One more night at my spot in the clouds. To read, to write. To wander, to breathe, to be. And maybe to cry a little too. Away from it all… Or maybe I’m in it all? Alone with my pup. Here with the pines. The flowers and the bees. The snow melt cascading behind. Mountains surrounding. What else more? More complicated, most likely. Save for the love of family and friends, My world needs little else.
At least once a week, I’ll cry over Pacer.The tears are from the purest Love I know. They symbolize both my deepest gratitude for being blessed to have the best companion I could ever want, and an even deeper grief knowing one day she will most likely leave this Earth before me. (I’ve cried every time I have thought of, written, and edited that line.) The funny thing is that I know she loves me just the same.She just doesn’t seem to share my sorrow.It’s like she knows, or at least more truly believes, something I don’t.Sometimes I swear I can see the Universe through her eyes.
One of my only hopes when I leave this world is that I can fully encompass so much Love.
God is Love.Dog is Love.
I am by no means an expert in the history of language, but I can with almost 100% certainty say that it is no coincidence that God spelled backwards is Dog.If only the religions of the world recognized that, there would be no shortage of compassion.
A little more on our Love story:
When my then boyfriend and I (we adopted her together) went to pick up Pacer (in Asheboro, NC), I was just about as nervous as I was excited—pretty much how I am going on any mountain adventure.
That little squirt was such a beautiful little determined sass-ball from the start.She tripped my boyfriend walking up to the car, puked in my lap on the drive home, and had us chasing her around the yard from the start.
When me and that first boyfriend split (I guess we can call him her Dad), it was never a question of whom she’d go with.I would’ve stayed in that relationship if I had to, even though we had exhausted all options of working things out.I’m pretty sure he and I both cried when I left.Pacer probably licked my tears.But did she know that we were leaving for good?
Pacer has been with me through several other relationships after that, like the one boy I fell in love with, hard and fast, but between The Pill* that left me with panic attacks, navigating a transition back to being a student, and a whole lot of insecurities, we couldn’t make it work.I’m not sure how much I cried on mine and Pacer’s trip to Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming (I may have still been in denial), but she remained my constant companion through the very literal highs and lows.
*I am by no means against The Pill or any other method of birth control.For me they just didn’t work.And for any guy reading this, go you for wearing a condom and taking part of the responsibility off your partner.
Then there was the relationship that ended with a boyfriend coming home drunk and angry, her body under mine in hopes that I could protect her from some of the yelling.She never judged me for not leaving sooner and instead gave comfort by simply laying next to me (plus some incessant pawing and licking) not as I cried from heartbreak but the absurdity of it all.Then off to the mountains we went again, seeking healing in the San Juans, her never leaving my side even when not happy with my route decisions.(She has, however, learned to demand rest days.)
The last boyfriend, whom we both adored, maybe loved, but only Pacer could ever say.Except my internal warning system has never been able to turn off of high alert from the last one.I can’t tell you if the system was accurate or faulty, only that when I felt my throat constrict and the weight in my chest that I was already trapped in a mix of fight and flight.All my body could tell me was enough.Even on those lonely nights hoping for a text or a “like” on Facebook, Pacer just curled up beside me on the couch (unless she got bored with me ignoring her for the computer, and put herself to bed.)
True Love is unconditional.We’ve never needed words because we could always attune to the other’s presence.Or maybe spirit?Pacer is my ultimate Love story.
I laugh because that certainly isn’t to stay our story has been perfect or easy.I still can’t say I’ve totally forgave myself for some of the training tools (ex. e-collar) I used on her as a puppy (instructed by professionals) or some of the mountains I’ve taken her up when she was clearly not happy with me by the end.And I can still see her little body running through our old house with the veggie burgers I made for dinner locked in her jaw.Even more so, Pacer has made my life more challenging.I can’t be away from home for more than 8 hours (maybe 9, but then I feel guilty), I can’t travel unless Sandi can watch her or I can afford to put her in boarding with a trainer who is used to working with reactive dogs, and I carefully consider each trail we can go on safely.Then there’s the constant worry.Like right now, her first few steps on her hind leg are tentative, and then she’s fine.Should we do an easy hike tomorrow, or should we abandon ship (or rather, our camping trip) and head home?Nevertheless, all of that is second.Effortlessly, she slid into my life as my number one priority.I never regret anything I haven’t been able to do because of her.Because her laying next to me is worth so much more than anything else.
I probably should add…it’s not to say I don’t love some of the humans in my life to the Nth degree.It’s just that we humans often come with conditions and stories of what Love should be, which makes it harder.Pacer just is Love. (At least to those who know her.For those of who don’t—well my friend told me that Pacer has the bite that I don’t always have when I should.)Together we just ARE.
Maybe Pacer, and all dogs, have been put into this world to teach humans what Love is.
In many ways, Pacer and I are wild, stubborn or determined (depending on your perspective), and tamed only in the sense that I am Hers and She is mine.
