Driving down the road I heard the first on scene firefighter on the radio, “Smoke showing.” She said, “Garage is fully involved. Let’s plan a five minute evolution!” The five minute evolution is our language for getting water on a fire and flowing without interruptions within five minutes of arriving on scene.
I drove around a corner and there, I could see dark smoke rising from a neighborhood about a mile away…
For me, even after twenty-five years of firefighting, there is still something shocking about a column of black smoke ascending in a quiet residential neighborhood. Everything is normal and tranquil, a Sunday afternoon. Yet in the middle of all this calm a home has erupted–as if a missile came out of the sky and targeted this one individual house.
It’s just another small crack in our collective illusion that life is predictable and we’re somehow protected.
As firefighters, we have a mission now. From all over the county we’re converging on this column of smoke. We’re not holding existential thoughts. Our adrenaline is rising, we are thinking about the arcane and intricate details of fighting a fire, details we’ve memorized and dreamt about.
I turned the corner and saw that the column of smoke had turned white. This was important, it was the doctor telling a patient that they’ve controlled the bleeding. White smoke meant that water was being put on the fire. An engine had arrived, the five minute evolution was in progress.
A group of us arrived together. We lumbered into our bunker gear, grabbed tools, threw SCBA tanks on our backs and began the well-practiced ritual of knocking down a fire.
You would think that there would be a sense of urgency, all those adrenalized firefighters and an active fire. But there’s not. The owner, an elderly woman is out and safe. Half of her house is destroyed, the kitchen blackened, the stove melted. The garage ceiling had collapsed on to her burning car. The first arriving teams had extinguished the active fire in the kitchen and the garage. Now we were just calmly focused on making sure the fire wasn’t spreading in the ceiling. Grunt work, slow and steady.
We’re joking with each other now. Keeping our energy up, we laugh at our ages, at how ridiculous it is for a group of fifty and sixty year-olds to be doing this kind of work. Wendy, the Assistant Chief and Incident Commander, just shakes her head at us.
But in the driveway, standing looking at her house is the owner. She’s distraught. Her home is gone. She has no place to go. Seeing her, we’re quiet again, respectful, wanting to take care of her. Wendy walks down, put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and talks to her in her calm and kind way.
This is the way of fire departments. No one died or was hurt. Houses, cars, belongings are just things: replaceable. In the end, this fire is not a tragedy as much as it a misfortune.
To this upset woman I want to somehow pass the knowledge of the hundreds of fires we’ve seen, the smoke columns rising from neighborhoods and whisper to her, it will be okay’ it will be difficult for a while, but it will be okay. But now isn’t the time.
My soon-to-be-married daughter Brynne, her dog Tallulah, and I were driving through Trinidad, CO, on the way to Minnesota and Brynne’s wedding.
We had a decision to make.
“I think we should just stay on I-25 and play it safe,” I said, consulting Google Maps. My intuition insisted that, when transporting wedding dresses, wedding supplies and the bride, it is best to err on the side of caution.
“Let’s try something new!” Brynne said. “Let’s explore!”…
Tallulah, excited by Brynne’s voice, yipped once and licked Brynne’s face: the deciding vote. So we veered off on a two-lane road into Eastern Colorado, headed vaguely Northeast on our way to Foley, Minnesota, and the wedding.
But this wasn’t the first time I made a trip between the Rockies and Minnesota with a dog aboard.
The Best Roadtrips Include Man’s Best Friend
Once on a Friday, my college friend Bill Adams and I mutually decided, “Hey let’s drive to Minnesota! We can do laundry and then drive back Sunday!”
Sounded reasonable. So we loaded Bill’s 120-pound St. Bernard “Flecken” in the back of my Toyota Corolla and headed east. We planned to drive straight through, eighteen hours, but Flecken kept putting his massive head between the seats and essentially whine, “Guys, I need to pee!” He’d then shake his head sending drool everywhere.
Multiple stops followed. Each stop punctuated by us chasing Flecken around rest stops on I-80 in the dark. Arriving in Minneapolis, all the windows were covered in drool and fur. When we opened the door, Flecken plowed over the front seat with his leash on and sprinted out and jumped up on a terrified guy with crutches and a broken leg. Woof!
Spontaneity is great, but you can’t just throw a big dog in the backseat of a small car and then drive for twenty hours. Lesson #1: Have a plan.
While Flecken jumped all over the guy with crutches, we surveyed the damage done to the backseats. Lesson #2: Bring plenty of paper towels and cleaning supplies.
