Kaya was risk averse. While our older dog Sappho bloodied her nails scrambling up scree and once gashed her ears tailing an elk through barbed wire, Kaya stayed at our sides with four paws on the ground. She walked off leash for most of her life, rarely enjoyed running, and endured 4th of July fireworks by standing with her head stretched under a coffee table. She wasn’t chronically anxious, as some golden retrievers are, but every July she was the first in the truck and the last to be coaxed from the heap of blankets, gravel, and cracker crumbs when we drove from Minnesota to Colorado for a few weeks of hiking.
For almost 30 years, my partner Chick and I have hiked with five different dogs, three now gone. I sometimes feel their spirits on familiar trails, as if one might scramble over a boulder or bound through the willows at the next curve. But Kaya’s absence haunts me the most. She was the second of two dogs who moved from Wyoming to Minnesota with us. Each time we returned to the mountains, she walked beside me as if a twin rhythm bound our steps. A minor accident during her first hike in Colorado made her even more timid. Our willingness to adapt to her limits after that hike made us all a little more cautious. But her death years later would leave me questioning my power to control risk when assumed margins of safety collapse.
Chick and I are drawn to the Zirkel Circle, a 10-mile loop in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, because it’s unpredictable. If we walk counterclockwise on the Gold Creek Lake trail, we have to cross the creek twice in the first two miles. A few well-planted steps on rocks or a half-submerged log get us across the first time. But the second crossing is a 20-foot balancing act on a fallen tree that’s about a foot in diameter, suspended three feet above the water during average flow. The other option is to walk clockwise on the Gilpin Lake trail, which delays the log crossing but requires a series of leaps across deep, fast-moving water. I have a permanent marble on one shin from the time I missed my landing and came down hard on a rock. A mile or two beyond that crossing, the trail cuts through meadow. When snow run-off is high, meadow mud sucks us in over our boots until we give up and return to the trailhead. We might then wander a few miles up and back on the Gold Creek Lake trail, not completing the loop in either direction.
Kaya was a year old when she first hiked the Zirkel Circle. The first water crossing on the Gold Creek Lake trail was fast but low. We urged her across with gentle tugs and the promise of peanuts. At the second crossing, water was rushing just under the log. We shivered at the water’s edge and shouted questions above its clap and rumble. The noise troubled Kaya. She tested the log with one paw, then two. It was slick with rain and creek splash. She backed away. We could have removed our boots for a water crossing, but currents are deceptive. They gather force at a source we can’t see. To stumble into a current isn’t to fall but to be gripped by energy that pulls in one direction: away. I wanted to turn back as much as I wanted to go on. We gestured logistics. Chick would carry Kaya, who weighed about sixty pounds, in addition to his 25-pound pack.
As soon as they started to cross, I regretted our plan and called to Chick. Hold her. Don’t let go. If you fall, don’t let her go. The water ate my words as he settled his front foot and pushed forward with the other. They made it to the far end of the log before Kaya squirmed and threw Chick off balance. He launched her into the high brush as he jumped toward the creek’s edge. I crossed in long steps without thinking. No one was hurt, but we couldn’t recover the hopes we’d had for Kaya’s first hike. We walked the full Circle swarmed by “what ifs.”
Neuroscientists are finding that the younger we are, the more risks we take. That makes sense. Hadn’t I moved alone from Vermont to Wyoming after college, even though I’d never been further west than New York? During graduate school, I ignored the language course requirement, reviewed my high school French, and tested out with a sloppy translation of an article about irony in Shakespeare’s comedies. I don’t remember worrying that I might be unemployed if I failed and didn’t finish my degree as planned. Two years later, I lived for two weeks in my tan Datsun truck named Mabel as I explored sacred sites in Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. At night, stretched in Mabel’s covered bed, I’d rig a lock with a screwdriver and a rope that I wrapped around my wrist as I slept. Immediate danger? Possibly. But risks? I don’t remember thinking my travels were risky.
There’s a reason we take more risks when we’re young. In “Beautiful Minds,” science journalist David Dobbs explains that the front of the brain, where complex reasoning and goal setting occur, is the last area to develop. Until that region matures, at about age 20, many teens take risks to get rewards. They exceed speed limits to impress friends with simultaneous defiance and control. Every time they survive public risk, they collect experiences and social gains that they later draw on to leave home and compete in a social network of adults. It’s survival of the most socially fit.
