Part 1: Shortgrass Prairie Wind

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If you ever ask anyone from the northern stretch of the shortgrass flatlands along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains what the worst thing about living there is, they will tell you the wind. They will tell you that because it ranks high on the list of truly miserable bastards of a wind. It can bend fenceposts made of railroad ties and snap barbed wire and send it sprawling like downed high tension power lines in a flood. It sucks the lobes off any pear cactus that sticks its head up too high and launches them into free flight and, though it is rare to get hit by one, I’ve met old timers who say it has happened to them or at least one of their cows. If that wind catches you head-on you’ll try to cheat it by walking backwards, but it won't care. It’ll just will mow you down anyway with a tumbleweed the size of the rusted wreck of a shot-up three-quarter ton tar truck. It packs your nose with dirt and, if you’re out in it long enough to be numbed, it can sand your cheeks down until they bleed. No one would risk taking a small dog out in it if they ever wanted to see him again. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could count on it letting up, but you can’t count on that any more than you can on living another fifty years. It might quit or it might blow for days, and any meteorologist who says they can call it is a liar. Whole churches have sprung up around trying to mitigate it from the top down, but none of them lasted because their pastors were recognized as frauds. Sometimes it blows for weeks. Sometimes it blows forever.

Of all the places that wind blows, and even though they say the worst of it comes down on Livingston, Montana, I don’t believe that wind ever blew harder anywhere than it did at the matchbox-sized farmhouse my dog Orville and I were living in in a place called Hygiene when he was dying. Orville is gone and that house is gone, but that wind still comes up and hunts me down. It doesn’t matter where I am. That particular wind is going to blow forever, or at least as much of it that I’m going to be around for.

It came up a few days ago. It happened to be Orville’s birthday, and by chance Roo and I were on our way to see a farmhouse for rent outside Lexington, Virginia. A steady, cold wind was blowing. It was nothing to compare to the wind from the Rockies that made that house in Hygiene lean over as if it was trying to duck the branches and rocks knocking on its old clapboard, but it was stiff enough to carry on the job the original wind intended. 

We drove around a bend or two in a part of the storied Shenandoah Valley that would surely be beautiful if this had been a time when there was more to color to the straw-colored fields than the dulled paint of the worn-out trucks on cinderblocks and broken plastic tricycles lying on their sides outside the single-wides the farmhands live in now, and arrived at this place. It was bleak. A few cows were lying in the fields, waiting for better times. 

You could see that this small Virginia farmhouse had been built with modest pride eighty or ninety years ago, not as hard up than whoever it was that spat on his hands to saw the boards for the Hygiene house. Still, this builder, like all others, sooner or later died off or got a letter from a bank and a visit from a sheriff. The same decline afflicting much of the country began to set in. The rental advertisement practically begged you to squint at the rotting chicken shack and tool shed with the broken windows to stir the imagination to what was called, “that country feel.”

When I opened the car door for Roo, the wind blew her ears back and she automatically aligned herself like a weather vane as she took her customary time to make sure there were no frightening noises before jumping out and running off to have a look around. I watched her for a minute before I turned to look at the house. If it wasn’t for Roo, already out in a pasture to check it for mouses, I would have gotten right back in the car, because I knew this place. I knew it from Hygiene, and had I realized it, I never would have come.

Some months before we moved into the farmhouse in Hygiene, Orville and I had been visiting a friend in Germany. We were taking the kind of walk Roo gets every day, the kind I am too dedicated for my own good to making sure a dog gets every day, on a trail in a forest. Any time I stopped when we walked together, Orville came to me and sat between my legs — his shoulders at my knees — and he would look up at me while I said one of the things you say to your dog and scratched him on his chest. He loved to do that, and so it happened several times each day, and had happened earlier that day. But now, late in the afternoon, as soon as I touched that soft spot a dog has under the throat at the top of the chest, I felt a lump as big and as hard as a golf ball. It was solidly attached, immovable under the skin. I didn’t know what it was, but I had the feeling it was something bad.

The closest veterinarian was an old lady in a dirty lab coat in a rural town. She had a dingy waiting room full of patients, mostly dogs lying on the grey tile, none of them glad to be there, but a few cats, too, and someone out of sight in a cage under an flower print towel. Orville and I waited our turn. When we got in to see her, the vet was all business. 

“Gutten Abend. Und?” she asked me.

The German I grew up speaking was mostly gone by then, but I could still get things across. “Ich habe etwas hart an mein Hund gefunden,” I said, and touched the spot on Orville’s chest, hoping, as I did every one of the hundred times I touched it since I found it  that it would have miraculously gone away as quickly as it had come.

She felt the lump for one second and said, “Ja. Lymphoma. Er wird in sechs Monaten tot sein.” I wasn’t sure I understood correctly. It sounded like she said he would be dead in six months.

“Sechs Monaten. Nichts zu tuen. Gruss Gott,” she said, dismissing me with the local goodbye, which translates roughly to God bless but is said too casually to mean anything. She called for the next patient to come in and gave me a look. I felt like I was undergoing an electrocution.

I got Orville back to the States as quickly as I could for treatment. The landlord had sold the house we used to live in, so we moved into my airplane hangar. I always preferred hangars, and this was a good one and Orville was a popular airport dog there, so it seemed like it would be all right.

Maybe now there is, but in 2003 there was no question of curing lymphoma in a dog. The vets explained that it was theoretically possible, but that the attempt would in all likelihood fail and would require dosages of chemotherapy so toxic as to either kill him outright or ensure non-stop suffering in the meantime. It wasn’t even something they’d attempt. The only achievable goal was to make Orville feel good for as long as possible and to treat the cancer to extend his life without falsely hoping that it would cure him. All of that, except for the false hope, which I was never able to set aside, worked. Over the course of the coming months he would only lose a day or two to sickness from chemo. Otherwise, he barely slowed down. Some of his rich polar bear-colored fur thinned out, but he kept hiking and doing the thing he loved most — swimming for thrown sticks — until two days before he died. Later I would only think of that day as the day before the day before he died. I don’t know why. Probably as a means of trying with some thin veil of words to attenuate it and excuse myself for what would happen.

I don’t know that I handled his last weeks well. I tried and tried to hide how much losing him was killing me, how much the idea of his suffering frightened me, how unfair it was that someone so pure and good, the finest creature I had ever known, this friend to every animal he had ever met, was being killed off in this way. But it was crushing me, and a dog not only knows, but cares. He understood. And because there is real gallantry in the heart of a dog, he would do everything he could to save me.

The problem with living in a hangar is that they don’t have windows, and after a few weeks, I began to think that it didn’t seem right to wall off the view to the outside world from a dog who had so little time left in it.

A little farmhouse was for rent down the road in a town called Hygiene. Hygiene was hardly a town. It was just an intersection with an old tractor yard on one side of the street, a field full of RVs and junk in another and a boarded-up gas station. A rail spur passed through on its way to a gravel plant a mile away. The tracks ran right by the old farmhouse, six feet from the picket fence, twenty-five from the house. At night the rock cars would rumble by slowly and thud the house.

If you raise a smart dog from puppyhood and talk to them all the time, they come to understand everything you say. Lots of people don’t believe that, but I know it to be true. So, when we went to see the farmhouse and Orville seemed to like it and I asked him if he’d like to live in that house (I of course knowing that it would likely be the  the last place he would ever live), he gave me the single lick on the nose that meant yes.

There was nothing to the move because the farmhouse was so tiny that my little three-seat sofa barely fit in the living room and the coffee table took the rest of the space. The other small room was just big enough for a queen-sized bed. There was a room shoehorned under the roof upstairs, but you couldn’t fit anything bigger than a cot up the narrow stairs and we never used it. Between the kitchen and the living room there was a narrow dining area with french doors that opened onto a raggedy little yard filled with lumps of crabgrass. 

As Orville became more ill, I began to do something that I regret and would never do to a dog again, but it’s what I did and it led to what I am about to tell you. I tell you even though I stopped telling anyone because when I did it just sounded pathetic and silly. It was the sort of thing that some people see nothing at all in, but other people, and I’m one of them, do. And when your dog is dying and you love him so much that you pretty much want to go with him, things like this have a deeper effect on your thinking than they might at other times. It doesn’t matter.

I had always taken a lot of pictures of Orville, as I do of Roo. It was before cell phones and digital cameras weren’t good yet, so the photos were all on film. I had thousands of prints, three steamer trunks full of them. The color films had been developed in photomats, film labs and drug stores everywhere from Kathmandu to Colorado. There were also thousands of black-and-white photographs, but most of those had never been printed. They were just on contacts sheets — 8 x 10s printed with the negatives laid on top so you could see the entire film roll at once in little negative-sized frames that are usually a little fuzzy. The only black-and-white prints there were the ones I liked enough to have printed myself.

By the time the weather started getting warmer, Orville began to slow down. The cancer was on its final run. He began to look older than his six years. He always had shaved spots on his arms from IVs. He became tired and needed more rest. I spent every second with him, trying to fake it. But you can’t fake anything with a dog. You think you can, but you can’t. There’s not one thing that counts that you can fake with a dog. Not that there’s anything else to do.