Recently one of my favorite actresses*, Emma Watson, made headlines as she used the term “self-partnered” rather than single to describe her relationship status.
*Partially for her role as Hermione in Harry Potter, partially because of her activism, and partially because my family says I look like her (!).
Additionally, rapper/singer Lizzo has talked, or rather sung, about being her own soulmate. There’s been a few haters, but more people have followed up with positive comments on this new terminology.
Truly, I love it so much that I wish I could check off “self-partnered” rather than “single” on my voter registration. (Or rather for me and in congruence with my website name, the proper term may be dog-partnered.)
But, as Watson alluded to, it takes some work to get from single to self-partnered.
And I’m not quite there yet.
Now before all the haters say “see, I told you it wasn’t possible” let me say that I have identified with the term before.
A few years ago, after my heart was torn from a break-up with a man I was still in love with, I was living with my dog, sister, and her boyfriend in a condo we decided to all rent together to save money. While I still mostly kept to my own, I had people I loved to briefly chat with throughout the day, often lamenting about the joys and pains of graduate school. Speaking of grad school, I also had a small cohort/friends of other wilderness therapy students that I interacted with constantly. For an introvert that thoroughly enjoys alone (aka, a dog and her girl) time, my life was full of social interactions and little time to do nothing, or rather, scroll through social media. I felt content and fun-filled in my life without being in a romantic relationship.
Which brings me to the “work in progress” part now.
For one, my private counseling practice has been taking some time to get going, and my run coaching career is work-from-home, so I’m not spending a lot of time in social environments (though I am currently typing away at the library). I live in a smallish mountain town, so finding friends is a bit of a challenge. However, I have made a few friends recently, and that’s added a lot of joy to my life. I also have a few core friends, though they’re spread out. Still, our get togethers and chats are a valuable pieces of my well-being. Additionally, my last break-up came with some small-t trauma, and I’m still processing the pain/confusion of the relationship. I have had some extra alone time lately.
The funny thing is, I rarely feeling lonely. At this time of the season, I’m pretty happy snuggling with my dog and watching holiday movies (favorite: Elf). And I’ve made sure to partake in my favorite holiday traditions and activities: my yearly November trip to Salida with my sister, her boyfriend, and Pacer to see “S” Mountain lit up like a Christmas tree, the tree lighting ceremony in my town, and the weird but wonderful holiday parade in the town down the canyon. There’s been a few times I wished for a Hallmark* style romance in these situations (I’m not going to get into Hallmark movies right now…I find them predictably comforting…and I am sticking to my story for now!). Additionally, unlike the previous year I’m grateful that I could enjoy the latter two events without an argument with the ex-boy.
If I could point to any other culprit that I would say is preventing me from fully claiming the “self-partnered” status, I’d blame the time I spend on social media. A lot of my friends would laugh at this as I don’t even have a smart phone, but again, I work from home on my computer. And then I’ll check social media at night, scroll through the feed, rather than diving into the book next to me. There’s quite a bit of research out there on social media and loneliness, and as person who also happens to be a therapist, I can attest. Temporarily de-activating my Facebook account may be something I try in 2020, while I consider getting a smart phone. The benefits are getting lost less on camping trips as well as getting work done while on camping trips (with an re-active dog, its hard to find a coffee shop I can sit in and leave her the car, especially when it’s warm out), but I’m fearful of a further social media addiction.
As a therapist, I know that humans are wired for connections. I know the goal is not dependence, independence, but interdependence. And I know that being surrounded by people you love, but not romantically in-love with, is the key to being happily self-partnered…and happy when you do have a romantic partner!
With that, here are my tips for being happily self-partnered through the holidays:
-Spend time with friends/family weekly, especially one some evenings.
-Partake in all the holiday traditions and activities you enjoy, whether it is by yourself or with a friend.
-When you do settle down for that holiday movie, place your computer somewhere far away from you. Commit to watching the whole movie without checking your social media. (If you can ditch social media more than that, awesome, but I’m going to take baby steps.)
-When you are not listening to holiday music, put on some Lizzo!
“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” – Hamilton Wright Mabie
*Due to Hallmark’s ad pull, I’ve made the switch to Ion, Lifetime, Netflix Christmas movies, Elf, and traditional Christmas movies.
Fall is quickly changing to winter here in the mountains.
Dusk comes early.
The trees stand nearly bare.
I can track my dog in the backyard just listening to her paws crunch the leaves.
I’ve taken shelter and a quaint cafe this afternoon. I am the last customer inhabiting the upstairs loft.
On my left I have a view of the town park and I watch people in sweaters and boots holding hands as they walk past.
In front of me is contrast. One tree bare, already strung with Christmas lights. Then a yellow-orange Aspen beside a dark green pine. The, far in the background, the foreboding and enticing Long’s Peak.
The cafe is closing soon.
Almost time for me to put on my hat. I’ll stroll back to my car, welcoming the dark and finding comfort in the crisp air.
