As my friend Linsey and I get in the truck to drive to the trailhead, I feel like I’m forgetting something. We’re headed out for a backpacking trip in the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness Area of Montana, and for the first time, I’m leaving my dog Alta at home. It’s clear she’s now too old to accompany me on the long miles, so I’m giving her the weekend to rest.
Shouldering my pack at the trailhead without also turning to strap Alta’s pack across her back feels wrong. I find myself missing her at every moment. I miss her keeping pace at my heels on the trail. When Linsey and I jump into the lake after the eleven-mile hike, I think how Alta never misses a chance to swim, orbiting me in the water like a furry satellite. But I miss her the most when the stars wink above Grey Wolf Peak and I settle into my tent, lonely without her warm presence filling the space next to me.
I met Alta at the Humane Society in Missoula, Montana. She was three years old and was listed as a lab-husky-shepherd-pointer; otherwise known as a “mutt”. I’m convinced she’s also part wolf. When I first locked eyes with her, she let loose a long howl that I’m sure meant “Get me out of this place.”
It was love at first sight. Unable to bring her home that night, I begged the volunteer at the front desk to hold her for 24 hours. She replied, “Oh honey, no one’s been interested in this dog for months.”
It was obvious that the universe was waiting to match us up.
The first night Alta came home, she tried to get in the shower with me. She was unclear on the concept that she had to let me out of her sight once in awhile.
From then on, she’s been my dauntless adventure partner. She perched herself on an old Thermarest in the back of my inflatable kayak on river trips, running rapids like a pro. She backcountry skied with me in her younger days, howling at me to hurry with pulling my skins off so she could get some face shots, powderhound that she was. We bagged peaks together. And although I have a hunch that she always hated running, she led the way down countless trails—even if it was only to humor me.
In spring, an x-ray revealed a tumor on her liver that was slowly eating at her lifespan. While most days she seemed healthy, I could see her slow down.
Ten years is already old for a larger dog, but I wasn’t ready for this reminder of her mortality. I haven’t been able to convince myself that she won’t always keep me company on the trail, or sprawl across the backseat on road trips.
As any dog owner will understand, Alta is more than just a pet. She’s been my confidante, my support system, and my constant companion. When I broke up with the man I thought I might marry, she stayed close for long hugs, staving off the loneliness. When we moved through three houses in as many years, her presence was what made me feel at home in each place. When I restlessly toured through mountain towns looking for a new direction, she explored their trails with me. She makes me a stronger woman in the backcountry and day-to-day life.
Now, on my first backpacking trip without my girl, I miss her at my heels. I miss our ritual morning-spooning-session as the sun comes—she makes a great spoon, given that she’s almost as big as me. I miss watching the wind play with the fur of her brown face while I drink coffee.
. . .
A close friend suggested that when our dogs get older, it helps us come to terms with mortality and how to die with dignity, compassion, and empathy. It teaches us to value life on a larger scale.
I lost Alta at the end of November. She held out for me as long as she could, refusing to leave me unguarded until the very end. We said goodbye to each other in the same house I brought her home to all those years ago, a beautiful closing of the loop of our eight years together. She passed while looking into my eyes.
I find myself chronicling the lasts. The last time we went skiing up Lolo Pass on my birthday. Our last float down the Clark Fork River past its confluence with the Blackfoot River. Our last walk to the creek near our house.
I also find myself logging the firsts without her, like that backpacking trip into the Missions, or the first time I woke up without her good morning snuggle. The hardest was walking in the front door for the first time to the heartbreaking absence of her wagging tail. I’ll miss her welcome at the door more than anything else, because that’s how I knew I was home.
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