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 but — if 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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