A year ago next week, Carol, Jake, and I said goodbye to our beloved golden retriever, Goldie.
Goldie had been with us for nearly sixteen years. At ten weeks of age she came home to Indian Hills, the unincorporated district a few miles south of Carson City where we live. In the years that followed she and I logged, by my rough calculations, some 5000 miles in the rolling hills and steep-sided canyons that reach west from our home into the Sierra Nevada.
I took the above photo on an October morning. Goldie is running, which is how she arrived at most appointments. In a couple of places at the top right of the photo, the Carson River catches the sun. My dog and I are several hundred feet above the river plain, on a trail just ten minutes from our house. A neighborhood friend built the trail as a congenial alternative to a steep and rocky dirt road that climbs the same hill, but that proved difficult for his wife when she developed health issues. The flora is sagebrush, bitterbrush, chamisa, desert peach; dotting the hillsides, magnificent juniper trees. It’s impossible to go for a walk without spotting a couple of jackrabbits or cottontails, and in the sky a turkey vulture or a red-tailed hawk. For several spring seasons a great horned owl raised her broods in a juniper beneath which Goldie and I liked to stop to rest.
There are people who believe that dogs are limited creatures, good at detecting thieves and gas leaks but not to be included in discussions of such esoterica as morality and high-mindedness. I am not among them. It seems to me that Goldie was a paragon of many high-minded virtues, including tolerance, which she lived by, even when Smokey the cat was driving her crazy; and peaceableness, a sense of which she imparted to any room she entered; and forgiveness, which she bestowed at once in response to any affront, no matter how egregious; and acceptance of whatever the day presented to her, even when it didn’t include a hike in the hills.
So it is that from among a hundred easily retrievable memories, I present three as arguments in support of the proposition that Goldie was one helluva a dog, and possibly a saint.
It’s the day before Easter. The last snows of a pretty rough winter have melted, and wildflowers, or the boldest among them--paintbrush, bitterroot, ephedra--are beginning to sprout. Jake and I are returning from a hike in the hills with our dog. We’re a short ways ahead of her, half a mile from home, on a dirt road fenced on one side by barbed wire.
Suddenly, catching a sound, or a smell, or a matter of great importance, Goldie stops; and somehow we do too, and turn in her direction. Approaching the fence, she lowers herself to her stomach. She shuffles forward under the lowest row of wire (which has been manufactured without barbs for such occasions) and pokes her head into thick groundcover beneath a sagebrush bush.
She remains so for perhaps half a minute, her face buried in the undergrowth. Then, reversing course, she shuffles backwards under the wire and back onto the road. A few moments later she is beside us, her eyes dancing.
The two humans say a few words and are about to resume their walk. That’s when Jake notices a tiny foot sticking out of Goldie’s mouth.
He shouts. I see the foot. It is small and precious and alarming. I immediately understand that my dog has killed an animal and is in the process of eating it. I take hold of Goldie’s upper and lower jaws and attempt to pry them apart.
I fail. I speak sharply to her. She suddenly looks dispirited. Her hold lessens. Jake takes over and manages to pry open the jaws. Softly, miraculously, as though being born, a baby rabbit falls into his hands. It is alive and apparently unharmed. It is bare, wrinkled, shivering, the size of something small enough to fit inside a dog’s mouth except for one leg.
Two hours later we deliver our Easter gift to the kind folks at Wild Animal Infirmary for Nevada.
Sometimes I think about the sagebrush bush and what might have been hidden beneath it. Did it harbor a mother rabbit and six or seven newborns, one of which was cruelly stolen by a dog?
Or was there a nest that had been ravaged by coyotes—cleaned out but for one tiny, helpless thing that would have perished miserably but for the good fortune of being found by a passing Good Samaritan, who knew two guys with a car, who would know what to do.
Goldie belonged to a breed of dogs that are sometimes mistaken for four-legged fish, so masterfully do they move in water and under water, so committed are they to the proposition that life without a lake or a river just isn’t life. Each summer, Carol, Jake, and I have the good fortune to spend a week on Northern California’s Yuba River at the cabin of a dear friend. The cabin stands beside a rustic lawn that slopes downward to a short trail, which weaves through blackberry bushes to a tiny beach.
Birds gotta fly. Goldens gotta swim. Each year, Goldie spent her vacation in the river, or planning her next visit to the river. She enjoyed sharing the Yuba with friends but had many ways of entertaining herself when friends were otherwise occupied. Her favorite activity was to ramble out into the river a ways and then poke her head under the surface to scour for rocks that pleased her. Sometimes several pokes, and occasionally dives, were required to find something that met her rather demanding artistic standards. If the chosen rock were lodged in the river-bottom, a lengthy and determined effort might be required to free it.
Eventually she would raise her head out of the water (I once timed a submersion at sixteen seconds), jaws clamped around a specimen that might weigh several pounds. She’d walk it to shore and drop it onto a pile of previously rescued rocks, then return to the water for another. Some years she’d establish a secret stash in the weeds behind the beach, perhaps a repository for particularly important pieces.
