Backcountry Skiing with Dogs (or, I want to write about heaven)

“I want to write.”

Has your brain ever spoken to you so loudly that it feels like a voice external to you speaking?

Last night, in the dark, where just a moment earlier I had been falling asleep, came the not-sound, insistent.

“I want to write.”

I haven’t stopped writing. I write a dizzying number of emails. My journal is never far from my side. And yet, I don’t write.

Instead, the evenings and weekend hours when I would have written, I still write but I swap one language for another.

Javascript.

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I’m sure I’ll talk about that more some other time. For now, suffice to say, even in this moment when I’m writing (finally), I feel the guilt.

I’m writing, but I’m not coding. I’m not studying. I’m not working toward something.

Am I?

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Let’s not get distracted.

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Nova is curled up, a tight bun shape, on the couch. She’s tired because yesterday she ran.

Oh, how she ran!

We – my boyfriend, my dog, and I – went to St Vrain. There’s less snow than when he and I went last year, but the snow that is feels surprisingly soft. No melt freeze crust to punch through, just snow wind packed.

When I got Nova, I resigned myself to having a dog that might never be allowed off leash. Huskies aren’t known for their penchant for sticking around. But there is something else in her. And this other side is what I wanted – obedient, responsive, a white shadow at my heel.

Granted, she doesn’t actually know “heel.”

She is a mix of these things. A snow dog that loves to run and wander. An independent spirit who checks back to make sure I’m still there. Who learns quickly to run behind the skier, just to one side. Who comes when called – eventually.

But who gets distracted and has to be gone back for, calling her name as I carry my skis back up the skin track until rounding the corner I see her, just at the next corner up, looking down to be sure it’s me.

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Can I try to tell you what it felt like to see her running with me?

I have new skis, new bindings, new boots, and new skins. I’ve skinned up this path on St Vrain before, but never with such comparative ease. The pain in my knee that plagued and crippled me all last winter, gone. The weight of my old equipment dragged me down and held me back. The right, light gear seemed to propel me forward.

And a white dog ducking in and out of the woods. She alternated between trotting along on the skin track and wiggling through the deep snow on her belly.

We hadn’t broken tree line when we decided to turn around for the day, but discomfort in my right foot (the previously broken foot) and rising wind speeds made the decision easy.

My partner and I switched to downhill, and so did she.

We alternated, finding it best to keep the dog between us as we skied.

When it was my turn to ski first, she ran at my tails as if she knew the command for “heel.”

She ran just at my periphery. A tilt of my head and there she was, tongue out and charging.

When we stopped to let her catch her breath, she dove into deeper snow. When we started again, she was there, running at the heel of whichever of us was first.

In me, with skis on my feet and dog at my heel, the sense of Vonnegut’s heaven; everything is beautiful and nothing – not my knee, not my tweaked shoulder, not my mind – hurt.

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Dog Borrower

corgi girlI’m an unabashed, unashamed borrower-of-dogs.

From Sophia, my old corgi girl. My first dog and my litte sister. A quintessential corgi personality. Impossible to photograph, impossible to train out of begging for food at the dinner table.

To Joey, my brother’s Norwich Terrier, who conquers hearts and gains admirers wherever she goes.

Or Tanner, the English Shepherd mix who might just be the perfect dog. A rescue, too, who’s found his forever-ever home.norwich terrier

Then there’s Hailey, the most opinionated dog on the planet. I have never met another dog more convinced that she’s right and you’re incredibly and incurably wrong.

Ella, my dog-cousin. She looked me in the eyes one afternoon, and the wordless knowledge passed between us that she owned me and there was nothing I could do about it.

Younger than the others, though fast growing out of her gawky teenage years, is Clover. A free spirit and mountain dog with a soulful face and a hound dog’s bark.

english shepherdThere are others, too, that I’ve held and held back. And still more that I’ve stopped on the streets to say hello. Corgis that have brought tears to my eyes. German Shepherds that won me over in a matter of moments. A Chow-Chow-mix who was the sweetest dog I ever did see, but who definitely did not understand the concept of me spending a night on his sofa. And my parent’s first dog, who I know only by pictures. A protective mutt they found in a barn.

