Monday, October 31, 2011

Big Sky, Big Mule, Big Son

      Jason/Panacho, Ainslie/Bunny                                    Alec Engell copyright 2011                   

       Last Thursday at 3:45 a.m. I boarded an airport van that took me to Logan and an early flight to Chicago.  There I changed airlines (and terminals) for Bozeman where my son Alec is a graduate student in physics at Montana State University.  At the airport it was a fifteen-minute walk but an easy connection to find:  I just followed the  camouflage.  Over half the passengers were hunters eager to arrive for the opening of elk season.  Except for the bearded, rotund gentleman on my left reading a book about walking with Christ in all your relationships,  I was surrounded by excited talk of guns and game.

       And I learned a couple of things.  This was the first question posed among the men:  If you are attacked by a bear should you shoot it or use bear pepper spray?  My first impulse was to chime in that it would depend on which way the wind was blowing.  After all, if it was blowing towards you, wouldn't you likely wind up a pre-seasoned piece of spicy luncheon meat?  But, then again, if you are looking at a grizzly looking back at you, are you going to have time to spit on your finger and hold it up to the wind to find out?  I remained silent and listened.  A bear galloping straight for you is all legs and head.  The chest area--and optimum target--becomes small and elusive in a thirty mile-an-hour charge.  You may get some pepper spray in your eyes but the animal will run into a large corridor of it and, most likely, will run away leaving you intact if temporarily blind.

       The discussion then turned to game meat and a particular town in Montana that hosts an annual outdoor game meat barbeque:  bear, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, moose and mountain lion.  Here is a piece of the conversation:

       "Mountain Lion?!" queried one hunter.
       "What's that taste like?" asked another.
       "Stringy and elastic--like you'd expect any cat to taste.  
        Various forms of affirmative grunts responded.  (I myself--in all my years--hadn't thought once about the flavor of kitties, hence had formed no such expectations.)

       A pen was passed around and the name of this enticing little town eagerly taken down.  I myself instantly repressed its name, so, Readers, if you are hankering for cougar kebabs, you are on your own.

      We landed at lovely Bozeman Airport.  It is modest in size, new, and large-paned windows allow you to view the snow-capped mountains that surround it and the town of Bozeman.  But there was a problem:  the snowboard I was transporting for my friend to give to his son was rotating about the baggage carousel in all its awkward glory, but not my suitcase.  After considerable back and fourths at the ticket counter, it was determined that it had mistakenly been sent back to O'Hare.   The agent wouldn't commit to when it would be returned--just that it would.

       Alec drove me to my hotel then returned to his department to complete some work.  Though I was anxious for a visit, I welcomed the chance for a shower and to lie down.  I had only had four hours sleep the night before and, though it was just shortly after three p.m.,  I fell asleep, not waking up until shortly before five the next morning.  I checked with the front desk--no bag.  I pondered my plight.  All I had were the clothes I'd worn the day before, my camera bag and an five-foot long snowboard in a great big bag with wheels.  I couldn't even use the fitness room, let alone the pool or much-needed jacuzzi.  Well, there was nothing I could do about it then, so I made myself some coffee, crawled back under the covers, and read from my Kindle.

       At seven a.m. I had a breakfast of biscuits and eggs in the restaurant.  A sympathetic waitress told me there was a good second-hand shop around the corner.  Okay, if my bag hadn't arrived by ten a.m. I would go there and see if I could at least get something in which to work out. 

      It hadn't, so off I went to the thrift shop and then onto Main Street where I immediately located a western clothing shop that had a second-hand floor where I found two long-sleeved pearl buttoned shirts.  Purchases in hand, I continued down Main Street.  Bozeman is a charming place,  influenced by a complex mix of university students, faculty, ranchers, hunters, and fly fishermen.  In fact, in other parts of Montana, Bozeman is considered quite the cosmopolitan spot---tres shi-shi!  Certainly, the restaurants bore this out.  "Mongolian-Style Buffalo," "Buffalo Stroganoff," and "Buffalo Marsala" were featured on the menu boards of some of the restaurants I passed.  Western fusion.

