Monday, April 20, 2009

Greetings From The Badlands

My human is one lucky pup.

We left our Rapid City Motel 6 Monday morning desperately needing to find a fedex office.

"Where do you think one would be" the human asked Seamus.

"I don’t know. Let’s go this way," he replied.

We turned the corner and bam, there’s a parked fedex truck with a woman inside.

"Would you mind taking this package," the human asked.

"Sure, no problem," she says.

"Is there even a fedex office in this town," the human inquired.

"It’s a ways east of here. You’re not even close," she responds.

Next stop, Rushmore.

The human paid our seven bucks for parking and we walked up to take a peek at George, Thomas, Teddy and Abe. As we approached our viewing position we see this great looking wiener dog. The human gave the four President’s a passing glance and went directly to the pooch.

"What’s your dog’s name," he asks the other human.

"Grover Cleveland," the man responds in a thick accent of which I am unfamiliar.

"Are you shitting me," the human exclaimed.

"The second," the other human adds.

"Where are you from," my human inquires.

"Mount Ida, Arkansas. Been out west and thought we’d stop by here on our way home."

That's the thing about my human and Seamus. How many times do you think you could visit Mount Rushmore and meet a dog named after a president, let alone while driving around the country making a dog book titled Dog Bless America?

So Grover assumed his position and the human fired away. I was just happy to get a break.

Grover and the other 4.

After Rushmore we made the trek into the Badlands National Park. It seemed our luck was running out though because we couldn’t find a single dog in all the Badlands. Supposedly, the park superintendent had a dog, but it was his day off and he had traveled elsewhere. Makes sense that one would want to leave the office on their day off, even if your office is the Badlands.

Parched and running out of light, the three of us paid a quick visit to Town of Interior, a city with a population of 67 that sits smack in the middle of the Badlands. We were thirsty and we thought that maybe the owner of the store/bar/gas station/trading post might have a dog. Sure enough, they had a blue heeler named Rowdy. Rowdy, however, wasn’t at all interested. I could tell right away that she would rather take my human's camera and put it up my you know what. She pretty much wanted me off her property pronto vista. Believe me, dogs know this stuff.

We got the message and the owners weren’t offering up much in the way of conversation anyway. On our way back to the van we heard a bunch – and I mean, a bunch – of dogs howling at us. At this moment a skinny young cowboy rode up on his horse.

"What’s the story with all those dogs," the human asked the skinny young cowboy.

"They belong to my Grandpa," he replied.

"Where’s your Grandpa?"

"He’s inside the store."

"The guy we were just talking to," the human asked.

"Probably," he said with another unfamiliar drawl.

The human looked at Seamus and grinned. Back in the store we went.

"How come you didn’t tell us about all those dogs out there," he asked.

"They’re not dogs I tend to talk about with strangers," he replied.

Our luck had hit a fever pitch.

The guy agreed to talk to us and let the human photograph his dogs as the sun went down behind them. We quickly discovered that they were hunting dogs and their sole purpose in life was to chase down the coyotes that prey on the area wild stock. They were the weirdest looking dogs I had ever seen – half Irish Wolfhound, half Scottish deer hound and half Greyhound. The wolfhound gave them longer hair for the cold nights; the deer hound gave them their hunting instinct; and the greyhound blood provided their speed. There was something very eerie about them, and something very eerie about the Badlands surrounding them. The whole scene was giving me the willies.

As the human took pictures of Bootlegger, Bones, Whiskey, Boozer and Princess (her mom’s name was Queen), Seamus spent some time interviewing Mr. Reichardt about the role his dogs play in his life. The guy had 15 dogs out there (at one point he had 100). He told Seamus he’d been hunting coyotes for nearly 50 years. He says he’s addicted to it. Told us we should stop back by in October and go on a hunt. Says it’s like a drug and once we did it we’d be hooked. (I doubt it.) He also says they’re so loyal that they’ll run till they drop dead. Says two of his dogs have actually done so. (What?!) Says one of his dogs has racked up 500 coyotes. Seamus told him those sounded like Hall of Fame numbers.

"Nah," he replied.

He invited us back into his bar for a cold one. Turns out that not only is he the owner of the place, but he’s also the Mayor of Interior. He sat down and told us some more stories too long and gruesome to print. As the place filled up with the regulars, a couple of Native Americans showed up and Mayor Reichardt had to excuse himself to go barter with them. The mayor didn’t give ‘em much business so they came over to see what they could sell to us.

"We need ten dollars for gas money to make it home. Buy this tent," the wife demanded.

"I don’t need a tent," the human replied, "how bout I buy you a beer instead?"

"And some chips," she added.

He bought her pretzels but she couldn’t eat them because just like old Kenny Vinion, she didn’t have any teeth.

"No teeth. Need chips," she demanded.

"You go pick them out," he said.

We chatted with them over a beer before giving them ten bucks and going on our way. The husband looked the human dead in the eye and said, "You are a good soul. I will remember you."

"Thank you," the human said, as the toothless wife gave him a big, strong hug.

I had to admit, this was a proud moment for me.

We decided that we were way too tired to make it to our planned destination so we decided to check into a cabin in the Badlands National Park. By the time we made it to the lodge we were too late to check in. The office was closed. But, as luck would have it, someone was still inside and they gave us a key to number 11 and trusted that we would square up in the morning.

Morning arrived and we planned a straight shot to Omaha – a seven or eight hour drive. It’s a big country though and plans tend to change. Before we even got out of the Badlands we spotted a helicopter ride service that gives tours of the Badlands. Our idea was to hop a ride over to Interior and get an aerial video shot of the Mayor’s interesting setup. (If I haven't mentioned, Seamus and the human are documenting our travels on video, interviewing most of the people we meet.) Anyway, the human thought it might add something to his story. 

