We hit the road last weekend: central New Hampshire to Pittsburg, PA, and back. We drove from one green spot on the map to the next, checked out all sorts of pretty little forest roads and trails, and then on the return drive, stopped at the AT just past Bennington, VT. Many miles still lay ahead of us, but those rocks and white blazes felt an awful lot like home.
Or late-winter, depending on your point of view. But it is 84 degrees out there right now! This is, just for the record, about 20 degrees too many.
But it is nice to feel the sun.
The truth is that I’ve meant to write here for weeks. I would compose posts in my head and then never actually sit down and write them because their content, whatever it was, paled next to the reality that my dogs just were not doing well. Which is its own deeply infuriating saga that I’m not going to detail here except to say that I ended up rage-quitting most of the specialists in favor of our local vet clinic. This flies in the face of my every instinct when dealing with lameness — but it seems to be working for now, and at least doesn’t make me so frustrated with not being heard that I want to scream and hit things.
Then there was a few weeks of silence when everyone was, it looked like, doing well and I was afraid to say anything and jinx it. And finally, as I began at last to believe that we were on the right track and at least to breathe again, a stretch of time when I couldn’t be bothered to write because I was too busy enjoying my dogs again.
So we’re hiking! Sort of. We’re taking it very, very, glacially slow. We’re toddling. Tinyhikes. Two miles. Maybe three. No significant terrain or elevation change. Just decompression walks in the woods.
We’re also training a bit more. Playing a bit more. Flirting with nosework. Hanging out on the porch in the sun.
And Sunday was apparently opening day for cattlefrog wallowing season. So there’s that!
I feel like we lost the winter and like, in so many ways, we’re right back where we started a year and change ago, except that this go-round it’s not only Titus who is unfit and out of practice! But I think we understand each other better now, and we’re finding all sorts of interesting new places to stroll that meet our current needs, and it’s been a long cold winter, but now the sun is out again.
At the end of his tinyhike today, Titus sat by my feet and gave me his classic, “Aren’t we so lucky?!? Isn’t this great!?!” grin.
That’s what the first vet who saw Titus back when this whole saga started said at that first lameness appointment, as I gave what has become a standard apology for him not being the very best patient in the world: “I know handling skills are important. We’re working on it. He’s touch-sensitive and hasn’t been with me long enough to have made much progress yet.” Now I add, “And he’s been poked and prodded a lot recently.”
“You’re doing a really good job.”
I could have hugged her. I kind of wish that I had.
It’s been interesting — in a really unpleasant way — to watch how reactions have changed since then, when I walked in with an anxious but fit and clearly in-training dog. It’s been a rough going-on-eight months. No one is fit now. Everyone is rusty. I’m pushing harder for answers on relatively mild but persistent not quite rightness that, I guess, most people would let go.
And everyone, it turns out, has an opinion.
Everyone has expectations.
Here is a short list of things that I’ve been questioned, challenged, and/or outright shamed about during Titus’s recovery and Lilo’s various events. Sticking by Titus. Trying to fix him. Not giving up on his athletic future. What I feed my dogs and how much (that last repeatedly by someone who had no idea how little). What I give them to chew on. (There is literally nothing you can give a dog to chew on that someone, somewhere, will not shame you for.) Doing too much with a rehabbing dog. Not doing enough. Using Trazodone. Letting him be too active. The degradation of training and manners. Accepting delayed loss of the extra weight in the name of actually getting some training done.
A short list. I could go on.
(I’d add especially, Not spending enough time with either dog, but that one, I mostly do to myself.)
And the thing is, I understand where every single person who said every single one of those things was coming from, just about. They all have points and concerns that are valid enough on their face. They’re all noting things that are more or less true.
But you guys, I just don’t care.
Shame is a terrible way to teach or encourage.
And doubt is a terrible way to show support.
I’m not against discussions or questions or disagreement. I’ve also had wonderful, heartening and healing, useful conversations with people whose perspectives and priorities differed from mine. I’ve even changed my mind and behavior more than once.
The difference is, those came from a place of support not conditioned on whether I was doing what they thought that I should. Those were with people who said, or clearly meant, “You’re doing a really good job,” before we talked about how to do better. Those were the conversations that kept my chin up when the other kind, even when I held my own and pushed back, crushed me flat.
I don’t have some earth-shattering conclusion here. Just, this stuff is hard enough on its own, I guess. For values of “this stuff” that include “loving a dog who is struggling” but also just “being a human being in the world.”
It has made me kinder, I think, and more willing to stand up for my dogs and myself, and more willing to believe that other people are doing the best that they can.
One by one each fall, the USFS seasonal forest roads close. One by one again in the spring, they’ll reemerge from under layers of ice, snow, and mud and open back up again. In between, they belong to skiers, snowmobiles, and hikers who — mostly — are resigned to the extra miles in pursuit of winter peaks.
And, on Sunday, to me and the dogs.
Zealand Mountain and its environs are very, very special to me. There’s a little bit of everything — beaver ponds, waterfalls, dramatic views from cliff and through notch, and interesting, ever-changing forest — in a relatively small area and somehow whenever I visit, it feels like exactly where I need to be. Lilo and I did a neighboring peak together and descended the long way, via a ridge walk and past Zealand Hut and then the road a ways back to our car during the height of foliage season. I remember thinking in astonishment and joy that even the road walk was beautiful.