It was around that time that I started going through the photographic record of Orville’s life. I tacked one or two pictures of him on the wall over the table in the narrow dining room, but then I found more I liked and tacked them up, too, and then more, and more, until one wall was covered and it went around the corner to the next in an enormous collage of hundreds of photographs. There was the first picture of Orville, the one taken two years before he was born, the dog in the clouds over Kathmandu. There was Orville with a horse who would run at full tilt across a 1200-acre field with a trail of rising dust behind her to lean over the barbed wire and nuzzle him every time she saw him. Orville swimming in an ancient Hindu temple pool. Orville in the back of a jeep. Orville at a backpacker guest house in the Himalaya. Orville with a water buffalo. Orville with three white goat kids. Orville looking at a pond. Orville walking down a road into the fog. I did not recognize the extent of the depravity of this afflicted obsession at the time and goddamn me for the selfishness of it. The depth of emotion I was experiencing while I did this — I don’t know if I was in tears the whole time but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out I was — must have been hell for him. It was a great weakness, the scale of which taught me how weak I really was. I was already mourning Orville and doing it while he was still alive. I would never forgive myself anymore than that bastard wind would ever stop blowing. It made me realize that some people owe it to the world to leave it alone, and though I wouldn’t for a while, it was when the idea first took hold.

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When I was done tacking the prints up, I couldn’t leave it alone. I started going through the contact sheets with a magnifying glass.

On one of the contacts there was a picture that struck me as strange. It was from the time Orville was still a puppy, four or five months old. It was just a picture of a house. No living creature was in the shot. It was just some little house somewhere, and not even much of one. What hung me up was that I never photographed houses. I would have no interest in them until years later when I would want one and need one and would never again be in the running to get one. Yet, six years earlier, in the middle of other pictures all of Orville and a few of the Colorado countryside where we hiked, I had for some reason I couldn’t remember taken a picture of a house that I didn’t recognize and that I couldn’t remember ever visiting.

On that warm evening, when I was looking at that contact sheet, Orville was lying by himself outside in the tiny yard on the other side of the french doors. He was not feeling well and he was not sleeping. He was just lying on his side and looking at the mountains. Orville had never before in his life gone off to be by himself before. He didn’t even like to sleep unless he could lie with the side of his head on my forearm or with his back aligned to my legs. I watched him for a while, alone there and looking at the mountains, and it seemed that I should leave him alone and I did and I remember how it felt to be glad that at least he couldn’t see me at that moment anyway. Maybe he was feeling the same way.

The picture of the house in the contact sheet continued to bother me the same way losing a set of keys and trying to remember where could have gotten to does. Maybe I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if I hadn’t been as upset as I was. It was an unremarkable picture of an unremarkable house. Just some little house. Maybe there was something a little familiar about it, or maybe that just came from looking at it for so long. But I couldn’t figure out why I had taken that photograph six years earlier. 

Finally I put it down and thought, ‘What the hell are you doing,’ and gathered myself up and went outside to sit in the grass with my dying dog.

[Parts 2 and 3 to follow.]

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Part 2: The Dog in the Clouds

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Eight years earlier — so, two years before Orville was born — I was in Nepal, on the rooftop of a guest house in Kathmandu. It was two or three in the morning. Ten years before that night, almost to the day, I had been crushed in a jeep wreck in the Himalayan foothills just west of this same Kathmandu valley. I once read about a psychiatric study that determined that some kinds of brain damage make people repeat whatever it was that did the damage. Some people were driven to repeatedly drinking gasoline. Others jumped off cliffs. Others electrocuted themselves. I don’t know if the knock I took on the head that night helps account in that way for why I kept going back, but long before my pulverized bones healed, even before my damaged short term memory came back, I knew I’d be going back to Kathmandu, and I did. Often. Kathmandu became a second home to me.

That day, I rode into town on an old Enfield Bullet motorcycle. The rear fork had cracked, so the wheel wobbled and riding it was more like hauling it, especially in knee-deep ruts of mud and monsoon rain. I could have pulled into a welding shop on the way but didn’t. This cracked fork was only its latest outrage, its last-ditch attempt to maim me after many others had failed. This motorcycle was my enemy and I hated it enough not to mind making it crawl on the way to its execution. I wasn’t even sure I would do it the honor of so much as putting it on its kickstand if I ever dragged it back to Kathmandu instead of just letting its carcass keel over in the mud and letting the scrap pickers have at it. The bike was only part of the trouble. I was exhausted from a case of dysentery I had finally gotten over by taking large dosages of codeine to tighten up the gut. The skin on one of my arms had been sheared off by a truck or a rock a trucker steered me into as part of the national Indian trucker’s sport of killing motorcyclists. In some desperate market town, a quick-thinking young woman, eyeing the potential for profit in a foreigner, had swung her baby onto the blade of the license plate on the front fender in order to accuse me of killing him and I had been stretched a little by the crowd. I wasn’t sure that if I stopped to get the bike fixed that I would have the heart to ever get going again.

The Kathmandu Valley is on the south side of the long Himalaya range, made of the youngest, and highest mountains on Earth. To the north of them is the Tibetan plateau, the flatlands of which, at around 15,000 feet are higher than the highest peak of the American Rockies. Winds originating in the Arctic and from Siberia and Mongolia aggregate in vast traveling oceans of cold air on the plateau, and from there, they are channeled southward over and through the mountains until they meet the superheated air masses rising from the overfried skillet of the subcontinent armed with millions of megatons of potential in the form of moisture drawn from the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Backed up against the wall of the Himalaya, this creates one of the greatest areas of meteorological turbulence on the planet, and any unspent hell collected along the way has to come down there. The result is thunderstorms of a gargantuan scale, orchestrated and amplified in an acoustical environment that echoes them in ways unique to the Himalaya. Getting to hear them is a little like having some of your questions about the stars above answered. All the holy paintings of the region are filled with roiling clouds that serve as homes to the gods. It reflects an unavoidable, and universal, inspiration. I wish everyone could see it once before they die, because it is not so much violent as it is magnificent.

 

I was staying at a guest house that belonged to a Manangi gangster I had become friends with over the disposition of a good hat I once had and that he liked and which I gave to him. Because of that, he held what was generously called the penthouse for me. Apart from its private terrace, it was a room like all the others, with concrete walls, thin mattresses on a couple of plywood plank beds and a few cheap Tibetan decorations. On this night, the terrace was coming in handy because I was spending most of it outside the room because of a roommate I was putting up, a Japanese stringer for Asahi Shimbum. When I met her in Kathmandu a couple of weeks earlier, she could not be talked out of the idea of heading off into the countryside to try to get a scoop on a murderous Maoist rebel group. It was  an idea so bad that I had given up on it myself even after getting away with others like it before. She left on a bus and something happened that rattled her badly and she made it back to Kathmandu just before I did. She was waiting, asleep under a shawl in a wooden chair, in a corner of the brick lobby of the guest house when I got there. My Manangi friend, wearing the fedora we had in common, greeted me with a bottle of Khukri Rum that he placed on the reception counter and told me that it was the last bottle anyone would be seeing for a while because a general strike that had been declared had escalated into rioting, and the police had responded to that not only with the customary tear gas, but with a few thorough beatings administered with lacquered bamboo canes so that everyone would understand what they meant when they said there was a curfew on. Even if the shops weren’t all shot down, in times of trouble, nothing goes into short supply as fast as liquor and candles. 

She asked if she could share my room and though she never told me what happened to her, it had been bad. Of course she was welcome to the other bed. She took it and was asleep instantly.

I sat on the terrace with the bottle of rum and a shortwave radio that wouldn’t tune anything in over the static and was out there when the storm came. I always loved a good storm and would have gone out to watch it even if I had the room to myself.

This storm began as if it had been set off by the splitting of an atom. Vast tonnages of water were dropped, as if a tectonic plate at the bottom of an ocean had been made to give way by the explosion, but other than that deluge, this was a celestial spectacle. Colossal webs of lightning bolted from cloud to cloud and illuminated intricate, fast-moving turbulences without wasting more than a breeze on the ground. Low bass tones on the scale of the mountains themselves rumbled for three or four minutes at a time, before they subsided enough for next waves to follow them, punctuated by what  gunshots would sound like if they were fired from a rifle three miles long during barrages of supersonic rockets grazing the treetops from Tibet to India. Cracks and crackles zapped everywhere as if all the power stations in the world were a pack of firecrackers set off for the hell of it. Cymbals as wide as the sky collided and sheared, their halves ricocheting. It seemed unlikely that buildings would not vaporize. It was like the creation of a galaxy, raging without stop for hours, and any time I lowered my eyes to ground level, I saw the silhouettes of pagodas and branches of the old trees in their courtyards and the outlines of the rim of hills surrounding the valley, all in light so white that it became blue.