I got left in the car on the ground below and watched the two of them lift into the sky. They woke me sometime later excited about getting the exact shot imagined as well as some incredible footage of the Badlands themselves. The ride cost a hundred bucks, which is a lot of cabbage, but based on the human's excitement, it seemed more than worth it. We thanked the pilot, said goodbye and hit the road.

Some 60 miles up the 90 the human tells Seamus he needs to pee and asks if he can take the next exit. The next exit brings us to this very cool Diner with a perfect sign out front that reads: DOG & SUDS with a picture of this funny looking dog on it. 

The human looked at Seamus and said, "This is too easy."

The human raced inside not to pee but to ask if the owner was around.

Some minutes later he came back with the owner who had agreed to do a quick interview.

Seamus had just wandered off to use the phone so the human turned on the video camera and started rolling. The guy was great. A real cowboy. Loved dogs and always had them. Told funny dog jokes and expressed all the reasons that dogs are great. I could tell this was my kind of guy. He was a hoot! 

When they were done the human thanked the man for his time and went off to find Seamus and inform him of our continuing good fortune.

"Seamus, I got some great stuff," he said.

"Did you re-cue the tape," he asked.


"Did you re-cue the tape? I rewound it to look at the helicopter stuff while you were inside," he said.

The look on the human's face was heartbreaking. After a long pause and a deep breath he tried to look at the bright side of things and said, "Well at least this guy was really great."

And Seamus responds, "Did you turn the mic back on, because I turned it off when we were up in the helicopter."

Ouch. Guess their luck had run out.



This is Bones. He is one bad dog. And by bad I mean good. He keeps the coyotes from eating Mayor Reichardt's cattle. That's Mayor Reichardt in the background. And that's the house that Bones lives in. I guess he doesn't mind it. Me? I wouldn't last a night. 

Here's me in another winning shot - smack in the middle of the Badlands.

If this ride wasn't so epic, I might not be so agreeable to all these snaps.

Greetings From Marmarth, North Dakota!

We arrived in Fort Benton, MT on Friday afternoon and immediately found the statue of Old Shep. I hopped out of the car and went straight over to give the old dog a sniff.  Not as impressed as the thousands who come through the historic town to see the dog, I jumped down and started marking Shep's territory instead.  

We were soon befriended by the town's 14-year-old juvenille delinquent. He told us that he'd just finished his 20 hours of community service he had to do for missing curfew. He hung out with us for the better part of the afternoon and took us up to Old Shep's burial site. Before we dropped young Tom off, he pointed out the Sunrise Bluff Retirement Home, where he said we would find Kenny Vinion. Legend had it that Mr. Vinion played "Taps" at Shep's funeral in 1942. We decided to pay him a visit and sure enough the delinquent's story was true! When the human asked Mr. Vinion if he still played the horn, he mumbled, "Not since I lost all my teeth!" 

We checked into the town's only motel where we met the owner who also happened to be Ft. Benton's own version of Paul Harvey. It was here that we learned "the rest of the story" about Old Shep. My earlier version of Shep's story might have been a little off. The story goes like this: Shep's human was a sheepherder. After he passed away they put his body in a casket and sent him out of town on a train. Old Shep knew his master's body was in the box and waited for him to return for the next five years! Faithful Shep checked every train that came in until one day when he slipped on some ice and under a moving train. Makes enough sense, right? Well, here's "the rest of the story": 

Times were tough back then.  America was at war.  We were just coming out of the depression. There wasn't a lot of money floating around and dogs were getting the short end of the stick. They weren't necessarily "affordable" so to speak. Old Shep was a smart dog. The day he went to the station to see his master off he was given some scraps. Seems Old Shep connected the train with food. After that point on, everytime he heard the train-whistle blow he went to the station because he knew someone would give him food. The porter would give him the leftovers from the ride. The locals would think he was there as a loyal dog and feed him out of sympathy. Old Shep had hit the jackpot! The day he died he was supposedly trespassing on some property with some other dogs. The farmer pulled out his shotgun and started shooting. Old Shep was hit in the shoulder and managed to make it back to the station where he laid down and died. Could this really be...the rest of the story? The town's Paul Harvey enjoys getting a rise out of the other locals. "They just don't want the controversy," he claims. While it's logical enough to be true, it seems to me that Old Shep's original story will keep tourists coming for years and years to come. By the time we left Fort Benton on Saturday I'm pretty sure the entire town knew who the three of us were. Then we waved goodbye and got outta dodge. 

We spent Saturday afternoon driving east all the way across Montana. Again, the sky so huge! And the wide-open road - you feel like you're going 65 only to look at the speedometer to realize you're going 90! By the way, our rental van guts out at 106 mph. They say there's no speed limit in Montana, but ours is obviously 105, but I don't recommend hanging your head out of the window at that speed!

Today(Sunday) we drove through a little town called Marmarth, North Dakota.  Here we sought out a family with a dog. We found two families who were related and had two dogs each. This town had 151 people in it up until last week. Someone died so now they're down to 150. The dog the human chose to photograph was 16 years old! That's 112 or something like that! Can you imagine! I can only hope to last that long, but I don't think my breed has the genes, which is why I live for today! Anyway, the family was a kick. One of the kids was six years old and his uncle was four! 

Now we're at our fourth Motel 6.  If you didn't know, Motel 6 is sponsoring our trip. It's pretty funny because no matter what city or state we're in all the rooms look exactly the same. Don't tell my human, but for awhile there, I thought we kept returning to the same motel every night, which would have made for a lot of extra driving. That's it for now. The Badlands are next! 


P.S. Seamus approves all of these e-mails before they go out. The only thing he wants to add is that the human is wearing tightie-whities. In the human's defense, it's only because all of his boxers are dirty and he needs to do laundry. I'd offer to help, but I'm a damn dog.

Here's me and Ol' Shep. I couldn't get my tail to curl up like him. Otherwise it's a pretty good imitation on my part, don't you think?

This is where Shep is actually buried, way up high above the town of Ft. Benton. Pretty nice spot to end up. I wonder what the human will do with me. 