      Alec and I had lunch at "La Tinga," a tasty, inexpensive family-run Mexican restaurant.  It was delicious and the atmosphere festive.  We also hiked "The M," a one-and-a-half-mile trail up Bridger Canyon to a huge slab of rock that has been painted with an enormous white letter "M," first in 1915 by MSU students.  It has since been maintained by subsequent generations of students.  Just coming off a three-week long cold and now finding myself at 5,000 feet with a few hundred more vertical ones to climb, I needed to stop and catch my breath a number of times.  But it was worth it.  Here's the view:

   View From "The M"                                                                      Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       And of our descent:

                                                           Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       Late that afternoon Alec and I drove up into the hills east of Bozeman to visit his friend Jason and his wife Alaina at their home.  Jason is also a graduate student in the MSU physics department.  Alaina--who has lived in several Latin American countries---returned to her hometown of Bozeman where she now teaches Spanish.  Jason built their house all by himself and--outfitted with solar panels--it is completely off-grid.   And it was built around friendship.  Several years previously, Jason and some of his buddies built a huge, heavy, and handsome dining table from planks of Douglas Fir for a Thanksgiving dinner for twenty-five.   In fact, it was so huge, heavy, and handsome that none of the twenty-five could offer it a post-fete home; that is, except Jason.   Having saved and saved as an undergraduate and graduate student, he'd recently purchased twenty acres and was about to start constructing a home.  He decided to build it around the table.  And so the house of friendship was built.

   Jason and Ailena's Home                                                                                                Alec Engell copyright 2011

       And they may own "just" twenty acres, but Jason and Alaina have thousands of acres to play in aboard their  Paso Fino "Panacho" and a sorrel molly mule named "Bunny."   Here is but one of their views:

   Jason and Ailena's Place                                                                               Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

 Cowboy Jason and my son Alec:

                                                                   Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

 Panacho and Jason:

                                                                  Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

      And with Bunny:

                                                                                                               Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

             We then repaired to the house and had a lovely venison dinner with a beautiful cake topped by a tasty sauce for desert.   Before the evening ended Jason invited me to an go on a trail ride with him next afternoon.  Alec would  read, study and/or practice guitar in the house.   As we left Jason and Alaina,  and walked towards our car the soft lights of Bozeman lit up the lower clouds in such a way that I thought I was seeing a monochromatic version of the Northern Lights.  It was stunning.

       Next morning Alec and I headed to Gallatin National Forest, not far from Bozeman, to see Palisade Falls.  Jason and Alaina recommended it since it was just a short drive.  Even getting there produced stunning views:

                                                                En route Gallatin National Forest

                               Just inside the national forest:

                    Gallatin National Forest                                       Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       And Palisade Falls:

                                     Palisade Falls                                                     Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       On the way down I couldn't resist this solemn-faced but intrepid little hiker with her walking stick:

               Palisade Falls Hiker                                                             Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

      Afterwards we grabbed some over-priced under-sized Mexican take-out and drove to Justin's.  (LaTinga was tastier, cheaper, and more homey but closed that day.)  I had planned to take a picture of the beautiful Alaina--black hair and dark complexion (Mom Hispanic) with riveting blue eyes (Dad's a Swede) and a smile capable of lighting a Montana mile.  But, sadly, she was in Bozeman teaching that afternoon, so to see her you will have to use your imagination coupled with my inadequate descriptive prompts.

       Jason saddled up Panacho and Bunny (I'm a novice at western girths) and we rode off into the hills:  

       We're off!                                                                                                              Alec Engell copyright 2011

       Yep, I'm not wearing a helmet, my hands are too high, and stirrups too long even for my dressage legs, but look at Jason--no stirrups!  He's been riding all his life and competed as a child in reining.   Hence, his great seat!   Add to which, he's only had these two since critters in April when he got them from neighbors.  And they had hardly ridden them at all.  And since then, Jason rode Panacho more.  Bunny was the least experienced of the two but certainly the calmer.  And she was a dear and did listen--usually--to my elementary neck reining cues (my leg aids--not so much).  She was definitely more "whoa" than "go."  But, boy, was she comfortable.  Jason had been told that she, too, was gaited, but I didn't feel it unless it was that bit of a shuffle she exhibited as she transitioned from walk to trot.