This research is both a comfort and a curse as Chick and I measure our decades together in dogs. Chelsea was our nomadic twenties, Sappho our working thirties, Kaya our settled forties, and, now, Djuna and Carver our “what-next?” fifties. I say this to a friend with an aging cat, and she wonders at what point we stop getting pets because they no longer measure the past but point to a diminishing future where they’ll outlive us.
Returning to the mountains in July awakens impulses that brought me west when I was 22. And as much as I like to think of myself as a mountain lion, I may be turning into a house cat. I’ve begun to re-orient myself at every split trail and cairn. When Chick suggests taking an unmapped route along a ridgeline to connect with a different trail, I need details. I want to see a thick red Google Map line between points. More and more, space seems endless, and I fear getting lost and forgetting where I started. I’m beginning to wonder if a few weeks in Colorado every year can sustain the wildness I felt at 22 when, between lovers, I sometimes drove dark threads of highway through the night with no purpose but to arrive somewhere unknown by morning.
No one has spoken more clearly to my questions than Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby, a labyrinthian memoir of her mother’s dementia and death that begins and ends in different stages of grief. Stories, both her own and others’, help Solnit make sense of her life after her mother’s death. She recalls an impromptu invitation to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with a group of strangers she met at a diner in New Mexico when she was twentysomething. Although the adventure never materialized, she had agreed to leave within an hour. She tells the story to show how her impulse to leave home and wander in her twenties is different from her yearning to travel and find home later in life. When we’re young, she offers, we’re searching for who we want to become, and while we’re oblivious to that task, wandering is our primary work.
No wonder we take risks.
Kaya’s diagnosis left us little time for ritual. One morning in April she coughed, and by the end of the week, we understood that tumors were growing like mushrooms on her organs. Love became a question of how to manage her remaining days.
“Say goodbye,” I told Chick before he left for a six-day conference trip in late May. “You know they decide to go when you’re not here.”
I took over the dining room of our two-story Victorian. Lying near my chair in my make-shift office, Kaya was close to food, water, and the back door. Djuna, the golden puppy we adopted months before we knew of Kaya’s illness, had claimed the futon in a guest room upstairs, away from Kaya’s odd behavior. End-of-semester work kept me busy until about 9:30 every night. When I finished, I didn’t want to be alone with Kaya and my swelling sadness. I wanted to be with others who understood. I wanted a party for the grieving. I wanted their stories like trail maps with clearly marked beginnings and endings as if, between those points, I’d find my way through sorrow.
The sad coincidence was that a friend’s mother was dying at the same pace as Kaya. In the early stages of her hospice, before I knew Kaya was sick, I skimmed the Caring Bridge posts but couldn’t linger. I imagined too much about my aging mother’s decline. But now I slowed down. My friend, a writer and painter, composed the posts not with the facts of dying but with observations of how a dying body retains a familiar spirit despite every force trying to let go. With Kaya wheezing at my feet, I laughed through stories of her mother’s Sunday pilgrimage to Walgreens, a routine she maintained until just weeks before entering hospice. I cared about which hat she wore, what items were on her shopping list, and I cried at each post’s inventory of the day’s loss, whether it was appetite, reading glasses, or the shallower breathing that had become the new dependable. I cared because my friend cared enough to curate the facts into these small episodes of grace.
Over and over, without wishing it to end, I practiced an ending to the story Kaya and I had lived. I read Rainbow Bridge Memorials on a golden retriever rescue site. Although I never knew Jinx or Larry or Clara, I sobbed through stories of cancer, kidney failure, and plain old age. The plots varied but the endings were always the same. They all crossed the Rainbow Bridge and were reunited with canine siblings and dog park friends. Would I say that Kaya found her former companion Sappho? The Rainbow Bridge has no complications of heaven or hell or limbo. All dogs enter an eternity without pain. Those stories formed a cable leading me through a center of loss, a cable I would follow back to a beginning, where I would survive without Kaya.
On Friday, two days after Chick left, Kaya lost interest in food, then water. I was scheduled to hear students’ seminar presentations on Saturday morning. The doctor on weekend call at the vet clinic agreed to stay until one o’clock. She’d be available for the euthanasia if I decided Kaya’s time had come.
