Backpacking, Bursitis, and Lonely Hearts

Backpacking Separation Creek Loop

IMG_6314The guidebook for backpacking the Separation Creek Loop in the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Willamette National Forest recommends hiking the loop counterclockwise. The only reason I can gather for this recommendation is that the author of the guide seemed to believe most packers would start out on a Saturday (he says as much). Hiking counterclockwise would put one at the busiest part of the trail after the weekend, thereby ensuring the packer would not hit this section of the trail while it was busy.

Did it occur to the author that backpackers might actually start on another day of the week? There is at least a one-in-six chance of this occurring. What then? Did the fact that from the map it appears that in the counterclockwise direction, 35 of the 40-42 miles (one can add 2 miles doing a loop around a lake if one so chooses) would be uphill? The elevation gain proceeding in this direction is significant. From the description of the hike, it also appears that the 5 mile or so portion that would be downhill near the end is not nearly as steep as one section near the beginning of the counterclockwise version with a 700 foot elevation gain within a half a mile.

Considering these factors, I have to ask the author of this particular guidebook, “Are you f-ing crazy?” Why not offer the clockwise direction as the recommended option and then tell people if they begin on Saturday they’ll hit the busy part of the trail on the weekend? Why not offer both options and point out that the bulk of the hike will be gain?

I didn’t notice these details until I was nearly 8 miles in. The 700 foot climb in a half mile kicked my ass, to say the least. I am pretty fit. I am strong. Yet carrying 30 pounds up the side of a freaking mountain is a lot to ask of a person. If I wanted to rock climb, I’d take up that sport. It’s not my thing. I like backpacking and hiking. I don’t even mind some elevation gain. But that shit was crazy. And at about 2/3 of the way up I started disliking my guidebook author pretty intensely.

Let me back up a bit.

I decided to do this loop alone for many reasons, the biggest of which was that I didn’t have anyone to go with, and I needed a vacation in the worst way. I wanted some kind of spiritual clarity. I’m going through some pretty massive changes in my life. I’m in school again to get my master’s in teaching and planning to leave the practice of law within the year. My littlest girl is starting kindergarten and my oldest has been gone for two months in Paraguay. And of course I recently went through the requisite man troubles that seem par for the course in this lifetime. I was feeling a little bruised from this (still kind of feel bruised from this, truth be told). I really like the guy. He really likes me. Yet he’s terrified of relationships, terrified of functioning much in the world, unhappy with himself and life in general. I cannot fix this. I don’t want to fix it. Yet it doesn’t seem so insurmountable as he seems to think it is and I was (am) frustrated by this. We had planned and booked a vacation together. My youngest daughter was on vacation with her father. My oldest wanted to stay home and sleep. I was so looking forward to getting away and our choice of trip was delightful, especially for a couple of book-loving introverts. We were going to stay in a cabin in the woods near a lake, kayak and hike, and lie around off the grid. We were going to visit Crater Lake and the giant redwoods in northern California. It sounded like pure bliss.

A week prior to our planned departure, he canceled. He was completely freaked out over many things I have no desire to go into here. He wanted a break to work on himself. He probably needs it, but his timing was terrible. I had already paid for the cabin. I really needed to go somewhere. I didn’t want to go by myself on the trip the two of us had planned. It was too far to drive alone and would have been depressing. Every other option I came up with sounded dreary and boring.

Then I remembered my backpacking book. Even though we had planned to hike some of the trails in the book together, I didn’t see why I couldn’t hike one alone. I’m geared up. I wanted to go. The trail called. I chose the trail based on its length for the time I wanted to hike and the solitude. I guess on that front I understand why the author made the counterclockwise choice. I readied my pack and set off, spending the night before departing in Eugene to be closer to the trailhead.

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Spider webs glistening in the sunlight.

Up until the precipice alluded to earlier, I was pretty happy about my guide, yet his descriptions of some parts of the trail left a bit to be desired. I understood, however, that the guide was filled with many hikes and it might not have been possible to include the fact that this trail crossed a LOT of water. Even in August in an extremely dry year, I crossed several bogs and streams rolling down the sides of mountains. Thank goodness for excellent Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking GoreTex hiking boots with ankle support (yes, this is my product placement because these boots are so awesome). They make rock hopping on the side of a mountain a dry and supportive experience. They’re light. They fit well. I am extremely satisfied with these shoes. They are worth every penny I paid for them. They certainly helped when I hit stream after stream and water running out the side of the mountain and often down trails that could not be skirted without practically climbing down the side of a cliff. My foot didn’t feel one ounce of moisture when I fell off a log crossing a creek and landed with one foot ankle deep in mud. And the mud just wiped off the boot. You can’t even tell this happened.

The woods were amazing, filled with boulders and old growth, sky high trees, and lush native undergrowth. Snowberry bushes, rhododendrons, mountain huckleberries, sorrel, Oregon grapes, and more lined every trail. Thank goodness also for zip-on hiking pants. Someone out there in backpacking land has figured out all these details and the equipment available to us while hiking reflects this. I’d started out with the bottoms zipped off my pants. Those bottoms went right back on within a mile of starting out because the trail was so bushy.

The silence and serenity of the forest were just what the doctor ordered. I forgot civilization and became a part of the forest. Gradually as I proceeded several miles down the trail, I heard rushing water that grew louder as I eventually joined the Separation Creek from which the trail gets its name. I passed a couple of campgrounds, but I had only been out for about 3 hours and I certainly was not ready to camp in mid-afternoon, even if the campgrounds looked welcoming. Plus they were near that rushing water and I really wanted more quiet for camping.

After about five miles I came to a flat-topped log bridge across the creek. Creek is a mild word for what was essentially a small river. The bridge was about 12 feet above this and probably 20 feet across. In other words, scary as hell to me. I started to cross, then felt wobbly with my pack and backed up. I’m not fond of high places. I’m fine if it’s impossible to fall, but the fear of falling is strong in me. I stared across the log for a good five minutes trying to work up the courage to cross.

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The Separation Creek bridge. From this photo it isn’t apparent how high it is above the water. It’s a good 12 feet.

Finally I located a long stick to carry with me. I stepped up onto the log, holding the stick in front of me, tapping as I went. I looked only at the place on the log where my the tip of the stick touched and shuffled very slowly across. I didn’t even put one foot in front of the other. Tap the stick forward, shuffle one foot forward, shuffle the other behind. Tap the stick forward, shuffle one foot forward, shuffle the other behind. Do not look down at the water rushing loudly below. Do not consider what would happen if a loud noise startled me. Do not think about falling.

I made it across, elated. I turned and shouted at the log, “I did it!” I’m such a dork.

Crossing the bridge energized me. I was thrilled that I had conquered this fear. I have had dreams of crossing bridges like this one and nearly falling. I’ve had dreams of climbing steep staircases and then not being able to get down. I’ve had dreams of walking out on beams and being stuck in the middle, too terrified to go forward or back. I’m sure Freud would have a field day with me and these dreams of balancing acts in high places. I think it’s probably something to do with feeling anxiety about balancing so much in my life. Who knows? In any case, I was raring to go again after this. I was several hours in and needed the motivation.