       We trotted over the ridge and in varying degrees of distance were four mountain ranges:  Tobacco, Roots, Bridger, Crazies and Absaroka Beartooths.  Each view exceeded the last.  Jason took some shots with his pocket camera and promised to send them soon.  So I hope to put them up in a week or two. 

      We saw whitetail and mule deer but Jason told me you can also run into brown and black bears, smaller grizzlies, elk, coyote, and mountain lions.  In fact, Alaina told me that a Mama cat and her three kittens frequently crossed their property:  the last time she saw them the babies were nearly as big as Mom.

       Then Jason--and Bunny by implication--did lay down a gauntlet:  Bunny, I was told, invariably declined to lope.  Trotting was her preferred gait. 

       "Would you mind if I asked her to lope?"
       "Not at all.  If you can get her to, that'd be great." 
     So, at the base of the next gentle slope I squeezed.  Nothing.  I kicked and got a trot.  Kicked again and got a more committed trot.  I didn't have a crop, so I took the reins and flicked them quickly back and fourth across her withers.  That did it!  Senorita Bunny lunged into a canter, dragging us up the hill more by forelegs than hind.  For the remainder of the ride Bunny was a lovely balance between "whoa" and "go."

       That is, except when Jason's dog, General, appeared suddenly behind her, taking Bunny completely by surprise.  Bunny shot up the hill after Panacho but didn't seem to be aware that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.   She lunged left for a couple of strides then lunged right.  Imagine riding a cutting horse uphill chasing a cow.  The cow makes many changes in direction but she is invisible except to your horse (or mule).  I confess that on one mighty lunge to the left I almost took a digger.  Happily, I regained my balance and in a couple more strides Bunny was relieved to be able to halt right up, and almost into, Panacho's rear. 

      I learned that Alec--who can ride just a little--took the same route aboard Bunny.  I was impressed.  My son is athletic but to stay on through some challenging obstacles, including a sandy and shifting side of a draw, required not only faith in your mount's ability but in yours as well.  Which brings me to Alec.  I realized suddenly on this trip that in countries with high levels of health care, the majority of parents know their offspring as adults much longer than knowing them as children.  I guess I always knew that, but this time I really felt it.  When at college he was in Cambridge, which was followed by three years working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, also in Cambridge. He now lives--and will likely stay--in Montana for at least five years.  All this just hit me like a freight train when I saw this 6' 2" man in a flannel shirt and jeans with the backdrop of the Rockies behind him.

      And yet, though it was two decades ago, the memories of him as a child are so vivid, so lovingly held and cherished, that they press forward strongly.   How he mispronounced helicopter as "hepicopter," exploring as "sploring," and tractor as "packter."  And when at age four he got his little dog Toby--a Lhasa-Poodle cross, how he proudly told a friend that his new companion was half Lhasa, half Pluto.  These are but two of the photos taken, the first shortly after Toby arrived at age ten months and Alec but five; the last days before Toby succumbed to a  brain tumor at age twelve.  Alec was seventeen.

     Alec and Toby                                  Groton, MA             Alec and Toby in Acton            Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2006

              And just one little story more.  Alec is a wonderful tennis player, and when he was little he determined that he would go to 
Wimbledon and practiced very hard.  One very hot day he had been practicing against the backboard at our local club for over an hour and a half.  So I brought him a drink.  He sat down next to me and leaned against my shoulder.  As he popped the tab he said in his best "grown-up" voice:  "I may be nine years old, but I can still cuddle with my Mom."

       Alec is now twenty-six but now and again, he still can cuddle with his Mom.  I know those of you who have children have many of your own cherished memories, so I will end here.  

       It was a wrench to leave Alec but I was glad he had friends like Jason and Alaina.  I also was able to meet his adviser Piet Martens,  Piet's wife Kathleen, and four of their five beautiful children--three adopted and two biological.  Alec was in good hands.  

      Alec will be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas but is planning to spend this coming summer working at his university.  But Jim and I --and Marleny--are planning many more trips out to Big Sky Country.  Maybe we'll go out for Easter.  I would love to go on other trail rides with Jason and his two equines.   Then I get to say I rode an Easter Bunny.  (Sorry, couldn't pass that one up.)