At home, I’ll give my four-legged fluffball a hug and belly-rub before we settle down for the night, buried under blankets and watching Netflix.
The wind will most likely howl and beat against the windows, but we will feel safe. The wind only means change is coming, most likely snow.
I’ll say goodnight to the sky, kiss my dog’s wet nose one more time, and bury myself under the covers. My hibernation won’t be very long, but I relax knowing I’ll awake to another day of Harvest.
“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write…” -Ernest Hemingway (quote on the wall at Inkwell & Brew)
When I worked at an addiction treatment center next to the forest, our spiritual advisor would take the clients to an Aspen grove next to the center. When the spiritual advisor left, I followed in his footsteps. We told the clients that the Aspen grove, the hundreds of trees in front of us, were one organism. Underground, they were connected, firmly rooted because of how they intertwined with one another. That way, when 2013 flood swept past, or when harsh mountain wind blew through, the trees remained upright.
I told them this with fervor, as I knew that at the heart of addiction was disconnection. Many of the clients had already begun to learn this, as in group they let their guards down, shared their stories, and made deep friendships. Within days, I could often see a shift in the clients, a glow, like those of Aspens in the fall.
I told this story again to my mother, just a few weeks ago, at her first chemo appointment.
Just the week before, she called me on a Wednesday evening to give me the news “I have cancer.”
She told me not to worry. That she was tough and going to be fine. She had the same doctors as my older sister (still going through her own cancer treatment), and they were going to take an even more aggressive route. She told me not to come home, to continue my work in Colorado.
Two days later I learned from my older sister that my mom was in surgery to have her port put in, a small device put under the skin to make to make blood draws and infusions easier during chemo. My older sister and my step dad went to her first chemo treatment, which my mom was upset about. She wanted to go alone. Not to be an inconvenience to others and their “busy” schedules. It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out it was stage 3.
But when your family, both in blood and deep friendship, schedules and to-do list don’t matter.
My mom’s stoicism didn’t stop my from collapsing to the floor in pain and tears minutes after we hung up, with my dog rushing over to me to lick the salt off my cheeks.
It didn’t stop me from feeling anger, sadness, and confusion.
As I gave myself the space to feel all of my emotions, I came to a few realizations.
The first being that this storyline, the storyline of “I have this problem, but it’s not for you to worry about” has shaped my own beliefs growing up. When I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to claw my way out of my body and escape to somewhere, anywhere else, that I wasn’t enough to share how I felt. It was my burden to bear. Alone. Even after the depression passed, a fierce independence took over. It’s taken me years to learn to lean on others, like a fallen tree resting on its neighbors. Still, I have to fight the urge to just collapse.
Second, I remembered the message of the trees.
Even more amazing than hundred plus trees in one Aspen grove being one organism, they are connected even more intimately through a fungal network. This network not only allows the trees to send vital nutrients to each other, but also communicate. If there is concern about disease or insect infestations spreading, the trees will send out distress signals to each other, allowing the others to alter their behavior. And if a mother tree is felled, the surrounding trees may continue to send her nutrients, keeping her roots alive.
Humans have created this world wide web in our own way through technology. But I suspect there is a deeper form of connection between loved ones, one that may not be visible to the untrained eye (trees also send out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals).
I can’t say with certainty that without my phone I could have picked up on the distress of my family hundreds of miles away from me. What I do know is that I feel better when I am in the loop, and even better when I can offer some form of help, be it a card or flying back to Ohio to provide company.
When I told my mom about the trees, I went on to say that because all the trees are connected, one’s challenge is not just theirs alone, but shared among the group. My analogy, trying to tell my mom that we were all in this together. She wasn’t a burden but an opportunity for our family and friends to come together and find strength.
She said she understood, but I’m not sure she felt my words. Maybe I said too much. I don’t know.
When I got the original call from my mom telling me she had cancer, I texted my sisters (after I picked myself up off the floor). I told them that I never wanted us to keep things from each other, good or bad, that we never had to “go at it alone.” When they both texted back “agreed”, I felt we solidified a pact. We were in this life together, for reasons both known and unbeknownst to us, tied together by cell phone signals and invisible visceral strings of love. My heart felt a bit lighter, like an Aspen leaf held up by the wind.
There’s something about you that just makes me want to keep coming back.
I’ve climbed all fo your 14,000ft peaks, and while I can’t say I’ve loved them all (mainly not those to the south), I can say that there is something about your wild side that has me mesmerized. Hiking the Collegiate West, I feel a little bit like I’m on the new frontier, connecting me to the many men and women who risked everything to be here. I hope I have at least an ounce of their grit.
Only ghost towns may physically still exist, but the souls of those who died here are still intertwined with the trees, rocks, and railroad tracks left behind.
Speaking of trees…
Quaking Aspen, do you have a message for me?
“S” mountain, decorated as a Christmas tree, you may be one of my favorite Christmas trees, second only to the one in my dad’s living room that has been up for 20+ years.
