In this post I digress to share a private experience that occurred this past week.
It was Tuesday night around 9:00. The family and I had just watched another episode of Elementary, stories of the brilliant, intriguing, and wholly fictional Sherlock Holmes. Shadow, our brilliant, intriguing, and wholly nonfictional Blue Healer, was in my lap enjoying my last caresses and soothing words before our nightly walk outside and onto her safe dog’s bed inside our newly renovated barn kitchen.
The moment the TV’s volume disappeared, as predictable as morning light, Shadow jumped from my lap onto the floor and pranced toward the front door. To wait. For me to rise and saunter to the foyer’s cabinet and remove collar and leash from an uncluttered drawer.
Obedient for now, Shadow sat on her rear haunches allowing my fumbling fingers to snap the two ends of the collar around her neck, worried that I might pinch an ear as I’ve done more than once. But not tonight. She looked up and back into my eyes, relaying an unspoken thank-you.
Now, with Shadow on all fours and me remaining on two, I open the storm door and we scurry onto the front porch. Shadow is already alert because she sees Kitty approaching in the grass from twenty feet away. I allow the retractable leash full freedom and quickly the two hairy friends cautiously greet each other, engaging in a semi-circular dance without touching, although I’d bet there was endless sniffing.
Kitty soon became distracted, and so did Shadow. She abruptly darted to the side yard, jerking the leash controller out of my hand. She was off, tracking a scent of some unseen animal, maybe a raccoon, rabbit, fox, coyote, or small bear. I know not. Whatever it was, the creature was clearly drunk, given the circuitous track Shadow was pursuing. I kept hollering, “Shadow, Shadow, come here.” At one point, I got within eight feet of the trailing controller that slide across the grass five feet behind my excited and distracted friend.
There was no catching the Blue Healer. I repeatedly hollered her name and warned she should come to me right now and retreat to safe quarters inside the barn. “Come here.” She didn’t listen. After racing with nose to the ground over every yard we have, including the north side of the barn, the most sweet and normally obedient Shadow pursued the intoxicating scent across the runway and into the pine thicket beyond. That’s when I realized this man and that dog had ventured into uncharted territory. The only other time Shadow had jerked the leash controller from my hand, all had ended well, she’d performed a few oddly shaped figure eights and surrendered to my loud but reasoned voice. But not tonight.
Clothed only in house-shoes, soft shorts, and a tee-shirt, I pursued, quickly losing Shadow and the front porch’s light. I eased my way into the undergrowth, quickly finding the nearest briers. Again, and repeatedly, I hollered, “Shadow, come here. This is dangerous. What are you doing?” There was no response.
I had no choice. I needed help, along with a flashlight. I walked back to the house and enlisted Donna and Jonathan’s help. They quickly responded and followed me with two flashlights, one weak, one strong. The two of us milled along the edge of the dense forest, poking light wherever we could, all the while staying on the runway (our 1,300 feet grass strip evidencing one of my former lives). We each kept verbalizing the common refrain: “Shadow, come here.” There was no response.
I finally told my two assistants they might as well go back inside. I knew what I had to do: go inside and equip myself. Less than five minutes later, I emerged from the mudroom clothed in long pants, tee-shirt, jacket, work-boots, a hat, and Jonathan’s flashlight.
I walked across the yard and runway, calling out for Shadow every other step. No response. I had no choice but to immerse myself in the undergrowth. My theory was (actually, I had two) Shadow’s zigzagging had been her undoing. As she sniffed the ground back and forth, left and right, circling and re-circling, the trailing leash and controller had become entangled around a bush or tree. She trapped herself somewhere, and I had to find her. My second hypothesis was that something had attacked and devoured her, or, at a minimum, injured Shadow enough to cause her current incapability of returning or even responding with a yelp or bark.
I set off walking and clawing westward along the hundred foot wide wilderness expanse parallel and to the north side of the runway. Again, the runway is 1,300 feet long, lying east to west. I exited the grass strip into the forest a hundred feet from the eastern end. The undergrowth was so thick I could barely move, but I kept shining my light into every crevice and calling out my dear Healer’s name. To my surprise and pleasure, the thick mass of briers, bushes, and new-growth pine trees thinned significantly the further west I walked.
After a thousand feet or more, without sight or sound of sweet Shadow, I circled back toward the east and my point of beginning. I moved northward to return by a second path, thinking and hoping I’d discover treasure around every bush and beyond every tree. I did not.
I once again thrust through the last two hundred feet of underbrush and exited to the runway. Quitting wasn’t yet on my horizon. I chose the much easier runway to walk and look, constantly peering my flashlight into the thicket. I first walked westward a thousand feet or more, continuing as always to call my sweet and loyal friend. I returned the same route and kept going past my usual thicket entrance point all the way to the eastern end of the runway. No sound, no yelp, no bark, nothing. “Shadow, where are you?”
Reluctantly and regrettably, I retired to the house. Sad, lonely, and sick. The thought, ‘I will never see my sweet Shadow again,’ rolled across my mind as I removed my boots and my sweat-drenched clothes. After a soaking sponge bath, I walked to my room, despondent over my loss. Finally, after a long attempt at reading, I had no choice but to go to bed. But, before I did, I set my alarm to 5:00 am, determined to return at dawn, invigorated to continue my search.
