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August 11, 2005

How Zeke ran away

This morning, after a lovely if rather slow walk.

Pyramid Lake is a large saline lake in the barren Nevada desert north of Reno. A relict of wetter times in the Pleistocene, the lake is entirely contained within the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.

There are hot springs and tufa towers and sere, alkaline beaches ringing the lake, but along the lake's whole circumference, almost a hundred miles of shoreline, there is exactly one grove of trees.

Zeke and I have camped there twice. The first time, in 1996, was with some friends from the Editorial Board of the magazine I was then editing, on which weekend my dog soldiered heroically through a rough off-trail desert mountain hike. In the summer of 1997, Becky and Zeke and I visited the same spot, more or less, though we camped uphill and away from the lake in a placid, ancient grove of cottonwoods and aspens in Sharp's Canyon, whose mouth held a quiet ranch.

On the second trip, we sat and stoked the fire and watched as rainstorm after small rainstorm washed over us. The rain was sparse, and it was warm. At about 8 pm Saturday night, I thought I'd go for a hike down toward the lake. I walked out of camp, leaving Becky reading Crichton's latest in the truck. Zeke looked at me, not sure whether he should come along. I called him to me, my palm slapping the side of my thigh in a command he still obeys. He came with me, reluctant eyes glancing longingly back at camp and Becky and his food dish.

And then he hesitated a bit further down the road. He really did not want to come on this walk with me, but was following out of a sense of devoted duty that I decided to use. I wanted him to come with me, to watch his reaction to the jackrabbits and the collared lizards and the quail. I wanted the companionship. I wanted to revisit our campsite of last year with someone who had been there. I was selfishly desirous of the company of my dog.

So I forced him to come with me by giving him an order. Good dog he, he obeyed. Not long afterward, I would regret this.

We hiked not by the most direct route, which would have been about a mile and a quarter, but following a maze of two-ruts and deer tracks according to whim and the flight of les lapins sauvages. I watched the northern sky. About twenty miles away, above the range past the range at the north end of the lake, another spot storm waved tendrils of rain down onto the land. I figured we had about an hour before rain and dark cut short our hike.

The Paiute ranch at the main road had activity which we had not seen the year before. Horses, loud voices of children, dogs, a machine of some kind thrumping its way through the night. You can't hear the machine from the mouth of the aspen canyon, but from the road, it is a persistent and ominous presence, as if Philip Glass had been hired to score a Stephen King short. When Becky had taken a walk with Zeke earlier in the day, I'd met her in front of the ranch on my way back from Sutcliff with restocked supplies. Zeke, glad to see me, seemed nonetheless a bit distracted.

--what's with him?
--nothing. I think it's a generator on the ranch. I've been singing to him to distract him.

And I hopped back into the truck, reaching camp ten minutes before Becky and Zeke, and we spent most of the rest of the day in joyous torpor, except for the part where it rained and they huddled under the tarp shelter I'd built while I drank wet Coronas and kept the fire going.

I did not sing on our walk. I was too much filled with reminiscence, with longing, with the scent of sagebrush and taste of a dozen varied months and looking at the hills behind us to retrace the route of our hike the year before, with hearing the quail's "rally call," which the books describe as "Chicago!" but which I always hear as "The PEO-ple! U-NIT-ed!" I was distracted. I did not sing to keep my dog content.

We crossed the road, having engaged the dogs at the ranch in a polite parley, walked a hundred yards north to the junction with a side road leading to the lake, and headed toward the lake. The side road was much more twisty and complex than I remembered. Tentative side feeder paths wove off the main track, only to be lost in sagebrush and shadscale and rusted car parts. I followed the tire tracks, and Zeke followed me. A half mile of twist and turn, and we reached the campsite of May '96, which we entered. I looked at the place where we had slept. One of the cottonwoods had divested itself of a large branch. It had to weigh at least a ton. It had fallen precisely in the spot where we had slept the previous year.

I looked. The whole scene seemed familiar, if a bit more closely-cow-cropped than the year before. Park-like. I coaxed Zeke up onto a horizontal cottonwood limb where he'd chased lizards the year before, and he obliged, then took a creative route down a series of subtle steps from about six feet up to the ground, steps I would not have seen but which in retrospect seemed obvious. He ran to me, grinning.

--Zeke, you are such a Smart Doggie!

I had set myself the old campsite as a destination. We'd made it, and it was time to head back. Up the fine gravel drive to the main road. I saw a shortcut, one that would cut off about five minutes' walk, and took it. A climb up an embankment to an old railroad bed, and we'd be at the ranch and the road. I stood on the old train grade, and saw Zeke deciding among several possible paths.

