The old man struggles at the slow end of the leash as his 80 pound bulldog, Cochise, strains like a John Deere with a plow at the other; dragging them both up the steep, winding mountain path.
The path was once a crude dirt road; just a common access for owners of property on the undeveloped, upper portion of the mountain. For several years an occasional 4-wheel drive pick-up would trek up the mountain to release hunting dogs, cut firewood to haul home, or just enjoy a few hours sitting in the woods soaking up the solitude. Then, for a while only ATVs went up there to rip and snort along the path and tear new trails through virgin woods. The old man was glad when the kids lost interest in their new toys and stopped coming. Now, it had been a year or more since anyone went up the old road.
Only he and Cochise – occasionally his wife and a foster dog would accompany them a short ways; just to where it got steep – where the only ones to go up there. They managed to keep a path trampled down for a half mile or so up the main route and a few hundred feet along a branch road.
By the time they got to the first switch-back the old man’s heart is pounding and his lungs heaving the crisp cold October air in and out of his lungs. The cold burn is invigorating. The warm burn in the backs of his thighs feels good too. In years past he lifted weights to keep in shape and knew well the satisfaction of a good workout. But then age and deteriorating connective tissue put a stop to such heavy work.
The ground is strewn with gold, russet and brown leaves, building over the past few weeks from a sprinkling to a deep carpet. The loud crunching of their quick march up the road warns any critters of their approach and avoids a confrontation – or, normally it would. It rained hard last night and the leaves are tamped down into a sodden, slippery coating this morning.
Cochise lets out a sudden, “Grrouf!” and bolts ahead, practically wrenching the old man’s arm from his shoulder as he stumbles along behind just trying to keep his feet under him. He manages to look up the pathway in time to see a white shape bobbing along about 3 feet above ground. In the dim, early morning light it’s difficult to see much, especially under the tree canopy, but a flash of fawn colored fur and an eyeball finally identifies the object as a young deer bounding up the road a ways then turning and leaping into the forest. The creature slides between the saplings and disappears with nary a sound.
“So, that’s what you’ve been so excited about every morning, huh boy?”
Cochise stood, forepaws on the mound at the edge of the road, his gaze darting about trying to catch a glimpse of his alleged prey through the trees.
“You don’t want to tangle with a deer anyway, Cochise. They look sweet and helpless, but when cornered they can beat the daylights out of you AND me with those front hooves.”
The dog doesn’t understand the words, of course, but he seems to get the meaning. A slight tug on the leash and a, “Come on boy.” and Cochise obediently turns back onto the road and continues his trek upward.
The old man smiles; it wasn’t but a few months ago that Cochise came to stay with them as a foster dog with the Dogs in Danger pet rescue program. He’d been picked up as a stray and held at the animal shelter until he tested positive for heartworms. A death sentence for too many dogs. Fortunately the Shelter got funding from public donations to pay for the medications and the old man and his wife provided the care and quarters for his treatment and recovery process. When Cochise first arrived, taking him for a walk was a battle of wills that often stalemated with them at opposite ends of the leash glaring at one another and telegraphing through their squinting eyes, “We are going THIS way.”
“No, we are going THAT way!”
They often stood there for many minutes stubbornly staring one another down. A pocket full of dog treats, administered each time Cochise relented to the old man’s will, sped the training process. Now, most of the time Cochise is a pleasure to walk with, he leads well and obeys commands that keep him from putting the old man into dangerous situations.
They continue on to the fallen log that lies across the pathway and offers a convenient excuse for the old man to halt their travels in this direction. The first few times, Cochise bounded up onto and over the log as if to say, “Look, it’s easy to cross, see. Come on, let’s keep going!” but the old man’s refusal to clamber over the barrier brought his dog back over with a huff. Now he knows this is the limit. Some days he stands with his forelegs up on the log, looking and sniffing the dense packing grass on the other side, but accepts that this is as far as they’re going – at least until some fool with a chain saw comes and clears the way again!
They turn around and head back down the slope. In this portion of the trail there are few oak trees. Once they round the switchback again there are a lot of them and acorns dropped by these trees work like ball bearings under the man’s feet. Or did while the ground was dry and hard.
But before they get there, Cochise elects to take the left turn onto a spur road; the high route, the old fella calls it because the connection to the main trail is a 60° slope upward for about 20 feet. This path hasn’t been traveled in any way by anyone but these two and a few forest critters in a long time. The saplings have almost entirely reclaimed it; only a narrow winding path where their daily tramping and crushed the vegetation allows any passage at all. They don’t get far and another fallen log marks the end.
This one is small enough that the old man could step over it fairly easily, but the area beyond is so dense and congested with brambles that he has no desire to do so.
Cochise spends some time doing a detailed inspection of several plants, leaving his own scent before moving on to the next. Occasionally he finishes with an aggressive four-paw digging of the ground that effectively denudes it of vegetation and leaves deep striations in the dirt from his claws. The old man figures this is his way of saying to any passers by, “I am the mighty warrior, Cochise; chief of these woods. Do not enter here or I’ll do this to you too.” It’s a territorial thing. The old man lets him have his fun up on the trail, but puts a quick stop to it when on the lawn in their yard.
Heading back down, the old man is glad to find that the softer ground now allows the acorns and bits of stick to push into the ground and pose little danger of slipping. It was these acorns that caused him to hurt his knee and hip a couple of weeks ago, rolling under his weight-bearing foot as he stepped forward, causing him to have to slam his trailing foot back down or fall. The shock strained ligaments in his joints and hurt intensely until recently. They’re healing now, but this is what caused him to restrict their daily tromp up the old road from two, sometimes three times a day to just the one early morning trip.
It is Cochise’s need, after being crated all night, that causes him to double-time their ascent, determined to get to the furthest point he’s allowed before depositing his spoor. The return trip is always more sedate and Cochise sniffs his way along and gazes off into the woods. On clear days the sun is just coming over the mountain now and the rays of sunshine stabbing through the trees is a beautiful sight. Today the sky is overcast.
Once they exit the old road, Cochise turns aside and leads them along a perimeter walk around the two acres of cleared land where they all live. He inspects the bushes and freshens his markings. They loop around the house and up the slope on the other side to a play yard that was put in as a place for Cochise and their Foster dogs to romp without being on a leash. Fenced and gated, they can run to their hearts content without dragging the anchor of the old man along behind them.
The old man laughs as Cochise runs laps like a race horse around the fence, then tightens into for a couple of loops round his human companion, back out for another lap then gallops head-long toward the gate, skidding to a stop with his nose just brushing the juncture of gate and post. “OK, I’m done playing now, let’s go home.”
Back on the leash and a short walk to the house, a big dish of cool water awaits the exhausted canine. The old fellow gives him some dog treats, scratches his neck and says, “Good boy, good dog. He’s my boy.” Then a cushy pile of pillows and blankets beckons from within his crate. His room. His safe spot. HIS place. He walks in, circles a couple of times and drops down, curled up and ready for a snooze. But first, he shoots the old feller a look that says, “Thanks for the walk old man, I love you too.”