Jigs

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Harlowton, Montana Fairgrounds

1) Fact: On August 16th, I loaded my string of dogs (Jigs, Chloe, Lolo, and Romano) and gear into my Toyota Ravioli and hit the highway headed for Indiana. I was sad to leave Montana in the middle of a perfect Big Sky summer, but knew I had many things to do back “home.” At age 43, I have spent half my life in Indiana and the other half in Montana. Some days when I feel divided between two places, I remind myself how lucky I am to have two homes with people I love at both ends… I guess this also fits into the good fortune category.

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Crow Fair 2014

2) Good fortune: On our road trip, I cut through the Crow Nation, rounded a bend, and witnessed a stunning sight — a white-capped sea of teepees rose up from the rolling Montana grasslands. I had stumbled upon the 96th annual Crow Fair, one of the largest modern day American Indian encampments in the nation. Over 1500 teepees are erected near the Little Big Horn River each year, making the Crow Fair “the teepee capitol of the world.” Next year, I plan to return to watch the pow-wow, parade, and rodeo. Plus, I really want to see the Indian Relay. After watching the gorgeous Independent Lens documentary, Indian Relay, on PBS, I would love to experience the horses, riders, and action firsthand. Go to http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/indian-relay/ to learn more, and click on WATCH VIDEO to view the 55-minute documentary for free.

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Romano… a dog with too many opinions

3) Fact: Romano, the new edition to our string, often howls when I tune my car radio to classical or country music stations. I have yet to determine if this means he really likes classical and country… or he can’t stand classical and country. My other three dogs are silent in the vehicle — you wouldn’t even know they’re in the back seat unless you turned around. Romano attempts to harmonize to the music, and talks to me when he thinks it’s time to stop for a walk. If he wasn’t so cute, he’d be very annoying.

 

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Indiana sunset

3) Fact: After putting another 1800 miles on Ravioli, the String and I crossed the Indiana line on Tuesday evening. Indy was having an unseasonably cool summer until we pulled into town. Now it is in the 80’s with high humidity. The daily lightning and thunder storms have been intense. Romano lets me know hours in advance that weather is moving in… the poor guy goes manic running laps around the yard, whining, trembling all over, and trying to climb the gate. Thankfully, I know that when the temperature drops low enough, he’ll always calm down if I let him sit in Ravioli — Romano loves his car. I leave the windows wide open (even if it’s raining), and have two Ryobi fans blowing on him to keep him cool and also add some soothing white noise. When it’s cold enough, I’ll try a Thundershirt on him.

The Toyota Ravioli parked at a cemetery in Texas back when she was just a pup  at only 150,000 miles. Pig, my great Iditarod lead dog, is on the left, Jigs in the center, and Borage to the right.

At only 150,000 miles, the Toyota Ravioli, parked at a cemetery in Kansas, was just a toddler in this photo. Pig, my brilliant Iditarod lead dog, is on the left, Jigs in the center, and Borage to the right. Pig and Borage now travel with the String in spirit…

4) VERY good fortune: My beloved 1999 Ravioli waited until after our 1800-mile road trip was over to blow a leak in its original radiator. When I pulled into a restaurant just miles from my Indy home, I noticed coolant spraying from the front of the vehicle. I couldn’t help but laugh, feeling so fortunate this did not happen in the middle of South Dakota. And then the next day, as if to reinforce how lucky I really am, I got a flat tire on my way to the mechanic!?! I tried to remove the car jack so I could change the tire, but the bolt holding the car jack in place under my seat was rusted tight (I usually carry a larger jack but took it out of the Rav in MT because I had no spare room). A can of Fix-A-Flat given to me as a going-away present by a friend saved the day. I inflated the tire and drove a few miles to Indy Tire for a patch job. The man who worked at the front counter said, “I’ve never seen someone with a flat tire so happy.” And I was happy… feeling oh, so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time once again. They repaired the 3-month old tire, and used a large wrench to loosen the frozen bolt on the jack, oiling the threads so it will be ready when I need it again. Just as I pulled away from Indy Tire, the Great Ravioli’s odometer rolled over to: 276,000 miles.