My plan, if it took it, was to start at the last place I’d seen my dear companion and work outward in a semi-circular pattern. I even considered using my chainsaw to remove every bush and tree I encountered. I clung to my first theory, but with one important alteration: Shadow’s leash had become entangled, effectively trapping her forever. And now that alteration: most likely, her inability to move would have occurred within 100 feet of where she entered the wilderness. I’m unsure where the number came from. I figured it was a high side distance. I knew (barring demise by the teeth of a ferocious animal) she, or her body, wasn’t far from the last place I’d last seen her.
Before I continue, I want to share a little back story about how Shadow came into our lives. It was 2014, and we were one year into our family barbecue business adventure. Jeremy, as usual, had put in an all-nighter slow-smoking Boston Butts and St. Louis Ribs. He’d left the restaurant and driven his 1986 Nissan Z to a car wash on the west side of town. After washing the exterior, he started vacuuming the interior. He was kneeling down, focused on the driver’s side floorboard, when he noticed that a cute little black dog had asserted herself (gender not yet determined!) through the opened passenger door.
With no owner in sight, Jeremy gave the sweet pup a ride home, to Jeremy’s home that is. His intent was to carry the stray or lost dog to a shelter. And, of course, you already know how that worked out. The young, sweet, and loving Blue Healer look-alike became Shadow and a wonderful addition to our country oasis in North Etowah County.
Now, let’s get back to this week’s adventure.
It was a long night. I didn’t sleep well at all. What sleep I got was thin and devastating. From the last fit of sleep, I’d awoken at 4:30, half an hour before my alarm setting. I didn’t ponder or dawdle.
After dressing in last night’s drenched clothing (except for a dry tee-shirt), I grabbed a thermos of coffee and headed out. Hope sprung as I opened and walked through the main and storm doors. My anticipation that someway, somehow Shadow would be on the front porch. She’d either chewed herself free or pulled the collar over her head, exited the thicket, and pranced herself across the runway and front yard. I could almost hear her say, “Paw Paw, where have you been? I’m hungry for my morning Oscar Mayer.” To my growing sadness and regret, there was no eagerly awaiting Shadow. No Shadow eager or not.
It was as dark as midnight. I walked across the dewy grass and retrieved a lawn chair from the barn. Although I held Jonathan’s flashlight, I wanted daylight to guide my search. I had to wait until sunrise. Across the runway and six feet from my normal thicket entranceway, I unfolded the chair and sat. My coffee was bitter, like I’d forgotten to add my usual two packs of Sweet-n-Low. The undesired taste triggered a thought, one that had raised its head during the night every time I’d awoken.
‘What if I never see Shadow again?’ I tried to repulse the emotions. Memories flooded my mind. Last thoughts, last night, sitting in our chair. I recalled sweet Shadow lying in my arms like a baby and me telling her I loved her. Sitting beside the thicket, I imagined that would be the memory that haunted me for the rest of my life. Oh, why hadn’t I grasped more firmly? Why had I let the leash controller fly out of my hand? It was all my fault.
Daylight came. Eventually. I stood and with one hand on the handle of my coffee thermos and one clutching Jonathan’s flashlight; I stepped into the thicket. Thoughts of hope, of determination, of full commitment: ‘I would search as long as it took. I would not give up. Shadow deserved every ounce of effort I could muster.’ I wrangled my way thirty feet due north, relieved that I could see a hundred times better than last night. Better still, using my bright light. “Shadow, where are you? I’m here, I’m coming.” Perplexity returned. Why doesn’t she respond? There was no suitable answer. The worst being, ‘she can’t, because she’s dead, or so incapacitated, it is impossible.’
I trudged forward a few more feet and encountered a steep embankment. I stopped and turned eastward, reminding myself I hadn’t hiked inside the thicket on this end of the runway. Once again, like in the other direction, the undergrowth subsided. I was alone in a forest of new-growth pines, needles carpeting my path. “Shadow.”
I stopped. I’d heard something. It was a sound, but indecipherable. It was faint. “What was that?” I said aloud to no one but myself. I lowered my head to slide between the low-slung limbs of two trees and walked southeasterly a few feet. Another sound, slightly louder than the last. A few more feet, this time due east.
‘Could it be?’ It was just a thought. It first emerged in my deep subconsciousness. Six more feet forward. The third odd and indistinguishable sound was a pant. My deeper self (whatever that is) knew before my head turned northward and down a slightly carpeted decline. There she was, ten feet to my left. I’ll never forget her look and she likely will not forget mine. Shadow had reappeared. She was, in fact, less than a hundred feet from the thicket entry point. She gave me her best smile and her most vigorous tail wag. “Paw Paw, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you a long scary night. Can’t you see I’m stuck?”
In way less than two seconds I was at her side, without coffee or flashlight, hauling her into my arms, squeezing too hard but not enough to stop her licking bombardment along my face and neck. It was a beautiful moment and a perfect time to express regrets over recent events and mutual neglects.
My eyes quickly traced her leash to a small sapling fifteen feet further north. It was secure around its base, just above the needle-carpeted ground. The Blue Healer could have easily untangled herself if only she had the sense and wherewithal to revisit her last steps of freedom.
With leash in hand and collar still secured, I slide the flashlight into my front left pocket and grabbed the thermos of coffee. The two of us exited the pine forest and crossed the dew-drenched runway toward home, each fully committed to a new life filled with firmer grasps and fewer sniffs.