come to. The thought her dying of thirst in the woods fifteen feet from a river because she was tied to a corpse was too much.
Now, I have a special talent. I had two - the other one was that for a few years I had an unfailing ability to tell a puppy’s age to the day, but that has disappeared. The remaining talent is that I could run a carnival sideshow telling you where you’re from by your accent. Lahore, Pakistan to the Shan States of Burma to the western islands of Indonesia. I nail ‘em. Europeans? Please. Even the oddball ones who don’t get out much, like the unseen hill tribesmen of Switzerland. Of course, being American, I’m best at those.
So I knew a Texas accent when I heard one come out of the blue. I must have dozed for a second - the man speaking was sitting right beside me, and he couldn’t have approached quietly in that brush.
He said, “Yessir.” He was giving me a tsk-tsk shak of the head. “You look like you could use a million bucks and a bottle of morphine.”
The man was a little the worse for wear and could have used a shave. I wondered how the hell he managed to hike in those fancy cowboy boots. He had his pants tucked into the wide tops. There was a red, white and blue map of Texas on a field of stars on them, with longhorns and curvy cowgirls looking on. The heels were slanted and honed to a point. He had on a medium-brim tan cowboy hat, not anything swept and curvy like all the beer-paunch wannabe badass OK Corral country singer styles every guy in an F-150 is wearing these days, and he wore a neck tie tied tight in a little knot. I reached up to adjust mine, but I wasn’t wearing one.
A pressure was building up in my head and the wooziness was getting the best of me. But through the fog and sickness I could still recognize this man. I would have recognized him anywhere, and guess I did. It was Bob Wills, from the Texas Playboys. The King of Western Swing.
Bob was a bit of a smartass. He glanced at the machete and said, “Conquering Mexico?” When I didnt answer he looked at Roo. “Whell, lookee here, girl,“ - exactly two other people have ever gotten it right and called Roo a girl. It’s always ‘Hey, Buddy,’ - “you look like you been a-swimmin’ and a-huntin’ and a-diggin’ in the dirt.”
I looked at Roo. For the first time ever on a hike, she had taken a seat. She was sitting right in front of me, facing me. Her ears were up and her head was tilted and she was looking in my eyes. Boy, she looked cute, but she also looked concerned.
Bob Wills said, “That right there’s one dog that’s doin’ okay.”
I started to tell him not really, that it was all right for her when she got out, but the rest of her days were boring and lonely, usually stuck in a room or a car somewhere, nothing to do, no one but me there.
“Aw, hell, Bud,” he said, waving it off. “You ought to put a sock in that.”
Bob and I looked out over the river together. If my head had been a helium balloon it would have burst at about half the size it was pumped up to.
“Tell you what, though,” Bob said. “You’re not the only one could use a ice-cold Coca-Cola out here.” He looked at Roo, but she kept staring at me.
“Neighbor, that little sword you got there? My advice is find a rock and tuck it under.”
I was sorry to be seen with it. It was proof of being a quantifiable imbecile. Roo tilted her head the other way. She never took her eyes off me. I looked back at Bob.
“Take Me Back to Tulsa,” he said. “Nobody, by which I mean Nobody, ever but me put Tulsa in a tune and made it out alive.”
He looked at Roo and said, “Ain’t that right, Roly-Poly?”
“Who you calling Roly-Poly, Bob?” I turned to tell him that she wasn’t roly-poly, that in that barrel chest was the biggest, bravest heart God himself ever reached in to install in a dog, the only heart that size He had on the shelf that day. Bob was gone, though.
Roo lay down and put her right paw on my left boot and her head in the leaves. Her eyes were rolled up and on me. Dogs can really get their eyebrows going when they have something on their mind. I had to sit there for a while before I could get moving, and sick and slow moving it was. It took a long time to get back to the car.