Salida, I must say, you’ve got to be the coolest, weirdest town I’ve ever known. Eclectic only begins to describe you.
BV, you seem pretty neat too, though you don’t have Moonlight Pizza. And thanks for your 2 minute shower for 4 quarters.
Needless to say, I’ll be back.
I’ve only touched exploring your depths upon which your nickname “high lonesome” stands. But how could I ever be lonely, when I’ve got YOU, mountains, wildflowers, mountain goats, alpine lakes, and spirts to keep me company?
You offered a gentle climbing valley full of wildflowers as my dog and I hiked the CT.
A sight of a family of at least three generations, camping with their horses.
I came back here twice before this time.
Once on an early spring hike, another to fulfill a day dream of running through the valley, late spring.
There’s something enchanting about your pine trees. Seen from afar, they appear to go on for miles and miles. Inside, hold secrets.
Your creeks, a gentle murmur. What are you saying? To you, I whisper quiet love songs.
(I wonder what tomorrow will bring?)
Pictures: Pacer during our first trip to Lost Creek wilderness, backpacking the CT. Me overlooking the forest, 3rd trip. And finally, pictures of our final time, already lost, before our encounter with a moose.
Do you ever feel like the world is too much to bear? Like the darkness is going to consume you? That you can’t bear to look at it or think about it because it hurts too much?
This “it’s too much” feeling has happened to me frequently over the past year. It’s different from my depression years ago, which was more focused on my internal self-loathing. This is more of an external depression felt internally. It’s like the pain of the world is an arrow shot straight into my heart. Hope, the fire in my belly, is nearly extinguished. My body shakes and my tears water the Earth, or my dog’s coat. In reflection, I realize my tears are my hope. My shakes mean I am still moving, and moving means I still have influence. As long as I don’t freeze (my go-to panic response), there is possibility.
My examples of my “it’s too much” scenarios are plentiful, though they may seem insignificant to a bystander:
I am sitting in a dark theater of a film festival. The movie is portraying a man, a runner, a hunter, who is seemingly connected to the Earth. He climbs a remote mountain, hunts a mountain goat. He kills it. I silently cry in my seat and the tears are pouring, my body trembling. The boy doesn’t know what to do with me. I can tell he wants to comfort me but is keeping his fingers crossed that I can continue to muffle my sobs. You see, mountain goats are beings I am blessed to see perhaps once a year, on sacred days. The magnificent creatures offer me blessings on my travels.
A week later, I am on the bathroom floor crying into a towel. On the news, I am constantly hearing about immigrant children being torn away from their parents. Then I look at my computer. I can’t remember exactly what it was this time, possibly a picture of a mama bear shot in her den with her cubs, or a story of a momma cow chasing after her calves who were put in a truck to go to slaughter. The tears came instantly.
In the spring, I learn my sister’s cancer spread, just when we were getting ready to celebrate the end of her breast cancer treatment. I hold back my tears at internship, but put them all into Pacer’s fur when I get home.
Quietly, I listen to war stories from the boy. How can people be so cruel? Another immigrant child died in camp. A picture of a starving polar bear, then dead whales on a beach with plastic in their bellies. There’s a school shooting, then another. Trophy hunters killed an elephant. A line of dog’s were euthanized because their owners didn’t want them. The Earth may only have another 12 years until climate change takes over, until the pain is too much for Mother Earth to bear.
Even if it is a doggy paddle.
Eventually I come out of the bathroom. Pacer licks away my tears. I don’t get rid of the pain, but I keep moving.
I run up the hill, or Pacer pulls me up, and I stare at the snow-capped mountains. As long as love, like the love between a girl and her dog exists, and as long as the beauty of a sunlit mountain range exists, there’s reason to keep moving. My tears have only watered the Earth allowing for the summer wildflowers to grow.
Martin Prechtel speaks of grief and praise. The grief is movement. As long as we allow it to move through us, our praise and love will be our fuel to fight on.
The problem, the dis-ease, as I see it, is that we have numbed ourselves to the pain. Society appears to be wallowing in a state of depression, with anxiety as its sidekick. It seems like no once can figure out why, so pills have become our pesticide-ridden fertilizer.
What if we all cried?
I know it hurts, but you must be brave.
Eckhart Tolle speaks of the universal pain body. I first read about this while on my Rites of Passage trip last year. He said that women feel more intensely during menstruation, feeling the pain of women around the world. It’s no wonder that a sensitive soul like me prevented her river from flowing for so long, without any guidance on how to deal with my emotions. I read about the pain body while naked in a canyon, the womb of Mother Nature. Finally, deep in the canyon, I felt a truth and a sense of purpose with my pain. Mixed with it was a call to heal.
But what can a little privileged white girl from Colorado (born in Cleveland, Ohio) do? (First, I should probably stop talking to myself like that.) I have a degree in wilderness therapy—does that even mean anything?
To be honest, I’ve always known the answer is “yes.” Yes, there is hope. Yes to life. Yes, I have a part in the healing. Sometimes, it’s just seems safer to feel small.
