First it’s the beauty of watching him run. There are all the marks of what would be an athlete if judged on the human scale. In the animal world, it is merely living unfettered by the chains of survival. Where the wolf or the coyote considers the efficiency of the chase, the hunting dog is let loose with a freedom to exhaust his powers. His endless drive doesn’t save for the starving months of winter but fasts on the bounty of wide open spaces. He finds invisible birds on the wind and spends every reserve of his body to hold them, to point.
At the age of 36, the mid-day sun on the mountain after hours of climbing gave me the feeling of being at the center of my life. It isn’t rational thinking that put me in the center. A divided calculation of life expectancy cannot give a feeling like that. The warmth and light of the sun and the way the snow in the mountains cut the blue sky gave me the feeling. The alert body of the dog a few feet away trembled to hunt while we took a break on a dry bank where last season’s blueberries had frozen and thawed.
“It’s a sin their life spans aren’t much longer,” a friend had said.
Winchester’s entire life would span only a portion of mine. No matter how much he stretched out in the mountains and ran up and down mountainsides that would take me an hour to cross on snowshoes without fear or faintness, no matter how he could out run me and out-live me in so many ways, when it came to a number of years, my sluggish life would drag on longer than his almost by the exact amount that he could outperform me in a daily accounting of miles.
My mother has not stopped imagining that someday she will hear the news that I’ve given up my stubbornness and decided to have children of my own. The conversations on the subject are like the distant noise of the highway while I am tucked away in a mountain valley. Somewhere, back in the modern world, the conversations are still happening between those who may have lost the vocabulary to express the stake we have in life no matter what is born or dies when it is what lives that matters.
We had held Winchester back as we climbed because we thought it would save his strength for when we were above tree line. Then, we surmised, we could let him run in the wide-open way that is his nature. The wind-blown snow had dried so that the surface formed a solid shelf of waves and beneath this crust was dry snow. We broke through on every step and had to pull the surface back up so that what was usually an hour hike took three hours. By the time we reached tree line, he had pointed three coveys and we had not fired a shot. Whether it was the noise of our approach or the will of the day, I’d like to think that there is a reason that some days no birds are taken.
Just before we rested, Winchester had stood overlooking the creek bed. The three of us watched over a hundred white birds sail past us against a background of snow. Their flight seemed not to have a sound or a wing beat. We were all three so enchanted that nothing seemed to happen except the birds passing in the same way the wind moved the dry snow in wisps and flurries. The light of the sun coming into the valley cast bird shadows on birds and willow branches, and even the shadows were white.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. We talked about going further up the valley to where it turned and opened into yet another valley over a rise. The other option was to hunt the creek bed back down and find the birds we had watched in the distance. We sat for a while and contemplated without conversing. That was what I loved – the day itself making the decision. We were in a place that did not have a waiting line or validation ticket. There was no goal. I’d like to think that’s why we didn’t shoot any birds. We didn’t need to.
The end of the season was two days away. Here I am, I thought, in the heart of life, and I must stop short. Winchester’s empty stomach and lean muscles still trembled, and the day was half over. We would descend into the creek valley. “Easy,” my partner said to Winchester. And I watched how he ran and checked himself in a choreographed manner – his front paws would switch back and forth then he would run again, stop, switch paws. I love this dog, I thought.
There was a message on my phone from my mother about spending more time with my family. There were birthdays and holidays that had been missed and would be missed. It was fine to not have children, but my solitude was at the expense of relationships and too much time away was “unhealthy.” Winchester was asleep in the back seat. The highway leading back to town had no treacherous passes or open fields. It was just a line of vehicles and a view out the window.
Was I chasing a dream or falling asleep at the wheel?
I was chasing a dream, damnit. And following a dog to get there. That day we had nearly broke ourselves and were too exhausted to say we were sorry. And we weren’t sorry. And we’ll do it again. For as long as each of us lives.