The trail did a switchback up the opposite side of the rushing creek. There were several boggy wet places and many of them were filled with tiny little frogs. This brought me further delight, these perfect little creatures living out in the woods away from humans.

Eventually I came to Separation Lake. I stopped to rest and eat. The lake edge is covered with lily pads and downed logs fallen into the water. Dragonflies swooped. Frogs plopped. I saw fishes jumping out in the center. High mountains and trees reflected on the serene water. Seriously, the place was like something from a painting or a meditation on peace. It was utterly exquisite.

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Lovely Separation Lake.

I set down my pack and pulled out my sleeping pad. I ate some lunch then lay on the pad for 20 minutes to rest. I was finally chased off by some kind of a wasp that was very interested in my activities. I’m not sure why. I did not eat anything or carry any kind of food that would have been interesting to a wasp, nor did it seem interested in looking for food. It seemed truly curious about this weird creature lying at the foot of a massive tree near the bank of the lake. I had hiked about 7 miles at this point and was enjoying my rest. I wanted to get another several miles down the trail before camping. I had decided I would settle down an hour before sundown, knowing that the dark would be immense and existing with a flashlight wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world outside of a tent. The wasp motivated me just enough to keep moving. I had stinger pads in my first aid kit, but that didn’t mean I had any desire to use them. I wound my way gradually downhill for almost another mile before crossing yet another rushing stream.

The forest was so lovely. I was feeling peaceful in nature, and grateful to be there. Wasp or no wasp, the trip so far felt blessed. The guidebook warned that after this last stream, there would be the 700 foot climb. After crossing the water, I looked up the side of the mountain in front of me. I felt a small twinge of qualm, but pushed it down. I could do this. I gathered the pack and began.

By the end of the climb I no longer felt serenity. I was pissed off at the author for his suggestion of this route. I was mad. Mad at the climb, mad at the author, mad at myself for coming, mad at the man for not going on vacation, mad at the world. It was truly amazing how that one brutal climb changed my mood so drastically in a relatively short amount of time. Halfway up I shouted Fuck this shit!. Halfway again I screamed at the guidebook author You’re out of your fucking mind, you sadist bastard! Blessed? Hell no. I felt cursed.

The other issue that developed alongside my anger was a serious pain in my left leg just under my knee. I know now that I suffered Pes Anserine Bursitis, an inflammation of the bursa sac located between the shin bone and the three tendons of my hamstring. Pain in the area is exacerbated by climbing. I am seeing a physical therapist for a shoulder injury and she explained this to me upon my return and subsequent description of the injury. Whatever it was called, it hurt like hell when I climbed. Any elevation gain was met with commensurate pain in my leg. Shit and double shit.

Even after the amazingly steep portion I just climbed, the mountain was not done with me. There was still elevation to gain. Whereas before I bore the climbing with equanimity, now any elevation meant pain. This was not fun. I was no longer looking at the woods as a place I wanted to be. I was now frustrated and hurting and annoyed with the guidebook author for what seemed to me a stupid choice in the counterclockwise option. I was frustrated with the leg. As I mentioned before, I’m fit. I hike a lot. I run. I do my squats. I ride a horse over jumps. These legs work. What was the deal? Is it just that I’m getting old? I found out later that climbing lots of stairs usually brings on this condition. Climbing the side of that mountain was like climbing 20 stories of the steepest, narrowest stairs. I’m fit, but I don’t train on stairs.

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Downed logs covered the forest floor.

Luckily the trail was balanced fairly well between gain and level hiking, and so I was able to continue as I had intended. As evening progressed, I realized that under the trees it was going to get dark a lot faster than it would have out in the non-woods world. I needed to find a place to sleep for the night. The search for somewhere flat off the trail without too much undergrowth distracted me from my irritation. I subscribe to the intention to do as little harm to the forest as possible while trekking through it. I did not want my being in a place overnight to leave any trace if I could help it. Finding a good spot for this proved challenging, as the forest floor in this area was covered with the aforementioned brush. In some places there would be nothing but floor and pine needles, but there were hundreds of downed trees. In every direction trees crossed and crossed. I wondered whether these downed trees were normal for the forest at this elevation of if there was something outside the ordinary causing this. If it’s not normal, it’s distressing because it looked almost like a river had come rushing through and left trees upended everywhere. I wanted to be off the trail, but I didn’t want to climb over many logs to camp.

I passed a few spots that probably would have worked, but I kept thinking I would find something better. It is so easy to keep thinking the next best spot will be right around the next bend or over the next ascent. Darkness was rapidly descending. The time was only just after 7, but trees are excellent at impeding the sun’s rays from penetrating the forest floor. I saw a clearing with no plants and lots of sticks. It was large enough. It didn’t require climbing a log jam to get to it. I decided I could move some sticks to set up my tent. I removed my pack and set to work.

I’m going to admit something that will probably make me look stupid or arrogant or both. Please don’t judge me. Please remember the aforementioned angst in setting out on this trip, the heartache, etc. I usually find it easy to put things together. I can often do so without reading directions or with only a cursory glance through them. I offer this as explanation for why I did not read the instructions on how to set up my new tent. I had lent my old tent to my brother and never got it back. This was fine because the new tent was much lighter than the old one anyway (aluminum — yay!). This meant that I spent a little longer than I would have in the burgeoning darkness figuring out this tent. The actual tent part, the fabric part, was easy. It’s rectangle–lay it on the ground. The poles were weird though and it took some fiddling for me to figure out how the contraption went and to remember the example tent from which I chose this model, an example tent that had been hanging up near the ceiling of the store where I bought it. How’s that go again? I figured it out, but I think I was hungry and definitely tired because I started to feel irritated again.

Once I got all situated and ate some food, I felt better. I was glad to eat and thereby lessen the weight for the next day. I was pleased with this tent that kept the bugs out. Another buzzing wasp was curious and checking me out. It wasn’t yet dark, but heading there. I sat, contemplating my little camp. I had purposely decided not to bring a book. I wanted to be present with myself and the forest. I did, however, bring a journal and a pen. I had written in the journal at the lake, noting the frogs and my isolation. I also noted the number of planes I had heard by that point. During this trip, I heard 20 planes on the first day and 5 the next. Of those 20, about 8 were heard after dark while lying in my sleeping bag, which leads me to believe there were probably more during the hiking portion of my trip during the day that I didn’t notice because I was occupied. That’s a lot of planes.

I napped a bit, then awakened. 8:30 is too early to go to bed. The forest was silent. Absolutely, utterly silent. It was so silent, when a pine needle fell on my tent, I heard the little Pip! then heard as it slid down the side.