And I have some idea of the how. Besides having loved ones close to me, getting outside has not just been fun for me, but a necessary part of my life to rejuvenate and heal my own wounds. It reminds me that even in the darkest of times, there is beauty in the world. It’s like adding kindle to my fire, making my energy grow brighter so I can share it with others.
Still, I really wanted specifics. Yes, I knew I could take clients out in nature. I knew more and more research is coming out about health benefits of nature. It was enough and not enough at the same time.
Then came a cold summer day of 50 degrees and constant rain where I had signed up for Wilderness Therapy Un-Conference, dragging myself there only because I had already paid. By bedtime that night, I was already so cold and wet that I was ready to hike back to my car and leave. AND my tent was leaking. This was not the beautiful nature I liked to bask in. Of course, I survived, like every other person there who was cold and wet. There’s something to facing adversity in nature too, but I won’t get into that here. With a break in the rain that morning, I sat down with my group for our first session. What topic had we decided on? Of course, the stars aligned for me. Our topic was: As wilderness helpers/healers, what was our role in healing the planet? I could go on and on about the insight of my group members, but for now I’ll just list the four steps I came up with during our conversation in how to create healing:
Create love and connection to the Earth. (PLAY*)
Awareness: Education on the state of the Earth
Allow and help people to grieve
Action: Give tools on how to make change (volunteer, recycle, vote, etc.)
*Many people have not grown up in a way that connects them to nature, or their attachment has been severed over the years. The biggest piece in step one is cultivating joy in nature.
Big but simple, difficult yet doable.
Another flicker of hope.
As I said before, our tears are a necessary part of healing. Before this year, I thought rain when the sun was shining was a dichotomy. Now I know they are both necessary parts of a bountiful life. It is only with the rain and the sun that a rainbow can exist, creating a bridge from what we call the real world to the world of our dreams.
Monday night, the boy and I got into an argument as I talked to him on my cell phone from my camping spot near Cottonwood Lake near Buena Vista, CO and he in North Carolina for his daughter’s high school graduation. I picked up my phone a little disgruntled, feel weird to be talking into a box in my hand while out in the wilderness, above 9,500ft and quite a few dirt miles away from town. I was looking forward to some quiet time, and probably should’ve have communicated better, in a loving way, that I needed some time away from technology. Anyway, a few minutes into our conversation, he told me “be careful.” I started to explain to him that I understood his intent behind the statement, that he cared about me, but he interrupted and said something like “that’s on YOU if you feel that way.” I quickly said goodnight and ended the conversation, before I refuted with something I didn’t mean.
You see, “be careful” can rub me the wrong way sometimes, especially when middle-aged white men tell it to me while I’m out hiking. Again, though I know they mean well, I still know there is a doubt in my ability, because I am a woman. As a woman, I know this is not just an assumption, as some well-meaning men might make it out to be. I’m not going to dive too deep into this topic now, as I’ve talked about it before, but I can say with confidence and without an enlarged ego that I have a decent amount of experience in the wilderness, both alone and with a group, learning from others who have decades of experience, plus Wilderness First Responder certification. I also always think about mine and Pacer’s safety, both at night in my tent and hiking during the day, considering what are my safety tools. On my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I had repeated to myself “dog, hiking poles, bear spray, and knife” several times, so if anything did happen, my reaction time would be quick. I also know that every time I go out into the wilderness, there is a risk, which I like to think of a calculated risk, which I try to keep pretty low. For example, I’ve learned to start all my mountain climbs early, and have learned when to turn back (albeit I still tend to go a bit farther than I should before making that decision, as the story below illustrates.)
3 days after the argument with my partner, my carefulness was put to the test in way that I couldn’t have expected. Could I have been prepared more? Probably a little. Did I make a mistake? Yes, but not as much in main experience that put Pacer and I in a dangerous situation. And, I am happy to report that the boy did not shame me experience later on (I had already done that, regardless of what I could and could not have done), but supported me in acknowledging the inherent risk in adventure, in life, that even the most experienced adventurist can fall upon the unexpected. What follows is mine and Pacer’s story, that I say with some embarrassment, as I did not think something like this could happen to someone who respected nature. I questioned telling this story, for what cause? My hope is that if I share my experience with others, that they can gain experience from my story, without having to actually go through it. Of course, I always find some catharsis in writing too, even if I put myself at risk for being judged, for I know someone else will understand and appreciate my words. So here it goes.
Pacer and I started our hike just before 6am (about 30 minutes later than planned) Thursday morning in Lost Creek Wilderness. I was somewhat familiar with the area, first going through it when backpacking the Colorado Trail and then returning twice after to get to know the land a little more. This time, Pacer and I had a 27 mile loop planned. I had been thinking about it since last June, when we ran the Colorado Trail section with the boy, and then learned of the loop popular* among runners. Pacer and I were going to fast pack it, as I was still healing from a calf strain and had been instructed by my PT to keep it flat when running. Hence why we were starting so early.