There was no better observation tower for this superstorm than my terrace. If you had been given the schematics to this storm in advance in order to work out the perfect vantage point to observe it, the calculations would have yielded my terrace. Not only was it precisely in the right place, it also offered the comfort of a wicker chair and table out of the rain under a concrete overhang. In the lightning silhouettes I saw no one else on other rooftops. That wasn’t surprising. There was no such thing in those days as night life in Kathmandu. On the best of nights, the power rarely made it to ten. This storm was mine. I knew it was. I alone was in love with it. Later, everyone else would only complain how it had ruined their sleep or made life hell for the rickshaw drivers under the burlap sacks or Chinese blankets they tented over their machines as they tried to sleep under them, soaked and blasted, not sentimentalists who could sacrifice what little sleep they needed to watch a storm. This storm, I felt I could be excused the grandiosity of believing, was mine. Even mine alone.

It seemed impossible to get the full effect under the concrete, so I stepped out into the rain. The drops hit like an asteroid shower. I stood there — drunk, it’s true, but I would have stood there anyway if I wasn’t — as wet as I would have been had I been chained to the spillway of a dam. I had never been as energized. It felt like the voltages being dispensed were accumulating in me.

At one point — an exact moment — everything stopped. The lightning stopped. The thunder stopped. As the last of the rumbling faded, the sudden silence returned the night to its usual accompaniment, the sound that had been overpowered the whole time: hundreds of homeless pye-dogs, barking and shrieking from every direction and at every distance, in the streets and alleys and temples the way they do there all the time, but were driven to the most frenzied heights of it by the violence of the night. It was like the moment someone might experience at the instant their soul is freed after a firing squad has fired and the gunsmoke clears.

I stood dazed and drenched and watching the sky and hearing the dogs, hoping — it might have been the same thing as praying — for more. I saw a hint of light, no more than a dusting of silver at first, begin to appear in the sky. In seconds it became bright enough to see that one single hole was appearing where the clouds were drifting apart. Moonlight was beginning to shine through. Being a pilot and formally in love with the sky above all else, though never more than then, I marveled at the crazy turbulence I could see up there. Shearing winds, moving in opposite directions at the same altitude, were making the clouds move like curtains, drawing away in halves to reveal the moon. 

The Moon — our Moon — was full. And there, motionless, behind the parting clouds, as positioned to light a stage before it and presented now by the parting of the curtains, was the head of a dog, rising, in unimprovable symmetry, through the silver disk.

And what a dog. A magnificent creature made of storm and light and mountains and sky, his head raised upward, as if accustomed to flying with gods. The word awe is overused. I make a point of not using it. I can’t think of another time I have. But no other word measures up to what I felt. What I had been feeling for hours approached it, but this was a moment of awe. Because of a dog. A dog in the clouds.

I was in the habit of always having a camera with me. Earlier, when I left the room, I had taken a ghostly picture of the stringer sleeping in her bed and brought the camera outside in one hand when I took the bottle of rum in the other. The stringer had looked so eerie, like a corpse with the sheets drawn back from her face so she could be identified in flashes of lightning, lying on her back, sleeping naked (not because of me, but inspite of me, because her clothes were all too damp and filthy).

I ballparked the exposure and took a picture of the dog in the clouds. I tried a few more, but in no time the apparition blew itself to shreds up in the Himalayan winds as quickly as it had come, and was gone. The next frames on the contact sheet from that roll of film show nothing that look like the first. They are just a clearing night sky, a retreating moon and the last wisp of its own impermanence.

 The dog in the clouds over Kathmandu.

The dog in the clouds over Kathmandu.

 

[End of Part 2. Part 3 to follow.]

Part 3: The Dog in the Clouds — Puppy Orville

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In the morning I took a rickshaw to a grimy old film lab on New Road. Normally I avoided the place because they scratched negatives by using squeegee tongs to slough the water off and used stale Indian chemicals that made prints fade in a few weeks, but in this case there was no time to waste. For one thing, I wanted to know if I really saw that dog in the clouds or if I was just drunk and seeing things while drunk and soaked and overprone to fantasy. Maybe it would have been a relief. It might have restored me to the way I always was, to someone who had never believed in signs. But if the dog did show up in the photograph, I would need it to identify him. To find the dog in the clouds.

The old man who ran the lab put his newspaper down on his desk and stubbed his Yak cigarette out carefully so as to be able to relight it later when I came in. He invited me to accompany him in the darkroom. When the negatives came out into the light the image of the clouds was there, but at that size, and with the black and white reversed, all we cold see was the black pinpoint of the moon. To speed up the drying of the negative he positioned a fan and a space heater. He saw my look of concern at the space heater and returned it with one of assurance that no harm would be done.  He offered me one of his Yaks at his desk while we waited for the negative to dry and he showed me a few prints he had made over the years. The light of King Brenda himself had passed through the lens of his enlarger many times. Formal portraits of Newari gentlemen standing behind their seated wives. A famous cricketer. The Bhimsen Tower. When the negative was dry, we went back in the darkroom and he switched on the safelight. I admired his touch as he worked. He was a pro. I had been too dismissive of some scratched negative in the past. Perhaps it had been my fault, and I had condemned over two grains of dust on the backplate of my own camera. He handled the negative faultlessly, clamping it in the ancient aluminum carrier and he focused the image without the use of a grain magnifier. The reversed image that shined on the white of the easel was mostly just white — the black of the night sky. I asked him to move the head of the enlarger up higher to magnify the center, where the moon and the dog were. He had a timer hooked up to the enlarger, but he eschewed the use of this the same way a pilot of a 747 on whose flight deck I was a guest once did his auto land feature in bad weather landing in Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei or someplace to demonstrate how much fun it was to do it the old-fashioned way, and he timed the exposure on an instinct for the light alone and pulled the paper from the easel and slid it into the developing tray. He got it right on the first try. The black edges of the night appeared first, and then, at the center, the moon and the dog. We parted as good friends.

At the time, it seemed like what I was about to do not only made sense, but that not doing it would not have made sense. I came down the old stairs concrete stairs from the film lab and stepped back onto the crowded street and looked around for the dog. So far, everything seemed to be proceeding on track, so it came as a surprise that he wasn’t sitting right there with a knowing smile and a slow wag. He was probably sleeping it off somewhere, getting ready for the night, when control of the city was returned to him and the rest of the Kathmandu dogs.

I was on good terms with some of the dogs nearby at Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu’s central temple grounds where I often visited my friend Ratna in his art shop, so I walked over there to check them. A few were sleeping on the steps of the temples or under rickshaws or piles of lumber, but none of them were the one. I walked back up the narrow streets to Thamel. As hard to believe as it was, not a single dog matched. Maybe it was going to be more challenging than I thought. I would just have to keep looking. I roamed around the streets, but after an hour or two it was clear that theses pye-dogs, with their angular features, had a completely different profile than the dog in the clouds. 

I took a break from the search at my friend Paki’s Nightingale Bookshop. We sat on his balcony and looked down on the main street of Thamel. Monsoon season kept the tourists away, so foot traffic was down. The few who were there tried to cheer themselves up by adopting the uniform tie-dyes and cheap local clothes worn in homage to the legend of the long-gone days of Freak Street pie shops and hashish dens filled with backpacking hippies. Of course the clothes could no more bring those back than carrying a copy of The Sun Also Rises would land you in Paris in the 1920s. The married women of the neighborhood walked in their graceful sarees, the girls, walking at least two-by-two, in the pants and long tops of their kuurta. With the strike on, the vegetables they were bringing home for the day’s dahlbhat were wilted and the potatoes pockmarked. The more well-to-do gentlemen strolled together in their traditional Nepali outfit of close-fitting trousers, pillbox topis and suit jackets. There was  a music that was particular to the streets of Kathmandu, composed of the creaking of rickshaws as their drivers stood on their pedals trying to make their way through the crowd and the bicycle bells they rang, the beeping horns of tiny black-and-yellow taxis, songs from Radio Nepal coming from the windows of those who had radios to share with everyone who didn’t, someone always hammering, and when you were lucky, which was often, a bamboo flute being played by a virtuoso.

The approaching curfew created a sense of urgency that was not lost on the dogs. Their routines were governed by a clockwork understanding of the humans out of whom they had to eke their living. It was a hard living at the best of times. To make it the two or three years a dog could at most hope to live for, she needed to anticipate not only the exact time a particular woman would leave her rice offering at which temple, but also the timing of the subsequent theft of it from the altars before some other dog got to it first. With the curfew, scraps normally left outside of shops later were materializing earlier and restaurants where tourists could be counted on to respond to hungry stares through the windows were closed. It was hard enough for a dog not to starve in peak season. In low season they didn’t have enough time to pick at their mange. The dogs were hustling.

A dog would trot by in the street below and Paki would ask, “Is that him?”

“Nope,” I would answer. “Look at him.”

Another dog would come by.

“Let me have a look at the picture again,” Paki would say. He would scrutinize it and crosscheck it with the dog. “Well…. Or… no. No. That’s not him.”

It was a good thing this was happening in Nepal, where people are reasonable enough not to doubt that magic is as elemental a force in life as gravity (as opposed to our western belief that no such thing exists, or that we acknowledge as long as it’s called luck). The only thing that seemed outlandish was that it wasn’t working out. Paki was as surprised as I was, though. He was wise enough to know that being impatient with it would’t help. 

This went on until Paki had to close up shop to get home before the curfew. We pulled the steel shutters down, and Paki said a quick prayer before getting on his motorbike. I went back to my room. The Japanese stringer had disappeared. I would never see her again until she appeared on a contact sheet back home in America. 

