By Karen Elizabeth Land — originally published on November 22, 2001 in “The Great Falls Tribune.”
Barn’s burnt down —
now I can see the moon.
— Mizuta Masahide,
17th century Japanese poet
Witnessing the Montana sunset is a daily ritual for me. Usually as the sun slides behind the last rise, I am watering and feeding the sled dogs, tucking them in for the night. On September 11th, the beauty was overwhelming. The sunset seemed to last forever.
It is hard to imagine anything good ever coming from something so bad. I knew, on the other side of the country, the World Trade Center was burning. The pain and ugliness of the day weighed heavy in my mind as I went about my evening routine. It was the sunset that helped me to see the moment in a new light — a light both brilliant and reassuring. I became instantly aware of how beauty helps us heal and move forward.
We are lucky here in Montana. And I mean really lucky. Natural beauty is such a part of our lives that we sometimes forget it is all around us. We expect to see snow-peaked mountain ranges in the distance, shimmering fields of wheat, clear streams and herds of antelope grazing. I know I expect these things; that’s why I moved here from Indiana seven years ago.
Last week Borage and I returned to Indianapolis to speak in the schools about dog mushing and to attend an Iditarod fund-raiser that family and friends had organized for us. As soon as the news of the “girl dog musher from Montana” hit the media, my poor parents were bombarded with over 160 RSVP phone calls in just two days.
The residents of the city and suburbs were dying to hear and talk about dog mushing, Montana and Alaska, and “the wild.” Keeping my parents on the phone for hours, everyone seemed to be starving for the beauty that is our home here in Montana. They know wilderness exists here in our state and it seems to give them hope even if they might not ever run a team of sled dogs, hike the Bob Marshall, or float the Missouri River.
It was good to go back to Indiana and even better to come back home to Montana.
I have been back East dozens of times since I moved west, but this trip was different. I was reminded of my first pilgrimage to Montana seven years ago to attend school in Missoula. My rusted Chevy S-10 truck sagged under the weight of my entire life’s belongings, my two cats, and my dog Kirby. The beauty and endless space of Big Sky Country was exhilarating. I felt more alive than ever and so thankful to just be here.
Thanksgiving will have more meaning than ever this year. Sometimes it takes tragedy, ugliness, or a trip away from home to show us the beauty in our lives. In the natural world, aggression and darkness are always replaced with peace and light — I take comfort in this.
“The barn has burned down,” but all of us, anywhere in this world, can look up and see the moon.
It’s hard to believe that Romano, Bachelor #1, has been visiting with our string for a month now. I knew that trying to blend a “new” dog in with our well-established pack would be an experience full of ups and downs. I was tempted to write about the process as it unfolded, but I didn’t want my blog-published words to somehow set Romano’s fate. One day a new dog can seem like an angel dropped down from Heaven to remind you to live in the moment and keep you laughing. And the next day that same dog can seem like the devil incarnate, ransacking your once peaceful life with K9 neuroses and demands. After raising and training literally hundreds of sled dogs, I was prepared for the inevitable dramas — jealousies, bullying, resource-guarding, toy-hoarding, fights over anything from a rotten fish to a plush bed. Terry Adkins, my mushing mentor, and I always titled these soap opera moments: “As the Kennel Turns…”
Romano, known on this blog as Bachelor #1, was from the “cheese” litter. Born in 2003, I decided to name this family of eleven Alaskan Huskies after one of my favorite foods. Romano’s siblings were: Nacho, Colby, Cheddar, Jack, Gouda, Muenster, Tillamook, Whiz, Goat, and Stinky. This entire string of cheese was a joy to train, run, and race. I called them my hippie huskies — a completely laid-back bunch, they tail-wagged their way down rough trails and through many a Big Sky blizzard. When it came time for me to take a break from the 24/7 mushing lifestyle, I was fortunate to find the perfect new musher-parents for Whiz, Romano, and Stinky. Kristi and Dwight Gilliland of Billings, Montana, adopted them in 2007, often referring to the trio as The Cheese Brothers.
Looking out the window right now, I’m reminded of how often life loops back around on itself. Romano, now 11 years old, knows it’s going to be a hot afternoon. Lolo is lounging on her couch (a round, waterproof Cabelas dog bed that cost more than the 1970’s davenport I’m sitting on now), watching her cheese man excavate a trench big enough for two under the shade of the lilacs. Later on today, I will glance out the window and, most likely, discover them both stretched out like lazy lions in the cool dirt, dozing with their tail-ends touching.