*Popular is relative in the Lost Creek Wilderness area, as it is pretty remote area, between the “towns” of Bailey and Jefferson, which are very teeny towns.
We cruised the first few miles, both in our excitement for adventure and because the trail was mostly flat and smooth (great for running, I had thought). About an hour in, maybe less, we came to a cool looking rock cropping, off to the side of the trail, which we stopped to take a picture at, then got back on the trail. We continued to pass empty campsites, and the trail became slightly more technical. I figured we were supposed to get some elevation in, so it seemed okay. We also passed another hiker, who stopped to ask me where we were on the map. I told him where (I thought) we were, and it sounded like he had missed a turn and was hoping to get a ride back to his car from the Lost Creek Campground. Pacer and I continued on, following a dirt path up and down near a stream, that got increasingly more technical. Before I knew it, we were in a canyon and following cairns on boulders. We did this for awhile, before I decided this was getting to dangerous, and I wouldn’t put Pacer through anymore of this terrain (she has amazing athletic ability, but boulder hopping is not her favorite thing.). I figured we could hike back to where we started, and start heading out for awhile on the trail we were supposed to loop back on.
We got a bit lost heading back, with me first trying to take an easier path back. Eventually we back tracked, finding a familiar point, and then re-tracing our steps from there. From my experience, back tracking is ALWAYS the answer (okay, maybe 97% of the time). I was happy with my decision to turn. I can’t remember how far back we traveled, but we were still on part of the trail that had some ups and downs. Pacer started picking up speed, and I knew she smelled something. This is a familiar experience, as it is almost a daily occurrence on our runs or walks near where we live in Estes Park that she smells or sees a deer and starts pulling me a long. She was looking across the creek, so that’s where I look too, following a weaving trail. Then we turned and entered a bit of a clearing, and 15ft in front of us was a bull moose.
At least I think it was a bull moose, I think I saw antlers, but everything happened so quickly after that. The moose started charging towards us, before I even had a chance to think, only to feel fear. Pacer was barking madly and pulling at her leash, which I dropped. I watched as this huge, 1,000 pound animal ran over my dog, my heart, while I screamed. It then stopped and turned towards me, and I stupidly put my hands up, using bear technique, which I usually think about more that moose tactics (usually I just think “stay away” for moose, as I had always first seen a moose at a distance). All I can remember is it continued to run towards me, then I was down, he was over me. I can’t remember how I fell, if I did it on my own or if he pushed me down (I have bruise on my shoulder, so maybe he pushed me with his head?). I don’t remember the position I was in when I hit the ground. It wasn’t that I was knocked out, it just happened so fast that I can’t remember. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the moose stop and turn towards me again, but by that time Pacer had recovered and was running toward him. I screamed more, as I was worried for her safety (something happening to her is my worst nightmare.) But she continued to run after him, and he ran away through the trees. Not long after, Pacer ran back towards me, and I was awash with relief that she was okay, we were alive. I was also in a state of shock (not to be confused with medical shock, which can be life threatening).
First, I processed what Pacer, aka Supergirl, had done. She had protected me, against an animal 10x my size, and 20x her size. Again, she had saved me. First from myself years ago, and now from a potentially terrible injury. (When I told this story to my parents, I didn’t not use the word fatal, which moose attacks certainly can be.) I then assessed myself. Nothing seemed broken. My right calf was hurting and swelling, but I could walk. Being a WFR, I assed my own level of awareness. I was A+O x 4. All good. Miraculously, Pacer and I were relatively unharmed.
And so, I got up and continued to hike out. Pacer led me gently out, knowing I was hurting a bit. Mentally, I did my best keeping myself together. We had to get back and I didn’t feel like explaining my condition to another hiker.
My thoughts were like a frozen berries in a blender, though not as tasty. There was bewilderment of what had just happened, blame for putting me and Pacer in the situation (even if it was partially just bad luck), and admittedly, even some anger/sadness that my joyous adventure day was ruined. And fear. While I feel like I’ve always had a healthy fear, a respect for the wilderness, this was new. The place that I had always felt at home at, the place I had first felt like I belonged, was now doused in a very visceral fear. It was like a burglar had broken into my house. Would I ever be able to go back inside and feel safe again?
Eventually we came back to the cool looking rock-cropping. I noticed what looked like a trail on the other side of it. We walked passed the rocks, and I looked at a fallen sign post by my feet. The wood was pointing in the direction of the trail I head been on, but someone had lightly etched “Wigwam Trail” into it with an arrow pointing in the other direction. Fudge. (Okay, I probably swore.). I had considered that we may have taken the wrong trail, but thought it was perhaps at one of the water crossings. I knew there was an obscure trail on my map that I wasn’t supposed to take, but this wasn’t what I pictured. I had thought at that if the trail was obvious, it would have at least been properly marked. But I had missed it. Poor on another layer of self-blame, heavy like fudge, but more like sludge.