This is Old Kenny Vinion, who played "Taps" at Shep's funeral. He was a nice man.

Here's the story before "the rest of the story"!

Welcome to North Dakota and yet another photo-op!

Here's a snap of the family of the 16-year-old dog, Spook. The little one on the far left is the uncle of the kid next to him.

Here's the kind parents of those two kids. If I'm not mistaken, and I could be cause I'm only a dog, the woman in the red shorts is the daughter of the woman in the jeans and the man in the cowboy hat. The woman in the red shorts is the mother of the 6-year old and the sister of the four-year-old.  The pooch under the table is as confused as I am.

And here's Spook, the 16-year-old wonder dog!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Greetings From Big Sky Country!

I find my human is using a lot of swear words as we discover the beauty of it all.

Anyway, we had a little trouble getting out of Boise the other day. While the human and Seamus were packing up to leave after a very pleasant stay at a friend’s Idaho estate, I managed to wander off just before departure. I must have been missing for about 45 minutes before I was finally found. I could hear them calling my name but I had no way to get to them. See, I had wandered into a stranger’s garage when suddenly the door went down. I was stuck, no way out. I don’t even know why I wandered in there. I think I thought I smelled some food, but when I got in there I realized it was just cat food high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach. The human and Seamus seemed to get more desperate in their calls. I decided to yelp to help them out, but with each yelp they seemed to get further away. Just when I began to wonder if they would leave me behind – would they? – a stranger opened a door and spotted me there. She pushed a button on the wall and magically the big door I entered through opened. I was free! I ran out and back toward our van to find the human wearing a dual expression of relief and rage. I promised this would be the last time I wandered off, knowing full-well it was a promise I couldn’t keep.

Anyhow, no small potatoes, we made it through Idaho and into Jackson, Wyoming by sunset. The human and Seamus sweet-talked our way into a Motel 6 that supposedly had no vacancy. I am very impressed by those two and how they gain trust and make friends with people so quickly. I think they would make great dogs. They kind of remind me of puppies what with how strangers think they are cute and want to take them right in. This Motel 6 thing was looking bleak but a couple of flirty minutes later and we had ourselves a room.

We made our way down to the famous "Cowboy Bar" where we met all sorts of interesting people. Seamus befriended an older cowboy with a worn out hat and glasses as thick as the bottom of the beer mugs I could see above. The guy was drunk as a skunk and had a herd of cowgirls around listening to his stories. From my vantage point at the foot of the stool, it seemed Seamus had found his hero.

Before the night was over the human had met the famous nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen and planned a rendezvous with him at his place first thing in the morning. His place just so happened to be one of two houses at the base of the Grand Tetons. When we arrived I heard the human let out another swear word. Mr. Mangelson wanted to give the human "his shot". “His shot” was a picture that he hadn't taken yet but knew he would one day. "His shot" was a picture of his dog diving into his backward lake with the Grand Tetons as the backdrop. I gotta say I was going bonkers watching Mr. Mangelson’s water-loving dog go flying into that lake time and again chasing after the tennis ball they repeatedly whacked out there with a tennis racket for extra distance. I couldn’t stand it! Problem is, I don’t know how to swim. So I had to stand there at the edge of the lake pretty much going freaking mental.

The human got the shot. Mr. Mangelson’s dog got the ball. And all I got was freaking case of the anxieties. If there is one thing I can’t stand in this life it’s another dog having the ball that I want. The human thought he was doing me a favor by letting me out of the van, but next time I hope he thinks it through a little more and overcomes whatever guilt he feels by leaving me behind.

After chatting with Mr. Mangelson for awhile at the base of the Tetons we said goodbye to our new friend and headed out for Montana. Helena would be our destination. We bypassed Yellowstone due to construction and took the I-15 north. We passed through the most beautiful storm right as we were crossing the Montana border. We pulled over to take a snapshot of the "Welcome to Montana" sign and just as the human was ready to step out of the car a flash of lighting struck and a crack of thunder followed like a gunshot going off in our ears. Now I ain't afraid of much, but that thunder crack made me shake like a tea leaf in a hurricane. I kinda wished I was still stuck in that garage in Boise!

So we rolled into Helena at about midnight. We could have made it earlier but we had to pull over and take so many dang pictures. The sky is so huge here. Today we will travel to Ft. Benton, MT to learn more about the history of Old Shep. Old Shep is a dog who used to walk his master to the train every day. His master would take the train to work and when he returned Old Shep would be there waiting. Well, one day the Master didn't return. He died instead. Old Shep waited at the station for him for the next five years. He checked every train that came in until one day when he slipped on some ice and got run over. Now there is a monument in his honor. Noble dog, that Old Shep.

P.S. Did you know that the Grand Tetons were discovered by the French and named in honor of their women that they left back home. As the story goes, they were very horny and missed them much. Hence, Grand Tetons. I'll let you translate. I’m a dog, after all.

Here I am above the giant Hole that is Jackson, moments before descending on our fate.

Fate would be meeting the famed photographer Thomas Mangelson on the stool next to us at the famous Cowboy Bar. The following morning is when we found ourselves on his beautiful grounds at the base of the Tetons. Above is Mr. Mangelson's dog Loup. The human snapped this shot from my POV. You can see why I was having fits inside. Damn water dogs.

Here's Loup posing for the human with the Tetons in the background. Not a bad environment to mark in the mornings. Loup was born into the good life, for sure.

There I am down there, mere minutes after the loudest thundercrack ever known to man or beast. You can kind of see the residue of the terror that remains on my mug. Anyway, the storm passed and we had to get out of the car for another photo-op - this time the Continental Divide.

Little history lesson for you two legged creatures out there: A continental divide is a line of terrain, mountainous usually, which forms a border between two watersheds such that water falling on one side of the line eventually travels to one ocean or body of water, and water on the other side travels to another, generally on the opposite side of the continent. There are a few divides in America, I hear, but this one seems to be the granddaddy of them all. Hence it's name, the Great Divide! The Great Divide runs all the way from Alaska to the tip of South America! Don't take me on that walk!