I’m not zen. I miss everyone. It isn’t even like I’m trying to escape ME either. I just spend a lot of time with my thoughts already. I’m not gaining anything. I want company. And my knee hurts. Clarity? You know what is clear? I don’t want to be alone! I spend most of my time alone. I’m among people and alone. I spent all day thinking about Milla and Isabel and DC. That’s what I want. I’m boring.

This was the gist of most of the journal entries I wrote under my headlamp out in the woods. Lonely. Alone. I lay back down and drifted off for another fifteen minutes. Then I wakened and ate another snack. The night was so dark, I filmed it. I wrote again in the journal under the headlamp.

My eyes well up thinking about them. I miss my girls so much! I’m so lucky to have such wonderful daughters. I only feel blessed. I feel lucky. I already did. I didn’t have to come out here alone to know this. I miss all of you! I love backpacking, but not alone.

I finally fell asleep for real and slept for the rest of the night. I must have slept really well because it was 9:20 when I woke up! That’s not just late for me, it’s off the charts. I usually can’t make it past 6 a.m. Feeling pressured to get a move on, I ate my breakfast, piddled in a hole behind a log, dressed, and set out. It was at least 20 degrees cooler than it had been the day before, which was actually a welcome change. The forest had been cooler under the trees, but the day before had still been in the 80s. Not a quarter mile past where I set up to sleep, I found a spot that would have been absolutely perfect for camping. C’est la vie I thought. You never know what’s over that next hill.

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Animal scat as long as my foot.

You never know indeed. A half mile up from where I camped I came to a pile of poop on the trail that came from something large. I have not yet been able to identify it using various scat identifiers on the internet. It was definitely from something carnivorous. As you can see from this photo, it was a long as my foot! In reading various sites about animal potty, I have encountered many people wondering why it is these animals poop on the trail, as if in doing so they are sending messages to the humans who walk there. This seems to me a silly pondering. It may indeed be a message, but I don’t think so. One look at the brushy undergrowth makes trail pooping seem preferable to me. Who wants a stick poking you in the butt when you’re doing your business?  I know when I look for places to go, finding a clear place is certainly a preference.

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Enormous log I crossed on the trail. It was so wide, I straddled it like a horse.

As I traversed the trail, it continued to climb. There would be moments of descent, but mostly, up, up, up. My leg was screaming at me. The trail had also not been groomed in a long time. Downed logs crossed and criss-crossed many places. I had climbed over and under several logs the day before, but in just a couple of miles I had to clamber over log after log. Each time my leg let me know that it was not impressed. Finally, after a long uphill stretch, the trail angle increased dramatically again, reminiscent of the steep trail the day before. Pain stabbed my leg so sharply it took my breath away. At the top of the rise, I had to stop. I had wrapped my leg just below the knee in tape before leaving camp, hoping to provide some support, but the tape was doing nothing. I sat on a downed log and examined my map closely. There were a couple of shortcuts that would take the length of the trip down to about 36 miles instead of 40, but nothing eased the elevation gain. I had not seen a single other person on this journey. I hadn’t even seen evidence of any other hikers out there.

Several years ago while visiting a friend in Coos Bay, I suffered a severe sprain in my ankle while running. The ligament detached from the bone. The excruciating pain stopped me cold. I could not move. Hopping–or attempting to do so–hurt so badly that I nearly vomited. I sat and called out, trying to get someone’s attention to rescue me and take me back to my friend’s house, which finally happened, but I was in the suburbs of a small town.

This episode came to me sitting there on the side of a mountain all alone, at least 12 miles from the trailhead. I could continue, but what if the ligament on the inside of my leg detached from the bone the way the ligament in my ankle had? I don’t know enough about such things to ascertain whether this is possible. I just knew that if I became injured, the little whistle in my pack would be meaningless if there wasn’t anyone in the forest to hear it. I could be stranded for who knows how long.

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My daughter has since informed me that even without a signal, a mobile phone can call 911. I had placed my phone on airplane mode in order to maintain battery so I could use it for the gps and camera. But I didn’t know it would work to call 911 when I was out of service range. Actually, I just did a little internet research and determined that 911 works when you don’t have mobile service, meaning you do not have carrier coverage. However, it does not work when you do not have a mobile signal, which means you’re out of range, so this wouldn’t have been an option anyway.

All of this goes to explain why I decided that I had to turn and head back to the trailhead. I was worried about that 700 foot downhill grade. I was even more worried about that damn log bridge. But neither were more scary than the prospect of injury alone in the forest.

I turned around reluctantly. I felt like a failure at first in doing so. Then I realized I hadn’t failed anything. In the end I hiked 24 miles alone carrying a 30 pound backpack. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Plus even though I was lonely, it was fun. I was enchanted with nature. The forest sleep was silent and dark, unlike living in the city where there is constant noise and light. I awakened once in the middle of the night in the forest because I needed to pee, but I fell right back asleep, something that rarely happens in my own bed.IMG_6347

I remembered the camp spots I had passed near the beginning while hiking the day before. I decided to camp at the one closest to the trailhead and then hike the remaining few miles the following morning. I figured I would arrive in mid-afternoon so I could explore a bit around the stream.

The walk back was amazingly easier than the walk in had been. I covered four more miles the second day than I did the first, and hiked nearly exactly the amount of time. Downhill is easier than uphill, obviously. The steep downhill walk was difficult, but nothing compared to the climb. My leg made not one whimper as long as the ground was level or going downhill. There were places where I had to climb, but not enough to cause me any real discomfort.

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Banana slugs mating. Banana slugs are native to the northwest and feed on decaying vegetation. They do not harm gardens.

I kept my pockets stocked with nuts and dried fruit and nibbled along the way. I made it back to the lake rather quickly, considering. I thought about camping there, but it was still rather early, so decided to maintain my plan of taking the campsite closest to the trailhead. I observed the differences in the vegetation as the elevation changed. I took lots of photos, including one of two banana slugs mating. During the entire return trek, I noticed many banana slugs. I think the cooler temperatures brought them out into the open. The day before I had noticed that many of the trees had black spots on them that did not look healthy. I took photos of these as well so I could ask one of my fellow master gardeners what the blight might be.

Throughout these observations I mulled over the relationship. I kept trying to talk myself out of my feelings. I thought going to the woods would expunge my desire. I thought clarity would meaning getting over my feelings. Instead quite the opposite occurred. It was as if left alone with my thoughts and no distractions my heart could fantasize to its complete content. As I walked through the forest observing trees and slugs I would devise a story then spend twenty minutes talking myself out of it. I observed this as it was going on. In a way the observation allowed me to keep some IMG_6378distance from it. I narrated in my head what I wanted to transcribe into my journal. My thoughts go here, and then they go there. Well now. Isn’t that interesting?