In my darkroom in Boulder, I made some 18 x 24-inch prints of the dog in the clouds and tacked them up to a couple of the walls in the house. I kept a smaller print in my jeans pocket. Once in a while some dog warranted holding his chin to get the right angle and squinting at him, but this would only make his owner ask me just what it was I thought I was doing. The photo checks tapered off, but the belief that I was getting the dog in the clouds didn’t. It did seem like the odds were getting longer. 

One windy, snowy February day about two years later, I was alone in the little stone house, missing a dog. Suddenly, as if an anti-schizophrenic drug had just kicked in, the idea of the dog in the clouds felt like a delusion. I shook my head at myself and thought: “Man, are you a fool.” What a nice little thing to have been inspired by back then in the magical Himalayan valley — the same one that had pounded both of my legs into powder, snapped my left arm in half, and banged me so hard on the head that ten years later it still felt like I always had a hat one size to small stuck on my head and couldn’t get it off. Clouds. With a dog in them. Jeez. What a bonehead. It was like the moment when you find yourself saying, “What do you mean there’s no Santa Claus?” The sort of thing that once you understood, became hard to believe you ever believed it in the first place.

I knew what I would do. I would reverse course. Instead of looking for the dog, I would take any dog. I’d get the first dog available. I pulled my snow boots on and went across the street in the blowing snow to the market and bought a newspaper. I brought it home and spread it out on the coffee table. It was filled with pages of classified ads for every kind of dog there was, enough of them to finance the whole newspaper. Afghans. Airedales. Anatolians. Australians. Basenjis. Basset hounds. Beagles. I flipped the page and came to Labradors and thought one of those would be okay. I began calling the numbers.

“Hi, I’m looking at your ad for Labradors in the paper. I’d like to get one,” I said.

“Okay. We’re expecting our next litter in May. We can send you an application to fill out and return with a deposit.”

“Oh — you don’t have any available now?”

“Sir, we don’t just keep them in stock them and sell them off like that. You have to apply.”

I didn’t know that. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know enough to go to an animal shelter, which is now the only way I would ever get a dog again.

I kept going down the list and asking the same question. Everybody told me the same thing. I was ready to figure something else out when a woman answered the phone.

“Well, yes,” she said, “I do have a litter, and they happen to just be ready to go  today. They’re seven-and-a-half weeks old. What are you looking for? A boy? A girl?”

“A boy.” I knew that much much and added, “How about a yellow boy?”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I haven’t got any yellows. I have ten black girls and one little white boy.”

“White?” I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white Labrador.

“Yes, a little white boy.No yellows, though.”

“Can I come and pick him up?”

“Sure.”

“Great. Don't sell him out from under me — I'm on my way.”

“He'll be here. Now, normally I get $450 for my puppies, but I’ll knock fifty off because he has a hole in his cheek and it’s going to leave a scar. You weren’t planning on showing him, were you? You couldn’t show him with a scar like that.”

A scar? I was the king of scars. I had more scars than I could count, though I have tried. I didn’t care about the scar. And there was no risk of ever my ever wanting to put a dog in a show.

On the two-hour drive to a little town way out on the worst of Kiowa County’s  frozen shortgrass prairie, I started to worry. What was I doing? How do you take care of a little puppy? What do you feed them? How do you feed them? Do they know how to eat? Where was he going to sleep? How do you house train them? What are you supposed to say to them? What if I made a bad first impression and he considered me a fraud? Would he be open-minded enough to give me another shake? Or would that be it?

I was pretty worked up by the time I arrived at the house. The breeder and her husband took me out to the corral in the back. The parents and an aunt of the puppies were there, all big, black, happy and handsome. They ran over to say hi, smiling and wagging and pressing their sides into everyone’s legs. The father of the litter was gigantic. They were all in a terrific mood. It was like a Labrador resort for them, with snow, puppies running around and food delivered on schedule. The only time they had to stop what they were doing was when some human came over to tell them how great they were.

In the corral behind the adult dogs, some black dots were popping up from the snow and disappearing back into it. It was the black puppies. They were like a school of baby sharks churning the water white in a feeding frenzy. Once in a while I could make out the pink tip of one of their tongues or the grin of a maniac or their skinny ratlike tails wiggling above the surface. They were buzzing around some target with the devotion of electrons orbiting an atom, relentless and more ferocious than one expects puppies to be. Any time whoever their prey was squawked — a pitiable and lonely squawk muffled deep in the snow — the black puppies all jumped up at the same time, delighted at the noise produced by inflicting pain on someone.

The breeder said, “Oh, they’re ganging up on yours again. I don’t know why but those sisters of his just won’t leave him alone. 

I couldn’t see him. 

“He’s kind of hard to see, being white and in the snow and all,” she said. “Honey,” she said to her husband, “would you just go get him?”

She opened the gate and when he got within range, the black balls of fur tried to swamp him to try to keep him from usurping their kill, but their maneuver was unschooled and it was hard going in the snow. They couldn’t get past his ankles. He scooped up what appeared to be a large snowball, dusted it off a little, and brought it back to the gate. It was the little boy. He wasn’t white. He was the color of a polar bear cub. The breeder brushed more snow from his round little head and his stubby snout while his pink belly hung down and his big paws dangled.

This was one tired-looking puppy. He stuck the tip of his little flap of a pink tongue through his shiny black lips and it flicked in a nervous pant between puppy teeth as sharp as needles. His nose was about the size of the mark a pool stick leaves on a cue ball. Now, clear of the threat of death, his plump little body drooped like the towel some half-dead boxer’s manager was preparing to throw in the ring to end a slaughter he had allowed to go for on too long in the hopes of salvaging a ruinous bet. I was sure he was wondering where he had gone wrong. I had asked myself the same thing for years. The puppy turned to look down when his sisters made it to the gate and demanded his return by forming into a single clawing black ball of fur and tails and tongues and tried to break through. His big ear flaps dangled forward as he looked down at them. On that scrunched little face I saw the strength of a wolf. He was already capable of dignity while staring death in the face.

“Aren’t they just the cutest little things in the world?” the breeder said, looking at the pack of failed murderers.

“Yes,” I said, “they are.”

We went in the house and the puppy was placed on the floor. He sniffed it for a second and noticed a chair and stumbled over to it to reposition himself underneath. It was hard going with those big paws and beefy arms. He sat down under the chair and his pink belly flattened out in a soft blob on the carpet. He turned his head to take a look around through sad, black eyes. Involuntarily his paws began to slide forward into a lying-down position, but he thought better of it and backed them up one at a time to stay sitting, because the one thing he knew was that you never know. He was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, on Earth or in the clouds or in a picture or anywhere. Moving gently, I got down on the floor and sat crosslegged near him.

“Have you decided what you’re going to name him?” the breeder asked.

For the two preceding years I had thought about that but never came up with anything. Five minutes before arriving at the breeder’s house, the name Orville popped into my mind. Half for Orville Wright, co-inventor of the airplane and half for Orville Gibson, inventor of the modern American mandolin. I liked the old-fashioned sound of it. It also had the advantage of having been neglected as a good name for a dog. I had met a lot of Olivers along the way, but never an Orville.

“Yes,” I said. “His name will be Orville.”

“Well, go ahead and try it out on him,” she said.

I edged closer to the puppy. I was 25 times his size but felt like a buffalo beside him and didn’t want to crowd him. When he put his ears up the top of his head wrinkled under the weight.

“Hi, there, Orville,” I said quietly. There is something magical about the first time you call a puppy by the name you give them. “Hi, little puppy. Hi, Orville.”

He gave me a direct, non-committal sort of look. I scratched at the carpet in front of him and held my hands in his direction and he decided to crawl a little way out from under the chair in a half-squat and began to sniff his way over to me with his head down and his thin tail corkscrewing nervously. As he got closer he peed a little. I picked him up and felt the softness of his belly and his chest and his fur in my hand for the first time. I cupped his tiny head in my hand and touched his ear to my lips and said, “Hi, Orville,” I said. Even at that size, he did what any dog will do when pulled, and pulled in the opposite direction and he felt surprisingly solid under the loose fur. “Orville,” I whispered to him. “That’s who you are now. Orville. You’re going to be my little boy.” And stuff like that.

“Well,” the breeder said, “What do you think? Do you still want him?” She needed to get on with dinner.

“Oh, yes. I do.”

I wrote the check for the $450 minus the fifty that got knocked off for the hole in his cheek and said good-bye to the breeders and carried the puppy to the car. I put him on my lap for the drive home and sat there for a minute. His back wasn’t much bigger than my hand and his body was sloshing around in puppy fur, as if he had been issued the wrong size at the polar bear boot camp. I held one of his paws. It was the size of the last two joints of my fingers and with my thumb I could feel the delicate bones of his toes and his new claws and the soft leather of his footpads. I don’t remember what I was saying to him, but I’m sure it was just as you imagine.