Ah, the big sky of Montana. Roll down my window and step on it, human.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Ride Of His Life

Back in 1999 I had the great fortune of getting a book deal through Chronicle Books. My pitch was that I would hit every state in the country and photograph at least one dog to represent each state. It would be titled Dog Bless America. Chronicle gave me a handsome enough advance that I was able to get in a van and with my two best friends--Seamus and Otis--and cover what ended up being 17,000 miles of road. The journey was epic in every way. And it is certainly true what they say about the journey being the destination. I'd say that was my greatest lesson from the trip--that the journey is the destination. I think Otis always knew it. The day the three month ride ended might have been the lowest in Otie's life. The morning after we returned home to Portland I couldn't find him. I peeked outside to spot him sitting next to our van ready to roll. He had become accustomed to the routine of the road. It took a good two months to get him out of his funk. I used to say he was walking around as though the weight of a piano were on his back. And I do contend that life was never quite the same for him after such an historic ride. Eventually, life became routine again and Otis was able to once again live fully in the moment. But whenever the opportunity for a ride came up, you could see the glimmer of hope in his eyes that maybe, just maybe, this was gonna be another one for the ages. 

Thus begins a recounting of our journey through the eyes, ears and nose of Otis Kerouac.

Greetings From Boise! 

The three of us have reached Boise, Idaho and boy is it hot. The weather reminds me a lot of Portland--clear blue skies and no chance of rain!

We left Portland on Monday and made our first stop about five hours later in Walla Walla, Washington. We met and photographed a herding dog named Daisy on what seemed to me to be the most beautiful farm I might ever see--then again, this was only day one.

Miss Daisy was a perfect subject for my human up until one of the cows got a little out of line. All hell broke loose when Daisy's housemate Jack the Shitzhu wanted to herd some cattle too. Jack the Shitzhu just can't stand being stereotyped as a little lap dog and will sneak out into the pasture any chance he gets. The problem is that when Jack charges the cows, the cows charge back. Needless to say, we almost witnessed the end of Jack.

After photographing Daisy and getting Jack the hell out of there we sat down with their parents and an ice cold glass of homemade blue ribbon winning beer. Over beer the conversation immediately turned to the fascinating topic of UFOs. Turns out that Daisy and Jack's parents had only very recently discovered "crop circles" right in their wheat field. They showed us the newspaper articles and everything! At present, they are the talk of the town and I suppose they will continue to be until they finally meet the little green men and their little green dogs.

We said good-bye to Walla Walla a little behind schedule (UFOs and blue ribbon winning beer will do that to you), and we headed out for Boise. Three hours later (about midnight) we were being pulled over for doing 83 in a 65. Thank goodness Seamus was driving because my human says Seamus gets away with just about anything. And sure enough, the kindly officer let us go with a warning after learning a little bit about our journey. "That's a lot of driving ahead of you," he barked, "You be sure to get enough rest now, you here?" 

Yes, officer. Thank you, officer. And off we raced.

Boise, Idaho is a hoot. Last night we sat and discussed archeology and the history of dogs with world renowned archeologist Max Pavesic and his two Shi Tzus, Kashmir and Chibi. Later, Max broke out a seven dollar bottle of wine and the conversations continued into the night. By the way, Max too believes we're not the only ones out here.

Today we head east to Jackson, Wyoming and the Grand Tetons. I hear it's kind of pretty there.

That's all for now. We are all getting along swimmingly. And I just can't get enough of all the new smells!



P.S. My human, as I like to call him, is documenting our trip in both moving and still photographs. The Polaroid Company supplied all the film for his project. Because he takes all of his photographs with a 1965 Polaroid Land Camera, he approached a wonderful woman at the corporation named Anne McCarthy who agreed to donate as much polaroid pack film as he needed. And he's gonna need A LOT! He started snapping as soon as we hit the road. And if I know what's good for me, I will be game to be his subject whenever he needs, so long as he gets the shot in one take. Their are just too many scents and scenes to just sitting there wasting time for a photo-op.
The human has set a goal to take a picture of every single state welcoming sign as we go. Washington, being only minutes from my digs in Northeast Portland, was his first snap.

I get the feeling we are going to pull over quite a bit on this trip. Fine by me cause I can mark territory with the best of 'em. This is the famous Columbia River Gorge which divides Washington and Oregon. Look at all those trees! My goodness, I am already on sensory overload.

The human spotted this sign along the highway and decided it was worthy of a snap. Like I said, get it in one shot and it's fine by me. That said, I'm going to need to increase my intake of water or I'm going to run dry attempting to mark all this stuff.

Interesting play on words.

Here's Daisy. Her human says she's the greatest herding dog ever to live. I saw her in action and I totally believe it. She's a freak of nature the way she rounds them up. I was extremely impressed and kind of turned on. I just had no idea we dogs had that kind of talent.

Here she is having wrangled them up. They didn't dare stray either, even when she turned her head for my human's quick photo-op.

I like cows.

Eastern Oregon, Idaho and Montana all kind of look like the road ahead. Long, straight stretches as far as the eyes can see. The human and Seamus started playing a game where they guess how many miles away a high point in the road will be. So far, they are both terrible at it. One will guess three miles and the other will guess nine and it will end up being six. If only I could talk.

Idaho is, of course, known for its potatoes. That's me up there on the train tracks waiting for the click of the camera. Nobody mentioned the life-threatening nature of this part of the deal.