I reached the log bridge back across Separation Creek in very early afternoon. I stopped and took off my pack before crossing, shuffling some heavier items to the bottom and pulling out some snacks for my pockets. I then pulled the pack back on, picked up my stick, and crossed the bridge with nary a pause, one foot in front of the other. For some reason it just wasn’t as scary. I don’t know if crossing before conquered the fear, but the trip back didn’t bother me and I crossed quickly. Once on the other side I looked back across the bridge, stopping to take a video, pleased with myself.

The map that came with my guidebook left a lot to be desired as well, even more so than the description of the hike that went with it. I remembered one of the campgrounds clearly, but the other one not so much. It said the campsites were .8 of a mile apart. I figured this would be about 15-20 minutes of walking between the two. I set out. Eventually I came to what I thought was the campsite closest to the bridge. I had been walking for quite a while, longer it seemed than it had been between the site and the bridge on the way there. I chalked it up to the slight elevation gain on this side of the creek.

Less than ten minutes later I came to what may have been a campsite, but there was no fire pit and not much room for a tent. Plus it could not have been .8 of a mile. It came up too fast, and the trail had been slightly uphill. I presumed this could not be the second campsite and kept going. And going. And going.

I never found the second campsite. Reading backwards through the description of this part of the trail and comparing it to the really terrible map, I must have passed the first campsite without knowing it, and the one I passed up thinking it was the first had to have been the second. The clear place that looked campable could not have been a campsite because of its size and lack of a fire pit.

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Trailhead.

Once I made these realizations, I simultaneously realized that I would just have to keep going and head home that same night. I was not thrilled by this. Part of the reason for the length of the trip was to give man some time to think about things without me around. I had been fighting fantasies all day. I wanted to give him a chance away and see whether he missed me at all. Two days simply wasn’t enough time. Looking back I realize I could have just headed home and not called him for another day or two, but at the time this didn’t occur to me. Dumb, much? Maybe. But it didn’t. I decided I would call him when I got back to Portland. The drive would be three and half hours. It would be around 9, but he would be awake.

I kept walking and walking. In the end I hiked 14 miles the second day. The 10 miles hiked the first were more taxing because they had been all uphill, but I was still very tired and glad to reach my car. During the planning of the trip I had briefly considered bringing my Dachshund with me. I remembered this as I changed out of my filthy hiking pants, sweaty shirt and underwear, and exchanged my boots for sandals. Poor little George’s short little legs would not have been able to handle this trip, I was sure of it. It would have been nice to have had the company, but I doubt he would have made it through the first day, let alone the return and the return at the pace I made.

Later that night back in my cozy bed, it felt weird to be home. I had only been in the woods for two full days, yet I felt altered somehow. I went in with some expectation about what clarity I would gain. In the end the trail showed me how foolish my “knowing” really was. I realize now that I did get some clarity, it just wasn’t what I thought I would be clear about. I presumed I would love the solitude. Instead I came back wanting company even more than before. I have been able to accomplish a lot in my life by myself. For me, doing something alone isn’t really a big deal. What would be different is getting to share life’s adventures with others.

Milla wants to go out with me for the next backpacking trip. When Isabel gets bigger, maybe she will want to go too. What is clear to me now is that I want them there with me, enjoying the forest, the slugs, the poop, the lakes, the trees, the boulders, the streams, the elevation gains that make me scream. All of it. I didn’t feel loneliness in the woods; I felt alone. But I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to share that time and space with others.

I am clear about this: Companionship makes adventures more adventuresome. Sharing life with others makes it more worthwhile. Companionship is what I truly desire. My feet wonder why it took me 24 miles to figure that out, but sometimes that’s just how life is.

Jet

When I was 9 we lived in some apartments in Salem.  I was not happy there.  The other children did not like me and would not play with me.  I spent most of my time reading.  When I wasn’t reading, I was trying to get the other children to play with me. When they would not, I would hang out with local dogs and cats and imagine I had friends who were mostly horses.  As might be apparent from this and has been mentioned elsewhere, I was somewhat peculiar.

Our apartment complex was surrounded by fields.  A few years after we moved away, the fields were mowed to put in a GI Joe store, Bi-mart, and strip malls.  Ugly places.  But when I lived there, the fields did too, filled with scrub trees and brush high enough in which to make forts.  Our apartment had a patio that faced the main road, which was lined with oaks.  There was also a tall, thin oak in our patio area.  On this tree, there were often buggy creatures.

One cool, fall day while sitting on the patio breathlessly discussing my latest gymnastic championship with an imaginary sportscaster, I noticed a movement on the tree.  Always curious about things of this sort, I went over to investigate.  The movement was that of a fluffy, brown-and-black striped caterpillar.  She was crawling rapidly up the tree.  Bump.  Flat.  Bump.  Flat.  On she moved to some unknown destination.

I was utterly enchanted.  A friend!  I picked her up and placed her in my palm.  She rolled into a small circle, the two black ends of her body touching.  I walked over to a lawn chair and sat down, waiting.  Her fluffs were kind of prickly, but also kind of soft. She had a shiny, black hood for a head at one end of her oblong body.

Eventually, she wakened and began crawling up my palm and onto my arm.  I picked her up to turn her around.  She rolled back into a circle.  We continued like this for several minutes.  She would begin crawling until she started to get too far up my arm, then I would move her back to my palm.  After several rounds, I placed her on the table on our patio and watched her inching crawl.

This caterpillar was fast!  I knew if I did not keep an eye on her, she would soon be gone.  She was so fast, I decided she needed a fast name and decided on the highly original Jet.  I loved her.  I wanted to keep her until she grew into a butterfly.

I went into our apartment and began to rummage around for a jar.  I placed Jet into a bowl on the kitchen counter and located a small jar with a lid.  I took the jar and Jet out back and looked for some nature-like things with which to furnish Jet’s new home.  I found some leaves, sticks, old brush, and a few dandelion flowers, and arranged them carefully in the jar.  Then I placed Jet inside and twisted on the lid.  I then, however, began to worry that Jet would suffocate in her new home, so I reopened it and went back into the house to locate a hammer and nail with which to create a ventilation system.  I found the tools and headed back outside once again.

A short time later, Jet’s home was properly aerated so she would not suffocate.  At this point I figured she might also need hydration, and went in to get a cup of water, leaving Jet in the jar while I did so.  When I returned, I placed some droplets of water for her on a leaf.  Jet crawled around the minute space for a bit, and then just stood there on a stick.  I thought perhaps the home was boring for her, and brought her out again to play.  This went on for a couple of hours until my mom came home from work.  I showed her Jet and Jet’s new apartment before she began making dinner.

That evening, as I sat and watched television with my sister, Jet sat with me in her jar.  I would take her out to crawl, then return her to her house.  Finally my mom pointed out that Jet might be tired.  I agreed and took her upstairs to my bedroom window sill for the night.

The next morning, upon awakening, I immediately went to Jet and her jar.  She was not there!  I looked and looked, but there was definitely no fluffy, black-and-brown caterpillar in the jar.  I ran hollering into my mom’s bedroom, sobbing.  Jet is gone!  She isn’t here anymore!

