Over the Next Ridge

Sometimes, the best plan is no plan at all.

There can, however, be unintended and unexpected consequences.

The girls and I awoke to yet another morning of smoke-filled air. The nearest trail at elevation is the ski hill, so off we went. I figured maybe an hour of running and we'd call it good.

We started up the steep shortcut. Maia kept nudging my hand, trying to get me to turn back. When she does this, it's always a dilemma for me: is she just bored (often the case if it's a trail we do often) or truly worried about something, like a sore leg, or a bear in the woods?

I asked her to keep going. Her tail was up, a good sign. Even Meadow was slow this morning. I decided it was collective boredom, since we do this trail almost every week. And smoke. And heat. Although at 8 AM it was still relatively cool and shady.

We went up and up, about 2-3 miles. A slow jog pace for me. When we reached a junction, I elected to go uphill to the north, for something different. We'd gone this way twice before - once in May when there was still so much snow that we couldn't get very far, and again a month later when we got only a tad higher. I had a vague notion that this route - used by mountain bikers in the summer - would eventually lead to the summit, but I had no idea how far.

Over the next several minutes, three positive "signs" happened. I love days like this.

As we climbed, we came to an open meadow with thick, tall aspens which marked the highest point we'd gone before. I urged the girls onward and upward. Maia was quick and eager to take the lead, now that we were on new ground. She rounded a knoll and quickly dashed toward something: a grouse. It exploded into flight, making a huge racket. As I caught up, I noticed a sign. When I got to it - it faced uphill, for the mountain bikers coming down - it signaled that we were on Grouse Trail. Well, duh! And: Cool! A good sign, omen, whatever.

This north side of the mountain remained sheltered from most of the smoke, which fanned out of the valleys to the south and east. Another good sign, although not one of the three I'm counting here.

We continued up. And up. The trail becomes quite steep and rutted; we were hiking, not running. The surrounding terrain, while beautiful, was also steep and rugged. Remote. The mountain wasn't open for business and we were the only ones out there.

I couldn't see the summit buildings. I started worrying about how much farther it was, that it was getting warmer, that we weren't crossing any streams and we had no water with us. (Remember, I wasn't planning on being out more than an hour, and the route I'd envisioned had us crossing streams at least three times lower on the mountain). Just as these worries and doubts clouded my mind and almost prompted me to turn back, I noticed litter on the trail. I bent to retrieve it. A trail map! Cool. Another good sign/omen.

The map showed that we on a trail called the Hidden Highway. We weren't far from the summit, and once we got there, could come down the mountain the much nicer and easier Elk trail, which we'd run many times. With Maia eagerly leading the way and Meadow acting as sweep, we scrambled up scree fields. I became a little concerned about Meadow; she seemed to be lagging behind, hot and undoubtedly thirsty.

We reached the summit - 7460 ft; we started at 6000 ft - and were rewarded with tremendous views of the surrounding hills, some hidden in the smoke layer, others jutting their tops up into the sunshine.

I noticed some vehicles parked under a ski lift off ramp, and guys working. I figured I could beg some water for the girls from these guys. I said hello, but they totally ignored me, despite looking right at me. Rude! But then, that's how people are here. It annoys me no end.

So, rather than waste more time, I asked the girls to follow me down onto Elk trail. I knew the main stream was three miles downhill - we could get there in 25 minutes.

We went no more than 30 ft when - aha! - a full water bottle laying in the trail! The third "sign" and cool event that made me think that this day we were meant to go this route, that having no plan was turning out to be our best plan, that the trail gods were going to ignore my stupidity in going so far without water. A mountain biker, having ridden the chair lift up last weekend, lost this water bottle almost immediately after starting down the mountain. Their loss became our gain. I poured some into my hand and the girls eagerly drank, Meadow especially. I gave them about a third and carried the bottle with me as we ran down the trail. A mile later, they drank another third. A mile later, they finished it. I didn't drink any; I wasn't feeling dehydrated. The girls needed it much more. I carried the bottle - now trash - down to the car with me, thankful that someone else had littered in days past.

With water on their tongues and familiar territory under their feet, both girls happily ran down Elk trail, leaving me literally in their dust. Life is good again.

Shortly after finishing the bottled water, Meadow slowed her pace and let both me and Maia pass her. I didn't think much of it as this wasn't unusual behavior. Indeed, she often does this just so she can zoom past us on the next steep downhill bit. All part of her game. We continued down to where I knew a stream crossed the trail, about three miles from the top, Maia still in the lead with me close behind her. Maia dashed into the stream and started drinking.