       I want to thank our neighbor David who made the lovely cross, and, of course, all of you who sent such kind messages about our beloved Bo.  And those beautiful flowers!  Unexpected but oh-so-happily received.  Here they are:

                                                                       Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011

       A lot has gone on since my trip out to Montana, so I'm hoping to get another entry out to you in a few days.  Here's a hint of news to come:

                                                                              Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011


        So, see you soon, and thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly--
                  Ainslie Sheridan






Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Great Dog

                        Bo                                                            Ainslie Sheridan copyright  1992

       Again I must apologize for the tardiness of a blog, in this case the present one.  The sweet-faced dog you see in the photo above partly explains the delay.  In her earliest days, Bo resided in the hallway of a tenement  in Lowell, Massachusetts, before she was brought in--along with her mother--by her owner to the Lowell Humane Society.  Bo was just a few months old.

       Though I don't know the details of Bo's mother's condition, she was in such bad shape that employees at the Humane Society immediately put her to sleep.  Bo herself was emaciated and covered with her own filth, but given a bath then put up for adoption.  The staff named her "Bo" for her "body odor," because she had smelled so horribly when she came in.

       I did not adopt her directly from the shelter, though.  In the autumn of 1995 a friend of mine, Jane Karol, the owner of Bear Spot Farm, drove there to adopt two kittens for me, and then saw poor Bo.  Though she already had three dogs at her farm, Jane could not leave behind the lonely looking pup.  Jane delivered the two little kittens to me and that was when I first saw Bo.  She was a plain looking shepherd mix whose front legs were clutched fearfully around Jane's neck.

       Bo resided at Bear Spot Farm for the next several months.  She would spend the days at the farm and nights at Jane's house with Jane's husband, their daughter, and their other dogs.  But one day Bo's tail was stepped on by a horse.  A vet was summoned and part of her tail had to be removed because the bones had been crushed.  At that time things were unusually hectic for Jane and her husband, so I offered to take Bo home for a couple of days so she could recuperate in an environment more conducive to healing. 

      I frequently went to Bear Spot--my Andalusian gelding Navarro was in training with Jane.  And Bo never failed to greet me effusively.  In fact, she often would jump into the car if I left the door open:  big hint.  So, from time to time--with Jane's permission, of course, I brought her home for sleep-overs.  I had grown very attached but we already had two dogs and my husband--quite sensibly--did not want another.  On a couple of occasions he actually returned her to Bear Spot when I would find saying good-bye a little too difficult.  But a few more trips to our house and Bo had won Jim's heart as well.  

       Temperamentally Bo was a quiet, reticent dog, and Jane agreed that a calmer atmosphere would suit Bo more.   So, at age eight months Bo became a permanent member of our family.  It did take her quite a while to enjoy going out on trail rides with the horses.  (The tale of the broken tail!) At first, I took her on a leash, but soon let her loose with the other dogs.  Next, I walked her on a leash while leading our Shetland pony Kip.  We got to the point where Bo would run around loose and stay with us during the pony walk.  

        And, finally, she went out with the horses, though at the half-way point on the first few trips anxiety would kick in and she would run full tilt for home.  I would return to find her on the steps, tongue out, breathing heavily after her mile-long run.  However, after a couple of more trips Bo was a committed trail dog and went with us for miles.  She was always up for a good gallop and loved checking out the streams and swimming in the local ponds.

Bella and Bo                                        Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2002

       When she wasn't out on the trails with me, Bo watched over the farm with dedication.  In fact, she is the reason that I have been able to witness as many coyotes and foxes crossing the property as I have.  As soon as she sounded the alarm I'd grab my camera.  Here is a coyote who came for a leisurely, self-guided tour through Windflower:

    Coyote sighting courtesy of Bo's alert                                                                             Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2003

      A different coyote happened into our pasture while Bo was in our fenced-in yard.  She let out an aggressive succession of barks and trotted authoritatively towards toward the intruder.  The coyote seemed not at all troubled by Bo.  In fact, he took a few mock aggressive canter steps towards her.  And that did it for Bo, the farm dog.  She tucked tail and sped up the stairs to our deck.  There she continued to bark her threats from a loftier position of safety.

