I’d been studying the weather since the ten-day forecast, and the forecast was rain every time. There was no way around it. It was going to rain on opening day. The grass and lichen in the mountains would be wet and slippery, Winchester’s feathers would mat and clump instead of blow in the wind. The birds would be more difficult to smell. I’d have to wear a hat. A dog doesn’t know about the weather forecast, but he somehow knows when summer changes to fall one morning. In his seventh year, he becomes anxious and excited by all the signs of the coming day. I studied the weather and its limitations with the dead stare of someone who could no longer read the un-changing prediction, and Winchester studied me. There was nothing liberating about the weather outside of being in it. But the way he looked at me was something close to the look of love and hate – a call to action.
He got out of the truck and didn’t stop for five miles. They were his miles. He didn’t stop until he locked up in the square rocks at the back of the valley. We were still at the top of the first hill opening to the valley when he went on point. I usually took a break on the hill to catch my breath before the prospect of birds, but there wasn’t time. Not because Winchester wouldn’t hold, but because I couldn’t ponder at the speed it took to catch up to him. I wanted to have the silence of coming over the hill settle into me and then feel the softer sounds of the mountain come alive. I wanted the wind to carry the last flower smells of summer in the updraft before heading across the valley. I wanted what was before even though none of this occurred to me as well as the fact it wasn’t raining until much later.
The bird he pointed was a single white-tailed ptarmigan chick. It appeared larger when it flew, but even the stretching of its wings betrayed its infancy. My reluctance to shoot a bird so young at least had behind it the skill required to miss on purpose. Instead of fretting about the non-existent possibility of rain, my fretting turned to the fact that my inability to shoot too-small birds may ruin the day. When we reached the next level of rocks and peered back to the blue mountains in the distance, a momentary calm came over me until the lies I told myself started back up again. Winchester was on point. If the birds were small, I would miss again. My thoughts created a drag, a draining of energy from action.
This covey was also too young. It wasn’t important as much as my thoughts about it created a dullness. I made us sit together, and we looked out over the valley. His eyes were bright, and I followed where they led – to that remarkable place that doesn’t exist. It’s the world behind the world or something so real that it takes piercing eyes to see it. It’s everything that is possible if we just stop looking and live it. This wasn’t the time to lecture about what he didn’t understand. This was about what I didn’t understand. “Show me,” I said.
The back of the valley was surrounded by peaks we had never climbed. I let go of the weight anchoring me to fears of rain, exhaustion, running short on time, too-small birds, and too-small thinking. “Let’s follow that line,” I said. My partner had already figured a route. If we stayed to the side of the snowpack and the shale slides weren’t too steep, we could get out on top and look over. The rocks near the top appeared jagged from the other side of the valley, and it was impossible to know what we’d find. Winchester would find it first, no matter how many times we called him back as we made our slow ascent. The most I could imagine was a rocky peak over-looking the next valley. It would be cold and windy up there.
When we came over the top, it was nothing like I’d imagined. It was a wide-open field where the hoof print of caribou and sheep unearthed lichen and stirred the mountain soil. The edges were soft and bright white and lime green compared to the dark shale rock across the valley. It was a kind of floating heaven, and we both ran it. We ran across it, first just to run, then it occurred to me how badly I’d wanted to peer into the next valley.
At the edge, the updraft hit us with all the cold of the summer’s un-melted snow. The dark pit of the valley below held the jeweled lakes we climbed to on other days. Today they were far below us and spilling into streams. Above them loomed the last remnants of a glacier, I had never seen from below. It lay shipwrecked and scared in the jagged rocks below us. It was always there, for all the years we’d hunted beneath it, and we never knew.
Winchester was calm now. The tide had turned, and he sat the way he does. It’s a smart posture, like meditation. The wind beat loud against us, and it was the quietest we’d been all day. There was nothing to say, nothing to do. Just for that moment, all the stillness was below. No matter what anyone says about what a dog can see or what a dog can feel, there are moments when those two worlds come together.