No Meadow.

She'd been slowing down, yes, but when I'd turn back watch her, I didn't detect any limping. She was never more than 50 ft behind. I figured she was tired and hot. But this time she was much too slow, too far behind, especially since I knew that she knew there was water here. Where was she?

I went back up the trail, calling her, looking for her. Finally, very slowly, she came walking around a curve. No limp that I could detect, but clearly she was tired and hurting. Heat exhaustion? It wasn't that hot, but heck, she's a woolly, and hadn't had much water, so it was possible.

I walked with her to the stream. I've never seen a dog so happy to put her paws into the cool water while she drank. Meadow has always been a bit of a tank at streams, but this time she kept drinking and drinking. I sat and waited, as did Maia. I washed the dust off her muzzle. I decided we'd walk, not run, all the way to the car if necessary, whatever Meadow needed.

Meadow finally tanked up. We retraced our steps for a bit, actually going back uphill, so that we could then take the same shortcut we took when we started this adventure. I had earlier planned to go the longer, less steep route down, but seeing Meadow's condition changed my mind. I just wanted to get her home, safely.

Meadow seemed revived by her drink, and trotted along the trail after Maia. For a bit. She quickly slowed again. I walked with her. In situations like this, I let the dog set the pace. I'm in no rush when their health is at stake. Maia was doing great, ready to lead us to the car, and I had to keep asking her to wait for us.

We had just under two miles to go, almost all downhill. As soon as she realized we were taking the shortcut, Meadow again picked up her pace and I thought all was well now that she was hydrated and knew the car was near. But toward the bottom of the trail, just a quarter mile from the car, she suddenly wasn't behind me again. I asked Maia to wait. I called for Meadow. I went back up the trail to find her. She was very, very slowly walking, this time with a pronounced limp in her right foreleg/shoulder. When I reached her she picked up her right fore paw, as if saying "Do something!" but I couldn't find anything obviously amiss (I suspected a pad tear like a few weeks ago). I got their leash from my fanny pack and made a sling under Meadow's chest, helping her by taking a bit of weight off her front legs. We walked down the trail this way. She seemed to do OK. Her eyes were bright, her tongue nice and pink; she responded to commands. We made our way to the car. As soon as we got to the parking lot - still 100 ft or so from the car - she went off trail to pee, and then walked to the car under her own steam without a limp.


Now I'm thinking the limp was a ruse to get me to slow down. That's fine. A relief, actually. I was sorry it took that much to get me to pay closer attention to her condition and go her pace. I wish she could talk - yell at me, that she's hot and dehydrated and needs to go slow, dammit!

Meadow jumped right up into the car - no pain or weakness - and collapsed into a heap for the drive home. One tired doggie. Maia, as is her habit in hot weather, stood just behind my seat as I drove down the mountain so she could enjoy the cooling blast of A/c coming from the vents that I so obediently point right at her. She gets huffy if I forget.

When we got home, Meadow jumped easily out of the car (I have a Twistep on the back, so they jump onto the step half way down, then the ground) and walked into the house to lay down and rest. I fed them both - their appetites were excellent - and gave each an enteric coated aspirin.

We all took a nap.

When we got up, it was Maia who was limping, stiff in the shoulder, which has been the case with her for years after a long run with lots of downhill. She's always better by the next day, especially after I massage her.

Meadow? No limp whatsoever. I'm convinced it was a ruse, and an effective one.

The lesson Meadow drove home today: I need to pay closer attention, and not make either of them fake a limp in order to slow the pace. If they want to go slower, it's OK, no reasons necessary. They want to walk? We walk.

Maia is eight, Meadow is six. Maia's a little older than me if you use the seven-dog-years-to-every-one-human-year formula, and Meadow just a tad younger than me. We're all at that point in our lives where our brains and bones are still willing, but sometimes our muscles and ability to tolerate heat brings us to our figurative knees. I should have known that this route - without streams to cool their toes and tongues - was too long on this particular summer day. But I succumbed to Maia's joy in exploring around the next bend and over the next ridge, pushing back my own nagging concerns about lack of water. I took delight and encouragement in the three "signs."

Dear Meadow: message received, loud and clear. Mom's an idiot sometimes, and she's sorry. It won't happen again.

I didn't have my camera today (big regret - saw some excellent vistas and would have loved to photograph the three signs), so this entry includes one taken of the girls on the ski hill in May, as well as a photo taken near Crestline Trail two days ago - the effect of being above the smoke layer was the same then as today, except the ski hill doesn't have all the burned and silvered tree trunks.