Kashmir and Chibi were pretty funny. They were the same looking as Jack the Shi tzu from Walla Walla, but I don't think they would have raced out to challenge the cows. These two were more secure in their lapdog lifestyle. They were pleasant enough to me, definitely more engaging than 'ol Daisy who wouldn't give me the time of day, but I still don't think they were sorry to see me go. I get the feeling I might be imposing myself on quite a bit of territory along the way. Dogs are just going to have to get over it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eulogy To Otis

The ashes have been delivered. I've sprinkled some of him over his favorite spots in the yard. There's plenty more of him to go around, although I was surprised how little there was of him to start. He seemed so much denser than the 3x4 tin urn he returned to me in. Anyway, my true aim is to take a little bit of him to Alaska and Hawaii - the only to states he didn't have the pleasure to mark.

We still miss him dearly. People ask if I've got another dog yet. You know, I love dogs as much as anybody, but I find the question a bit insensitive. Otis isn't just going to be replaced. This house is still his. Even though he's gone, he still occupies the space. It wouldn't be fair to another dog. And the only benefit to me would be a cleaner kitchen floor. Now that Otis is gone, we realize just how many food particles we drop on the floor. Otis was more miraculous than the Dyson vacuum advertised in the infomercials. 

Alas, without further ado, here is my eulogy to Otis, in poem form. Now, please understand that I do NOT fancy myself a poet, this kinda sorta just came out. 

eulogy to Otis

Otis two balls was your Indian name.
one ball would never suffice.
those times at the park when you'd not only fetch your ball,
but another's as well.
it was embarrassing,
but down inside I was proud how you refused to relinquish it.

I remember the time we dressed as doubles partners for Halloween.
decked out in our gear with every logo except for nike,
I in my shiny adidas apparel,
you dawning two Penn tennis balls and a headband with a big red W emblazoned in front.
how we went to work and who was the first person we bumped into but Phil freaking Knight.
"can you point me to the bathroom," he asked.
when here I thought it was game set and match.

you were the best partner in the world, dear Otis.
always there when I dropped the ball, 
both literally and figuratively.
your constancy was my blessing, 
even when I stepped on you by accident, 
then shooed you away as though it were your fault.

the time in New York at Saint John The Divine,
the pastor speaking of Jesus and his limitless compassion and love.
I turned to find you sitting on a blind man's bluff.
at your core, you were the four-legged Jesus.

who could be more unconditional and forgiving than you?
all dogs are such, but we humans differ,
and I have to believe I took a lot more forgiving than most.
how I came home too late or too tired for a trek around the block, 
depriving you chances to reclaim your territory from the rogues of the day.
how I awoke too late for a morning jaunt, 
you masking your disappointment as I put up your gate and left you for hours.

always you wagged when I returned.
bygones were bygones, and hope in my goodness sprang eternal.
I could never rate,
and you could never care less.

Oscar Schindler at the end of the movie cries out,
"I could have done more!"
that's how I felt when your glorious pounding muscle of a heart took its last beat.
I could have done more.
I could have done more.
I could have done more.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Odes to Otis

I started Wednesdays With Otis because I wanted to tell his story. His story will not end with his death. There is too much left to be told. His life was epic not only in dog terms, but in human. How many humans can say they've seen the lower 48? Otis lived. He really really lived. And his story, if recounted well enough, can be a lesson in how we can all live the best life possible.

I took a couple of weeks away from writing. I grieved a lot in the first days without him. I guess my immune system was no match for it because I was sick and worthless for an entire week. 

Anyway, before I continue retelling the epic journey of Otis, I want to use this entry to thank all of my family, friends, neighbors and admirers of Otis who offered their sentiments. Otis truly touched a great many people during his 13 glorious years. But not only do I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart, I also to share some of those sentiments here, anonymously, of course.

These words helped me through. They assured me that I was a good human to Otis, that he had a wonderful life - perhaps the most wonderful life any dog could ask for. I still don't fully believe that, because my guilt is too great. I know I could have been better, but many of these words stopped me from beating myself up over it. They also allowed me to find peace in the terribly difficult decision it was to end Otis' tongue-dangling, tail-wagging ride.

I hope they will bring comfort to others who have, or will have to go through similar loss and grief.

Here are those words: 

He had a good long run, and really gave ‘em hell these last few months!

Sorry to hear about the greatest dog of all-time. I'm thinking he's chasing butterflies through fields of alfalfa right now. Dogs reflect the things that are best about ourselves.

Otis was one lucky dog and I'm sure he knew it. In fact, that's one of the lovely things that animals show us-- that gratitude. Just for being us. And what other dog can say that he traveled around all of the United States with his best friend?

I'm so sad to hear about Otis. What a magnificent dog!

I'm really sorry about Otis. People deserve to die – not dogs.

I loved him from the minute I met him, when he took off running in our neighborhood searching for who knows what?

Our pleasure is having them for the brief time we are allowed their glorious presence.

You gave him a spectacular life - the fullest and most complete life of any dog I have known, or will know.

He had the most amazing life a dog, or human really , could ever ask for.

There are no words.
My heart just breaks for you...

I know how much of a friend he was...through some very hard (and very good) times. Not often you get something like that. It just breaks my heart.

God speed Otis. And you, my friend, need to take extra special care of you. and don't resist your grief or let anyone tell you he was just a dog. The loss is as real as anything. His energy is swirling around you now, and when you are ready you will harness it and know he will never leave your side.

You and Otis are two of the luckiest beings. You've indeed made me grateful for every day with mine.

He was a source of great joy...

He went out just like I imagined he would, still full of life. Funny to think, he probably cared more about how you and Sam and everyone else felt, than how he felt.

What sad news yet what an amazing and full life that lucky Otis experienced with you on this planet.

I'm really sorry to hear about your loss, but thankful for the great years you and Otis gave each other, and the honor, dignity and emotion with which you said good-bye.

I am so sorry for the loss of Otis: best friend, lover extraordinaire, ball-crazed, noble creature.

There aren't really words to console you, so I'll just say that I've been there and I know that the loneliness that follows is a strange and tortured one--it's profundity foreign to many people. But what I have always loved about animals--particularly dogs, but also cats--is their presence, not only during the big moments but the interstitial ones. They witness everything, and in those hours in our lives when no on else is around, there is that small comfort in knowing another heart is beating nearby--sending out a signal, as if to say, 'I'm here, you're here, that's good enough for now.'

