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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