Life and Death With My Best Friend, Part I
May 11, 2011
Not too long ago the National Steinbeck Center staged a Travels With Charley Story Contest that asked authors to pen their favorite rambling adventure with a canine companion.
Weekly contributor Corby Anderson took top prize. In the first of a two part series—Life and Death With My Best Friend—here's a look at the piece that won it, and speaks to how much fun the two of them had together. The second installment will come in the form of a poem that explores how Anderson was able to say goodbye to a special dog he loved dearly.
Grin and Bear It • By Corby Anderson
Beardog heard it first, as always. I was lost in a dream, chasing a fleeting strip of bacon through a swaying sea of corn silk. Good Bear and his own golden ears picked up on the rumble and rustled me with a serious-sounding growl just before a midnight flash flood ran in dark torrents past our campsite deep in Utah’s Lockhardt Canyon.
The flood arrived in an explosive, headlong clamor. Boulders smashed together in thunderous cracks and caromed down the otherwise dry wash just below where I had perched our tent earlier that day. Bear whined and howled at the sudden noise, but after some time had passed—impossible to know how much, as I had no watch, nor did I want one—we both fell back to sleep in the rain-dampened tent, lulled by the pattering rain on the fly and the rushing clatter of the brand new river.
It was our yearly desert foray, a time for harried man and hairy dog alike to commune with the rocks and sand, to stare sideways at Utah’s cantaloupe-hued hoodoos and hobgoblins, to scramble down cliff bands and up steep drainages to the canyons rim. It was my down time, barely sufficient in my allotted one week of solitude to clear my head of the thought-pervading technology that possessed it in my workaday life.
Bear, the mystery mutt whom I had volunteered to raise up in an attempt to win over the stony heart of a hippie princess in Boone, North Carolina, 10 years prior, was the ever-eager co-pilot, requiring for sustenance only the long exploratory hikes into the thorn-bound wilderness, a portion of whatever slop was for supper, a dented tin saucer of sandy water, and a warm fire to lay beside at night while an mal-tuned guitar plunked in its familiar whiskey rhythm.
We awoke to find the path that we had driven in on—the arroyo—completely washed out by the flood, a situation that persisted for four striking days. On the third of those, my truck battery died, an unfortunate situation in some regards—since wife and work were expecting me, us, back to their civilization sooner than the wilds would allow—but in other ways not. I was stocked with enough canned food, water and beer for a week or more.
Thoroughly isolated, there was nothing for us to do but play. And so we did, with gusto. We chased lizards, mapped stars, made up ridiculous songs about fleas and sticks, and barked profound declarations into the night.
When the urge struck, I wrote languorously in my journal while Bear napped in the scrape in the dirt. Or I napped and Bear sat alertly, defending our nest from wrongheaded buzzards and flies and long-tailed mice. Once a day I sat in the dirt and drew pen sketches of the monocline, and each time, as if keeping a schedule, Bear, as he is wont to do, wrestled with mud-stuck rocks in the now-trickling creek.
On the morning of the fourth post-flood day, a white Jeep appeared down canyon. I was nude at the time and wading in the creek (why not?), so I ducked behind a rock and slipped into my grungy shorts and a sweat-salted T-shirt to run out to meet the Jeep at the head of the camp.
It was the sheriff, and in his Jeep were two lawyers from Boston, out to visit the scene of a recent death in the area. Dehydration. Outward Bound student. Lawsuits were piling up, and these men were there to investigate.
They were as shocked to see me as I was them. Bear wagged his tail and growled at the same time, his emotions as mixed as his genes.
“What are you doing out here? Don’t you know that this is one of the most remote places in the country?” the lawyer in the front seat howled.
The one in the back leaned out and jammed a video camera in my face.
“Sure. That’s why we’re here,” I replied, grinning through cultivated whiskers. “Can I offer you boys a cold Coke?” They accepted in sun-sapped unison.
I went to get the soda bottles, which were still perfectly cold in the cooler that was tucked away in a shady nook of deep maroon sandstone, although my ice was long gone.
“That’s that gray shade Davis talked bout,” one of the Boston lawyers said excitedly to the other, pointing at the crease in the rock where my cooler lived. The second lawyer snapped a photo of my cooler.
With cables I had already pre-staged in hopes of eventual rescue, the Sheriff jump-started my truck. Once it was alive again, I left the old Ford running while I packed up camp, just in case. No sense in pushing my luck. The investigation expedition disappeared up into the canyon, and Bear and I had one last game of fetch with a forearm-sized chunk of gnarled grey pinon.
I looked around and decided that this place is where I’d like to rest when it’s all over—somewhere quiet, open and unspoiled.
“Well, old buddy, I guess we’d better get back home,” I said. “Load on up.” The tired dog leapt into the passenger seat with the ancient stick still in his mouth. When I got in he dropped it in my lap, and looked up at me with an expression of what had to be absolute contentment.
“We’ll get lost somewhere good next year,” I said, scratching his dusty brown head as we bounced and slid back down the muddy wash.
Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who has frequently contributed to the Monterey County Weekly. After three years on the coast, Anderson ended his California exile and recently returned to his long-time home base of the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado. His collected stories, essays, poems and musings can be found at www.corbyanderson.wordpress.com