Luther was never a good trail dog. In fact, he was one of the worst. On one of our first hikes, he cut his leash with one scissor bite and ran straight to the bottom of a ravine he could not climb back out of. As I stood gazing down at him — still holding the leash, its frayed end dangling off the ledge — he looked back up at me with the blankest expression I’d ever seen on any face, human or canine. It took Tom more than an hour of risky rock scrambling to get him out.
We have a collection of bitten-through leashes fixed with knots that, like a rosary, can be used to count Luther’s crimes on the trail. The knot on his blue leash, for instance, recalls the time he returned from a brief AWOL covered with an orangey brown substance that we had to assume was human feces because of the busy campsites nearby. We pulled our shirts over our noses and plopped down on a log for a serious “Which is worse?” talk: Cleaning Luther? Or being brought up on charges of dog abandonment? While we agreed the first choice was worse, we went to work cleaning the little bugger up as best we could using puddle water and Kleenex. And then there’s the trouble he’s managed to get into while on the tether. He never passed a toad he didn’t try to lick, even though its slimy toxins made him flip in torment until we wiped off his tongue. Ten seconds later, he’d do it again if he could.
One of the biggest myths surrounding dogs and hiking is that they’re a natural fit. To a dog, the woods are filled with twitchy, darting creatures begging to be chased. In a flash they’re off after anything that moves — a squirrel, a rabbit, a snake, a falling branch — and totally forget they’re on a hike with you. You can only hope they don’t get bitten by a rattlesnake, nailed by a porcupine, or sprayed by a skunk. The long wait for their return is truly terrible.
Luther has adorableness going for him, I’ll say that much. He’s 25 pounds with wiry hair that sticks out in all directions. His ears are erect to just below their soft black tips, at which point they fall over. His eyes are huge, soulful orbs. His little red backpack makes him look like a trail ambassador. Hikers approach him with faces transformed into expressions of delight, and exclamations of “Oh, how cute!” At which point our ambassador, his dignity affronted, takes a step forward and growls, driving the once-friendly hiker back. “Whoa! What’s his problem?”
There are some great trail dogs out there. An old dog is usually pretty good — they’ve chased everything there is to chase, sniffed everything there is to sniff, and in their final years take a lazier, or perhaps more philosophical, approach. If they miss the chipmunk that just ran tantalizing past their nose, well, they know another one will be coming by shortly. It just isn’t that big a deal anymore. But Luther never reached that mellow stage, and he never will. A heart murmur ended his hiking days years ago and now, at 16, he can barely make it to his favorite chipmunk holes out in the yard.
He’s lived the whole arc of his life at my heels, while it seems I have hardly changed. But I must have been a different person way back on our first-ever hike, when he dragged me up the steep Buttermilk Falls Trail in New Jersey, straining to get us up faster than my mere two legs could manage. The family that owned him for his first two years kept him on a chain, and he was making up for lost time. He knew the top of the ridge was something wonderful, something that couldn’t wait. In that, he’s my brother in dog fur.
He still chases rabbits in his dreams. I’m watching him now: breathing heavily, paws moving in synchronized twitches. They’re going faster now. I close my eyes — just look at him go! He’s gaining on his prize. Long may he run.