In observing Flecken’s poor victim, we realized the dog could’ve used a little more fresh air along the way. Lesson #3: The more exercise a dog gets en route, the less likely they are to knock over a guy on crutches at destination’s end.
German Shepherds, as you might expect, were much more disciplined. Driving home from Colorado to Minnesota in the same aforementioned Toyota, my loyal shepherd, Alyosha, sat in the front seat staring out at the winter road and occasionally licked my face. (Yes. He was named after Alyosha Karamazov from The Brother’s Karamazov. At that time, I was minoring in Russian literature and I was very sincere in my pretentiousness.) We might have been playing the theme from Doctor Zhivago on the eight-track cassette. Lesson #4: It’s great to have an awesome dog on a road trip.
Twenty years later, driving two German Shepherds was less awesome. Zuni and Sombra barked at every truck that passed us. They would run side to side in the back of the Ford Explorer chasing passing cars as if they intentionally wanted to see what would happen if the SUV rolled. We stopped for the night in a hotel in North Platte, Nebraska. Slogan: “Where the West begins!”
There was no rest in the west however, because every creak, every person walking by our room elicited mad-carnage barking and eventually a call from the front desk. Suffice it to say, we left at 3:00 a.m. Lesson #5: Some dogs just don’t belong in hotels. Do yourself a favor and plan on camping.
But these were all stories of big dog road trips. Tallulah, Brynne’s dog, was a pint-sized ten-pound Shih Tsu mix: small in stature but big in love.
The car was packed to the gunnels with wedding paraphernalia, but we had carved out a small bed for Tallulah in the back. She, however, spent most of the trip perched on our laps looking straight ahead or hanging her head out the window. She was happy-go-lucky and happy to be with us.
I definitely got the sense that she was thinking, just go for it!
So we abandoned my forty years of experience of driving the same way on the same road and took off from Trinidad towards the Pawnee National Grasslands. There was no traffic. Most of the roads had no signs and it was empty and beautiful. There were fields of sunflowers. Tallulah had her head out the window, inhaling this new country. And, we made it to Minnesota just fine, behind the summer rains. Lesson #6: When a small dog votes for adventure, go for it!
Imagine: You’re walking your dog at the dog park, close to evening. Then, for reasons only your dog understands, she bolts. Gone. In less than a minute. You call her, nothing. Frantic, you begin searching in circles. But then the sun goes down and you’re alone in the dark.
What do you do now?
According to a 2012 study by the ASPCA, approximately 15% of family…
pets go missing. It can be a traumatic experience, both for a family and pet, to be separated.
For my friend Sheila Beuler, not only was it traumatic, but it set in motion weeks of searching to find her German Shepherd-mix Xena.
They were out on one of their regular walks at the Frank Ortiz Dog Park in Santa Fe over the Christmas holidays. A father, playing with his son, came running down the trail, spooked Xena and she bolted.
And this is where the story begins.
First, a word about Sheila. She is a Battalion Commander and Paramedic with the Santa Fe City Fire Department. She knows how to organize and respond to emergencies. She is also tough, compassionate and relentless. For the next month, other than working, eating and sleeping, her priority was finding Xena.
Santa Fe County is a little bit of urban surrounded by mountains and high plains. Sheila’s mission was specific to this terrain, but her lessons are universal.
2. Have a good picture of your dog and your dog’s face.
3. Know your dog. Is she skittish? Is he a Wanderer? Nervous around other people or dogs? Has he or she “bolted” or escaped before? One of our dogs is an escape artist. She bolts and disappears sometimes for up to an hour. We’ve learned not to let her out of our sight or off leash. If you have a dog like our Nellie, it might save you a lot of heartache by investing in a GPS collar. It’s not yet a perfect or inexpensive technology, but it’s worth looking into.If your dog goes missing:1. Act immediately. Don’t wait, “hoping” your dog will show up. Better to over-respond early and be a little embarrassed to find your dog lounging on the porch rather than to lose those important first hours.
2. Post large (8 X 11) laminated color flyers in the area that your dog disappeared and at major intersections, pet stores, veterinary offices and dog parks.
3. Contact your local shelter and Animal Control Department. Give them flyers with the picture of your dog’s face.
4. Use social media; Facebook, Twitter and local “lost pet” sites. Refresh these postings with sightings and any change in information.
How to search.
Searching for a lost pet is a science. There is a lot of information on how to do searches online. But, in general, avoid the running up alone in an area and just randomly searching. You will wear yourself out and quickly lose track of where you’ve actually searched.