My mom looked into the jar as well.  Then she pointed to a soft, brown cocoon.  See that?  She made her cocoon. So fast?  I could not believe it.  I looked skeptically into the jar. Lo and behold, there was a  cocoon!  In my frenzied excitement over the missing caterpillar, the cocoon had completely escaped my attention.  Part of the reason may have been because the cocoon was much smaller than Jet had been, or so it seemed.  It was about the same width, but only about half the length, and it was light brown.

I kept the jar in my bedroom for the next few weeks.  At first, I checked it constantly to see if a beautiful butterfly had emerged.  As time progressed though, I began to wonder if maybe Jet had died in the cocoon.  The grass and leaves shriveled up, and the jar looked decidedly bleaker than it had when I created the nest.  The cocoon looked so light and fragile, I wasn’t so sure Jet was still alive.

My childhood existed before there was an internet where one could go and look up the incubation time for caterpillars, or what kind of butterfly or moth would emerge.  I had gone to the library to see if I could find a book about Jet, but was not successful.  I had no idea how long it would take for her to grow.  Little did I realize that Jet would be wintering with me for months.

One morning the following spring, upon wakening, I went immediately to the jar, as had become my habit.  I never expected a change because it had been a very long time since she had moved into the jar and turned into a cocoon.  But this morning was different.  The cocoon was spliced neatly up one side.  However, I could not see any butterfly inside the jar.

Having been fooled once into thinking Jet had left, I was not so easily deterred this time.  I took the jar into another room where the light from the windows was much brighter than in my room.  There, among the dried leaves, grass, and dandelions, was a brown, spotted moth.  Jet was not a butterfly, but a moth!  I thought she was beautiful.  Her wings seemed still to be wet and not completely ready to fly, so I left her in the jar while I went to school.  After school, I took the jar and placed it outside with the lid off so she could fly away.  Later when I went to see her, she was gone.

Since thinking about Jet recently, I went and looked up this type of caterpillar on the internet. Somewhere along the way I learned they are often called woolly bears. I played with many more such caterpillars throughout my childhood.  In my recent research, I discovered that the moths that grow from woolly bear caterpillars are called Isia Isabella, or Tiger Moths.  I love it that these creatures who brought enchantment to my life as a girl share the same name as my youngest daughter. I also learned that I had created just the perfect habitat for little Jet to cocoon for the winter.  They like cool, small, dimly lit spaces with dirt, leaves, and dandelions, and once they are ready, they will hunker down until spring.  My cool window sill was to the west under some trees; the jar an ideal woolly bear habitat.

Interestingly, there are legends that the woolly bear can predict whether winter will be more or less severe based on the thickness of their stripe.  Some believe that if the woolly bear’s stripe is wide, winter will be mild.  If the stripe is narrow, winter will be severe.  Others believe the narrow stripe arises from more moisture, while a wide stripe comes from dry conditions.  Considering wet winters are also often severe, these two lines of thought seem in corroboration.

I don’t remember what the weather was like the year Jet wintered with us.  I lived in Oregon, so it was likely a wet winter. Compared to the many woolly bear photos I have now seen, hers was a narrow stripe.  If this one woolly bear’s stripe was any indication, perhaps the legends about the woolly bears are true.  All I know is that she was an interesting companion and brought happiness to an introverted and often lonely child, and she gave me something fun to look forward to.

Here is a photo of a woolly bear. This one looks exactly like Jet did.

Riding in the Morning (Fiction)

I ride my horse nearly every morning, alone, regardless of the weather.  It empties my head, fuzzy yet clear, like that time between waking and sleep when thoughts slip unbidden through the ether into consciousness.  Riding in the morning keeps me in this happy purgatory, lets me dream while awake.  The rhythm is hypnotic.  Even.  These rides for me are like those times in a movie when someone is running through the forest and the camera shows a snippet or a piece of them, but mostly we see the blur of the trees, the movement of running feet, possibly what they are running toward. Or from.

I ride even in the rain,  covering myself with plastic, the studs in my horse’s shoes keeping us from slipping.  In my yellow rain slicker I appear as a golden alien, the crackling of the plastic keeping me from hearing anything beyond the rhythm of the hoofbeats under my body.

My favorite mornings are in early fall, when the possibility of cold and ice tickles, but the day will still be warm.  The air simultaneously lingers and moves.  Later in the day it will hover, but on an early fall morning, the air allows passage.

There is a private road along which I like to ride.  To the west lies a hayfield surrounded by a wooden fence. To the east immediately next to the road is a forest.  Between the road in the forest there is a strip of ground about fifteen feet wide.  The owners of the road keep the grass here mowed.  It is perfect for riding, wide enough to keep the ground from turning to muck, close enough to the tree wall to feel encased, protected.  In summer the trees keep the sun off our backs.  When it rains, they are umbrellas against the full force of the water spilling onto our bodies.  Some days I venture into the forest; others I stick to the road.

One of my favorite parts of these rides is the smells that fill my nostrils, my head, my body.  There is the deep, pungent warmth of the loamy soil from the forest that even in the height of the summer seems always damp.  On the mornings when the owners of the road along which I ride cut the grass, I bask in its sweet, genuine odor.  I ride in the morning and breathe in the smells.  The rides are bliss.

I named my horse Pluto.  Like a mythical beast taken from the novel of a school girl, his legs are long and graceful, his coat the color of ebony, his tail full and wavy.  My riding friends envy Pluto’s tail.  Many horses have thin and wispy tails. Their owners cover them in tail bags and pick out tangles with their fingers in an effort to ensure every hair is protected.  Pluto’s tail requires no such coddling; it is coarse and unruly.

On this fall morning, I ride out early, close to dawn.  Through the clouds, the moon still hovers near the edge of the horizon.  The air is chilly, promising it will soon overtake any hints of summer warmth.  I start slowly, warming Pluto’s muscles and my own.  I am not wearing a heavy jacket, my rain slicker tied at my waist.  Although the wind is cold enough I can see my breath and the grey sky is low enough that rain seems imminent, I know the ride will heat both of us soon enough.

As I turn down the lane next to the hayfield, I nudge Pluto into a canter.  He kicks a bit in anticipation. Cold air makes him fresh and excitable.  As we settle into a rhythm, the smell of grass and falling leaves fills my nostrils, the air numbs my cheeks.  I reach up and press my helmet more firmly onto my forehead, a feeble attempt to keep the cold at bay.

I want to know the future, I think as I squeeze Pluto into a canter.  He responds with a kick to the side, pulling down before settling into an easy rhythm.  Or maybe not.  Do I really want to know what is going to happen?  Do I really want to know anything beyond the sound of Pluto’s breathing, his hoofbeats in the grass, the trees flying by?  What would I do if I knew that at the end of the road I would fall, hit my head, and die?  Would I divert my path?  Would I want to know the specifics of every day until the end of my life?  Wouldn’t that be boring?  Where would come the joy in discovering something new if I knew everything in advance?