 Up to that point, he must have been processing being carried out and brought out to the car, but when I started it and he felt it move, he began to cry. At first he just let out a a few quiet whimpers, but within a few seconds he was wailing. He had a surprising range and added yelps and when those no good he began to screech. He dug in with his claws and under the loose fur his baby muscles tensed. I put my hand under his belly to hold him but he threw his stubby arms around and flung his head from side to side and tried to get a purchase on anything he could with his clumsy paws and scrambled his fat legs as fast as he could. I put him down and held him, but it didn’t calm him. I didn’t know what to do and when I tried putting him back on my lap he burrowed his snout between my thighs. The way that muffled his whimpering was heartbreaking, but also cute. I just kept a hand on him and tried letting him calm down before holding him again and talking to him but he didn’t want that either and kept flopping around to try make a break for it. I wasn’t expecting the amount of strength packed into such a small puppy and he caught me by surprise with a wild flinging maneuver that landed him on the floor, where he clawed his way into the space behind the pedals. If he had done that when we were underway I would have had to stop with the parking brake to avoid squashing him. I let us both calm down for a minute, but I couldn’t help thinking how lonely and abandoned he must have been feeling down there, and I snaked him out. 

Hanging by the crooks of my thumbs, I brought him up to face me. He wasn’t as big around as my hands around him were. Being suspended like this gave him something new to think about. He hung there and looked out the window the way you do when you’re not really looking at something but absorbed in your own thoughts. He was thinking that all life did was rob you.

“Oh, little guy,” I whispered to him. “You poor little frightened bear.” I brought him in closer and leaned down to feel the top of his head with my face. It was like a walnut. I couldn’t get over how tiny he was. How could a little mouse like this really grow to the elephantine proportions of that father of his? His whiskers were like eyelashes and there’s no point in comparing how soft he was to anything because nothing was ever softer or smoother. Holding him like this seemed to calm him. 

“You’re going to be all right, Orville Beker. Orville Beker. That’s who you are. Orville Beker, the best little bear in the world.” I pressed him closer and felt the skin of his flabby cheeks and his fleecy ears against my cheek. He relaxed a little more. “Yes, just a poor little Orville bear. A poor, poor, poor, little, little bear. So little and so lonely. The littlest and loneliest of all the bears in all the world.” He began to feel understood and his body softened up a little more. He seemed to like the sound of  vowels drawn out like howls. “My pooooor, poooooor, lo-ooo-onely, loooo-ooooo-ooooonly little, little sad bear.” He reached up with one of his paws and put it on my arm and I felt his head get heavier as he fell asleep. I didn’t know puppies could switch into instant sleep like that. He snored the smallest snore anyone ever snored, and when I heard it and  felt it in his throat I loved it. I held him like that for a few minutes before trying to sneak the car back into gear. He woke up. Before he could get upset again I whispered the same sorts of things at him and he liked it. On the rest of the drive he slept and woke. Sometimes he got worked up and cried like he did at first. But he seemed to like being whispered to.

Most of the dreams seemed to be of the good old days when he could still get milk from his mother. He went swlop-swlop-swlop-swolp-swolp with his tongue and cheeks and he let out tiny grunts of satisfaction and moved his arms and legs around to get a better position on his mother. In his dreams, there were no sisters pushing him out of the way and none of the outnumbered dogfights no puppy, no matter how valiant, could ever hope to withstand or hope to win. It was a fine, long drink of the best milk in the world and he sucked and guzzled until he had his fill. When he was done, he sighed and flexed his body luxuriously. I didn’t want it to end. Not because he had been calmed and wasn’t crying, but for the privilege of it. He woke and whimpered a few more times until I rolled him into a ball like a hedgehog and zipped him into the front of my fleece jacket. 

Later, at home, Orville cried some more until, against what little advice I had gotten one way or the other, I curled him up and put him under the covers in bed with me. That stopped it. The sound of his snoring kept me up all night — not because it was annoying, but because I didn’t want to miss it. 

Orville never cried again.

*          *          *

One day, a few weeks later, Orville and I came home from the store. He was beefing up quickly, but he was still a small enough puppy to be carried like a parcel under my arm, and he liked it as much as I did and let me know by constantly bursting into spontaneous jags of wagging and licking.

He did this spontaneously, but also as a signal to communicate his understanding of something. When he began to understand the words I was teaching him, in the market, for example, I would say, “See this, Orv? This is a banana. You will probably never care about the banana. The banana may will probably never interest you. But this, my little puppy bear, this is turkey. Turkey… turkey… turkey,” I would tell him, and he would put his hears up and stretch his neck out to lean his nose in its direction and then give me a lick on the nose that meant, “Ah. Turkey. Got it.” When we got home, I would reinforce his vocabulary by reminding him of the word as he sat with a serious puppy expression to watch me take things out of the bag.

“Look at this, Orville,” I would say.

The strain of cocking his big ears would wrinkle the top of his head as he paid attention.

I would take it out of the bag and say, “It’s — TURKEY!” and give him a sniff. When it looked like he was getting the idea I’d give him a piece.

I had been photographing him constantly and that day, when we came home, we had gone to pick up a fresh envelope of color prints from the Fotomat, and I was going through them when we came in the door. When I opened the door, we stopped there so I could take advantage of the light. One of the big prints of the dog in the clouds was tacked on the wall right by the entrance. That photo had become a thing of the past now, just something else up on the wall that I didn’t pay more attention to than an old refrigerator magnet.

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“Oh, look at this, Orv,” I said, showing him a picture, even though he never seemed to think anything of them. “It’s a picture of the cutest puppy in the world. Ooop -— look at this. A picture of some handsome little boy.” I shuffled through the pictures. “See this, Orv? A picture of the best puppy ever. Oh, and here you are with a stick!” And on and on. Even if he wasn’t interested in the pictures, his enthusiasm for good conversation made him wiggle and wag his tail and stretch up to lick me. For the rest of his life, Orville would always be a licky dog.

One of the pictures was a selfie of the two of us. I was holding Orville and he was reaching up with a big smile to give me a lick on the nose. The picture made me stop. I recognized the picture. I turned around to the big photograph on the wall and looked back at the picture of Orville and held the color picture up to compare the two.

“Well. I’ll be damned,” I probably said.

The picture was a match — a match of the dog in the clouds in every detail. The head, the lips, the snout. Even the way he was reaching up to lick me was the same as the way the dog in the night clouds seemed to rise in front of the full moon in the Kathmandu sky. Here he was. The sad little puppy — the first dog available that snowy day, the one who came out of the classifieds as soon as I let go of the search for him, was the dog in the clouds.

[End of Part 3. Part 4 to follow.]

 

Part 4: The Dog in the Clouds

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While I was at the table peering at the one-inch photograph of the little house on the contact sheet and trying to remember why I took that picture all those years ago, Orville was lying in the crabgrass just outside the open french doors. The doors faced the mountains, and the room began to darken when the sun met the ridgeline. I put the contact sheet on the table with the hundreds of other photographs of Orville and went to him and sat down on the grass beside him and said, “My poor old bear, feeling so bad.” I picked his head up to cradle it in my crossed legs and leaned close to whisper in his ear for a while, telling him he was going to be all right. His head was heavy and he kept gazing at the mountains. I put my hand on his chest. The polar bear-colored fur had been thinned by chemo drugs to a puppy-like featheriness.

It got darker and I said, “Don’t you think we should go inside now, Orv?” He broke his gaze from the mountains and turned his head up to look at me and he looked at me for a long time, his eyes as dark as night sea. The day before we had gone for a walk on his favorite trail. He chased sticks into the muddy pond and tugged them the way he liked to before relinquishing them for another throw. When we got back to the car, he turned to face the valley, and he sat and took in the view. He looked at it the way he would look at the mountains the next day and the way he was looking at me now.

“I love you up and down, Orv,” I told him.

He had some trouble getting up, and I helped him roll from his side. On his feet, he positioned himself for a shake, but gave up on the idea with a brief look at me, as if to say, ‘maybe not,’ and turned to pad slowly towards the french doors. I stayed behind, buying a few seconds to try to put on a better face. He stopped to look back at me to make sure I was coming, the way a good dog always does, the way he had looked back at me on thousands of walks from the alleyways of Kathmandu to his swimming hole in Boulder. His head was hanging low, but the old smile still came to him and he swung his tail once, and in the last of the light, the pink and gold of the Rockies in the spring, made his eyes shine. There is no one better than a dog.

I said, “I’m coming, Orv,” and turned back towards the house to follow him.

We had only been living in that house for a week or two, and I had never used the yard. It was rough and there was nowhere to sit, and so I wasn’t used to seeing the house from that angle. As I turned to it now, the whole setting — the house and the RV and implement storage yard behind it — came into view. I was at the bottom of a breath and what I saw stopped me from inhaling. I suppose that’s just some puny human way to try to stop time. A rash of bad goosebumps came up on the backs of my arms in the warm evening air. 

This house was the house in the little picture on the contact sheet. The french doors had been added in the six years since I took the picture and some bushes had grown out. Maybe that was what kept me from recognizing it. Maybe it was something else. But it was this house. On some long-ago drive, when puppy Orville would have been in the passenger seat beside me, something made me pull over and take the kind of picture I never took. A picture of a house. A picture that hadn't even been worth printing. A house that, until now, had no meaning.

The first picture of Orville, the dog in the clouds, heralded his coming to me two years before he was born. This one mapped the place where he would die.

