Bruce Willey - Reader Blog 5

Birkie at the Buttermilks. Photo by Bruce Willey /

Birkie at the Buttermilks. Photo by Bruce Willey /

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

In search of the perfect climbing dog

Give or take 15,000 years ago a feral dog decided to hell with hunting all day. Why not instead hang around groups of semi-sophisticated apes who use hunting clubs and flint arrows? In return for helping with a few chores such as locating their food and a few well-placed barks at the lions creeping around camp, the dogs could pick up a few meat scraps and leftover bones, not to mention far more time for long naps. The symbiosis worked all too well.

Leap forward to last week and this less than sophisticated ape, albeit one who uses Camalots and carabiners instead of clubs and arrows, found himself staring into the eyes of a lost dog out in the front yard. There are a lot of loose dogs in Big Pine (14 miles south of Bishop, CA) not to mention loose people, in this town of 1,300 souls or so. And this being a decidedly rural county many people have a dog or two. It cuts down on the loneliness.

I slowly walked up to the dog and stuck out my hand for the dog to smell. If I’d been more in tune with the canine mind I would have bent over and let him smell me properly. But thankfully my shoddy sense of smell spares me from such intimacy with strange dogs. The dog didn’t bite. It simply wagged its tail and lifted up its paw to shake.

Around the dog’s collar was a piece of rope, frayed and dirty. I figured it was a stray from the Indian reservation across Highway 395. The dog himself (after looking under the hood) was mottled gray and brown with big paws and an oversized head. I gave him a drink of water and he lapped it quickly, looking up at me with such kindness that I felt, at the risk of slipping poorly on a balmy patch of sentimentality, nothing short of an instant connection with the dog.

I figured the dog would have some water and then be on its way to wherever it was going. Leash laws? What be-damned leash laws? Most local dogs here are often seen doing what they wish, which to my human perception consists of a cat chase that goes hither and thither, a dip in glacier-fed creek or the Owens River and running to and fro for the good feel of it. This is probably entirely wrong. A lot of dogs, no doubt, are simply (or sophisticatedly) on the hunt for a good smell off a pole or a fence where they find the estrus of a heated, perhaps amenable bitch or the acrid testosterone levels of males indicating intent of territory. The 220 million scent cells per all-powerful nose (in comparison to our mere five million) must blissfully rapture them into the simple yet nimble world of dog.

Birkie cooling off near Big Pine. Photo by Bruce Willey /

Birkie cooling off near Big Pine. Photo by Bruce Willey /

But instead the dog stayed and followed me to my office in the backyard of the cottage. There, it laid down with a great sigh and preceded to ogle me while I worked. I looked over its coat (clean), its heavy tongue (healthy) and its glassy, somewhat foggy eyes (jaundice?!).

I Google-searched “dogs-glassy-eyes.” A few pecks down I noticed a small picture of a dog that looked much like the dog before me. From an animal shelter Website advertising the dogs they needed to give away, it pictured a Catahoula hound. Ah, would never have guessed. Never heard of the breed before having a childhood-based bias towards shepherds and experiencing the honor of knowing three of them growing up. For some reason I had resisted the urge to get another dog after I’d watched my Karla, a German Shepard, die a long painful death due to hip displacement. With dark thoughts now I hear her back claws dragging on the sidewalk. What was no doubt intense discomfort, even terrible pain, Karla insisted on taking a walk with me. We walked slowly at dusk, she behind me while I talked to her in quiet, reassuring tones. I found some grass and we sat down in the near darkness and I rubbed behind her ears. It was the last walk we would take.

That heart-wrenching story aside, dogs are a real hassle. It always perplexes, even dismays me a little, to see guy walking his dog with a plastic bag and a pooper-scooper. It calls into questions about who’s the owner, the master/dog continuum, and human dignity. Of course it’s the right and proper thing to do if you’re a dog-owner, the latter a term that completely justifies the good deed of picking up shit.

And I’m always on the move and home is not always where the heart is. It wouldn’t be fair, not to mention expensive, to crate around a dog cross country, sometimes across the Atlantic for all these climbing trips.

My Internet search for Catahoula hound yielded more information than I could take in one sitting, but I did learn a few things that stuck out. For one, the hound is Louisiana’s state dog and they have webbed feet, making them premier water dogs. The Spanish Conquistadors liked these Indian dogs so much they tried to trap and take them home to Spain. I was getting somewhere, and somehow the dog started looking better. That day I coaxed it in the truck and went climbing at the Buttermilk boulders above Bishop. The dog was hesitant at first, but soon was pulling off moves that would give a bighorn sheep pause. I began to really like this dog and by late afternoon gave it a name: Birkie, after Birch Mountain that rises above Big Pine. Wanted to keep it local. By nightfall I found myself negotiating the pet aisle at Vons (Grocery Store) where I found a confusing cornucopia of dog food for sale. What would “my” waiting dog like?

Photo by Bruce Willey /

Photo by Bruce Willey /

For five days we climbed, played fetch, swam in creeks and lakes, played fetch some more. I never became a dog-owner because Birkie insisted on taking a crap once he was on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power land. Birkie was never short on pure loveliness, he never begged for food or climbed on the furniture. At night he slept at the foot of our bed where we could hear him dream.

In case I was accused of dog-nabbing, I put up Found Dog signs at the grocery store and gas station. Finally, on the sixth day, in an effort to do right and perhaps get Birkie some shots and a license for his collar, I took him to the dog shelter. As it was someone had called, someone who knew his name, someone who would be right over to pick Birkie up. I threw a stick across the dirt parking lot of the shelter and then sat down waiting for Birkie to run back to my side. He liked to be petted on his large cheeks, then across the top of his head between his floppy ears. I sadly obliged, while looking down the road for his owner to show.

When the owner arrived in a Ford pick-up, Birkie didn’t even move when his rightful name was called. In fact, even though it’s only been a few dog-less weeks, I can’t recall what the man called his dog. But eventually Birkie was coaxed in the back of the truck. He didn’t even look back as they drove away. I went back in the shelter and the two women in the office recognized my sorrow. “We’ve got a few really nice dogs up for adoption,” one of them said. They trotted out some big dogs, the size of Birkie. “Let me think on it,” I said.

And I did. But I was unable to get Birkie out of my thoughts. Friends come and go, some for a few weeks, some for decades. It’s the sad truth of it all. Birkie had visited for a little less than five days, but in that time I could feel the earth going around the sun and had smelled the sagebrush with more clarity and perhaps canine clairvoyance than I had ever mustered. To me Birkie will always be lost in the sense of the J.R.R. Tolkien saw, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Only now I find it necessary to stop myself from walking around the neighborhood in the chance I discover Birkie tied up with crusty bit of rope; in case I find myself hugging a wandering friend in someone else’s backyard.