Whatever one finds in front of herself at the moment. . .is what the given situation is. That other thing, the so-called pristine landscape of a former time, is no longer available; and somehow a person must make peace with that. To go in search of what once was is to postpone the difficulty of living with what is.Barry Lopez in Horizon
I came upon that passage just a few days after I posted last week’s sad diatribe about a lake once serene, now overcome by crowds. I had marked the passage several months ago upon reading Lopez’s fine travel memoir, the last he would write before his recent death. That it came back to me at this particular time seemed no small coincidence. But I wrote about such unlikely occurrences in last week’s What Are the Odds? Suffice it to say that it was just what I needed. I began to think about how I could possibly come to terms with the presence of crowds on the trails I love, and I remembered that younger hikers often insist that trail community is what they love most about hiking.
It is still hard for me to comprehend, remembering my early years of hiking when it was not unusual to go three or four days without encountering anyone at all on the trail. I will forever prefer my solitary evenings in camp, untroubled by the sounds of other hikers nearby. But I too have appreciated that special bond that sometimes develops between hikers, complete strangers until they meet on the trail, and something takes place between them.
Let me tell you then about Ed and Bill. I met them many years ago on a hike south from White Pass to the south slope of Mt. Adams, most of that hike on the Crest Trail but diverting to include the Round-the-Mountain Trail, which, by the way, does not go all the way around Mt. Adams, however enticing the name of the trail may sound.
I had hiked down from the magnificent high country of the Goat Rocks Wilderness Area and come to a logging road, where I paused to rest and eat some lunch before beginning the steep ascent towards Mt. Adams. A man was loading up his pack train of horses and mules. He told me he ran an outfitting business out of Packwood and had just resupplied a climbing party that was summiting the many peaks of the Goat Rocks. He introduced himself as Ed. One of the horses, Bill, had not worn a pack. Ed told me that Bill was twenty-eight years old and no longer carried a load but loved the pack trips so much that he went along anyway, following the train by bringing up the rear, never needing a tether but staying close. Ed seemed glad to have him along, and I could tell that old Bill held a special place in Ed’s heart.
I watched while he loaded the long string of animals one by one, the horses and mules walking up the ramp into the trailer. Then came Bill. Getting up the ramp for that old horse was not so easy. He made several attempts then backed up and stepped off the ramp. Ed was gentle with him, talking softly into his ear. The old horse could not be comforted. I noticed that tears were forming in Ed’ eyes. There would not be many more pack trips for Bill.
“Can I help?” I offered, not knowing at all what I could possibly do. I knew very little about horses, but I did know about compassion. I was a nurse and a mother. Ed retreated to his camper and came out with an apple, which he then sliced into quarters with his pocket knife and handed to me. I fed Bill the apple slices. He took them eagerly and then nuzzled my face with his soft nose. At that point I would have done anything for Bill. Anything at all.
Ed and I stood on either side of the ramp and held our hands gently on Bill’s neck while he walked up the ramp and joined the other animals. When he safely boarded, Ed closed the latch. There were still tears in his eyes.
“I understand,” I said, as if that would provide some context for the tears. “I had to have my dog put down this winter.” Ed said nothing but just looked at me. I knew the meaning of that look. I had used that look dozens of times with my patients. “It said, “Tell me more.”
And so I did, this stranger whom I had just met on an isolated road in the southern Cascades. I told him about Hilde. I told him about how we had acquired her after answering an ad for free puppies. There were ten of them. Hilde had crawled into my lap and stayed there. She was actually kind of funny looking as she grew, half lab and half terrier. She had chin whiskers that looked like a beard.
I told about how she would leap and snatch frisbees out of the air, how she would plunge into the cold water over and over again to retrieve a stick until her teeth would chatter. I told him about how it was when we brought our twin daughters home from the hospital, how Hilde had curled up on the floor between the two cribs. She had a new mission in life, and she was taking it seriously. And then, because it was how the conversation had begun, I told him about her hip dysplasia, about leaving for work one morning last winter and how Hilde had stood by the kitchen door as she always did and licked my hand as the three of us departed. I had dropped off Annie and Leah at their grandma’s, then driven to work. At the end of the day I repeated the process in reverse, picking up my daughters and then returning home, walking through that door from the garage.
Hilde was standing right where we had left her, only she was trembling. I realized with anguish that she had been standing there all day, unable any longer to flex at her hips. I dropped to my knees in tears and held the old dog in my arms. “It’s okay Mommy,” Annie said. “Hilde’s all right.” She wasn’t, of course, but I needed to somehow let my young daughters know that I was all right, even though our dog was not.
I stood up and went to the phone to call my dad, who had offered to make this last trip to the vet for me. When he arrived he looked somber. I helped him load the old dog into the back seat of his Volvo. Hilde settled down and did not look up at me. She was ready.
That night I popped a frozen pizza into the oven for the three of us. We sat around the table after we had finished eating and told stories about Hilde, usually beginning with, “Remember when?” Most of the stories made us laugh, and then there would be tears, and then someone would again say, “Remember when?”
When I tucked my daughters into bed that night I read them a book about grief and loss that I had bought for them when their grandfather had died a few years earlier. They went to sleep, but it took me awhile. Hilde had not been able to sleep on the bed with me for a long time, but I felt her absence.
This is the story I told to Ed that day, sitting next to his horse trailer on a logging road in the southern Cascades. He had been a total stranger to me. This is the story I tell to you now, most of you also strangers to me, yet you have become part of my trail community. Thank you.