 

*                    *                    *

 

  A few days before.

A few days before.

For the six months that Orville’s cancer ran its course, I had been favoring the good news from his veterinary oncologists. I wonder now if it was to the point of not hearing bad news. What I heard was that he was doing as well as any dog with lymphoma ever did, and though he was beginning to slow down, and the disease was progressing, nothing in his tests raised the alarm that he was on the brink of dying. He was still happy and active, still hiking — if not as much — still chasing sticks thrown in the water, still insisting on playing the games he always wanted to play after he ate his dinner. Maybe he did some of that out of his dogly sense of duty, out of not wanting to disappoint me, but I hope not. On this late May evening, even when he was ill to the point of wanting to be by himself, I had still been hopeful. He had had a chemo treatment a day or two before, and though most of them hardly put a dent in him, there had been one that made him sick for two days. I suppose I believed what I wanted to be true, but until this moment I was still thinking that this round of sickness would pass. 

Recognizing the house in the photograph changed that. I understand how silly that may be. The skeptically-minded will always laugh things like that off as uninteresting coincidence, and they might be right. But when I recognized the house, just as he was walking through the doors that weren’t in the picture and into the shadows, I knew I was going to lose him. I stopped believing in the miracle the vets had told me not to expect.

I helped Orville up onto the bed and lay beside him. Usually he would wait for me to lie down so he could nestle accordingly, but tonight it was enough for him just to get on the bed. I took a pillow and lay diagonally with him, positioned in the way he liked most for the rest of the night, my arm bent with a hand under my head and his face on that forearm, the top of his skull under my chin. There was no one out in the night but the cicadas and coyotes and the slow train when it rumbled past on the way to the gravel plant. Orville snored occasionally, but it was thin and labored and if I had been a dog, my ears would have been up all night, listening the way I was, because I wasn’t sure it only a snore. I kept thinking that something inside him was rattling.

 

*                    *                    *

 

I stopped telling people a long time ago about what happened when I was killed in an accident. All it does is open you up to being told you couldn’t have been dead any more than you might have been abducted by aliens. But if there’s one thing people who have died share, it’s that they don’t reduce it to a matter of opinion. It is a clear and convincing experience, and it happens to you, you know that death is not the end. Not that there was much afterward. I was up fifteen feet or so in the cool Himalayan air, looking down on the scene after the accident, and the sight of me in a blood puddle with a press of villagers surrounding me as my girlfriend fended off the men trying to steal my boots while she yelled at me to wake up meant nothing more than the gravel on the road.

Both my tibia — the shinbones — had been compressed with enough force to blast six inches of each of them to powder and crumbs. The radius of my left arm was snapped. Broken bones aren’t too bad, though. They heal. 

The more subtle injury was to my head. Even though no bones in my skull were broken, it had been ricocheted from front to back on steel and granite, opening deep gashes and breaking, in a last dab of indignity, a front tooth. For years, before they faded to numbness, the nerves that had been torn in my face and scalp made me feel like I was wearing a tight hat. The bad injury was to the brain. For some weeks, my short-term memory didn’t work correctly. Some people liken a brain to a hard drive. I have a feeling it is more like millions of hard drives, each assigned to specific types of data or emotion or instinct or the subroutines for processing them, the whole vast network cross-wired with as many connections as there are stars in the universe. These memory problems only occurred with certain types of information. I might ask, for example, “What are we having for dinner?” and be answered, “Spaghetti,” only to ask, “What are we having for dinner?” and be told, “Spaghetti,” and ask, “What are we having for dinner?” and be told, “Spaghetti,” and repeat this until the patience of the person I was asking understandably ran out. The odd thing was that even though I couldn’t remember asking the question or it’s having being answered, I could remember all the questions and answers as an entire sequence afterward. Eventually, the connections found their way back to each other and this condition straightened itself out. But what did not return, and never would, was a normal ability to sleep, or, when I did, to dream anything but nightmares. 

During all of Orville’s life, this nightmare was always the same. I was flying, low, over towns and between buildings, while someone — I never saw who it was, I just knew they were there — chased me. I flew by dog-paddling the air with my hands cupped. As a pilot, I had the disadvantage of understanding how inefficient this was aerodynamically, but it worked in the nightmare, as long as I managed to scoop enough air as I paddled to stay aloft. I just had to paddle hard. I knew that if I let up at all, I would drop to the ground. Between knowing that and the relentlessness of the pursuer gaining on me, I was never paddling hard enough. I had to paddle harder. There was no hope, though, of keeping a pace that feverish up, and I knew it. It would have been too much for anyone, let alone a spindly weakling. At the first sign of losing altitude, I would clench my fingers into stiffer, tighter cups to keep air from slipping though my fingers, but was just desperation. It didn’t work. Eventually my strength would flag and I would lose my grip on the air and snap out of controlled flight and into a long plummet to the ground at the loud, rushing speed of a nightmare. 

Over time I began to enjoy these nightmares. When I went to bed, I hoped one would come on, though they only came once in a while. They gave me the opportunity to practice my dog-paddling flying technique. My airspeeds and endurance improved. My maneuvers became sharper and smoother. And though I knew I would always fall, instead of fearing it, I began to look forward to the thrill of the dive. 

When he was still a young dog, Orville seemed to understand that something troubled my sleep, and he made his mind up to take on the job of trying to protect it. He thought I should go to bed at a more reasonable hour and would come out of the bedroom and sit right in front of me and sigh and grunt with disapproval and a look of disappointment if I stayed up too late. The way he kept it up until I gave in and agreed to go to bed was annoying. And, once I was in bed, Orville would never take a chance on waking me up. Never. In the morning, no matter how long before me he might have woken up, he would not move until I did. Overnight, nothing could trigger him to bark. If he were dying of thirst he wouldn’t risk creeping to the water bowl beside the bed. He had appointed himself my guardian in this, and he was as uncompromising as a samurai. 

Sometime in the night after I recognized the house in the photograph and spent the night beside Orville as he rested so uneasily with his head on my arm, I fell asleep. It couldn’t have been long before the sun came up. What woke me was the sound of Orville panting. He was standing beside me, looking at me, his eyes as wide as the eye of someone that sick and weakened can get, waiting for me to wake up. He was in a new kind of bad shape and needed help, but still, he would not wake me.

I scrambled off the bed and held him and he leaned against me. I said, “Oh, Orv, why didn’t you wake me up?” even though I knew the answer, which is that he, as a dog, could never let me down. It was unthinkable.

“Do you want to go to the doctor, Orv?” I said.

Since his early puppyhood, when questions were about playing stick or being hungry or going to the park, Orville always acknowledged that he understood or wanted something by licking me once on the nose. Now he could only manage a move in the direction of a lick, but it was enough. I pulled some jeans on on and helped him into the car. Whatever was hurting him was too painful for him to lie down in the back seat for the 15-minute drive. In the rearview mirror I could see him panting and squinting as he stood leaning against the seat and I was glad he wasn’t looking back at me.

 

*                    *                    *

 

His vet — a fine, loving, devoted vet — could find no immediate cause for Orville’s pain. He had to lie down for part of the examination, and that hurt him, until I found that by helping roll onto his chest instead of his side he would be relieved instantly and able to close his eyes. He was exhausted, but his brief periods of rest were fitful. We positioned some weighted pillows around him to help him maintain his position comfortably, but the slightest relaxation that made him move to the side shot him through with pain. And, just like the day before when he lay alone in the crabgrass and looked at the mountains, he seemed to want to be alone. Either he wanted to be alone or was, in some deep sense a dog understands, already alone. He waited until I was out of the room to die. 

 

*                    *                    *

 

I brought Orville’s body home on a borrowed stretcher. I swept the photographs of him from the table and placed the stretcher on the table so that he would not be on the floor overnight. I wrapped his body in the finest thing I had, a 15-foot long tapestry of soft white yak wool that had been made for the Himalayan queen who gave it to me as a present. I left his head out and put his collar on, a collar of great dignity, hand-wrought of polished steel by a village blacksmith in those stormy mountains when Orville roamed them as puppy and young dog, never on a leash. I sat with him until the crematorium, a brick oven in a wildflower yard, opened in the morning, and after I put him in and arranged him in his yak wool wrap and the steel door closed, I sat and waited while he burned to ashes.

 

*                    *                    *

 

The last time I I had gone to India was on that old motorcycle with a broken frame that I rode back to Kathmandu on the day I saw the dog in the clouds. Motorcycling was the most dangerous thing I ever did, not because of the dense, hectic traffic, but because Indian truckers killed motorcyclists for sport. That ride wasn’t long. Doing a longer one would be a game of Russian Roulette. If I were to ride long enough, or far enough, a loaded chamber would have to come under the hammer. Psychologists have written millions of words about the strange patterns of repetitive self-destructive behaviors. Gasoline drinkers who keep at it until they go blind, or snakebite victims who couldn’t resist sticking their arms into rocks where rattlers live. After I was crushed in Nepal, I never quite let go of the idea that I had to finish that job. Maybe it was the same sort of thing. Maybe that was why I returned over and over again to the Himalaya.