But just two weeks ago, I was prepared to return Romano to Kristi. Bachelor #1’s presence was doing exactly what I hoped it would — making my lonely, heart-broken Lolo happy again — but there were other “issues.” Taking a sled dog from a larger kennel where he feels secure and part of a pack and moving him to an unfamiliar place is like escorting Crocodile Dundee through New York City. Romano had the perfect sled dog life as part of Kristi and Dwight’s string, and without his Cheese Brothers and the rest of their team, he feels vulnerable. Common things startle him. Strange people and noises — a flag flapping in the wind, children giggling, hip hop thumping from a car stereo — send him into a panic.
But I also knew the fix wasn’t as simple as returning Romano to his pack. Originally, Kristi thought Stinky would be the best match for the grieving Lolo and my mobile lifestyle. But sadly I never got the chance to try him out — a week before I was to pick him up, he started limping around the kennel. A soft muscle tumor was found on his back leg, and Kristi, knowing it was right to end his pain, was forced to put her sweet Stinky to sleep.
So, feeling it was best for Whiz to stay in a familiar place because he is losing his eyesight, Kristi called me up and asked, “Want to try out Romano?”
Visiting with Romano at the Gilliland’s home, I was thrilled to discover he’s still the same hippie husky I knew and loved 7 years earlier. But when I took him and my string for their first walk together in public at Livingston’s Sacajewea Park, Romano suffered a mental melt-down. Walking along a narrow dirt path sandwiched between a road and a steep, wooded bank dropping down into the Yellowstone River, Romano started off with typical sled dog enthusiasm, driving forward until he hit the end of my extendo-leash, and then leaning hard into his harness and dragging me down the trail like we were headed to Nome. I was thrilled to see my group settle into a natural line-up: Romano leading the way, Chloe staying right at his heels, Jigs trotting along like he’s competing for Best-of-Show at Westminster, followed by the keeper-of-the-kibble (me), and then, finally, Lolo (my 2004 Iditarod LEAD DOG… she declared retirement years ago).
What a fine string, I was thinking to myself at the exact moment a runner charged up the embankment, turning onto the trail, heading towards us. When Romano saw a human wearing a baseball cap, black sunglasses, and purple spandex charging directly at him, he shifted in reverse so fast I didn’t have a second to respond. He scurried backwards, running over Chloe, around Jigs, past me and Lolo until he hit the end of the extendo-leash in the opposite direction. But Romano didn’t just stop there, he thrashed about until he peeled the harness over his shoulders and head, and then once free, he fled for his life, running as fast as he could away from the woman jogger who didn’t slow down until I pleaded, “Please, STOP! He thinks you’re chasing him!”
“Why does he think that?” Romano’s purple predator asked me, but I didn’t have time to answer. By this point, Romano had already leaped down the hill, disappearing into the heavy brush along the Yellowstone River. My mind raced, imagining Romano dead on the road, or disappearing into the heart of a strange town, never to be found again. He doesn’t even know me, I thought, thinking of the 7-year lapse in our relationship.
It’s a natural instinct to want to chase a dog who’s running away from you, but I decided right at that moment I just needed to STOP. It was a difficult thing to make myself do, but I kneeled down in the middle of the path. My other three dogs, confused by my strange behavior, were thrilled to have me at eye level, and they danced and circled around me until I was hog-tied by three 18-foot leads. I sat there and waited for what seemed like forever, my eyes locked on the empty trail ahead.
And then… finally… Romano popped his head out of the tall weeds. He looked up the trail and saw no one. And then he looked back down the trail and saw me parked there, bound and practically gagged by the rest of my string. Lifting his head high, his expression lit up with recognition. He bounded towards us at full speed, slamming his 66-lb. body straight into the middle of the pack.
I wish I could say this first stressful experience with Romano/Crocodile Dundee was my last. But Romano continued to have major panic attacks in public. And Lolo’s nervous nature was wearing off on him, making him even more leery of the outside world. I didn’t let that stop me though. Wanting to socialize him, I walked him at city parks in Bozeman, Livingston, White Sulphur Springs, and Harlowton. I made him sit and watch kids making crafts at a summer camp. The poor boy was miserable the entire time, worried that all of these miniature humans — with their endless laughter and screams — were out to murder him with dreamcatchers. That’s when I called Kristi and said, “I don’t think it’s going to work…”
I felt miserable making the decision to send Romano back. I knew he loved our hikes in the mountains. And he lives for daily car rides in the Rav just like my beloved Borage once did. Lolo and him were working out as companions, even sleeping together in the same Dogloo at night. And to my amazement, even Jigs seemed to enjoy his company. I was prepared for the usual fights over food and deer legs and my attention, and they never happened. Yet still, knowing how much I travel, Romano’s fear of the big new world seemed like a deal-breaker. I didn’t want to torture the old man.