There are no words, or feelings, or anecdotes that I can come up with in regards to Otis. His loss is too profound. And like him, it is your pain I am feeling.

So sad but so inspiring to me. To hear of all of the love and joy you received from Otis makes me want a dog. Our guys have been asking for a couple years and this may have put me over the edge.

Your honest love for Otis has been shared with so many people. I'm so damn sorry...

When do we have a ceremony?

I am so very very sorry. In my house, the kids are booted from our bed regularly, but my dog is under the covers nightly nestled in the crook of my legs and the jaws of life couldn't detach him, much to my husband's chagrin. So while I haven't gone through that horrific yet inevitable stage of a dog's life yet, I know the bond a person can have with a dog and wanted to share some sympathy.

I am so sorry. He was the greatest of dogs.

You gave him such a wonderful and long and filled and exuberant life. He gave you...everything.

You gave Otis an exceptional life. He gave you his unswerving loyalty, his absolute devotion, his bad breath, his reckless disregard for abstaining from cat poop. You were both winners, Jeff.

I am so sorry to hear about Otis. He had a good life with a great friend. You took care of him like a son and he looked up to you like a dad, which you were.

He had the best life a dog could ever hope for.

How awesome is it that people can have the capacity to love another so much (human or animal)? You and Otis were very lucky to have each other.

I don't know what else to say that you haven't already heard...but maybe this video will raise your spirits if you haven't already seen it.

Kid coming down from pain killers from his surgery at the dentist:

A cat can’t play catch, chew, fart like sewer pipe and love you like a dog.

Otis lived heaven on this earth - an incredible life. And - as for you - I heard something interesting the other day. Grief is a clear sign that you have loved well - it's part of the deal. Would you choose to live this life without love? I know how much it hurts but still feel that the pay-off of the past many years of companionship and unconditional love and affection that you've shared with Otis is worth it.

When my dad's dog passed it was almost as hard as my dad in a way, the relationship is so much more... unambiguous love. They are such amazingly pure love soldiers. You were a great partner to him obviously and everything you guys did together made the world better. Not just for you, but love that like is like a radio wave across the world.

I never cry for anything, including my mother when she passed 15 years ago, but dogs are different.

Someone told me just the other day that, unlike humans, dogs really never know when to “let go”. I think they are just so damn happy to be pleasing others that they forget to take care of themselves.

There is heaven for dogs, I've heard about it, believe me.

He has Gone. Hearts are Broken. But he is not forgotten, on the contrary, his spirit lives on in all the hearts of everyone who met him in person and through your writing.

I feel supremely lucky to have been witness to his journey on this earth.  I cannot tell you how much I have appreciated all the inspiration -- and the times when I was closed down and you two reminded me to be open to love and life's whimsy.

I wish we could just go take a gun a blow cancer's guts out. Since it seems to punch us in the gut and heart way to many times.

He had a great life......and we all were happy to have him while we did!

Feel what you need to feel. It's what makes us human. Let me know if you need anything, like vodka!

Oh... I loved that guy. I'm not sure he was as fond of NH as we were of him. Thanks for making him part of our life. He packed the most muscle per square inch of body of any dog I've ever known but his biggest muscle was his heart.

Otis was a rock star.

Our love is eternal, our lives are not.

I am so sorry, but so proud of you all for having the courage to love something so much you could let it go.

I am still amazed at all the photos of Otis and all the amazing places he got to see. So many people aren't nearly that lucky.

I know you had one of those man/dog relationships that books and movies are made of.

Otis will live on in our hearts forever.

Your dog left a rainbow in my heart. He was my hero. I loved the feeling of being protected when I was sitting on your porch. Thanks to you for raising such a good dog. (This was a note based on a real-life experience when a minacious man approach my porch. Otis never growled at anybody, but this guy was different. The man turned and quickly went away.)

I'm sorry to hear that Otis passed. I know how hard you worked to keep him with you and that is a fantastic act of love.

A generous donation has been made to the Oregon Humane Society in memory of Otis. So incredibly sorry for your loss. What a good boy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Playing God With Dog

"Listen, Jeff, you did the right thing," the good doctor said. "I can promise you I wouldn't have let you do it if it wasn't time."

Dr. Judkins' words brought a trace of comfort as I sat on the floor of the darkened, sterile room, gazing in disbelief at my suddenly lifeless dog. I guess he could tell I was in a bit of shock, struggling with the choice I had just made. 

I knew we were in trouble in the early hours of Friday morning. Otis climbed out of Sam's bed a number of times to alert me from the front door that he needed to go out. He would take a few seconds to relieve himself then retreat back to Sam's room and the comfort of his bed. Then I heard rustling downstairs at about 6am and found Sam and Otis were already up. Sam was eating some cereal and Otis was panting heavily down below, indicating the tumor was shooting off histamines again.

"He's been panting off and on like that all night," Sam said. "I couldn't sleep so we got up."

I grabbed Otis a Benadryl from the crowded shelf of meds and hid it in some leftover pasta, which he managed to swallow.

I got Sam ready for school and made sure he gave Otis some love on our way out. I didn't make a big deal of it because I didn't want Sam to freak out or be overcome with grief. I just had a feeling this was going to be the day and I didn't want Sam to be able to say he didn't get to say goodbye. The dying process has been so taxing on him. He's already had to say goodbye to him three times only to watch Otis make these noble comebacks.

I dropped Sam at school and went downstairs to the Kindergarden where his mom teaches. I needed to let her know I was going to call the vet for an appointment to put Otis down. She had previously indicated to me that she would like to be there when it happened. Alice was Otis's mom before the divorce. I got him in our settlement, but she stayed in his life and was helpful when I went on the road for work. I understood why she wanted to be there but I warned her of the overwhelming sadness that comes in those final moments. She listened, but it didn't change her mind. I told her it would depend on Dr. J's availability and/or whether Otis' conditioned worsened throughout the morning. When I called, Dr. J said we could take the last appointment of the day - 5pm. This worked for Alice, and it also allowed me a full day to spend with my guy, should he hang in there.