I ordered a motorcycle from a shop in Bombay and arrived there a few months after Orville died. The problem with this brand-new motorcycle was that the engine was built with primitive metals and to poor tolerances, making internal parts of the engine scrape away at each other. To get around that, it was necessary to break it in gently, by limiting the speed to about 15 miles per hour for the first 1250 miles. Of course I was impatient to get to higher speeds than that and pushed it up to 30 after droning around Bombay for the first hundred miles, but, as expected, the engine failed and had to be completely overhauled. In the next hundred miles it failed and had to be overhauled a second time. Daytime traffic in Bombay was insane, so I rode the break-in at night, south from Juhu along the coast on the Bandra road to Colaba with a long line of hazy moonlight on the Arabian Sea, which always seemed to be calm. Sometimes a friend of mine would ride with me, generously holding his speed back to match mine. He had a favorite stray dog, who was pregnant and lived under a pier, and we bought  milk for her from a vendor’s cart until one night she was gone.

When the bike began to work more reliably, I left Bombay in the middle of the night, with no destination in mind. The first truck attack came just north of town. It was a thing of terrifying beauty, a coordinated effort by two trucks. They were both orange Tatas, the usual kind with sides of wooden boards painted with garish images of Hindu gods and Bollywood movie stars, and tinsel garlands adorning the windshields.

The trucks were going faster than I was as they came up on either side of me. Indian truckers, a sooty lot, always travel with a minimum of one assistant — younger men so grimy that their bones would burn black — and leaning overboard from the window of each truck, these assistants monitored my position and shouted the range to the drivers as they edged in to sandwich me. While two drivers might independently decide at the same time to murder the same motorcycle, combining for a two-truck attack is almost unheard of, and so they knew I wouldn’t be expecting it. 

When they got alongside, they swerved abruptly to within a foot of my handlebars. I didn’t have time to brake and drop behind them, or maybe I would have, but lost the nerve in-between the pitching orange hulks, and anyway, they kept me from going anywhere by surgically closing the rest of the distance, which the assistants were calling out with the precision of radar altimeters. My left handlebar came into contact with the orange wood of the truck on my left no more than a second before the one on the right, and I felt the handlebar stiffen unnaturally as the trucks pinned it between them and took control. If one driver hit the gas or the brakes, it would have acted like a snap of the fingers to twist my handlebars and flip the bike under their wheels. All I could do was hold on. Once they were satisfied that their track was dialed in, the assistants called, “Tikeh — Hoooooah, hooooooooah,” and then a go-ahead to accelerate, which they did in formation, pulling the bike, and me, forward with them. I tried to accelerate to keep the bike from resisting, but the rotating throttle handle was pinned against the side of the truck and the bike groaned. Maybe they were only whetting their appetites or maybe a killing this close to the city would risk the cops, but they only held it for five or six seconds until the assistants simultaneously ended the Hooooooah-ing with hard slaps on their respective doors, like referees calling a man out on the mat, and the drivers peeled away from me. While I braked to get behind them — the bike was capable of nowhere near the power necessary to get ahead of them, and, in any event, they would have considered that a taunt requiring a firm response — I heard hilarious laughter and hooting break out in the truck cabs over the diesel engines and cloud of black exhaust smoke. If I had been carrying a rocket propelled grenade, I’m not sure I would have been able to use it against men of such skill, though I wouldn't have minded having the option.

That first attack was the most dramatic of the 6000 miles I rode. The rest were all run-of-the-mill — oncoming trucks drifting into my lane to try to clip me with a touch of the bumper or overtaking trucks sideswiping. According to the ethic of the professional Indian trucker, motorcyclists had no one but themselves to blame for being maimed or killed in a successful attack. They were merely nature’s agents, thinning weaklings and cowards from the herd in a process as natural as any involving a tiger and a warthog. I never went more than a few miles without seeing the twisted frames of a wrecked motorcycle, and countless more had been scavenged by scrap metal pickers. In some of the places where they were out of easy reach — in ravines too steep or rapids to violent to enter — they formed piles.

This form of battle was strangely energizing, even though I knew that I would, at some point lose. Maybe the last holdout shooting through a parapet in the face of an advancing army feels the same way. In the meantime, after years of mediocre motorcycle handling, I was becoming proficient. I could lean the bike over at high speeds on tight curves until the pegs scraped the dirt and thread needles through a morass of carts and bikes and rickshaws and trucks and cows like an Indian.

When the temperature reached 110 degrees the asphalt softened. At 119 the bike sounded like it was splashing through puddles. One evening, while eating the same thing I usually did to avoid food poisoning in the dives I wound up in — a plate of boiled tomatoes and potatoes — I realized that I had drunk 13 liters of water that day without having to urinate. All the water must have evaporated through my skin in the dry air. 

Heat drove me northwards towards higher ground, through the Rajasthani desert, where big grey monkeys waited by the side of the road to cross in front of me at the last second. Why the damned monkeys insisted on this game of chicken, I have no idea, but they were as bad as the truckers. In the blinding sunlight of the moments after a storm of red dust passed, what looked like a flying green and gold kimono caught by the wind rose from the side of the road beside me and flattened on my visor. I shook my head to my head to unstick it and saw it pull its wings in and land in the sand as a peacock who looked back at me as if I had insulted him. I checked the map sometimes, the compass more often. The main goal was to get into the hills in northern India. I didn’t care where. I was stuck for a couple of days when one of the thousand things that broke on the motorbike broke in Ahmedabad, where I witnessed a dog killing so cruel that it inspired in me a hatred for that whole city that will never fade. At night I would stay in a cinderblock guest house if there was one or on one of the wooden cots strung with oily rope that were laid out in rows outside the restaurant benches in the dirt yards of truck stops. There, I mingled with the enemy. Without the armor of their trucks they were ordinary men. Some of them didn’t even look like murderers. Often they would insist on buying me, as a foreigner, a glass of tea, taking pride in the fact that their stature meant that it would be made with milk that had not yet soured and when it came, we pretended it wasn’t.

On higher ground in Dharamsala I rented a room from a retired Indian Air Force wing commander. Like many of the higher ranking Indian officers, he was a creature of the colonial past, an officer as much in the tradition of Sandhurst as that of Delhi. His English was peppered with Britishisms. We got to talking about airplanes and from that to motorcycles. I brought up the truck attacks.

“Oh, my dear fellow,” he said, “you're not carrying the right caliber of rock.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not carrying a rock at all.”

“That’s your trouble in a nutshell,” he said.

He explained that the only way to prevent truck attacks was to display to any potential attacker, a rock the size of a baseball. The size was important, because it had to be small enough to look like it could be lofted eight feet up, but big enough to smash a windshield. Every trucker was on the lookout for the caliber of the enemy’s artillery. All a motorcyclist had to do was carry a rock or two on top of the bike’s gas tank, where they would be easy to reach. On the first suspicion of an attack, the rock is hefted, with the motorcyclist positioned in a way that left no doubt that he was timing a toss straight up in the air so that it would reach its apex just above the windshield and come back down to smash it. This was the only trick that worked because truck companies docked the pay of truckers for  windshields damaged by rock attacks, since it was assumed that any time a truck’s windshield was smashed with a rock it was the result of a defensive countermeasure, which the trucker could have avoided by not initiating an attack in the first place. Rocks were kryptonite to truckers. As soon as they saw it they abandoned their plans, slowing and passing respectfully. It wasn’t a panacea, but the wave of truck attacks went down, and there was pleasure in owning a personal force field.

I had heard about a difficult road, reputed to reach the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, north of Kashmir and over the western Himalaya to the Tibetan Plateau at Ladakh. It seemed like a good idea, especially now that the truckers had been tamed and things started to feel a bit too safe. 

George W. Bush was president, and though bombing Afghanistan had been considered justifiable by just about everyone, including much of the Muslim minority in India, when the Iraq war began, Muslims all over south Asia began to hate Americans. Al-Queda was enjoying record recruitment by the novel means of advertising beheadings on YouTube. To get to the high pass, I would have to ride through Kashmir, a Muslim state that was disputed in frequent skirmishes and occasional wars with Pakistan. It was not a good time to go to Kashmir.

I went to see a Kashmiri acquaintance of mine at whose rice shop I ate sometimes. He was taping a sheet of paper to the wall outside his shop when I went to ask him what he thought about trying the ride. The paper he was taping up was the same being put up on all the local Muslim-owned shops. It read: “NO AMERICANS.”

“Please, not to include you, my brother,” he said. “You are always welcome.”

“Thank you, my brother,” I said. We ate together and he advised against Kashmir. A very bad idea, he said. As an American I would be a target. I would have my head sawed off with a dull pocketknife.

“What do you put the odds of that at?” I asked him.

“Fifty-fifty,” he said. “No more.”

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I had no trouble with al-Qaeda until I got to the outskirts of Srinagar, and that was only a case of mistaken identity. A terrorist happened to have just then thrown a grenade into a bazaar nearby and while I waited at a red light, my face and clothes blackened with soot from the diesel fumes of a five-mile-long column of Indian Army trucks I passed, a teenage cop fantastically assumed I must have thrown the bomb. He tackled me off the motorcycle from behind and pinned me on the pavement until his sergeant came over and recognized me as a foreigner.

“What is your country, sir?” he said.

“America,” I said.