I don’t think I want to know the future, just that my life will turn out okay.  I think that is generally what people are after when they think they want to know what is going to happen.  Only life doesn’t always give us what we want or we don’t take the steps to get there.  If we knew the future and it was not good, could we change it?  I suppose part of what we would do depends on how we discovered what the future would be.  A crystal ball?  A dream?

Pluto snorts and pulls on the reins.  I shake my head to dispel these thoughts.  Too serious.  I gather my reins and ask Pluto to slow to a trot, then a walk.  Breathing heavily, he tosses his head, then turns and rubs his foamy muzzle on his shoulder leaving a gauzy strip of green goo along his wet skin.  We are both warm now, although it has begun to drizzle.

I turn from the grass to ride into the forest.  The leaves are starting to turn and the underbrush is dry, allowing us access into places that only a few weeks ago were covered in vegetation.  Pluto picks his way over the brush and through the trees.  Every so often he stops, letting me know that the way is not clear.  I allow him to guide us along altering and designing our trail as we go, only keeping a slight feel in the reins.

The rain is increasing, but the leaves overhead block most of the moisture.  I untie the yellow raincoat from my waist and cover myself against the wetness, pulling the hood over my helmet.  It muffles the sound of the rain dripping in the forest.  Pluto’s footfalls reverberate within the plastic coating, mixing with its crinkling.

I check my watch, surprised to learn that I have been riding for over an hour.  I should probably head back, but I don’t have anything to do this morning and I’m enjoying the solitude.  We are deep enough into the forest I know I am going to have to rely on Pluto to ensure our return.  I have done this before, this delving into the forest, buried deep within its underbelly.

I hear birds chirping above me. It strikes me as odd that birds would hang out and sing in the rain, but that is exactly what they are doing.  Don’t they get wet?  Do wet feathers work?  It seems to me that wet feathers would not fly very well, although I suppose the birds do not need to fly to sit on the branches and sing.
In the distance I see something white bobbing on the edge of the creek.  In the grey light, but against the reeds and grasses at the edge of the water nearly in the mud, the white glows.  It is drizzling harder now and the edge of my hood makes seeing difficult.  The folds and creases in the plastic on the raincoat cause the water to dribble off the front rim at odd angles.  With my hood up, I am enclosed in a water tunnel.  It is like seeing through a waterfall.

What is that?

I ride closer.  Whatever is lying there is lumpish and round.  Pluto is not impressed.  He keeps snorting and trying to back away.  I can see the sclera of his eye.  He doesn’t know what this thing is but he wants nothing to do with it.  Yet I am curious.  I squeeze him forward and he obeys.  I want to see.
I dismount and stare, pulling Pluto along behind me.  My hood falls back.  I feel the water begin to take over, but I ignore it and proceed.

Before me, tucked among the reeds, muddy water swirling around his ankles, is a dead man.  A pale, trapped, and hideously distended dead man.  Face up, his eyes are like squinty raisins in the bloated flesh of his face, arms swelling out the ends of the short sleeves of his shirt with its lower buttons popped, his bulging belly protruding above his belt.  He is grotesque.

Pluto snorts and paws, pulling back on the reins, yanking me off balance in the slippery mud along the bank.  I turn and pat him, cooing softly, telling him he is okay.  It is starting to rain harder.  The water sluices down the back of my neck, its rivulets curving between my shoulder blades.  My saddle is saturated, yet I want Pluto to mellow so I can go back to look at the man.

I have a friend who drowned in the Thailand tsunami, pulled into the sea by a vicious undertow during her Christmas vacation.  Is this how she looked after she died?  Like this doughy sausage person, a human loaf too big for its pan, her swimsuit cutting into her flesh, folds of it oozing around the seams?  Were her fingers so swollen they no longer really fit her hands?

It is then that I notice movement beneath the pale whiteness of the man’s thin shirt and see a slithery black thing scuttle across his belly.  Some creatures have already discovered the corpulent smorgasbord.  He is quite a feast, in spite of the water and damp.

Revulsed, I turn away.  Thoughts of salt water bring me hope that dear Angie was not eaten by water bugs, but I am deluding myself.  Sharks and fishes do not notice the salinity.  Her bones might have survived, floating to the ocean floor after the seizure of her flesh, but even these were probably dissolved in something’s stomach acid.  If she drifted ashore in aftermath of the tsunami, in the dense and humid heat of the jungle, more animals than these enjoyed a putrefying meal.

I turn away.  The water moving down my back has reached the top of my pants where my shirt is tucked in.  I can feel it creeping slowly through the fabric.  It is winning.  As I step closer, my foot sinks into the mud.  The edge of the creek is unclear, water and soil combining to create the illusion of solidity.

The stream eddies and swirls around his shoulders, bits of sticks and leaves collected along his edges.  On his neck I see a slug or a leech, but leeches need something living, don’t they?  It is firmly attached, slimy and full, whatever it is.

What to do about this horrendous thing, I do not know.  I would not be able to move him even if I could let Pluto go, which isn’t an option because he’ll leave me stranded here in these woods in favor of the warm and dry barn.  I can hardly blame him.  He can probably smell things I am not capable of.  In this I am glad for the rain; any smells of putrefaction have been rinsed away.

Once I leave, things will be different. I will ride back to the barn and find the barn manager and tell her what I discovered out in the woods.  She will stare at me in disbelief and ask questions, but not many because she is quiet that way.  We will go to the office and phone the authorities together.  They will arrive and want me to try and retrace my steps here.  I may or may not go with them, but if I do, I will be kept at a distance as they mill about him, circling like vultures.  Many people will ask me the same questions over and over, police in uniforms, detectives in regular clothes, everyone in raincoats and slickers.  I will be treated like the victim for having seen him even though I am not the one who has been harmed, the one who is dead.

It will continue to rain in pieces.  I will have to call my office and my husband.  Someone will offer me their mobile phone to make the calls because I have not yet replaced the one I lost riding out here in the woods.  My husband will tut and ask me if I’m okay, but he knows me and knows this would not bother me as much as it would others.  He will not treat me like a victim.

Throughout the day people will hear what I found on my ride in the woods.  First other boarders at the barn, then friends will hear from others, and coworkers will hear at the office.  Everyone will talk about this, everyone will ask, and in the answering I will lose this moment.  The repetition will grind it from my brain.

When the story comes out in the paper, as it most certainly will in this rather small place with nothing much going on, I will be for a moment a local celebrity.  People will talk about it and ooh and ah and wrinkle their noses in disgust, grateful they were not the ones who found a dead man.

Yet I do not want to be celebrated.  I did nothing.  I am not the one who is dead.  My life is not the one that is over.  My life wasn’t stolen by a wave as I lay on a beach at Christmas.  I am not the one lying swollen, being eaten by leeches, dead and unknown in muddy creek waters.

