Reflections on the Passing of a Friend

(Photo credit:  Steve Aaron Photography)

He staggered for a step or two.  I saw the concentration in his eyes.  The inward scan and assessment.  He seemed to understand that he could not go on.  He seemed to accept it.

Afterwards, we called my son to let him know.  My wife relayed the news, while I tried to add a comment but somehow couldn’t speak.  Later I retrieved an image and sent it to my son.  And then I dove into a decade’s worth of photos and began the process of reflecting and understanding….

I don’t remember exactly when we first ran together (it might have been 2008 or 2009), but I know precisely where we stopped — it was a three-way intersection, where a steep descent intersects a level carriage road.  The surface was loose shale, wet from recent rains.  I needed to adjust the fit of my shoes, which meant tightening the laces, starting at the front and working backwards, and when I looked up, he was gone.

The thick wet forest was silent.  I called his name, and the sound was swallowed up by the brush.  For a moment I waited.  Then I started considering scenarios.  Suppose he was already heading home — I pictured him loose on the street and chasing after vehicles and thought I’d better get going and catch him.  But after running a mile along the muddy carriage road, I noticed there were no footprints.  I stopped and thought for a moment.  Then turned and looked behind me — and there he was, trotting nonchalantly down the mountain.  That a communication breakdown had occurred, I think both of us understood.  It never happened again.

Not to say he wouldn’t sprint off down the trail after chipmunks (I never saw him catch one, but my wife says he did and baby rabbits, too).  Or tear off into the forest after deer, which leapt so gracefully over the fallen trees, while he circled around, whining with frustration.

Once I saw him staring into the forest.  In the distance were two black bear cubs.  “Stand down,” I told him sharply.  Mother bear, when I caught sight of her, seemed as large as a house, and he did not resist when I bent over to clip leash to collar, although I sensed his impatience.

He would’ve gone after the whole bear family without hesitation.  One afternoon, we pulled into the driveway and found two deer standing in the garden.  I assumed a falling tree had knocked a hole in the fence and suggested we let Odie chase them out the way they’d come in.  My wife raised the hatchback, and out he sprang.  But someone must have left the gate open, because there was no hole.

Had those deer stood their ground, it’s not clear what would have happened.  Instead they fled, but there was nowhere to go.  They raced in desperation around the yard, pursued by fifty pounds of snarling teeth and curly hair, until eventually the desperate beasts crashed into the fence and fell to the ground and lay there barely moving.

Outside of hunting season, our neighbors (who wanted the meat) explained that special procedures must be followed.  I got Odie on his leash and took him up the mountain for a run.  Later, on the way back, we heard the coup de grace administered — a double tap, execution style.  And then again.  I have an image in my mind of a state trooper bending over to retrieve the casings.

As time went by, my hunger for the mountains grew, and Odie was often my companion.  We ran for hours on soft carriage roads in the Shawangunk Mountains.  He accompanied me to the Catskills, too, where we climbed taller peaks, with steeper slopes, and rocky washed-out trails.  In April 2015 we ascended the unmarked southern scramble to Kaaterskill High Peak, took in glorious spring skies from Hurricane Ledge, discovered snow on the summit (he rubbed his face in it with glee), made our way cautiously down the northern scramble which was still ice-slicked (he was sure-footed, while I slipped and stumbled and nearly fell).  And then we ran down the steep rocky road to the trailhead, Odie in the lead, ears flapping, tongue lolling, eyes ablaze.

His enthusiasm for the mountains was boundless.  When he sensed that we were headed on a trip — the clue might be car engine starting, kitchen door opening, or even shoes getting laced — he’d race in circles jumping and barking, unable to contain the excitement.

Recently I completed the Catskills All Trails Challenge, which involves covering all 350 miles of official hiking trail in the Catskill Park.  Many of these trails are mellow.  They circle around ponds, or pass by waterfalls, or meander through meadows and fern glades.  I wish he could have accompanied me, but in his later years, his strength had ebbed too far.  A year or two earlier, he still impressed people with his grace, although by this point he was past his prime.  Watching him navigate the sandstone ledges and tangled roots of the Devil’s Path, a pair of experienced thru-hikers, Heather Housekeeper and Scott Weiss, gave him a trail name — “Mountain Goat.”  He received many other compliments on the trails.

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We did a lot.  Summer heat and deep snow were limiters, but otherwise Odie was out there with me in all conditions.  I remember on a cold October evening, once again descending from Kaaterskill High Peak, how we got caught in a shower of freezing rain.  Or how his eyes flashed ghost-like in my headlamp’s beam, as he weaved back and forth across a stream on the way to the Blackhead Mountain lean-to.  I can still picture the wild expression on his face as we ran down snowy Bearpen Mountain in the moonlight.  I can see him prowling through wet vegetation on the saddle below Balsam — then moving out, taking point, checking out the side-trails, locating the summit cairn.  On a bushwhack up the steep flank of Halcott Mountain, through a forest of beech, hobblebush, blue cohosh, and nettle — once he got a sense of my direction, he ranged ahead, finding the most efficient line.  And then he came back to check on me, when I was moving slowly.  Or he’d dash back and forth between me and my son Philip, when the three of us ventured out, to make sure our small group stayed together.