      Bo was not a traveler.   Once my husband took her to our family's lakeside cottage in Pennsylvania, but she was not happy.  We joked that Bo must have thought we got divorced and "he" got the dog.  She took up residence next to Jim's car door, hoping and hinting that it should be opened soon.  Jim took her on a rowboat ride, which she found scary.  She wanted to feel the stable earth under her paws.  One of those nights, an unusually warm November night--a few hours before dawn--Jim went out to watch the Leonid Meteor showers.  Bo accompanied.  While Jim  marveled at the sight, she was was utterly perplexed.  When I went along on the next trip to the cottage, we brought Bo along again.  She was less anxious with me there, but did not enjoy the woods as she did at home.  She seldom ventured further than ten feet from me.  And each time we walked near the car, she trotted hopefully to the door.  The message was clear:  she loved us but would be happier if she could love us at our farm.  Other than routine trips to the vet--which she detested--that would the last trip away from home for Bo.  She was our Windflower Farm dog.

      As years passed and she grew older Bo began to slow down.   More often than not she now declined to go out on the trail with the horses.  So we would take her on brief walks, which she enjoyed.  Eventually, arthritis began to invade her hips.   Soon on medication, she seemed to be content to sit or lie on the lawn preserving her status as guardian of us all.  Nights were spent as they had been since her puppyhood--sleeping next to our bed.  Increased wobbliness led to more medications.  She became periodically incontinent, and sometimes we would have to help her get down the steps of the house and onto the lawn.

      Jim and I began to discuss when we should end her life.  The governing factor had to be that it would occur when Bo was no longer happy.  But she was happy!  She still trotted around, ate with gusto, and gave us copious licks.  Sometimes she would slip, fall, and be unable to get up, but with a pair of helpful human hands she was up and gamely about.
       More medication was followed by some improvement, but she was now sleeping over twenty hours a day.  The number of falls escalated.   Still, she seemed chipper when awake and took her tumbles as part of the daily routine.  But we were under no illusions--it wouldn't be long before she couldn't enjoy her days.  Our vet kindly agreed to come to our house if need be.  But Bo would be nervous if he showed up.  No dummy, she knew that the sight of this kindly man meant needles.  Also, we knew that the drugs used in euthanasia are highly toxic to the environment.  We could cremate her, thus neutralizing the contamination but, again, the use of energy involved in that process is huge.  Jim and I began to discuss if we had the courage to shoot her.  

       I e-mailed Dr. Jay Merriam and asked him his views on euthanasia by firearm.   His reply was both informative and supportive.  In Jay's own words: 

      This is a tough one.  Many times I load a horse with euthanasia solution to watch it go into a hole that’s already half full of groundwater.  So probably, incineration is the least toxic and it’s usually done only when there are several so the energy costs are lower.  I agree that a well placed bullet is by far the  most humane and least toxic, but not many clients here will allow it nor will the police allow me to carry a sidearm. And the insurance folks don’t want me to either.  But it’s instantaneous and humane.
I must admit, that I usually ask an associate to do my dogs and horses because it’s hard to hit a vein when you’re sobbing…  

Jay Merriam DVM,MS

         I talked again with this wonderful, compassionate man.  (You will remember from earlier blogs that he and his team of vets operated on Dolly, making her much more comfortable.)  He emphasized that attitudes towards euthanasia by firearm vary geographically.  Jay is from Kansas and told me that there as, in other agricultural states, that method is not given a second thought.  That certainly fit with all the westerns I had watched as a child.  

       He went on to say that in Great Britain all large animal vets are required to carry a pistol, not only to dispatch clients' animals but also wild animals that are fatally injured.  The police there (and, apparently here) often have neither the knowledge nor the experience to do the job correctly and therefore humanely.   Jay suggested Jim and I go to a web site to learn the correct trajectory if that was to be our plan.

