[This is from a few years back.]
It’s spring in the High Sierra, and I’m on vacation from New York. I’ve come back to walk old trails again, trails both of terrain and of memory, and I’m out doing one of my favorite things in the world – taking a dog for a hike out along Convict Creek.
My dog-friends Ranger the Valiant Warrior and Tito the Mighty Hunter can’t be with me, but I do have Chardonnay along, a happy-airhead golden retriever.
I stopped by to pick him up a short time before, and I was shocked at his appearance. He looks like an anatomical study: Canine Skeleton.
He’s dying, his owner tells me. Chardy hasn’t eaten anything at all in more than three weeks. The fur on his muzzle is golden retriever orange and bone white in a cadaverous pattern – his face literally looks skull-like.
But his eyes, when he sees me, are bright. Three weeks after his last taste of food, he nevertheless wags, wriggles, bounces.
Ron, who had never been to our Convict Creek haunt, comes along. We have to help Chardy into and out of Ron’s truck, but he trots puppy-like along with us across the meadow to the creek.
Even in this happy and solemn moment, I still find time to study the creek, to pick out evidences of streambank and streambed changes. The willows and grasses and sprouting irises are all there, but the unceasing flow of crystal mountain water has continued to visibly reshape and reroute the stream’s rugged channel.
I find the favorite patch of streambank sand where I had always sat, and remember that the last time I was here, I tried to scribble out an equation to represent the mechanics of erosion. I get only a contemplative second or two before Chardy bounds out of the stream and shakes rainbows into the sunlit air, dousing both me and my sandy chalkboard with his efforts.
He splashes happily back into the clear cool water, bounding in and out on the important business of fetching sticks, the picture of dog happiness. He snuffles and does leg-lifts, wags and dashes to and fro, and this short slice of afternoon becomes one of my never-to-be-forgotten Golden Moments.
Talking to Ron a few weeks later, I discover that the experience of seeing how very much Chardy loved the place inspired him to take him out there every day. For another week of visits, Chardy got to go to the place he loved above all others, and had Golden Moments of his own. (I will feel good about this, that I was able to give Chardy this last gift, for years.) Later, nearby, he was buried.
Even without knowing this, as I say goodbye to Ron and Chardy I ache with too much knowing.
I’d thought of Chardonnay as a casual canine companion, an also-ran brought along to entertain my own dogs with his frenetic comic relief act. But I find that he’s a surprising more to me.
The moment of leaving is stretched out in my memory, running in slow motion with all the details spotlighted:
With a careful hug of his prominent bones and a last affectionate stroke, I part from him.
I get in my rented car.
I start the engine.
I look back at him.
He sits watching, unmoving, his skull-face up and alert, his eyes bright, thinking I know not what.
The river of life has flowed through him for his ten years, wearing away at the span of his canine existence. In these last few weeks it has eroded him down to his essence – orange and white fur stretched over bones, an accent of bright eyes. And a little something else, to me, a sense of who and what he is. A self.
Having discovered the selfness of dogs, you can never go back to the smaller view of them that so many of us hold: ambulatory entertainment devices, spike-collared brag-fodder for our human egos, disposable pieces of furniture.
In this moment, Chardy is a person, a dying friend, looking after me with yearning as I drive away. I’m traveling off to distant places of my own volition, away to adventure and fun and interesting new realizations about the world we live in, over decades more of my human life. Chardy has to stay here, and be a dog, and die.
I never see him again.