I stand there on the water’s edge and consider briefly telling no one, leaving this man to decompose in the water, his bones left for discovery by another at some point in the spring, the body no longer distended, the creatures no longer slithering under his shirt.  But I know this is not what I will do.

Pluto pulls at the reins, trying to nibble at the growing things near our feet.  I tug him closer and pat his wet neck. He rubs his head on my arm, knocking me off balance.  I step towards the man to right myself.  His face continues to stare, the swollen, raisin eyes meaningless without life behind them.

I reach down and run my finger along his arm.  I feel nothing.  He is not there, only this wretched ending of him.  I turn and gather my reins, place my foot in the wet stirrup, struggling not to slip as I clamber up on Pluto’s back. He takes a step to the side.  I hold him steady, pause, look down once more at the man who is not there, then turn and ride home.

Miss Molly

In December 1996, I decided that I wanted another dog.  I had lived with my sweet dog, Autumn, for four and a half years. We had moved back to Oregon from the east coast, and I had finished college and begun working full time. I decided Autumn needed someone to hang out with during the day while I worked, so I chose to go to the humane society and look there.  I had been donating money to the humane society for years and fully supported animal adoption that way.  I considered myself an ideal owner; an animal that lived with me would be a full member of the family, receive top of the line care, and lots of love.

I was living in Corvallis at the time.  I decided to go look at the humane society in Salem because it was bigger and would therefore have a larger selection.  I was not sure exactly what kind of a dog I wanted, but I knew I did not want a brand new puppy and that I did want a female dog.

There were so many dogs to choose from.  There were lots of brand new puppies and most of them had signs on their cages indicating they were already adopted.  I entered the back kennels to search for an older dog.  The kennel was bedlam.  Because it was a Sunday, there were lots of potential doggie parents milling about looking for dogs.

I wandered up and down the aisles, occasionally stopping to pet one and say hello.  One dog in particular caught my eye.  She was about the same size as Autumn, but mostly black, almost like Autumn’s photo negative.  Where Autumn was brown, this dog was black.  Where Autumn’s points and eyebrows were dark brown, this dog’s were beige.  She sat quietly in front of the fence.  I went over and started to pet her.  She looked at the floor, but leaned into the fence of the kennel so I could pet her ears.  She was extremely thin, so thin I could count all of her ribs and see her hip bones.

This dog had curved front paws.  There was no obvious bend like an L.  Rather, her paws simply curved like the bottom of a U.  Later when Autumn contracted diabetes and gradually starved, her paws began to curve too and I learned that curved paws were caused by starvation.  I did not know at the time that the reason this dog’s paws were curved was because she had been starving.  The sign on her kennel read QUEENIE. Her breed was listed as a doberman mix.  I did not think so.  Her colors might have been vaguely reminiscent of a doberman’s, but nothing else about her resembled that breed.

I pet her for a bit, then moved on to look around some more.  I would wander up and down the aisles then return to the kennel with Queenie.  Other visitors would stop at various kennels, but no one else stopped at Queenie’s.  I kept going back.  She would look up at me, then look at the floor, then look back up at me.  The workers allowed me to take her out into a back yard to walk her around and spend time with her.  She sat next to me and walked quietly beside me while we walked around a bit.  I asked her if she wanted to live with me.  She just looked at me, then looked away, then looked back again at me.  She won me over and I decided that she was the dog I wanted to take home.

The workers told me that Queenie had been found wandering the streets of Salem three weeks prior.  The day I chose her, she was extremely thin.  I could count each of her ribs and she had those curved paws I did not know signified atrophied muscles from malnourishment.  If she was in this shape after three weeks, I can only imagine how thin she had been upon arrival.

Prior to that day, my dog Autumn lived as a child with my husband and me.  She slept in our bed.  She ate the best dog food.  When it was determined she had hip dysplasia, she received top of the line vet care.  She was a priority in our lives.  I cannot imagine an animal more loved and cared for.  Yet the humane society in Salem would not let me adopt Queenie because the house we lived in was rented and did not have a fence.  There were other smaller reasons as well that I no longer remember.  The main thing that stood out was the house situation.  Even though I had owned another dog and cared for her in that house for over a year, the people there determined it was not good enough.  No wonder so many animals can’t find homes.  If someone like me could not adopt a dog, I did not see how anyone could.

I hugged Queenie and left the facility completely dejected.  I wanted her.  I knew she would fit well with our little family.  I had to find a way to bring her home.

Knowing the criteria that had kept me from adopting Queenie, I set out to find a friend who would “kidnap” her for me.  I called around and described the situation.  My uncle John had just moved to the area.  When I told him what was going on, he agreed he would go and get Queenie out for me.  I was so pleased!  Perhaps she would be coming home with me after all.

The next day, Uncle John went down to the humane society.  We rehearsed the story we would tell in order to ensure he could adopt Queenie.  I waited and waited for him to call.  Over an hour later, he finally called to tell me he had Queenie and was on his way to my house.  I clapped in joy.  She was mine!  The story my uncle had told was convoluted and long.  He told them he owned his own house with a fenced yard.  He said he had a little boy who wanted a dog.  They told him he could not take the dog until the little boy had visited.  He then created some sob story where they had had a dog who had died.  His little boy was desperately sad and missed this dog more than anything. Queenie looked like that dog and he wanted to surprise his little boy.  The people bought it, thank God!

The night Queenie came home I changed her name to Molly.  She did not look like a queen, but she did look like a sweet Molly girl.

As part of the agreement to adopt, I had to pay a rather large fee, something like eighty dollars.  It was claimed that most of the fee was to pay for a certificate to spay Molly.  The humane society where she was adopted was in Marion County.  I had been assured the day before that I could use the certificate at a vet in the county where I lived.  I scheduled the appointment to have her spayed.  My vet told me that the certificates were not good in our county.  I called other vets and was told the same story.  Because I was not going to get to use the certificate anyway, I took her to my vet.  He decided he would honor the certificate even though he would not be remibursed for the work by the humane society.  I was grateful to him.  We had only been shortly acquainted at that time, but I now consider him a good friend.

Two days later I took her in to be spayed.  She was afraid of the vet’s office, but went along willingly.  That was Molly. There were many situations where she was afraid, but she would trust me and go along if I was there.  She stayed that way her entire life.  A couple of hours after dropping her off, I received a phone call from the vet letting me know her surgery was complete.  It turned out that when they opened her to spay her, she had already been spayed!  The doctor sewed her back up and called me to come and bring her home.  He said because the humane society told me she needed to be spayed, it had not occurred to him to question it before performing the surgery.

As I stated before, I had donated a lot of money to the humane society.  I wanted to help the organization so it could help animals.  However, after my experience that day trying to adopt that dog, after the experience with the spaying certificate I was told would work and then did not, and finally the fact they did not even know she had been spayed already requiring she undergo an unnecessary procedure, I stopped donating to them.  It has been my experience, then and since, that there are many people who work in the animal adoption industry who seem to have the attitude that they are the only people good enough to care for animals.  I absolutely understand taking steps to keep animals out of bad homes or laboratories.  Yet when organizations that claim their purposes are to serve animals, to keep them from being euthanized, and to find them decent homes, they should not make it impossible for a good owner to adopt a pet.  Unfortunately, because of the holier than thou attitude at some facilities, this is exactly what happens.