Why an animal would engage in such behavior beats me. The Internet advances several theories, all of them rather vapid and centering on a dog’s need for certain minerals that are to be found in the rocks. While I don’t claim to know Goldie’s motivation, I do not believe it was because she was hungry. Building a museum of interesting rocks? Possibly. Hungry? No.
A short distance from the beach, the normally westward flowing Yuba narrows to a width of perhaps ten yards, then makes a partial turn toward the north. One July, following a very wet winter and spring, the river was fast and deep. The combination of greater-than-normal volume and reduction in width had resulted in a watercourse of great velocity and power.
Here a confession is in order: I do not swim. I do several things well but swimming is not one of them. Me in water more than three feet deep is a signal for the lifeguard to start paying attention. Nevertheless, preposterously, Carol, Jake, and I decided to cross the river to a spot on the far side.
Goldie, meanwhile, standing a few yards upstream from us, gazed enchantedly into the tumult. She dipped a paw in the water. Then shockingly, miscalculating badly, she launched herself into the river. She was caught in the current and swept away.
I saw this happen and threw myself in after her. (Please, this was not an act of heroism. It was an act of love.) My dog and I were driven at once to the bottom of the river. I think at first I held her, or she me, and then we separated; it’s hard to remember minor details like that when the main chambers of your consciousness are given over to broadcasting the news that you’re fighting for your life. The waters held us down and carried us along, and there wasn’t much I could do, and I understood precisely what was happening to me and to my dog.
Very soon, I needed to breathe, and Goldie too, surely. I held out as long as I could. Then it became too long and I had no choice, and I started to take a deep breath of water.
And just then popped to the surface of the water like a cork. Beside me, popping with equally good timing, my dog. Miraculously, we found ourselves in a nice, calm pool to one side of the mayhem, a pool where we had been taken by some unknown and quite benevolent force.
We dog-paddled to a steep, rocky embankment. There I hoisted Goldie onto solid ground and crawled out behind her. We sat quietly, side-by-side, looking at the river, and occasionally at one another. We rested by the river, quietly, side-by-side.
The Foggy Morning
Holy ground, as the Dalai Lama has described it, is a site where a miracle or a transformative event has taken place.
Early one February morning, Goldie and I found ourselves not far from our house, hiking south on a dirt road that rises gently to a saddle. There the road levels off briefly, then begins a steep climb into the mountains. The morning was cold and windless. A few patches of snow lay about, but the ground was mostly bare, a consequence of a slow and, so far, disappointing winter. The notable meteorological event of the morning was a heavy fog that stood over the landscape. I could see no more than perhaps twenty-five or thirty yards in any direction.
Goldie was ahead of me—nearly up to the saddle, in fact, and about to disappear into the mist. I, meanwhile, was ambling along the level road without a thought in my head.
Suddenly I was aware of something approaching me from behind. What I heard had a soft, powerful sound, and I thought at once of a low-flying, super-light aircraft, one of those single-person planes that’s powered by a glorified lawn-mower engine. I was about to turn around. Then the sound began to rise and something caught my eye, and instead of turning I looked up.
There I saw something I will never forget. With a soft whoosh, a perfect triangle of
birds—hundreds of them––passed over me, maybe fifty feet above me and slightly to my left. Do not imagine that the birds were scattered randomly, or flying in a V-formation like a flock of geese. No. They were packed tightly in a perfect equilateral triangle, row-upon-row, wing-to-wing, beak-to-tail feathers—a precisely ordered solid mass of birds that blocked out the light behind it; one bird at the apex, two or three directly behind, four or five or six behind them, like a triangle of pool balls. None made a sound; combined, they produced a tangible rush of air, the whoosh I had heard. My most vivid memory is of one of the birds, the one in the back right corner of the triangle, as she flew along. She moved with effortless grace and in perfect harmony with the others, but without moving her wings.
A few seconds later the triangle vanished into the mist.
I understood at once that I had observed something that was inexplicable in earthly terms. My confidence in that understanding was confirmed at once by an unimpeachable authority. As I looked toward the saddle in the road, I saw Goldie bursting from the fog and racing toward me at top speed. She arrived in a state of fervor. She had seen it, too.
I believe that the place where this happened is holy ground. Something unaccountable happened there, and it was witnessed by a man and a dog. To commemorate the event, I built a small memorial—an equilateral triangle of rocks just to the right of the road. Thereafter, whenever Goldie and I passed that way, we would stop and remember what happened there. Somehow I began to associate the three sides of the triangle with Carol, Jake, and me. And when I stop at that place now, I say the three-part formulation of Julian of Norwich, from the 14th Century: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
You can find this holy place. It is on a road not far from where you live. Beside the road there is a triangle of rocks. There, may hope and reassurance enfold you, as it does me at the place where I stop. All shall be well. Know that. All manner of thing shall be well.
November, 2000-August, 2016