February 18, 2008 at 6:22 AMValentine’s Day almost ended perfectly, with thoughtful gifts of chocolate, steak, and heart-shaped boxes of ammunition tied with red bows. We were just toasting ourselves with a buttery pinot noir, settling into the couch when we realised we’d let the dog out and he hadn’t come back. What? “Ben’s gone. Gonna go look for him in the truck.” From the tone of George’s voice, I could tell he was worried.
“Ben, Come!” Punk. I stood in the toe-nipping doorway, my calls being eaten by the wind. While George drove around the camp, I paced from window to window, peering into the dark woods that jutted from the whiteness, waiting for something in them to move. When all this failed, we took another drive to search more closely for tracks in the snow. Then George stayed home to watch for him while I went back out in the car and checked the highway and neighborhoods.
“Ben, Come!” Bonehead. As my fret grew, I tried to comfort myself with thoughts of other dogs who run loose with no consequences. But Alaska in February can be especially cruel and unforgiving to a highly specialized chocolate lab with no street savvy and not a mean bone to speak of. (We’d even trained the bite instinct out of him as a puppy; his mouth was so soft that he retrieved eggshells from the trash can unharmed.) I tried not to think of possible encounters with crazed moose, packs of Rottweilers, and highway semi's on ice. Maybe he was just hooking up with a dame; after all, it’s Valentine’s Day. Methodically, I made my way down each avenue to its end and back, probing the landscape with my headlights for fresh paw prints shaped like Ben’s. Only one set of tracks gave me any leads, to a husky pacing casually at the end of her drive; she wasn’t talking.
The fuel light had been glowing empty orange for a while already when I stopped back by the house to see George alone on the couch. With still no sign of Ben, I gassed up the tank for round three.
“Ben, Come!” Stupid dog. Twigs and branches tumbled across the headlights’ scope. Newer tracks gradually became sanded down into smooth ripples. Disappearing. I didn’t even know which road I was on anymore. I drove till there were no more roads, till I wandered to the end of the landing strip over at Tennessee Miller’s old homestead. An empty street lamp, a drifting runway, and darkness surrounded me.
I was alone.
I was still alone when I curled up on the couch to watch the back yard at 2:00 am. I willed the dark shapes to move, to become a dog and run to the door. I summoned with my heart, hoping that maybe Ben would get the message and get himself back to me. Though undue guilt would have typically persuaded me not to pester God over such a trivial matter, I prayed.
If Ben wasn’t tucked in tonight like every other night of his life, then it was because he couldn’t make it back, and there were only two explanations for that: he was either in someone else’s home, or he was probably dead. Lying on the couch, trying to keep my drooping eyes fixed outside, I thought about dead, and then I tried not to think about dead, about the frail mess of bones and blood and pain that make up life.
He shouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s not like he’s a human. (I can’t even imagine what it would be like if it was George missing!) But that’s just it; I have no children, so it’s my pet that constitutes the third member of my family trio. See, he wasn’t just a dog, he was also my hiking buddy. He’s the one who licked my hand when I cried that day on top of the mountain–-when I was not invited, and everyone else had gone out across the ridge without me. And when I wept about the fishing trip because it was just the boys, it was Ben who buried his head in my lap and tried as best as any four-legged friend could to offer a sympathy hug. At times when I felt most rejected, my dog was my best friend. He was just four years old, strong and beautiful and perfect. Honey brown eyes, baggy-pants skin, floppy ears. Frail bones and blood...
Every time I drifted off, guilt painfully snapped me awake for not watching. Then I dreamed he came home. When the welcome home scene finally dissolved and consciousness took over, I curled up tightly in hopes that my blanket could shun the day out of existence. Since it didn’t, I got up. But I wouldn’t hike anymore. I wouldn’t eat breakfast, either.
George and I discussed our next option and decided to file a lost dog report with the local radio station. We checked it out and discovered that this could be done easily on line. So I opened up their website.
FOUND: Male chocolate lab. Very friendly.
I almost started to cry when I read your blog...I can't imagine my pet(s) getting lost outside, especially this week with the terrible weather we had! I'm glad you found him!
Hey, I didn't make it to Homer this week on account of the weather. Wow, you guys really got a mess!
The woman who (thankfully) picked him up almost ran over him on the highway. Apparently, he was several miles downwind, heading toward the mountains. I don't know, he was probably thinking in his head about the ptarmigan on top of Skyline, thinking if he kept at it, he could make it by morning. I've thought of doing things like that myself from time to time...
I suppose every day's a holiday, if you look hard enough.
I'll also put in a word for pet insurance, if you haven't considered that---it's also quite affordable for a young, healthy dog.
My dog did something similar when I was a child, went off rabbiting in the forest and never came back. Parents had to drive home to pick me up from school... but NO dog... Lots of tears, went to bed clutching his leash, everyone distraught. Then the phone rung at 11pm and the manager of a Little Chef motorway diner told my father she had just found a very muddy dog raiding her garbage cans and did we want him back as he was now happily eating burgers in front of her heater.
The forest was 30 miles from home and he was on the right direction to find his way back - he'd crossed 2 busy roads and walked 20 miles. Fortunately my father went to pick him up and there was a happy reunion. (He lived on til he was 17...)
Your story did remind me of that traumatic childhood event! Give Ben a big hug from Britain please!
Gee, haven't you heard of fences? Yeah, that would be nice. Usually we watch him when we let him out and he stays in bound, but he escaped our notice this time.
Hey, can you actually train the bite instinct out of a dog? If another dog attacked him, would he fight back? Revert to wolf and tear go for the neck, hopefully?
Some labs would probably bite when attacked, but Ben's been attacked twice in my presence by other dogs, and he just kind of locks up, and then he tries to heel. I had to rescue him from a golden retriever this fall. Stories circulated around town about the girl on Skyline who put an attacking dog in a headlock and pummeled it, but those rumors are widely exaggerated. :)
I say he's an 80 pound chicken, but then again he threw his life on the line during a grizzly bear encounter once. So maybe I don't know what he's really capable of doing.
Where can I get some Skyline? Sounds like good stuff.
Make it happen again!
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