--Come on, puppy! Good dog! Come Here!

He tried the path I'd taken, but for some reason doubled back and tried cutting through the sagebrush. That was no good either. Up the embankment a few feet, and then back, while I called, clueless as to his problem. There were no steep grades, no gulfs to jump, easy and safe paths every which way, all leading to my feet. Zeke's ears folded back, and his pacing grew more frantic. Finally, though my calls were peremptory, he headed away from me at a dead run, away from the road, away from camp, toward the lake. I stood, stunned.

And then I heard it. Thrum. Thrum. Thrum. The generator -- or whatever -- had spooked my dog.

I could see the road from the embankment, and yet I couldn't see Zeke anywhere. He'd run in a kind of panic I hadn't seen in him for years, since the first month I had him, when New Age Drums in Marin sent him galloping away from me down a hill. That time, he'd come to me within minutes. This time, he had vanished. I was at a loss. And finally realized I'd better follow. I had lost precious minutes, standing slack-jawed.

I was standing in the middle of the desert, night falling, a rainstorm not six miles away and bearing down, and my dog had just run away from me.

I followed the path he'd run down, calling him, but there was nothing in sight save sagebrush and the occasional jackrabbit.

I thought I heard his collar tags jingling at first, and realized it may have been my keys or my change jingling, and thereupon walked with both keys and change tightly clenched in my hands so that any noise of metal I heard would be more useful.

He'd hightailed it down the road toward last year's campsite, so that's where I went first, calling him every ten seconds or so, feeling a darkening sense of trespass from the Paiute ranch with each successive call. Hellwithit, I thought. If they know I'm looking for a dog, they'll be less likely to shoot a "coyote." A "coyote" with blue collar and jingly tags looking desperately for the people he wanted to be with.

He wasn't at the cottonwood camp.

I fell apart.

Maybe he went back to the spot where we saw those rabbits, where he chased one down until it hid in a clump of sagebrush, befuddling his urban dog senses.

No. Not there.

I called, and called again.

Maybe he went back to where he saw me last.

Ten minutes walk. No.

It was getting dark. The storm loomed closer. I had to go get the truck (whose noise he'd recognize, and come to) and a flashlight. I had to go tell Becky. I had to do that.

I headed hurriedly up the road. Watched the gravel as I nearly ran. Is that a dog footprint? We came this way on the way down, and there's his lakeward-facing print. Is there anything here that could be construed as a hillsward-facing dog footprint?

Anything?

Hard to tell.

Desolation.

It's getting dark. The rain is coming. I panicked. I had to get back to our campsite, to tell Becky I've lost her favorite thing in the whole world, to rally the troops to do the all-night search. Walking faster, I envisioned the probing of sagebrush by flashlight beam, calling into the darkness, relentless teary annoyance of resident Paiutes. I was only half a minute from the road. I had to walk faster. I pictured Zeke frantic, whistling despairing whining notes into the dark and saline night. I pictured the ride home, endless miles of freeway without the hairy, annoying, shift-lever-jostling presence in the truck. I pictured never knowing, the cliched curse of the parent of the milk carton child. I walked faster.

There was a flashlight in the glove compartment.

I will bring the truck down to the lake, I thought.

I must be careful not to drive too fast, as Zeke will try to follow the truck.

Unless they've shot him already as one more marauding coyote.

They haven't. They haven't!

Becky can ride and watch for Zeke while I drive.

No, Becky has to stay at the camp in case he shows up. He might just walk back.

We could ask the people camping on the shore to watch for him.

Maybe he's there already, eating handout hamburgers.

I should go look.

I stopped. I was halfway to the truck.

A pair of muledeer burst from the sagebrush, one a twelve-point buck.

No, I can go back with the truck.

I walked.

I ran.

I watched for tracks and found none, except facing the other way: a pair of hiking boots and four little dog foots, heading confidently wide apart to the lake. Probably an hour old.

What the hell will I do without my dog?

Out of breath, I faltered from the run to a ragged walk.

Dusk had come in earnest. Canyon wrens shrilled their descending calls from the overhanging lava and tufa. Quails called incessantly.
The People!
The People!
The People!

Paiute horses whinnied and Paiute dogs chased me and Paiute generator faded too slowly into the white noise of the background and the blood flowing in my ears.

I could stay here all week. Send Becky home on a bus out of Reno. I could camp down in the cottonwoods and cook steaks every hour and he'd come back to me, I know he would, He'd be too scared after a few nights in the scrub and no treats and no pets and no cuddles and where the hell is he?