We made it back to Surry (short for Surrender-supposed to be a good reminder for me) the Subaru, put Pacer in with extra treats and fresh water, left a note in the camp fee box that asked to fix the trail sign and warnings of an aggressive moose (I did not mention the attack, as many moose who attack humans are euthanized, and I believe the moose charged out of surprise and his own fear), and drove the 20 miles back down the bumpy dirt road until I got cell service. I had been debating on whether to call my sister or the boy first. I just needed to mentally lean on someone, rather than hold it all in. I chose my sister, as I still had the boy’s “be careful” warning in my head. I choked up as soon I started talking, not being able to hold it all in any longer, but not wanting to worry her either. Really, just needing to hear a calming voice. I talked to her for a bit and then I called the boy, who was boarding his plane back to CO. I repeated the story, him making sure I was okay to drive the few hours back to Estes Park before we ended the call. I felt okay, so we went home.
The drive was uneventful, but I could feel the pain in my calf increase, could tell the swelling had continued. I had my NOLS Wilderness First Responder book in my car, so I looked up Compartment Syndrome. Symptoms include:
Pain out of proportion to the injury or stimulated by stretching or movement (Kinda. Walking hurt. Touch hurt.)
Palor: Pale or cyanotic skin (Nope!)
Pulseless: Diminished or absent distal pulse (Still good here)
Pressure: The muscles may feel tight or full. (YES)
Treatment: Rapidly evacuate.
When we got home, I hobbled inside holding onto Pacer’s leash. The cats were happy to see me (and wanting to be fed) and one brushed upon my leg (which was now comparable to the cyclist with calf implants in the Liberty Mutual commercial) which caused me to scream in pain. Still, I managed to shower, then lie on the couch with my foot elevated. I can’t remember if I called the my insurance’s nurse hotline first, or scrolled through Netflix. I think it was Netflix, so I’ll start there.
Of course, I had to check Facebook before going to Netflix, and vides of Gabe Grunewald, the professional runner who recently passed at age 32 after battling a rare form of cancer for several years. Then I went to Netflix, scrolling through the “comedies” section, needing a laugh. My mouse hovered over “50/50” which looked good, until I read the description that it was about a young man who had received a cancer diagnosis with a 50/50 survival rate. That was it. The dam had broken, flood gates open.
Because the truth is, what I had been holding back wasn’t simply the fear I had felt in my experience earlier in the day. What I had been holding back for weeks was there fear of my older sister’s (second) cancer diagnosis, something I have chosen remain private about until now. The truth is, I’m terrified. She’ll find out if the newest treatment has been working on my and my twin’s 31st birthday. It has to be working. There’s no other option. I can’t even handle the thought of it not working. She’ll turn 35 years old, 2 weeks after my 31st. She is too young not to live.
Once I stopped sniffling, I finally chose “Julie & Julia” which I had never seen before (great film besides all the dead animals used for cooking). I then decided I should call the ER, who turned me to my insurance’s nurse hotline. After going through my history and current symptoms (looked like cyclist from insurance commercial, yelling at the poor cat when he touched me, but could wiggle my toes!) she told me I should go to the ER, that I should have someone else drive me. My twin offered to come up from Boulder. The boy said to call our landlords. I stubbornly drove. (Feeling safe to do so, knowing I wasn’t putting others at risk!)
To make the story a little shorter, I’ll wrap this part up quickly. Because Estes Park is a small town (without the tourists), I saw the doctor right away. He quickly ruled out compartment syndrome, as when he touched my ankle, the whole compartment didn’t hurt and the pain would be more constant. I got X-rayed. No broken bones. Again, a small miracle that I neither Pacer or I were badly injured, which I in part owe to my mom for praying for her 3 daughters every morning. With instructions to rest, ice, (compression was out because it would’ve hurt too much), elevate*, and take ibuprofen, I limped back out of the hospital. The boy got back home an hour later, food in tow. Pacer laid under my leg, helping me to elevate it as I ate and watched Julie & Julia. My Supergirl.
*RICE is not a proven treatment for musculoskeletal injuries, and NOLS stopped teaching this practice in December, 2017.
A few days later, my leg is still swollen, but I was able to (forcibly) pull on my skinny jeans. Now that the swelling has gone down some, the bruises are starting to appear. I’m cycling, but still days out from running. Pacer is eager to go on long walk tomorrow. I’m looking at 14ers.com, checking out the snow conditions. When will I be able to climb up again? Pacer is lying on the other side of the pillows elevating my leg, eyes closed. Sampson the cat is scrunched up on the other side of the pillows, close to me and twitching in his slumber. I still haven’t processed the event, mixed in with the rest of life. I know I’ll go out again, just me and Pacer, but I don’t know what else besides our gear I’ll be bringing with me.
I know the likelihood of being charged by a moose again is rare. However, stories like this are no longer something I just read about. Now it’s real. I hope my friends don’t have to have an experience like this, and that they, you, can continue to spot moose from afar, enjoying their massive grace. Still, as what I feel is my duty, here are a few tips from beprepared.com if you are ever charged by a moose:
Back off and run. Make sure you get behind the nearest tree, fence, or building that acts as a strong barrier between you and the moose.