The day after I decided to send Romano back to Kristi’s kennel, I took him and the rest of my string out to the Martinsdale Reservoir. On a whim, I decided to let him run free for the first time ever (on purpose). Much to my surprise, I unclipped his leash and he stayed right with me, trotting a few yards ahead but then turning around to make sure I was still there. My heart sank even lower. How can I return such sweet dog?
The next day I went to Livingston to shop, and I stopped at Sacajewea Park to take the dogs on a quick walk-about. Something came over me, and I decided to let Romano go loose. Walk yourself… I told him as I released him from the back of the Rav. He paused and looked straight at me before he jumped out of the car, and then he trotted off down the trail, leading the string towards our favorite spot — an active osprey nest along the Yellowstone River. Moving so easily down the busy path, it took me minutes to realize what was happening. Romano was watching everything — bikers on the road, hikers on the trail, rafters in the river — but he wasn’t freaking out. Processing it all at a comfortable distance and his own pace, I witnessed him growing braver by the moment.
A few days later out on the Martinsdale reservoir, Romano stood on the rocky beach and stared at a fishing boat. With his head held high and his pointy ears pricked forward, he examined the bizarre object trolling across the lake; he listened to the voices of the boat’s occupants, the muffled laughter carrying so far across the water. I sat down next to him on a smooth slab of stone and waited. After 10 long minutes, Romano finally turned his attention from the curious object and looked straight in my eyes. “That’s a boat…” I told him. He pushed his big head into my lap and wagged his tail. And then he turned away from me, loping off to catch up with the rest of my string — with the rest of his string.
After Ravioli died last Sunday on a lonely stretch of Montana highway, my mechanic turned the ignition and immediately declared the three dreaded words, “broken timing belt.” I am a Toyota-owner devoted to taking my 1999 Rav 4 for the long haul. “Wouldn’t it be cool to hit 500,000 miles?” I often tell my friends and family, excited by the possibility that my vehicle is just now hitting middle-age. Only a very few select people (mostly mechanics) get as excited as I do when I talk of testing the endurance of my little SUV-that-could.
During the 12 hours between having Ravioli towed to White Sulphur Springs and getting the call from my mechanic detailing the extent of the damage, I was overwhelmed with a strange sadness. A giant hunk of metal, plastic, rubber, grease, and glass shouldn’t make me so emotional, yet it does. Some of the best times in my life were spent road-tripping with my mom in this vehicle. Driving down the highway, I can still picture her sitting there next to me, her purse tucked between her feet on the floor, a dog draped over her lap. I spot an old farm house, or some flowers, or a dog, or a train and I long for my parents — they both loved to take drives just to “look at things.” What I wouldn’t give to have them back in these seats for just one more trip down to Greensburg, me half-watching the road and half-looking where they point, hearing their voices saying, “Look over there…”
I know that cars don’t DIE — they just break, they stop working. We have the option to move onto something newer, better… or we can repair what we love. If only the rest of life worked that way. “You’re in luck,” my mechanic told me when he called the next morning. “Ravioli has a non-interference engine. Most new cars have interference engines which means that when a timing belt breaks it usually does serious damage. My dear, Ravioli just needs a new belt… and she’s ready to roll again.”
It’s silly, I know, but I teared up when he told me the news. Non-interference — I like the sound of that.
On Monday, I took Lolo to the veterinarian. My instinct tells me that my 14-year old retired Iditarod lead dog is not “sick”, but continues to mourn the loss of her companion, Borage. And that her vomiting, acid reflux, and loss of appetite stem from grief and loneliness, not cancer or some other physical disease. Monday morning wasn’t much different than any other since I returned to Martinsdale 3 weeks ago — I fed Lolo just a small amount, she ate, howled for 20 minutes straight, and then vomited her breakfast back up. She looked miserable standing there in the front yard with her head hung low — so alone, and now so sick. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed an expert to confirm my diagnosis.