      I checked out a variety of sites and stared at the relevant diagrams.   I felt my own needs press ahead of our dog's.  And then we remembered an additional concern.  While I was in the Navy--I was still single--I adopted a six year-old girl from Colombia.  After she was found on the streets of Cali badly beaten and malnourished--once at age three, then at five--the child welfare agency removed her from her parents' custody and put her up for adoption.  As a teenager Marleny was able to tell us that when she was three or four years old, she had a little dog that she adored.  Marleny herself was not fed sufficiently but would scavenge for scraps under the table.  Then this brave little girl would go outside and share them with that puppy.   Marleny often slept the entire night outdoors with her friend in her arms.  But one day Marleny's father shot the dog in front of her solely for the sadistic pleasure of  inflicting emotional pain on his little daughter. 

      A house call by a syringe-holding vet was beginning to have more appeal.  But last Sunday morning Bo took that option away from us.   I let her out to pee at five a.m..  She trotted about the lawn wagging her tail, and, remarkably, had no trouble either getting down or up the front steps.  After she was back on her bed, I went back to mine.  When I awoke she was sound asleep so I went about the usual business of the day:  I made coffee and went out to feed the horses their breakfast.  Back in the house I took my mug and sat at the table.  I was a few pages into this month's Dressage Today when I heard Bo crying.  When I got to her she was struggling to stand but this time all four legs were completely failing.  And her head was oddly tilted.  I called Jim:  I couldn't get her up by herself.  A stroke?  Kidney failure?  A clot?  

      We transferred her to the dog bed in our family room and looked at each other.  She couldn't stand at all, let alone get up or walk.  And this sudden, complete disability clearly distressed her.  It was time.  But it was a bad time:  early Sunday morning.   We would have to place the already alarmed Bo into the car, and drive her to an emergency clinic to have her put to sleep.  She would hate it and she would be afraid.  

      Once we made Bo more comfortable--gave her some water and a biscuit--we drove to the local gun club where both Jim and and my son Alec occasionally shoot trap.   Many of the members would be there for Sunday breakfast and practice.  Jim had an FID license but was not authorized to carry a pistol.  Ed, one of the members who had a pistol with him, and was licensed, kindly offered to follow us to our house.

      We carried Bo--still on her bed--onto the front lawn.  She was perplexed that she couldn't get up to greet us, but she was not worried.  I ran into the house, grabbed the peanut butter, and offered Bo several tablespoons.  I had always put her pills in it.  The peanut butter made her happy and kept her busy.  As Ed handed him the gun, Jim told me to get into the house because he thought it would be easier, but I stayed.  I was not going to leave Bo.  Ed put his arms around me.  A shot cracked through the morning air:  She was no more.  

       Jim and I embraced and I thanked him:  I had been willing to pull the trigger but it had been over twenty-five years since I had practiced.   We both hugged Ed good-bye then set about the business of digging Bo's grave.  We chose a spot on our lawn under some pine trees a few feet from the path that led out to the trails she had traveled so happily for so many years.  Jim and I were not capable of doing any work that day so we held hands a lot, drank cups of tea, and went to a distracting movie.  

     We called our son and daughter and told them the sad news.  Marleny said the use of gun had at first shocked her but that she understood and gave me permission to write about her father and her little dog.  When our son Alec was small--maybe six--our border collie died suddenly.  Between his sobs he asked me somewhat angrily,  "Why do we have them if they make us this sad when they die?"  

       I wish I could remember what I said.  I hope it was something like:  "Though it might not feel it now, this awful pain you are feeling now will lessen and you will remember all the friendship, unconditional love, and wonderful fun he shared with us.  And in the end it will have been worth these horrible feelings."

       Bo was not what our society would define as a great dog.  She didn't do agility or obedience and was deathly afraid of frisbees.  She couldn't catch a ball to save her life.  She had no employment.  She didn't sniff bombs, find drugs, rescue earthquake or avalanche victims, or guide the blind or disabled.  She wasn't handsome nor was she pretty.  She was a discarded mutt who had found a home with us, and was a member of our family for nearly sixteen years.  But she loved and was loved.  And what could be greater than that?

--  Ainslie 

                                                        Ainslie Sheridan  copyright 2011