Curl up in a ball. If a moose knocks you to the ground, curl up into a ball. It may continue running, start stomping, or kicking you. Curling up will protect your head and vital organs.
Don’t get up until the moose moves a good distance away. If you try to get up while it’s close, it could attack again.
This is actually from my old blog and is about 4 years old. However, it seemed fitting to share again on this blog.
[I’ve written other blogs previously on lessons we learn for dogs, but I believe the greatest lesson these four-legged and furry animals (or should I say sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, grand dogs, etc.?) teach us is about love, and what it truly means to love.]
“Dear God, please help me to love myself as Pacer loves me.”
I wrote these words in my journal, not very long ago.
I was in the middle of reading Marianne Williamson’s “Return to Love” and I realized that I never truly thought about what it meant to love. I also realized then when I did love, it was often with conditional terms. “I love him, but not when he does that.” “I love her, but I can’t stand it when she’s acts like that.” Etc. Etc. But never were the terms of conditional love truer as when it came to loving myself.
My self-love and self-worth came with what I succeeded in, and often not succeeded in. At one point in my life this dealt with weight, grades, and basketball. More recently it dealt with my running times, job(s), and whether or not I thought I was doing anything worthwhile/making a difference in the world.
In other words, everything depended on the “if”. I only loved myself “if” I did this, I only loved myself “if” I achieved that.
Of course, I knew that kind of thinking wasn’t healthy. I tried to stray away from those thoughts. It helped a bit when I reminded myself that my family and friends loved me regardless.
However, it was until I thought about Pacer that I truly understood what it meant to love, and to love unconditionally.
With her, we fell onto that path naturally. From the moment she laid on my lap as we drove her home from North Carolina, our relationship was pure love, and that love went both ways. In fact, I love her so much, where I have nearly been in tears by just the thought of something bad happening to her.
I loved her despite the fact that on that trip home, she threw up in my lap.
I loved even though as a puppy, she nearly drove me insane.
I loved her even when she chewed my good running socks and I chased her for 20 minutes around the house, finally giving up in tears. And still when I let her outside to do her thing then wouldn’t come in back in, making me later for work, I still loved her.
Then there was the time I left the homemade veggie burgers on the counter, which she grabbed, ran, and devoured.
She also has a protective and aggressive side, common I later learned, in herding dogs. With that, she bit someone (not a full on bit, but more of a bite you would give a sheep to get them in a circle). Instead of being mad at her, I cried at the thought of someone trying to take her away from me. (I decided a would run away with her before that would ever happen.)
She has surely cost us a small fortune, especially with “doggy boot camp”. (Once we had workers at our house, and I came home to my house set-up like a barricade…We forgot to put Pacer in her “place” and the workers shunned her off with plastic lids, closing doors, and putting couches in doorways. When I got through, Pacer was just sitting at the top of the staircase looking at me.)
Now, at 2 years old, things are much better, but she is still mischievous, rebellious, and full of energy.
For example, a few months ago “someone” left the garage open (which we never do) and she chewed my new pair of running shoes. (That “someone”, despite owning a running store, has still not yet gotten me a new pair.)
Speaking of running, I probably waste half of my energy on the trail telling her “No!”, “Pacer, back!” and “Leave it! (Squirrels are our friends, not food)”. And yet, she is still my favorite running partner.
Each time I get upset with her, the anger subsides minutes later. I forgive her, without even thinking about forgiving her.
I love her so much that any feeling of anger melts away. Lesson: Love is the only thing that matters, and should take precedence over everything else. (Reminder to self: Keep this in mind during next “difference of views”)
I love her, simply because she is my Pacer.
Thinking about it more, I realized she loves me unconditionally as well.
Never once when she was a puppy and I put her in her crate did she shun me when I came back home. I was, and still am, greeted with a wagging nub (her tail was docked) and much licking.
She loves me even when I accidently step on her paw.
And last year, when I accidently cut the skin on her ear while trying to get a knot out of her fur, she still forgave me (actually, it took me much longer to forgive myself.)
She loves me despite what job I have, if I had a bad day, made a mistake, and…despite how fast I run (however, she does prefer fast).
She simply doesn’t care about all those exterior things… She just loves me because, well, I am me.
And that’s enough.
A few months ago I wrote about my mom’s dog, Annabell, who has an incurable disease affecting her kidneys, causing her to piddle everywhere. Still, she is as energetic and playful as ever, plus the normal puppy mischief. My mom always tells everyone “all she wants it to be loved”.
That is so true!
And it’s true with all dogs.
Love is at the very essence of their being. And isn’t it so with us too? I think so.
Because of Pacer, I am learning what unconditional love is, and to bypass any imperfections in others, and in myself. (Isn’t perfect boring anyway?!?) It is definitely not easy. It takes practice.