I recognize the symptoms of a broken heart. In the last two years, I’ve lost both of my parents; my good friend and mentor, Carol Meeks; and my dog, Borage. I, myself, have struggled with a long list of ailments such as disturbing heart palpitations, interstitial cystitis, acid reflux, abdominal pain, ulcers, weight loss. These are real medical conditions causing great discomfort. And I won’t deny that I often feel sad, anxious, and alone just like Lolo does. But how do you separate despair and disease? Thankfully, I have the human ability to talk it all through with medical doctors and therapists, and then come up with a plan that can be adjusted along the way. But how do you help a grieving animal?
In my parents’ living room in Indianapolis, a framed print hangs above their couch depicting a dog greeting passengers unloading from a train. My parents loved dogs, trains, and Montana so when we visited Fort Benton in 2001, all three of us were drawn to the story of “Shep.”
According to historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center and the Missoulian, “Shep first appeared in Fort Benton in August 1936 when his owner, an area sheepherder whose name has been lost to history, was brought mortally ill to the St. Clare Hospital. After the sheepherder passed, his body was sent by train to his family back east. Shep was left behind, but for the next 5 1/2 years he lived under the platform of the Fort Benton train station, patiently waiting for his long-dead master to return.”
I think of “Shep” now as I watch Lolo out in the yard, pacing back and forth in front of the gate. The day I realized it was time to end Borage’s suffering and put him to sleep, my lifelong friend (and veterinarian), Dr. Shannon Kiley, suggested that I bring Lolo with me so she could see and smell his body before they took him away. We all knew Lolo would be lost without Borage, but we hoped this might help. I did as Shannon said and allowed Lolo to sniff her mate’s thick fur for one last time.
Sometimes witnessing the death of a loved one still isn’t enough proof that he or she is truly gone. I often wake in the mornings and feel for a brief moment that my parents and Carol and Borage are still here. For humans and dogs, long-term grief thrashes the body with highs and lows. One minute I might finally feel some peace — but then out of nowhere sadness slams me hard from a new direction. I cry. Lolo howls. Sometimes we do it together.
Dr. Katherine Parks, my Montana veterinarian based in Harlowton, declared Lolo to be in amazing physical shape for a 14-year old dog. “She’s so nervous, yet her heart rate is really low,” Dr. Parks noted, impressed with the athletic physiology of Alaskan Husky sled dogs. The thorough exam revealed nothing — the blood work came back perfect. “I would start her on a famotidine for her stomach acid problem. And for her nerves, you could try some anti-anxiety meds. Or try to find her a new friend,” Dr. Parks suggested. “One or all of these things might help… or not.”
In other words, you can never replace a loved one. But for me, continuing to live means continuing to try — I’m not giving up on Lolo. I cry. She howls. We both take Pepcid twice a day. And then we take a hike… our doctors’ orders.
In August 2011, I stopped letting Borage, Jigs, Chloe, and Lolo run free. To many, this might not seem like a big deal. Deciding to walk your dogs on leashes instead of allowing them to run wild… who cares? But in my life, the decision to restrain my dogs, snapping long extended leads to their collars before each and every hike, marked a major shift in how I navigate life. It all boiled down to one emotion — fear. I was terrified. That summer, both of my parents were dying in front of me. Together, we had already endured a year of cancer, but nothing was going right. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, infections, middle-of-the-night ER visits — if one more bad thing happened to someone I love, I feared I wouldn’t be able to take it.
I could be my parents’ constant caregivers, but I could not stop disease from ravaging their bodies. I longed for control — of anything. By making my dogs walk close at my side, I could prevent them from getting lost in the woods or hurt by a wild animal. I could keep them from being swept away by a swollen river. Before my parents became ill, one of my main joys was allowing my dogs to be dogs. I would arrive at a trailhead and open every car door, releasing them to the wilderness. Exploring forests, chasing critters, swimming in clear Montana waters — for 20 years, I cherished those pure moments with all of my dogs (Kirby, Rosa, Adeline, Borage, Jigs, Chloe, Lolo… and dozens more sled dogs).
Knowing what I now know, how do I go back? How do I calm the what if’s? How do I let go of those I love? I think, just maybe, some of the answers might be in the dogs themselves. Jigs, Chloe, and Lolo continue to drag me on down the trail, reminding me that life is not experienced in the later… but in the now. And that the best kind of love happens when you let go of the leash. Thankfully, they’re patient.