Here are Sheila’s insights:
1. Based on your dog, her health, breed and age, establish a search perimeter. There is help online to create the right perimeter for your dog’s breed. (And use a mapping application like Google Earth.)
2. Make sure you preserve any tracks. (Take pictures of them with direction of travel and Google map location of the tracks). Once these prints are gone, your opportunity to track is diminished.
3. Enlist the help of your friends to do an early and coordinated search. Establish a search “etiquette.” Let everyone know that, if your dog is skittish, not to call or try to capture her. Simply put down food and treats to keep the dog in the area.
4. Set up a comfort station in the search area. Comfort stations consist of your dog’s bed, toys and other things familiar to the dog.
5. The dog’s universe is scent, so “scent mark.” Use your urine in a spray bottle and create a scent trail to your location or a comfort station.
6. Be patient. Don’t give up. Again, according to ASPCA, nearly 85% of those lost dogs are found. So be patient and stick with it.
As for Sheila and Xena, the search goes on. If you want to read more about Sheila’s efforts, you can read her blog at santafescoop.ning.com.
Last week we walked in the early morning gloom. Fog, so rare here and thus so amazing, blanketed the hills around our house.
Our dogs are big black and white Berners. As we move down the road they silently pad along with me in-between. They bump against me every once and a while, as if simply wanting to make contact.
This is our morning ritual. Before we go, they lie patiently on our kitchen floor waiting for me to finish my coffee. Yet as soon as I move…
Tank begins to whine. He tries hard to be patient, but there are limits. I think this walk for him is his favorite part of the morning, maybe the entire day.
As we walk down our road, Tank keeps his head down, smelling the underbrush. Occasionally he butts his head directly into the chamisa, thus the name “Tank.” Nellie’s eyes are up, always scanning.
We walk every morning around our road of piñons, arroyos, and ridges, a little over a mile a day.
On a piece of scratch paper I figured out that at one mile a day, we’ve walked 237 miles since my sister died
We walk early in the morning, when there are few people. Since that first mile, I’ve become a little more introverted, less interested in stopping and talking.
Instead, I watched how our dogs are in the moment. They don’t make plans, lists or worrying about money. They want to smell everything. They stop at every pile of snow — all of the piles wet and shrinking now that it’s spring. Their excitement at seeing rabbits never wavers. It doesn’t seem to matter to them if it’s cold, hot or unbearably windy and the wind full of pollen, they are excited to walk.
In the hospital, my sister Bonnie and I sat with Susie as she slept when the Hospitalist came in. The doctor was young, in her thirties. She took a blue dry erase marker and wrote on the white board in Susie’s room, Leptomeningeal Carcinomatosis. A cancer of the meninges, she said. Nothing we can really do, she said. Maybe four weeks, she said.
It is the best part of the day to be outside, right? In New Mexico, a wet morning is magical. In the fog that morning we came across a big coyote, as tall in the shoulders as Tank. He was crossing the road when he saw us. He nonchalantly paused, looked straight at me, eyes full of wildness; birth, life, suffering, the pleasure of a successful hunt, death.
Tank whined and Nellie barked a couple of times, but the coyote trotted away, indifferent, as they seem to always be. The dogs lost interest and came back to the present.
Sometimes on our walks we bring Tallulah, my daughter’s little white Japanese Chin- Shih Tzu mix. She weighs maybe ten pounds. She sprints ahead and back and across the road the entire way. I’m always a little on edge with Tula on our walks. I scan the sky for hawks and keep her close thinking about that coyote and how quickly things can turn, how fast death can come in the wild.
A New Perspective
After maybe two hundred miles after my sister died, I admitted to a friend that I’d lost a lot of passion for what I do. All I wanted was to get up and walk with Nellie and Tank.
And she told me, then do that. Just get up and walk your dogs, don’t worry about anything else.
So that’s my plan now.
When we come back to the house, the dogs nuzzle against me until I take their leashes off.
Then they bark until they get a treat. Treats in their mouths, they sprint to the carpet in the living room and lay in the same place next to each other. The same as they’ve done since they were six weeks old. I like that consistency, the habit, the same thing every day. No surprises. No “now you’re here, now you’re not.”
As summer comes we’ll walk earlier. Maybe we’ll walk while it’s still dark and cold with the stars just fading and the sun rising over the eastern hills. It’s about then the cacophony of birds begin praising and celebrating another day. And we’ll walk, Tank’s head down inhaling the cool morning and Nellie’s head up scanning the horizon.
That’s how I want to be: just in the moment, uninterrupted.
A Mile Every Day.