It was in early October one year, when I woke some time after midnight to find him rummaging through the campfire ashes.  I could not fathom what he sought there.  Or why he stayed with me instead of running off.  It dawned on me how little I understood the workings of his mind.  Maybe he felt the same about me, for he had a habit of staring into my eyes when I spoke.  His pupils would flicker back and forth as he listened to whatever it was I had to say.

He got the message when I shrieked “back off.”  We’d stepped upon a large slab of Shawangunk conglomerate and found a fat gray rattler lazing in the sun.  Or when I waved him off from a porcupine rustling in the mountain laurel.  Whenever we reached a road crossing, I would order, “stop” and “sit,” and he did so without fail.  At home he’d sometimes get rambunctious — leaping, barking, refusing to come or listen.  But in the forest, this never happened.  When on the trail, he was on a mission, and he had the mindset of an operator.  In pictures you see me looking one way, while he looks in the other direction, making sure we had 360-degree security.

Whereas in the house there wasn’t much for him to do, but sleep and eat.  It seemed to me that this behavior was emblematic of the modern world, although he didn’t have to work or put up with distraction.

He would not give up, although sometimes he lagged behind in rain or snow.  As a puppy he did not appreciate being grabbed or lifted, but as he got older he recognized that a boost was sometimes necessary, and if he felt uncomfortable with the rocks, he’d whine to let me know he needed some assistance.  During a bushwhack across North Dome and Sherrill Mountains, we came across a ledge too tall for him to leap.  Philip reached up, took Odie in his arms and lowered him gently, with loving care.  I had a photograph of this moment, which is the one I sent to Philip to express the feelings I could not muster into words.  Philip responded that when he heard the news, this was the memory that came back to him.  He wrote that it was amazing to think of all the adventures we’d had together.  He felt so glad that Odie was able to spend his last few years in the country, where he could explore the woods by our house, bark at passers-by, and take long naps in the grass.

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I went through a decade’s worth of photographs stored on Google Drive and found another image.  Odie and Philip, who was then a young teenager, were walking down a country lane in the Catskills somewhere, lined with maples flaming beneath a chrome blue sky.  To me they were the picture of innocence and joy.

In other images, Odie embodied the spirit of the mountains.  His fierce joy burned with the fiery colors of autumn.  Or his confidence shone in cool fog swirling over shadowed forest.  With his loose easy jaunt he seemed so perfectly at home in this wild landscape.

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20151011_112115 (1)20171009_10141520180518_143401As an older dog, he behaved with dignity.  In the presence of rambunctious pups, he kept mostly to himself, as if to demonstrate that a steady pace was more sensible than impetuousness.  On a hike in Harriman with my friend Steve Aaron and his young dog Lily, we noticed movement.  Lily froze, unsure, while Odie tore off through the brush in pursuit of a distant deer.  Later Steve told me that Odie had a lot of influence on his decision to bring Lily into his family.

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(Photo credit:  Steve Aaron Photography)

We never repeated the mistake of our first run.  On a steep bushwhack climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, I watched him closely on the rocks and worried, but he was fine.  On a trip up the snowy path to West Kill Mountain, he struggled with the ledges and uncharacteristically fell behind.  I encouraged him, helped him up a rock, and felt relieved on the descent when he ranged ahead again.  In August 2018, the two of us climbed Windham.  Typically when we stopped, he’d become restless, eager to get on the move again, but this time he curled up on the summit slab and went to sleep.

In July 2020, the family took a trail in the southern Shawangunks.  It was sunny and hot.  We stopped several times, letting Odie rest in the shade and pant.

After that, our adventures were limited to a mile or two along quiet country roads near our house.  During the winter, he spent little time outdoors, passing the days asleep on the couch, waking up at dinner and angling for hand-outs from the table (it was a constant debate how much to let him have).  When spring finally arrived, he ventured outside again.  He’d bark relentlessly at the occasional passers-by, then find a sunny patch of grass and stretch out.  He looked so peaceful lying there, like someone who’s seen and done a lot and earned his rest.

Then that day arrived.  I watched him stagger.  That’s when I saw the look in his eyes.

My wife carried him indoors and lay him on the sofa, but he wasn’t comfortable there.  She carried him back out and lay him in the grass.  We sat down and watched him.  He could not get up.

Later that evening, he was lying quietly on a gurney, beneath a blanket, while my wife stroked his ears.  The vet had provided us with her diagnosis and briefed us on the options.  The first injection put him into a deep sleep.  After the second injection, his chest rose and fell three times, and then he was still.

I keep thinking back over the last few months to one particular memory.  In the afternoons I’d go out into the yard to practice shooting arrows, and Odie would often tag along.  First he inspected the target, while I stood by impatiently.  Then after giving me a sly look, he ventured off to explore.

In between shots, I looked up and saw him nosing around in the grass.  Then he crossed a stream on a wooden bridge which Philip helped me build long ago.

I took another shot and looked up one last time.  He was staring into the forest.  On his face I saw a sense of wonder.

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Reflections on the Passing of a Friend

5 thoughts on “Reflections on the Passing of a Friend

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ken- I am deeply sorry and I hope that writing this beautiful piece has helped you process Odie’s passing. I have tears as I write this, thinking about the dogs and cats in my life that are sorely missed. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Aaron says:

    Ken, this is a beautiful tribute to a very special dog and member of your family. I’m very happy I was able to enjoy hikes with Odie. He was one of a kind, and is missed.

    Liked by 1 person

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