If anybody ever decides to give out a trophy for dirtiest dog, they won’t do the prize justice if they don’t catch Roo at the end of a hike. I towel her and brush the mud out and check for sand spurs, brambles and cactus needles. I comb those out and unwind the bad ones from the longer fur. She loves all of it except the tail. Usually, I just bend over her to do it, and while I do I lean over and talk in her ear and recount to her some of the great things she had done on the trail - the mouses she dug for, the waters she swam, the deer she knew she shouldn’t chase but now that it was done and in the past, what a good job I had to admit she had done of chasing them, too. I tell her how she is the most beautiful of all the animals of the desert, and the only shy of an eagle who has run the hills and the plains, and that she is the fastest and the most ferocious, and I tell her how proud I am of her and what a good little fat bear she is - but now I couldn’t. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t stand. I got down on my knees. As she always does, she stared straight ahead and stood still, looking over the desert, alert and hearing things out there none of us will never know what it’s like to be able to hear. She is a part of the story of that desert - and of the hills and of the plains. What she doesn’t see she smells and beyond that she imagines in grand style. She knows who is out there and suspects the activities of others. Just because we are back at the car does not mean that the pages of her story have stopped turning for the day, or that the eternal song she is hearing is over, and when I open the door, ready to fall, and ask her to get in, she is never ready. She wants to take her time. She does not want to leave the place she was born to be. Orville, the day before the day before he died, for the first time wanted to sit and to look back on the trail over which his grave would go up in the worst kind of lonely toil I ever knew some days later, before he turned to signal that he was ready and let me help him back in the car that last time. The pages weren’t done turning for him either. But he knew how to bring the covers gently together. Roo is at the beginning of the story. It is magical and it entrances her. In that story she is a wild princess who sets forests afire with gold, and she sees no point in going back to hide in motel rooms.
So, she argues about getting in the car. It’s a way to play a joke on me and get more time outside. This time, though, she didn’t argue. She hopped right in and looked at me with a serious look. Just shutting the door behind her was an effort. Twisting to get her harness and belt on took it out of me like a sprint. It took me another minute of sitting there to work up the strength to turn the key. It was another five before I put it in gear and drove.
By the time we got back to the motel, I had trouble getting out of the car. Roo wanted to carry her heavy Flexi lead, and kept looking back at me with her beautiful smile, moving at my deathly pace up the stairs to check for my approval. She seemed to think everything was all right.
Roo went to hide behind the bed, which is still a little heartbreaking, and I lay down. I would have liked to sleep but didn’t even try. I just writhed a little, trying to will the sickness away. I waited about half an hour before I got my boots off. A couple of hours more and the sickness began to fade enough to think about getting up for the other high point of Roo’s day - a walk in our old neighborhood, where there are hundreds of bunnies, and where I have been teaching her that it is time - if for my sake alone - to stop being the impetuous puppy who leaps at any prey, and to learn instead to stalk like the born hunter she is. Maybe trying to pounce on everybody is just another part of the catching up she still has left to do from her early days, when she was a sick and starved prisoner instead of a puppy. But she doesn’t need to actually catch those bunnies, and she pays close attention to hunting instruction and learned fast to mimic my slow approach to the bunnies.
Struggling to get off the bed, I thought of whether I was going to last enough of her years for her to keep getting all the walks she has coming to her while she’s still young and able. What she does in the wild is what Roo was put on Earth to do. If I die before Roo does, and there’s no chance that I won’t, it could be before I get off this bed, I hope she makes a break for it and runs into the wild before she is ever placed in another shelter or winds up with someone who does not sense the weight she carries so they, too, can help her carry it. Roo was made wild by having nowhere but the wild in her heart to turn to when she was alone, and Roo would make it, and I know she would want it that way. It wouldn’t be good, even wolves only make it a couple of years, but, she has seen worse, and given the choice, she would prefer a even a few months or weeks of freedom to a lifetime of fear renewed….
… Ohhh…, man - I had to stop thinking this way. I was becoming morose. I worked my way upright. I felt like where I should really be going was handing my car keys over to a deskman at a convalescent home. I dragged myself over to the bottle of ibuprofen.
Roo stopped dead and gave me a look. While I was trying to line up the safety arrows, I noticed something on the label. The store-brand packaging made it look like the regular stuff, but in small letters was “Ibuprofen PM.”
I had overdosed on benadryl - diphenhydramine, the worst of the worst drugs for me when it comes to bad reactions, the same junk in over-the-counter sleep meds. It makes me feel so bad that I resisted giving it to Roo when she had skin trouble and needed to take it. One tablet would have been poison to me. The three I had taken led me straight to a talk with Bob Wills on a tree trunk a mile farther south than I would have been found for a month.
For a while there I thought it took Bob Wills to fill me in on what a fool I am. But there was no daydreaming in the way Roo was watching me with that bottle in my hands. She had her ears up the way she did when Bob said something about a million bucks and a bottle of morphine. I snapped the bottle top shut and tossed it in the plastic motel can.
“Let’s go check bunnies, Bearface.”
I opened the door, and Roo - my God, you should see how gold that girl shines in the low light of late day - Roo did one of her little High-Ho, Silver turns, up off her front paws to turn, just like the horse Bob might have ridden in on, only better, because when Roo does it, Roo laughs.
And she does it every single time.
Take that, Bob.