I returned home to find Otis still panting. He wasn't swelling up as much as before, but I could tell he was in some discomfort. Soon the Benadryl kicked in and made him sleepy. I built a fire and placed his bed in front of it. I made some tea, grabbed my copy of Tuesdays With Morrie, and laid down beside him.

"Here's how my emotions go," Morrie told Koppel. "When I have people and friends here, I am very up. The loving relationships maintain me."

Morrie and Otis were not so unalike. Morrie understood the important things in life. He wasn't afraid to love or accept love. To display affection. To say the things that we humans have such a hard time saying, like "I love you." If Otis could speak he would be a broken record of I love yous. But as he lay there taking one deep labored breath after another I couldn't help but whisper it to him over and over again. His loving relationship has maintained me.

The clock moved at a rapid pace and before I knew it, it was 2pm already. I went up to take a shower, leaving Otis by the fire. The water washed over me and I began to cry. It was hitting me all of the little things that won't be there anymore. In this case, I was thinking about how Otis would never fail to be waiting for me to step out of the shower so that he could lick my lower legs dry. Such a strange tradition, I admit. But he loved it and I obliged. The water washed over me and I opened my eyes to find him standing there one more time. Somehow he made it up the stairs. I cried a little more, you know, for the effort. Then I turned off the shower and let him have his day. Luckily, he was a short dog and could never extend above my knees.

I got dressed and Otis managed to follow me back downstairs. In fact, I was surprised at how well he was getting around. Maybe I got the Benadryl into his system early enough to prevent major swelling and discomfort. At about 3pm I decided to see if Otis wanted to take a walk around the block. Sure enough, he followed. He even had a little pep in his step, although the tumor was bouncing only inches above the ground. Still, Otis managed to mark just about every damn tree around the entire block. I imagined he was reminding everyone just whose territory this really was. It was his. As it had been his for a long, long time.

When we returned home I grabbed my camera and his tennis ball, offering it up to see if he might grant me one more photo-op. I rolled the ball down the sidewalk and sure enough he went after it. Not with a sprint or even a trot, but a slow, dignified walk. He picked it up and returned to the spot where he goes when he's no longer interested in retrieving. Never has it been only one throw before he went to this spot. But he stood there for me, ball in mouth and allowed me my final shots. The one I posted on Friday was the very last shot I took of him with my Nikon camera. As soon as I snapped it I knew it was my final shot. Through my viewfinder I could feel that I had captured his essence.

We went back inside to find Nicole crying in the kitchen. Nicole wasn't ever the biggest dog lover in the world, and she tried her best not to fall into Otis's lovetrap, but she couldn't help it in the end. His grunts and snores and constant dragging of his nails across the hardwoods as he followed us around the house all day could fray the nerves. His breath and disdain for any form of hygiene could make you shake your head in wonder. But you had to hand it to him for his constancy. He was always there.

It was appropriate that we found our way down to the kitchen floor that Otis had kept so spotless for so many years. He picked up every scrap and crumb that ever fell from above. We sat there for awhile and just cried. He gave Nicole a little kiss, which kind of blew me away. Otis could win the heart of even the staunchest of cat people.

Alice came to pick me up and Nicole handed me a sandwich bag full of peanut butter filled pretzels.

"Take these with you," she advised.

Otis has always dreaded trips to the vet. He'd take a ride in the car anywhere in the world, but he always seemed to know when it was a ride to the vet. The peanut butter pretzels would be a welcome distraction.

On the way we drove past Grant Park and its expanse of green. Otis could spot a park from a mile away, and whenever we drew near his eyes would widen with expectation that surely this was our destination. This time however, his ears merely perked up a bit, obviously assuming this wasn't our destination. I began to cry once again, thinking to myself that I certainly didn't stop at the parks as often as he deserved. Regret is such an easy trap in the days of dying.

Alice asked if we had time to stop by the gas station. We were about ten minutes ahead of schedule so I said yes. She pulled in and once again Otie's eyes perked up. Throughout his life gas attendants have always been good to him. When the man came to Alice's window she ordered her gas and asked if he happened to have a dog treat.

"We're on our way to put our dog down," she confessed.

The attendant compassionately peered in at Otis then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the mother of all Milkbone treats. It was so large it reminded me of that magic trick when the magician pulls the handkerchief out of the hat and it just keeps coming and coming. This attendant must have had a trick pocket. I laid out a little towel across my lap and Otis devoured the Milkbone on top of it. All his life we never saw a milkbone that big. It was always the little ones they handed out. I cried a little more at the irony of it.

We left the station and made our way into southeast Portland. As we drove I recalled the story of the very first time we rode in a car with Otis. Alice picked me up from the airport after a work trip I'd made to LA. While I was down there I received a call from Otis's breeder letting me know he had a dog available if I was interested. I'll leave that entire story for another entry, but the short version is that I was interested and that the timing was perfect because I was in LA and Otis was born in Long Beach, which was a short distance from LAX.

I picked him up on my way to the airport and was able to smuggle him onto my Alaska Airlines flight inside a compartment of my carry on bag. He was a tiny little pup and these were the days before 9/11 when it wasn't so hard to smuggle more than three ounces of shampoo on board, let alone living creatures. The compartment had a flap that I could unzip that allowed enough air for Otis as we flew. The flight was pretty uneventful as Otis managed to sleep the entire way. It might have helped that he had gotten car sick on our way to LAX and wiped himself out. I should note that it was the first and only time that Otis ever tossed his cookies in a car.