Molly was initially skittish, but she loved me and trusted me right away. Autumn was not thrilled by the interloper considering I had been sole mommy for the four years comprising her entire life.  However, she grudgingly accepted Molly into the pack once she determined she was not going anywhere.  For the rest of their lives the two basically ignored each other.  In my attempt to get Autumn company with Molly, I failed wholeheartedly.  Later when we adopted Poppy, Autumn and Poppy became good friends. And later after that, Autumn and Edna seemed to like one another as well.  But Autumn and Molly never did.  They acted like the other did not exist.  About once a year they would get into a nasty quarrel and one or the other of the two would end up with a bloody bite.

From the beginning Molly knew certain words and was terrified of them.  Her entire life if I said Vacuum she would go and hide.  In the early days, she was genuinely frightened.  In later years she would go and sit on the back porch or in the closet when the vacuum came out.  She could not stand the thing.  She also knew cuss words and would go and hide even if they were spoken in a sentence full of other words. For instance, I could say I’m going to go and dump the damn garbage and she would go hide.  It was like a parlour trick, her knowledge of naughty words.  I often wondered what happened to her in her early days to instill such a fear.

My vet and friend, Dr. Fletcher, examined Molly’s teeth very closely the month I brought her home and told me he was 95% certain she was just under two and a half years old.  This would have put her birth around September 1994.  A lot could happen in that time and I will never know what.  In addition to her fear of cuss words and vacuums, she was terrified of loud men, arguments of any kind, and she knew sit, stay, and come.  It was obvious she had lived with someone, but who knows what her life was like exactly.

Molly did not like being in trouble.  Her perception of trouble had a higher threshold than most of us.  During Autumn’s last years, Autumn would get into the trash and try to eat things beyond her diabetic dog food.  I would come home to Autumn wagging her tail and Molly sitting in the corner hiding.  Simply based on Molly’s body language, I knew Autumn had done something naughty.  I know some animal behaviorists would say that Molly was reacting to my reaction, that she had no way to know Autumn had done something naughty.  This explanation does not satisfy.  Molly would be reacting to Autumn’s behavior before I even knew and reacted to it.  Molly was smart.  She knew.

Molly was also extremely fastidious.  She would hold potty for hours and hours rather than go in the house.  For a couple of years we lived in a 1930’s farmhouse with a full basement.  There was no door on that basement so we put a gate at the top of the stairs to keep Milla from falling down them.  The top of the stairs opened onto an enclosed back porch.  When we were gone, we would leave the dogs on this back porch.  One day I came home to discover Molly on the top stair to the basement.  How did you get over the gate? I asked her.  She wagged her tail.  I went down into the basement to discover Molly had gone potty in the farthest corner of the basement.  Rather than potty on the back porch Molly had jumped over the gate landing on stairs and gone down and as far away as possible to do it.  That’s how she was.

Molly loved sleeping on the bed, but we had decided after we had three dogs and a cat and a child that the bed was too crowded so the dogs were relegated to beds on the floor.  Every so often, Molly would slip quietly onto the bed and lie there as still as possible hoping we would not boot her to the floor.  Most times we let her stay; she was not obtrusive.

Last April, Molly had a severe seizure.  I wrote about that on this blog.  You can click here to read about it.  The seizure was horrible.  When I woke to her twisted body writhing on the floor, her eyes rolling in two different directions, feces and urine everywhere, I thought for sure she was dead.  But she did not die.  Three hours later, to the surprise of everyone who had seen her, especially the vet, Molly was 95% better.  And she stayed better.  The vet warned me that more seizures were to come, that she likely had a brain tumor and would continue to seize until one of them killed her.  But that never happened.  She never had another seizure.

Because of her age, I knew Molly would not be able to cross the ocean to live with us in Hawaii. I arranged for her to stay with my boyfriend and his dog, Tanya, in Portland.  She seemed to accept the change after I left.  She spent a good deal of time under the bed, her favorite place to be.  Boyfriend bought her a rug to lie on under the bed and a pillow for the living room.  He bought her a new tag for her collar that said Miss Molly on a pretty pink flower.  I would talk to her on skype.  I don’t know if she knew what was going on, but she always had a happy face and would come out to play and say hello.

Yet over the last week and a half, Molly seemed to deteriorate before our eyes.  She fell down the stairs to Boyfriend’s basement.  She has had difficulty with stabilty on slippery floors for some time now and these stairs are covered in linoleum.  She stopped wanting to eat.  We thought maybe hard kibble was bothering her so Boyfriend bought wet food on Saturday.  Molly gobbled that up like a starving beast and we thought things would improve.  Only the next day she did not want to eat wet food either.  Boyfriend fed her some by hand and she ate that, but the next day she wanted even less.  Two days ago when he took her outside to go to the bathroom, she slipped and fell going up the back porch steps.  Yesterday when she went out to go to the bathroom, she urinated then lay in it.  I knew then that something was dreadfully wrong.  My dear, sweet, fastidious dog would never go anywhere near her urine if she could help it.  Boyfriend bathed her and I made an appointment with our vet for today.

Molly died this morning in the arms of my boyfriend.  The vet said she had a large tumor in her spleen that had burst and her belly was full of blood.  She said we could operate to remove the tumor, but she would likely not survive any surgery.  There would have been no benefit in trying to save her life.  She was fourteen years old.  Her body was old and worn out.  Trying to keep her alive would have been selfish and cruel.

Milla and I spoke to her over the phone telling her we loved her and goodbye.  I hope she heard us and if not I hope our love was there for her.  I imagined her flying away from that body just like Autumn did a little over three years ago.  My boyfriend took her body home and buried her in the corner of his backyard.  Tonight he went out and sat by her under the full moon.

I am so blessed this creature was a part of my life for almost twelve years.  She was always there, quietly in the background.  Molly loved a lot of people.  She was always so excited to see my mom or my good friends.  She loved my boyfriend and enjoyed his company, following him around the house for a snack or to have her rear end scratched.  She took a bit of time to warm up to a person, almost like she was sizing them up to determine whether they were worth her friendship.  Yet once she decided she liked you, she always liked you and would remember someone after months or even years of an absence.

Upon hearing of her death, a good friend said this to me, “She was such a good friend and such a polite and gentle dog.  What a blessing to have had her for so long – she loved you all dearly.”  These words are simply true.  I am grateful Molly came into my life. In her quiet way she was a fixture in my life for over a decade.  Of the hundreds of dogs I could have chosen from the humane society that cold, winter day, I am so thankful I chose her.  I loved her and I will miss her terribly.  I am glad that she was my friend.