Hiking North Sugarloaf in December (I never wrote it up, but that’s where the pictures in the New Year’s hopes post came from) required walking the first part of the road and demonstrated for me that it’s beautiful in winter, too. It has been on my mind for a while. It’s low-elevation, to minimize cold and wind and danger in the winter months. Gently rolling, to build Titus’s strength without overtaxing him. Also: wide enough to get comfortable distance from fellow travelers while my hooligan dogs relearn how to hike as a team.
Our recent warm weather (and heavy traffic) have made for horrific conditions on most of the well-traveled trails. Meanwhile, the rivers are running high and fast. I don’t have any desire to tackle a 4ker until things improve substantially; it just doesn’t seem like any fun right now. Low-elevation trails are not exempt. I’d tried on Saturday to visit some friends who were camping only half a mile from the road and ended up aborting the attempt thanks to a sketchy stream crossing that, I learned the next day, also turned back and/or caused trouble for almost everybody else in the would-have-been group.
But Zealand Road has just a relatively thin layer of relatively solid snow, thanks to weather-induced consolidation and being traveled primarily by folks who know their stuff and gear up appropriately for conditions. And it is, you know, a road with car travel three seasons of the year. So the river crossings are very thoroughly bridged!
And the views are pretty spectacular. Even on a day with moody, heavy clouds, I caught many glimpses of mountains and enjoyed the company of the rushing river…
…and the decoration afforded by interesting boulders with their icicle farms.
About a mile into the trek, warmed up and content in my choice of layers, swinging along with my snowshoes on for those moments when Titus needed to explore something off-trail (and happy to have upgraded last spring to a fancy lightweight set of mountaineering ‘shoes so that I never resent wearing them when it’s not strictly necessary), praising the dogs for what a good, good job their both were doing, I found myself feeling settled in a way that I haven’t for — a while now. Happy. Calm. At peace. Exactly where I needed to be. It’s often the way that I feel in this part of the Whites and a way that I haven’t been feeling, what with one thing or another, even though so much of my life is so, so good. I just breathed it in and let it be.
My first turnaround point for this hike was the Sugarloaf trail a mile up Zealand Road. We reached that point more quickly than I had expected, with both dogs moving happily and well. So we continued towards my hard stop turnaround: Hale Brook trailhead. That was 2.5 miles in (or 2.7ish with the road walk to get to…the road walk) and was the absolute upper limit of what I felt like I could ask of Titus today without feeling like an idiot if he was sore after. We’ve done a couple of successful 4 and 4.5 mile outings since his injury, but have struggled to successfully move beyond. Must admit that I’m a little gunshy at this point about the balance of strengthening and asking too much!
Just as I was starting to see a little fatigue in the dogs (we’re all badly out of shape, remember!) and to doubt my memory’s conviction that Hale Brook had to be just around the next corner, a trio of skiers appeared and assured me that indeed, we were almost there. Not two minutes later the trail sign came into view.
Both dogs were hungry (although Titus denied being at all ready for a break). I fed them, then myself, and we hung out for twenty minutes before packing up to head back out. The road ahead, as seen above, did look inviting! But the full 7 miles (plus snowmobile trail) was well outside my “not feeling like an idiot” range. Maybe next time!
Titus needed a little easing into the walk back out. He struggles a bit with turnarounds for some reason and we walked for a moment with him holding onto his tug leash as an alternative to dive-bombing Lilo’s head. I busted him back down to just the Kurgo Quantum leash hooked to a belt. He’d had that plus the tug leash to the belt on the way out, for 11′ of blissful freedom, but his brain works better with fewer space to make choices when he’s a little tired. With just 6′ of play (and plenty of encouragement), he settled back into walking nicely.
It is pretty wonderful to be able to let him have a little more space, though! I’m being very cautious due to his vulnerable leg and the amount of ice still present, but more and more I’m able to give him enough room to show off his floating trot and easy, ground-covering lope (we’re trying to avoid the sprint for now!) and it is so, so good for my heart. And probably for his, too!
I’m keeping a close eye on Lilo’s movement, too. I’ve been seeing a tiny, intermittent front-leg lameness as we’ve been ramping her exercise and dog-dog playtime back up over the last week or so. I don’t think it’s anything major. A day of rest and a dose of Rimadyl disappear it again. She presented with the same last year after hiking Moosilauke and went on to recover beautifully. Interestingly, I put her on Dasuquin with MSM after that hike up the Moose. We recently ran out of that stuff and I haven’t yet reordered it; I’ve been having her finish off some other joint supplements that Titus refuses to eat instead. They’re pretty similar on paper, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the tiny offness vanishes again once I get her back on the Dasuquin.
(I really wish I could convince Titus to eat that stuff, but he categorically rejects it. Maybe if I smashed the tablets up into powder and mixed it with his salmon oil? Act in your own best interests, dog!)
The walk back out is slightly downhill and was smooth sailing. We even ran a verrry slightly negative split, though that’s probably attributable to the dogs needing to sniff every twig on the way out but only every third twig on the way back. We returned to the Jeep a tired and very happy crew. And my fix for the backpack hip belt buckle that I had broken (Titus helped) the previous day worked beautifully!
I was a little afraid to take Titus out of his car crate upon arriving home. Happily, he looked great! I am trying to be proactive with the anti-inflammatories on days that he does more than his usual, but I’m confident that we’re not going to mask an acute setback — just hopefully minimize within-normal-limits soreness while we rebuild all that lost muscle. Now Lilo is snoring away on the floor to my right while Titus…gnaws happily on a knuckle bone to my left. Oh, my trail dog. Heal up so we can do more like this very soon!