We touched down in Portland and there was Alice waiting for us in our new used Land Cruiser. I jumped into the passenger seat and put Otis on my lap just as he was right now. I introduced the two of them and we made our way towards home. About three blocks from home I said to Alice, "Wow, it's amazing he hasn't gone to bathroom one time since we left Long Beach. And right at that moment I felt that unmistakable warmth seeping through my jeans. Yes, I remember the feeling of peeing my pants. Only this time it was Otis. And he peed a river, even filling that plastic pocket on the passenger side door.

We had indeed come full circle. Here we were pulling up to the vet where our long, unforgettable journey would end. But before it did I instructed Alice to go back a few blocks to another park we had passed on our way. I needed to give him one more jaunt. One more inhale for the road. One more chance to mark just a little more territory out of all the ground he had covered along the way.

We got out of the car and Otis trudged up a grassy knoll. He turned to us expecting to see his tennis ball raised high overhead ready for launch. His eyes widened in anticipation. Alice let it fly and off Otis went. He returned it with all the energy he could muster and set it down at my feet ready for another toss. That was the thing about Otis, there was nothing that could stop him when it came to throwing a ball in a park. I've always contended that he would have fetched until he expired had we not had the good sense to put limits on his heart. 

But on this day, in this moment, I couldn't help but to feel guilty. How could I be only minutes away from ending the life of this dog who was obviously still so full of life?

"That's Otis," I reminded myself. 

It didn't matter that he had a giant tumor impeding his way. Through sheer force of will, Otis would find his way around it. And I had to believe this, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to got through with letting him go.

I used my iphone to take a few final pictures of Otis in action. In them, he looks like a puppy again, the tumor blurred or obscured. Again, making it hard to justify the inevitable. Alice took my phone and snapped a couple shots of Otis and me together. I love them, but the miles are there on both of us.

It was time to enter the vet clinic now. I carried Otis in. He clung to me as if he knew something. We were directed to a room that had three or four blankets laid out on the floor for maximum comfort. I set Otis down and before I knew it he was staring at my coat pocket. That's where I had stuffed the pretzels full of peanut butter. Nicole's idea was ingenious. Otis was completely distracted from the reality of the situation.

I fed him one pretzel then another. Then another. And then another. His distraction was good for him, but it wasn't allowing either of us to say goodbye. He just wanted to eat, which again, made me question whether I was doing the right thing here.

"Just give him the whole bag," suggested Alice.

"Really," I questioned, as if that might be bad for him. Talk about irony.

So I set the bag down on the floor in front of him. He looked at me with the funniest face, part confusion and part disbelief. I couldn't tell if he was saying, "For real?" Or, "Ah, you big jerk. NOW? FINALLY?"

Otis devoured the pretzels and part of me hoped he would die of salmonella right there on the spot. But it wasn't to be. Dr. Judkins entered and looked down at Otis.

"Man, he looks pretty good," he observed.

"I knew you were going to say that," I replied.

"Oh, but look at the size of that tumor," he added, "I can't believe how fast it has grown."

We talked about realities. He listened as I talked of the life he had displayed in the last two hours. And I could hear myself, too. My answer was in my own words. What a way to go out. Dr. Judkins confirmed my words with his own. He told me that we could wait another week or two and eek out a few more good moments, maybe. But one more week or two more weeks at the end of such an epic life weren't going to mean so much to Otis, especially as the tumor continues to grow at such a rapid pace and cause who knows how much discomfort. In a week or two I could be bringing in a dog who had no dignity left. As it was, I was sending him out on top.

Then, before I could waver, Dr. Judkins pulled out a tranquilizer at administered a shot.

"This will make him real sleepy. I'll come back in about ten minutes," he said.

And with that, the hardest ten minutes of my life began. So many memories come flooding in. 13 years of memories to be exact. That's been my experience with pets. They represent a timeline. In this case, Otis represented my life's highest highs and lowest lows. My marriage to Alice. The loss of my mom. The birth of my son. A 17,000 mile journey through 48 states with my best friend, Seamus, sharing shotgun with Otis. The loss of my other best friend, Hawthorne. Divorce. Bachelorhood. Another marriage. Another baby. All of those things come flooding back. They race through your mind as though it is you yourself who is facing the "needle of oblivion". How could all of that happen in such a short period? Maybe that's why our dog's life spans or so short. Maybe they see too much, especially when you think of their capacity for compassion and love. When we are high, they are higher. And when we are low, they are lower. They take it all on. And that's gotta wear them out.

He lay there feeling the effects. Alice and I took turns whispering in his ear and stroking his head.

I thanked him for everything. Alice thanked him for being such a great big brother to Sam. I apologized for being neglectful and lazy. Alice told him she loved him. I told him he had a lot of friends waiting for him and to give them hell like he used to.

About five minutes into the tranquilizer Otis got up one more time and walked a wobbly circle around the room. "You can take the dog out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the dog," I remembered. He lay back down and we sobbed.

A few minutes later Dr. Judkins entered right on cue. He wrapped a thick black rubber band around Otie's hind leg and tightened it. Then came the juice. Otis raised and turned his head to look back at his leg. Then he lowered it back down on his front paws, resting in the same position he had his entire life. And then, all of the sudden, he was gone.

"Oh, fuck," I wailed.

It is absolutely palpable that moment a life ends. There is nothing more powerful or definitive. 

Alice dropped me off at home and I went inside where I collapsed into the arms of Nicole. We cried it out for awhile until I couldn't cry anymore. It was then that I looked up and felt such an enormous void. This house was no longer the same. But it wasn't something I could only see. It was something I could feel. Rather, what I couldn't feel. I couldn't feel his energy anymore. It was his life force. It was gone. With him. And it's an energy that will never be replaced.

Alice called to ask if Sam could come spend some time with me. He, of course, was distraught. She dropped him off and he ran straight into my arms.

"I didn't get to say goodbye," he sobbed.

"Oh, but you did, Sam. You did," I replied.

I let him cry it out, too. And then we set out for a Root Beer float.