 

 

 

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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 stringand 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.

 

DSCF1367TRUSTING YOUR NEIGHBOR… one of the many reasons I love small-town Montana.

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Jigs wasn’t happy when I made him put out his cigar… AND wait in the car.

DSCF1363An early evening in Livingston, Montana — taking home organic baby kale, broccoli, sugar snap peas, Flathead cherries, and a bag of kettle corn for the drive back to Martinsdale.

Chloe (left) and Jigs lead the 2014 summer solstice hike up Pasture Gulch.

Chloe (left) and Jigs lead the 2014 summer solstice hike up Pasture Gulch.

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 — fearI 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.

Lolo, my once-Iditarod-lead-dog, now slinks  along close behind me as my white shadow.

Lolo, my once-Iditarod-lead-dog, now known as my white shadow.

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.

... or is it Big Sky country?

… or is it Big Sky Country?

 

Somehow we’ve made it through one entire week back home in Montana without any major “Jigs incidents” — knock on wood. For Jigs, making it 7 days in a row without getting sprayed by a skunk or tangled up with a porcupine or stepping on a rattlesnake is a major miracle. My good fortune so far has little to do with Jigs’ improved behavior, and more to do with the fact that I’ve been hiking with him on a leash. But today, no extendo-lead was going to protect me from my terrier’s favorite Montana activity. When Jigs spots a steaming cow patty on the trail (before I do) he lunges straight towards it, ducking his head and somersaulting into the watery pile with the same enthusiasm as a teenager cannon-balling into a swimming pool. And he doesn’t stop there. He squirms back and forth on his back until his wiry coat has completely absorbed the soupy flop. When he finally stands up, the cow dung quick-dries in the wind, leaving my cuddly bedmate encrusted from head to toe. This is nothing new — I know this about Jigs — yet my time away dampened the stinking memory. After needing to give Jigs two hose-downs in one day, it’s all come back to me now. Montana is Big Cow (Pie) Country…

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A meadow muffin-maker takes a siesta.

Lolo (left) and Pig taking a snack break just 20 miles from the 2004 Iditarod finish line

Lolo (left) and Pig taking a snack break just 20 miles from the 2004 Iditarod finish line

Lolo is waiting in the Rav. After pacing the length of my yard for an hour, I decided to give the poor girl a break. It’s 50 degrees here in Martinsdale, and a steady breeze pushes the cool Montana air through the wide-open car windows. Glancing at the vehicle parked in front of my house, no one would know a dog’s in there. Lolo sleeps curled up in the backseat.

Since Lolo was a tiny pup, she’s been a little bit “different.” Hyper-alert, serious, always wanting to please — these characteristics make for a good lead dog, and that’s what Lolo became after I bought her for $100. Terry Adkins — annoyed by Lolo’s spooky, yet stubborn nature — didn’t want to waste his time on her. “Good luck…” he said, taking the check from my hand. “Thanks… I’ll need it,” I replied, restraining my excitement for fear Terry would change his mind.

Lolo (left) and Pig lead us off of Norton Sound onto the main street of Nome, Alaska. 2004

Lolo (left) and Pig lead us off of Norton Sound onto the main street of Nome, Alaska. 2004

I made that purchase over 13 years ago. Today is Lolo’s 14th birthday. Like my beloved Borage, she was born in the year 2000. I witnessed both of their births. Sadly, Borage did not make it to June 13, 2014, which would have been his 14th birthday, too. Even Lolo seems to sense it is a bittersweet time. Or, more realistically, Lolo still grieves her loss. Borage was her buddy, her constant sidekick. Lolo likes my little dogs, yet her behavior shows she longs for something more. Sled dogs know their own. They were raised in a giant pack, fed raw meat, trained as working dogs. They ran literally thousands of miles together. When one member of a string passes, the others feel as if they’ve lost a limb… or a heart. I know — that’s how I’ve felt since March 11th, the day I had to put Borage to sleep.

