Sunday, February 20, 2005

Best friend for a day

LOCATION: Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs TIME: Crack of dawn EQUIPMENT: Hiking stuff OPTIONAL: Free spirited dog friend

On Saturday I went hiking on Old Rag mountain with Martin. It was a frosty morning, the first ray of sunshine had just emerged from behind the mountain ranges in the distance, and as we were walking on the fire trail towards the start of the hike, a black dog ran up and greeted us as if she'd been missing us for years. She hopped and panted and ran in circles and licked and generally did that doggy thing of channeling unabashed ecstasy through every shaggy hair.

We patted her for a while and kept on walking - and she followed us. She pranced along with the carefree air of a dog being taken on a walk, running up ahead to sniff things, peeking back to make sure we were catching up, swishing her tail like a celebration flag in the wind.

"I guess she wants to come with us," I said.

"Yeah, the trail's pretty steep and she looks kind of fat and old," Martin said. "I'm sure she'll get tired pretty quickly."

But the dog showed no signs of being tired, and on our next water break she ran back to nuzzle us affectionately. "Get away, cadger," Martin said. "You're not getting any of our water!"

"Aww, I bet you don't mean that," I said, giving the dog a hug.

Old Rag is a beautiful hike, 5-7 hours round trip depending on the variation of the trails you take, and the ascent to the summit features about an hour of serious rock scrambling, requiring hands and feet and coordination, and sometimes a helping shove from your hiking partner. But to our amazement, the dog scampered along with sangfroid, occasionally scampering to the top of a craggy rock and flapping her tongue cheerfully in the breeze.

Fellow hikers shot affectionate glances towards our seeming happy threesome. Our dog was so obviously attached to us and had clearly been a beloved pet for years. "That dog's a badass climber! What's her name?" one passerby asked us.

Martin frowned and opened his mouth, but I'd already sung out, "Thanks! She's called Daisy."

"That dog's going to get us in trouble," Martin muttered. "Pets aren't allowed on this section of the trail."

But on our next break, he sighed, "Want to give her some water?" and cupped his hands for her to drink from.

We kept on walking and the rock scrambles grew steeper, to the point that the blue trail markers really did indicate the only possible feasible path, There was another hiking couple behind us, and we all huffed and puffed our way along. I could hear Martin explaining to the woman behind me, "She's really not our dog. She's been following us all day."

And then we came to a place where you had to climb up a vertical section of rock. I scrambled up first, blithely, and only turned around when I noticed that nobody had followed me. I peered back over the ledge to see Daisy vainly trying to claw her way up, only to fall down. "Try picking her up," I called to Martin. But when he tried, she yelped in alarm and dashed away.

"There's absolutely no way she's getting up here," Martin said. "We're going to have to leave her behind."

"Is there another way up?" I asked.

"Nope," said the man behind us. "This is the best way."

"She can find her way home," said Martin. "She's been taking care of herself fine so far."

I wasn't so sure. We'd already been climbing over some serious rock scrambles for about an hour. Daisy had been fine, but what if she happened to hurt herself on the way back? Nobody would know, and her owner would probably never guess to search so far from home. This ledge was the last obstacle before the summit, where we'd reach the smooth, safe, downhill return path. But if we tried to hoist her up, she'd be even more likely to panic and fall. And she'd seemed totally at ease on the rocks up till now. Surely she had a good sense of direction. What would stop her making it home?

Martin climbed up to join me, but as we started walking away we heard a desperate "Yip yip yip yip yip!" Dear reader, no words I could ever find would express the desolation and betrayal in those barks. We turned around as if we'd been pulled by a rope and stood watching Daisy down below, dashing back and forth and making futile little scrambles up the rock.

"I mean, she can definitely find her way home," I said, unconvincingly. I thought about asking Martin to turn around and go back over the rock scrambles with Daisy, but I really didn't want to; it had been a grueling hour of climbing, and I'd strained some muscles in the back of my leg, which was starting to hurt. Repeating all the climbing would probably turn a slight injury into something much more serious.