By noon on Saturday, the sky was gray and the air sticky. Kaya let me carry her to the back yard where we sat for almost an hour beside the garden. It might have been any spring afternoon, the dirt already turned for impatiens, but I knew it was her last. I stalled, stroking her head and side, now mostly bone and bulging tumor. I needed a marker to end that time and begin the next. I could have offered her a tennis ball or her squeaky lamb toy, but instead I combed her belly fur with my fingers and braided three strands into a thin rope that I would snip off and save for Chick, who would return to Kaya’s absence.
I lifted her again, this time to carry her to the truck. She wriggled in my arms. I remember very little advice from Golden Retrievers for Dummies except the importance of dignity. Never give goldens a shaggy home haircut. They don’t like to be embarrassed any more than you or I do. Adjust expectations to age but let them walk as long as they’re able and determined. So I set Kaya on her feet and let her stumble.
When Kaya was settled in the truck, I returned to the house for scissors, wallet, and keys. I was almost out the door when Djuna bolted through the narrow opening and took off. At a year old, she had none of Kaya’s risk aversion. In fact, she’s always been fearless. I chased her through neighboring yards until I lost sight of her. I finally found her sitting under a maple tree in a yard at the end of the block. She was crunching on a desiccated squirrel as if it were a big grey Milk Bone. I knelt a few feet from her and begged her to come. My pleading made the situation worse. She finished the squirrel, leaving only the tail, and sprinted toward the next neighbor’s yard.
Fifteen minutes passed. Then twenty. I saw traces of Djuna, peeking around corners and zipping through early blooming perennials in muddy gardens. She was loving this game of chase. We lived close to the intersection of Highways 3 and 19, a few hundred yards from railroad tracks where the Union Pacific blew through twice a day. It felt real that I could lose two dogs in one day if I didn’t catch her.
I was phoning a friend for back up help when an elderly man appeared, as strangers often did, on the east side of the house with a shopping bag looped around his wrist. I almost clipped him as I ran the block counterclockwise to cut off Djuna, who emerged from behind the tree where she’d eaten the squirrel. I winced as she turned toward the man. Beneath his blousy windbreaker and dress pants, his body seemed nothing more than Tinker Toy sticks and spools. But instead of bolting and jumping on him, Djuna trotted across the lawn, sat beside him, and pressed her head into his thigh. “She’s a beauty,” he said. Then he reached his free hand to pet her, took a firm hold on her collar, and handed her off to me.
The vet preparing the injection said Kaya seemed quite alert. Was I sure the time was right? We were already settled on a blanket on the floor of a dimly lit exam room. I’d been through the anguish of deciding when to euthanize two of our older dogs. I don’t know if anyone in that situation feels fully confident about the decision, but no one had ever asked me to confirm. The old ranch vet who carried our 16-year old Chelsea into a room and slammed the door behind him later shamed me for waiting too long. She was Chick’s dog long before we met, and I hadn’t known what I was doing. Now this vet decided to give Kaya the treat test. If Kaya took the treat, we’d go home and wait another day. If not, we’d proceed.
Kaya didn’t lift her head. She shot her eyes and eyebrows in my direction then back to her focus on nothing.
Hours later, Djuna and I began the work of adjusting to the house without Kaya. I scrubbed Kaya’s kennel and hauled it to the garage for storage. I vacuumed until I had to admit I couldn’t blend the faded carpet with the brighter rectangle now visible beside Djuna’s kennel. The vet had assured me that the squirrel Djuna ate would come up as quickly as it went down, and she was right. I almost envied Djuna’s violent heaving, the bones and fur pouring from her mouth into small piles as her body relieved its pain. I cleaned up the mess with Djuna clinging to me as if we would lose each other in the narrowest border of emptiness.
I return to the Zirkel Circle every summer, despite the risk I sometimes feel, to wander and reorient, to return to the beginning. Some years, the walk is effortless and the water calm. In other years, I can’t catch my breath. My muscles are heavy, prone to the pull of mud and the force of currents. Since I’m committed to a life with a partner, dogs, and teaching, my nights of driving alone are gone. But walking the Circle satisfies my lingering impulses to wander. The Circle ends where it begins, at a trailhead with a registry. On a sheet of paper, we write our names, our address 1,012 miles away, and the times we enter and leave. The system reassures me that if we go missing, someone will look for us. Each attempt to walk the full Circle reminds me, too, that fear is a false compass. It moves me. It tethers me. And like the faint jingle of tags I think I hear as we rest at Gilpin Lake, it leaves me with and without.