Here a mutt, there a pure bred. From rescues, puppy mills, pounds, breeders, accidental litters.

lab border collie queen

Dogs who evolved to stand at our sides. Who we brought into our tents, homes, families. That lick our fingers and faces. That leave marks on our lives, and maybe even our skin.

I still have the scar from when I was bit in the face as a child. An accident on both our parts – mine and the dog’s. Neither of us meant any harm, and there were no hard feelings. I loved that dog, Oscar, before and I loved that dog until he passed away, a very old man, years after. When someone tells me they don’t like dogs because they were once bit, I lift my chin and trace the thin mark of stitches against my jaw.

Like a dog, forgive. And love again. Other lessons: stop to admire the leaves on the ground, the grass. Appreciate a blanket and a sofa. Stay hydrated. Stretch you legs. When it feels good, lean in to it. Sigh with contentment. Love your work. Love your play. Get dirty. Shake when wet. Kiss the ones you love every day.

Mine is a life lived in dog-years, a heart marked by paw prints.wistful mutt

Country vacation

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a peanut butter jar?All of them.
How many licks does it take to get to the center of a peanut butter jar?
All of them.

I’m in the country this weekend, dogsitting for a friend.

Springtime is  more noticeable here. There are songbirds at the feeder and a hawk circling the field, the buzzing of the clusterflies rising from the earth – creatio ex nihilo. But down the hill where the sun doesn’t shine, a layer of snow holds on to the ground like a lover.

My first act when I arrived this morning was to lay on the wood floors with my arms wrapped around the dog. Then, after stirring the fire, I sat outside in the air with the dog at my feet, her hounddog eyes tracking everything that moved. It was too cold this morning to sit like I was, on a bench in the front yard with only a t-shirt on, but my skin craved the light.

Then a hike up Mt Philo, a dog and a friend in tow. (Mostly for the fresh air, but also to check in on my knee. This is a test. If I can hike, then I can hike Mt Washington. If I can ski, than I can ski Tuckerman Ravine.)

All in all, the country day my spirit craved. The dirt road, the wood-fueled furnace, the cat asleep by the fire, the dog chasing squirrels across the yard. A few words on a page. That’s all.

Goodbye to this girl’s best friend

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Just a dog and her girl

14 years ago, I opened a door and a tiny, strawberry-blonde barreled into my legs. She was a ridiculous little thing – tiny legs, a stump for a tail, and two soft ears folded forward… I was a a sweaty 11 year-old just getting home from a soccer game. The last thing Dad or I expected to come home to was a puppy.

I got the news last night – Sophie was put down. Her degenerate spinal disease had progressed to the point where she could no longer use her back legs. To walk her, Mom looped a long scarf under her stomach.

In short, I knew it was coming.

Sophie was my friend and companion. Then, when I turned 16, she would sit in the passenger seat of my first car, her head on my hand as I shifted gears. We’d go for walks in the woods together when no one else could come along. She’d follow gamely along in our tracks as we went snowshoeing through snow deeper than she was tall. She slept on my bed every night.

When I came home from college, she ignored me. She jumped all over my mother, but took one sniff of me before walking away. I was devastated the first time this happened. But, just like old days, come bed time, she slunk into my room and I lifted her up. The next day, we were friends again.

She was terribly bad behaved. Barked incessantly. Had a sick obsession with toys that squeaked. Not a meal went by where she didn’t put her front paws on our laps desperate for handouts.

And death i think is no parenthesis
Sophie Grace Millikin 1998-2012

Oh, and she never got along with other dogs. She wasn’t a dog’s dog. She was a people’s dog.

If we lived in a world where Philip Pullman’s daemons were born with us, Sophie wouldn’t be my daemon. From the start, she was my mother’s. While Sophie loved us, her family, she loved my mother best. Truly she was my mother’s dog… but she was my little sister.

I love you, girl. I’ll miss you always.