“Ah, Amrika,” he said and yelled at the kid to let me go and ordered him to pick the bike up, but I stopped him, preferring to do it myself.

The road to the pass at Khardung-la began north of Leh, where it was recommended to stay for a few days at 11,000 feet to acclimate to the altitude. South Pollu, the checkpoint, was a tent encampment at around 15,000 feet. Because the switchback road over the mountains was nothing more than a mud and gravel track carved into the mountains, and was narrowed any time a boulder dropped or mud slid, it was closed for nine months of the year and during the summer three impassable in bad weather. Now, at South Pollu, snow and wet sleet were coming down, and the Army, which was in charge of it, ordered the pass closed. A hundred trucks and jeeps were gathered and everyone loitered at the tea stalls, waiting for it to open. It could take days. With mountain weather you could never tell. One could either drive the short distance back to Leh or wait it out and spend the night in a white canvas tent for a few rupees. The Khardung-la would not open until the army command post received a radio message with the all-clear from the garrison at the top.

I had always found Indian military personnel — some of the toughest fighters on Earth — to be not only hospitable, but able to bend rules in ways that few western officers would consider. I rode the bike over to the Army headquarters and saw that a colonel was standing at the raised entrance with his entourage of aides-de-camp. When I presumed to walk up the stone steps, his men prevented me from approaching him, but he took the swagger stick he had tucked under the arm of his bomber jacket and motioned with it to let me come. He was handsome and fit man in his 40s with a stupendous black mustache. He tucked his stick back under his arm and I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“And how may I assist you, sir?” the colonel said.

“Well, sir, by granting me permission to go over the pass now. I’m just on a motorcycle, after all. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Why not? It’s your neck. As long as you understand that no one can come and look for you,” he said. 

“Understood,” I said. 

He snapped his fingers at an aide with a clipboard behind him and a permit appeared for him to sign.

He handed it to me and said, “Bon voyage. The mountain is yours.”

It was not a long ride, but it was harder than I anticipated. The track was pitted, rocky mud at best, with deep ruts hidden beneath freezing sleet. Some of the ruts went to the edge, the last signs of life of departed trucks that had slid into the 3000-foot ravine. Anywhere I stopped to look I saw them far below, crushed after their long falls in the rocks. Any time my front wheel was caught in a rut that was camouflaged by freezing sleet, it would slide, sometimes to the edge, so I had to keep my feet down and walk the bike through bad spots. The engine, capable of no more than 50, possibly 60 miles per hour at sea level, lost most of its power with altitude, though it astonished me by developing any at all. The engines of many light aircraft can’t climb to half that altitude. Dirty orange-amber marmots watched me from the rocks and took advantage of my creeping progress to roll stones down on me, but though their goal might have been admirable, their aim was pathetic and they never got closer than a few feet.

“Hah! That all you got, you little orange monster? You’re lucky my dog isn’t here! He’d come up there and tear the whole gang of you in half,” I called up to them when they tried it, even though Orville would have done no such thing. He loved all animals. He lived his whole short life without ever planting his teeth in anyone. When attacked, an inevitability for a dog who traveled to remote places, he had a way of wrestling even large dogs onto their backs and clamping their necks in his jaws to give them an opportunity to reconsider. As soon as they did, he let them go and looked at me with a smile.

At the top, at the pass itself, to the side of the rough track, was an old corrugated tin army shack for the handful of soldiers stationed there and a brick temple room that had been dedicated to all religions. It was filled with images of saints and gods from Hanuman to Mohammad, Jesus to the Dalai Lama. The soldiers were surprised to see me, but glad for the company, and one of them ordered another to bring tea. It took a hell of a long time to boil at that altitude, but it was good stuff and they were generous with the sugar and we stood around drinking it beside the yellow stone slab that had, “Kahrdung-la — Highest Motorable Pass in the World — 18,360 Feet” painted on it in red. They took turns taking pictures of each other on the bike.

The actual peak of this mountain was up another 30 feet on the other side of the track. It was covered with tattered, windblown Tibetan prayer flags and patches of snow. It was steep and I asked the soldiers if it was possible to go up there, and one of them said, “No problem,” and nodded at one of the guys to show me how. In a few seconds he scaled it and came back down.

“You see? No problem. So easy.” This must have been a running joke with them. It took me 20 minutes of struggling with the frozen mud and rocks coming loose in wet snow and running out of breath with every step to climb the first 20 feet. The soldiers laughed the whole time and kept hollering to point better footholds out, but it was all I could do to claw my way up the best I could. I had to stop frequently and cling to the rocks in the mud and snow. There was so little oxygen in the high air that deep breaths weren’t working in the usual way, and with what little I got I laughed with the soldiers, because the joke was a good one.

“You see? No problem!” one of them called in a punchline.

It flattened out in the snow near the top, and I was out of sight of the soldiers and alone when I made it. There was nothing up there but a waving sea of Tibetan prayer flags radiating from a square chorten, a monument to some revered spirit made of stone with niches of whitewashed wood on each of its cardinal sides.

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I was in the cloud that had been enveloping the summit and dropping the sleet and snow that had closed the pass, and, as the colonel said, making the mountain mine, and though the inside of a cloud just looks like fog, there is something deeper and richer about high mountain fog. Being in it is like being underwater without drowning. But clouds move fast in the mountaintops, and this one turned to wisps and blew away. The grey opened up to the deep azure of the sky at that altitude. I put my sunglasses on and watched as the last shreds of the cloud disappeared like steam.

Before going back down the hill to thank the soldiers and insist on leaving a few rupees for tea, which I knew they would refuse once and I would have to insist on once in the accepted ritual before they accepted, I took a last look at the mountains. I had never been higher and knew I would never be again. All around me, these peaks of the western Himalaya were covered in blinding snow all the way to the horizon. 

I came to India with a tiny brown glass bottle filled with a tablespoon or two of Orville’s ashes that I always had in my pocket. This seemed like a good place to leave some of them. Anyone who has scattered the ashes of someone they love knows how it feels to let them go, but I would only leave a few. I went around the chorten to choose the best direction and noticed that the niches of the chorten were all empty. There was no sign of whoever the chorten was meant to honor, none of the the usual offerings or of grains of rice or statues or amulets or bits of red string. I tipped a pinch of the ashes into my hand and then into one of the niches and put the top back on the bottle.

“There you go, Orv,” I said. “I love you up and down.”

A strong feeling came over me in the form of a question that went something like, Isn’t it time to stop this now? Or, Don't you think we should inside now? And in answer I thought, Yes. 

I opened the bottle again and put the rest of Orville’s ashes into the four niches. The winds of the mountains would come to take them. When I had tapped the last of the ashes out I stuffed the bottle full of the snow on the chorten and capped it tightly. I tore an old purple prayer flag from a string of them to take in exchange and folded it and wrapped it around the bottle and knotted it and put it back in my pocket. Later, to smooth out any question of transgression, I would confess all of this to an old monk and he would laugh and put his hands on my shoulders and tell me it was just as it should have been.

I rode down the other side of the pass and into the Nubra Valley. It is the most beautiful place on Earth.

 

*                    *                    *

 

Fifteen years now bridge the span from the little farmhouse in Hygiene, Colorado to the one Roo and I were now going to see in Virginia. 

This was a haggard place. It was in a gated yard at the edge of a cow pasture, but the gate was open and had been for so long that it had settled into the dirt. The gate wasn’t necessary anyway, because the cows knew something that kept them out voluntarily. 

Whoever had left this place last had been at the tail end of their own decline. There were hints of crystal meth as part of the undoing — scars on the door jam from being jimmied and broken windows and siding damaged in what were signs of the range of unnatural new angers pervading America. Through the window it looked like a fireplace had been chiseled from the wall and replaced with a piece of warped plywood. A rotted chicken shack on the property had descended into a state too pitiable even for chickens and was now the repository of gooseneck gasoline cans rusted to parchment and a scattering of rags so soiled that removing them had been the point at which whoever had tried to clean the place out drew the line. At the side of the house facing the pasture that Roo was checking for mouses was a tin dog house, a cruel one, set on steep ground, its sheet metal peeled and bent to razors that would have cut the skin of any dog driven insane from living at the end of the short length of heavy old thresher chain beside it.

I didn’t bother to go in the house. I stood on that leeward side and watched Roo run around for a few minutes. The wind was cold and dry and it blew her golden fur into a blaze among the dead grass as she looked back at me. The cold black cows, driven to lie down in the wind, kept an eye on her, wondering why she wasn’t at the end of that dog chain and suspecting her of getting ready to charge them and make them have to get up and run. They were just paranoid. Roo intended to do no such thing. The wind came up more, more than I could take because I had reached my limit of cold weeks before, and I called to Roo to come to the car. 

I never asked her the question I asked Orville at the other farmhouse, whether she would like to live there. All I said was, “What do you say we get out of here, Bearface?”

In the car Roo sat in the passenger seat. After we had driven a mile or two she started batting me with her paw for attention and I smoothed her face the way she likes and said, “Do you know whose daddy loves his little fat bear up and down?”

She looked at me with her ears back and her head held high and batted me again.

“That’s right,” I said. “Yours. I love you up and down.”

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