As we stood there helplessly, Daisy darted out of view, we heard a "scrit-scrit-scrit", and all of a sudden she emerged at the top. You know that scene in the adventure movie when the hero jumps into a deep hole and everyone just sort of stands around and waits for the hero to make it out, and all of a sudden there are majestic swells of classical music, with joyful piping trumpets and gigantic cymbal clashes, and you see the hero's fingers on the edge of a hole, and then they pull themselves up, all dirty and beat up but with a proud grin? It was just like that. Daisy sprinted over to us, wiggling and panting and licking whatever she could reach.

"My god," Martin said. "That dog is totally crazy."

The other hiking couple must have heard the triumphal music, because they turned around. "Wow! I can't believe that dog made it up!" the man said. The woman walked over to us with an expression of concern on her face. "You know, she's wearing a collar - I checked on the address," she said. "It says 'Sperryville,' and I think that Sperryville is about twelve miles away. Since she's been following you - " She shrugged.

"She ran up to us right at the start of the trail, though," I said. "It seemed like she was living there."

"So maybe the address here is Sperryville too?" the woman said. "Did you see her come out of a house?"

"Well...no." We all turned and looked at Daisy, who was sitting back on her haunches with a smug grin. "There's a park ranger who staffs the Old Rag parking lot," I said. "I'm sure he knows all the people in the area. We can go and ask him about her when we get back."

"Are you sure?" the woman said. "Because if she's a runaway..."

"Don't worry," I said. "We'll take care of her."

Obviously feeling that she'd discharged her responsibility, the woman nodded, turned, and kept walking.

And Daisy kept on trotting along with us. I wonder if she could understand human speech, because with every passing hiker who called out, "Wow! How did that dog get up here?" she seemed to perk up. "Showoff," I muttered, and Daisy turned around and panted happily at me.

The rest of the day was lovely; going for a walk is ineluctably better when you have a happy dog running nearby, smelling things. When we stopped for lunch, we gave her some of our avocado. But as we neared the end of the walk, the subject of Daisy's fate became harder to avoid. It seemed as though she'd picked us for new owners, and that was impossible.

"Are you a runaway, Daisy?" I asked, as she wound herself around my legs. "I'm afraid I can't adopt you - my apartment is too small and I don't have any time to take you for walks." My imagination took me through a series of horrifying montages: a gruff park ranger, denying knowledge of the dog; the trip with Daisy to the pound; her reproachful eyes as I leave her behind to be put down.

And then, as we walked back towards the parking lot, we passed the driveway where we'd originally met Daisy. The sun was still shining and in the distance, we could hear the sound of heavy metal music coming from a barn in the field. Daisy's ears perked up, and without even a backward glance, she ran down the driveway, and across a bridge towards the barn.

Martin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. "I guess she was with the band," Martin said. "That was easy...no baggage at all."

A hiking couple behind us heard us laughing and stopped. "That's not your dog?" the girl asked.

"Nope," I said. "She just followed us for the day."

It's not always that you get such an easy, consequence-free relationship from life, is it? Daisy found us, loved us, and left us, seamlessly. And yet I am still thinking about her - with the strange feeling that I cheated somehow. Because relationships have a cost, and every friendship has responsibility; the more valuable the friendship, the greater the responsibility.

I think the reason Martin was so reluctant to claim Daisy as his dog was not that he liked her less than me, but that he was more aware of the responsibility that even a joking assertion of ownership incurred. "I'm a tribal person," he told me once, and it seems I'm lucky enough to be in his tribe: for example, he drove the two hours for the hike in the morning, letting me sleep, happily carried the heavy backpack for the duration of the walk, and took care of me in a thousand other ways that seemed invisible because they felt so natural. If Martin had ever said that Daisy was his dog, he'd never be even able to consider leaving her behind at the rocks, or denying ownership to a park ranger who could fine him for an illegal pet, or leaving her with a park ranger with a probable fate at the pound.

A complaint I've heard about California culture is that people there are very friendly, and impossible to trust. Someone will greet you as if you're their best friend in the world, but if you ask them for help the next week, they'll never return your call. If you're lucky, bad things never happen, you never need the help, and you can luxuriate forever in your large group of affectionate fair-weather friends. I don't know if it's an accurate complaint - I've never lived in California - but Daisy was certainly lucky that she never needed anything from me.

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Yup, that's California! That adorable dog must be a native ;-)

Great to see you over the weekend. Thanks SO MUCH for being my co-conspirator in the latest mischief!

xo
MJ

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