--Zeke!

--Zekie!

--Puppy!

And nothing but the gathering dusk. I reached the crossroads. One path we drove last year, to an overhanging cottonwood. The other to the camp. There is a patch of sand here which he would have had to make marks in if he'd headed back to camp which had been my secret hope even though I can't afford to hope because I'd get back and find Becky looking up from her book and she'd ask What's wrong? and I'd have to tell her, I'd have to tell her and Zeke won't be there and then comes the frantic search at night and the morning and the dull realization and the trip back home a day or so later and me feeling like she should blame me and her refusing to say she's blaming me and we're not even out of Reno yet, and then the rest of our lives after with that nagging dread, seeing bleached ribs and a blue nylon collar in our minds' eyes for the rest of our lives, and unspoken and untouched and throwing out the dog's bed and the bowls and each act makes it more final and I look.

And there was Becky, walking down the road looking for me.

With Zeke, who'd come crashing through the sagebrush into our camp twenty minutes before.

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Comments

This is just simply a superb piece of writing Chris. I've been there and done that with Tito (as Hank Fox would say about this dog we share, "the best dog I've ever even met"), but never in a million years could I write about it so beautifully.

One short story. Hank and I live about two miles apart and every once in a while when Hank, who originally rescued Tito, wouldn't be able to come by for a few days, Tito would "run off" in the middle of the night and visit him. I never did figure out the route, but whenever he went missing, I'd simply drive over to Hank's place and sure enough, he'd show up in about 45 minutes.

Once, when I went out of state to visit my son, Tito stayed with Hank. You know where this is going. After a day of walks and good company Hank let him out and he disappeared. Hank was beside himself and for two hours looked all over until he finally stopped by my place and found Tito sleeping peacefully in his doghouse (build at Tito's request no less as he preferred being outside).

Tito has never seemed confused by having two "uncle-dads", and his very best times are when the three of us can go walking together. Even at 16 there seems to be an extra little bounce in his stride on those special mornings or evenings.

Posted by: OGeorge at August 11, 2005 02:16 PM
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Heh. I guess he showed you.

Posted by: Vicki at August 11, 2005 07:56 PM
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I love the fact that you call him "Puppy."

My dog Ranger the Valiant Warrior was just called Ranger (and, well, Range, Ranger-Danger, Barnacle Dog and Ranger Skunk Dog), but all his accessories were puppy-this and puppy-that: Puppy food, puppy water, puppy chair, puppy bed, puppy rope, puppy shoe. (The last two were favorite toys.)

The shared dog that OGeorge mentions, Tito the Mighty Hunter, is T-bone, T-buddy, Good-Handsome-Buddy-Guy and just plain old T. Most of his accessories seem to be called "good" something: good grass (to roll in), good-cool-puppy-water, and good-dead-thing (which might be anything from some sort of small, crunchy, apparently-flavorful mammalian skull found out in the woods to a rotting, hair-slipped deer skin dragged out and happily gnawed on).

Posted by: Hank Fox at August 11, 2005 09:23 PM
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I think we serious dog lovers have all been there. Our pup, who is solid and real in a way that very few other things approach, real in the sense that he or she is hard-wired to our heart, is suddenly gone. There's the initial sinking feeling, then a sense of panic, disbelief, denial, and finally, an overwhelming need to do something, anything, to find our dog.

I remember one of my pups jumping into the Bow river in Banff and getting swept fifty yards out, eventually disappearing around a bend maybe a quarter mile downstream. I couldn't believe it when he came running up the bank twenty minutes later, tired and wet but blessedly alive.

I remember when Rick's dog Colter went missing, how the days turned to weeks turned to months while he called around to animal shelters, and posted signs, and drove the backroads for hundreds of miles in every direction, hoping against hope to find the little pup he called a genius.

And I remember when he finally found him, bleached bones and a collar and a bullet hole from a .22 through his skull.

There's a special place reserved for people like that, people who could walk up to a dog they don't even know and say, "Here, Buddy." and then shoot him in the head for the hell of it. Rest assured, there's a special place.

I'm glad Zeke came back, Chris. I'm glad you've had the years you've had. And I hope there are still a few good days left.

Posted by: tost at August 11, 2005 10:18 PM
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*hugs*

Posted by: Space Kitty at August 12, 2005 06:06 AM
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Your story sucked. Your dog is nice. Blah

Posted by: Billy Crops at September 26, 2005 04:38 PM
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Nice dog send me back. How old are you we can have,,,

Posted by: Billy Crops at September 26, 2005 04:40 PM
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