The last time Lolo and Borage were together here at the Martinsdale house, June 2013.

The last time Lolo and Borage were together here at the Martinsdale house, June 2013.

After Borage died, Lolo howled for weeks. The only time she stopped her mournful crying was when I put her in the car. Sitting in her usual place, right behind the driver’s seat, she feels safe. Like Borage always did, Lolo loves the Rav. Whenever I hear her wailing out in the yard, or see her trotting the fenceline, I know it’s time to open the car door and say, “Load up!” Lolo no longer leads an Iditarod sled dog team. Her friend, Borage, is gone. But inside our car, Lolo knows she’s still part of a string. And that I’ll be out to join her soon, loading up Jigs and Chloe, taking us all somewhere good, for a long walk together. 

Lolo ready to go to the Martinsdale Reservoir for her 14th birthday.

Lolo ready to go to the Martinsdale Reservoir for her 14th birthday.

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A magnet stuck to the bottom of my refrigerator door says: “It’s all fun and games until somebody ends up in a cone.” When my friend, Brenda, and I spotted this Truth next to a photo of a terrier haloed by the giant white “cone of shame,” we both laughed. In my world, this scene is all too familiar. I, literally, own 13 e-collars (FYI… it’s never a good idea to spay or neuter 13 crazy sled dogs all on the same day… but that’s another story). Sadly, my 25-lb. German Jagd Terrier, Jigs, has ended up in the “cone of shame” more times than all of my sled dogs combined. “You need this…” Brenda said, pulling the magnet off the counter display at the bookstore and handing it to the cashier. “Hang it really low on the frig… so The Terri-orist can see it.”

I’m always amazed how one small (adorable) dog can throw such a big wrench in my plans. Jigs is known for making poor choices — he’s a terrier, he can’t help it — and I have to watch him.

This last Monday as I was preparing to leave Indy for Montana the next morning — doing laundry and gathering camping gear and loading my car while visiting with Brenda —  I left Jigs and Chloe and Lolo in my 3/4 acre backyard. Jigs turned 12 years old in March so sometimes I forget that my little gray-muzzled man can turn into a steel-eyed predator at any moment. Just as I was walking Brenda to her car, we saw a snarling tornado of fur and teeth moving across the grass. I recognized bits and pieces of Jigs and Chloe and Lolo in the twisted mess. Thankfully, Brenda and I were right there. As always I went straight for the terrier, snatching the wiry beast from the pile (please, SERIOUSLY, do not try this at home), and carrying him — still squirming and growling — back to the garage by his scruff.

“What the heck was that about?” I asked Brenda, as she looked over Chloe and Lolo for wounds. I did the same with Jigs, finding several punctures on his back leg. Jigs usually starts things, but then ends up the only dog wearing “the cone of shame.” I wish he’d learn, I always think after a scuffle. Dog fights evoke terror. For an hour, my heart pounded in my head, my hands trembled. I worry for those I love.

A plump, drool-drenched squirrel found in the yard answered our questions. Without a speaking witness, it’s difficult to know who caught the rodent; all three of the dogs are skilled hunters (lucky me). It’s a dog’s nature to want something so pungent, warm, bloody. My dogs are animals — I know this. I must remind myself to treat them that way. But sometimes they’re so cute I forget…

I decided to postpone my trip for a day to make sure Jigs did not need vet care. One hole about the width of a pencil could have taken a stitch… or not. I gave Jigs a painkiller, some antibiotics, and we plopped down on the couch. He slept in a ball on my lap as I read, checked emails. That’s when I experienced the second shock of the day. A message in my Inbox read: GOOD NEWS FROM THE IOWA STATE MFA PROGRAM! I was asked to contact you right away because we have good news for you. We are able to make you an admission and TA offer to join the MFA Creative Writing and the Environment program at Iowa State after all…

For the second time that day, my heart surged in my chest, my hands shook — but this time for positive reasons. I postponed my departure date for several more days.  So much to consider…