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A Golden Life

Learning from a Master

My mother had a Golden Retriever in grad school. 

Maybe that’s why I chose Scott. The relationship I observed between him and his Golden captured me. Bouldering after work at Horsetooth Reservoir, a miles-long scenic body of water in the first fold of Front Range foothills, Scott would prompt Bailey into climbing boulders, too. Pumped out, hot and dusty, we’d poach a swim in the evening light and throw sticks for “B-Kid,” who was indefatigable. He’d launch over the water, every retrieve wrapped in that goofy Golden smile.

The sound of their truck crunching to a stop outside my bunkhouse tickled my heart. Apprenticing at Soldias Farm, “section road” country north of Fort Collins, was isolating. I’d grin at the sight of them from my Dutch door, my two “golden boys.” Summer evenings, we’d chuck an Aerobie into the sunset, captured by the boughs of an ancient black pine. Bailey would climb its thick limbs, spiraling upward. Eyes on the Aerobie, he’d sidestep along the branch, gripping one above, and chomp the Aerobie in triumph. 

I’d never shared a dog with a lover before. Our morning snuggle fests led me to nickname Bailey “Fluffy Love a Kiss,” riffing off the Muppet, Mr. Snuffleupagus. We three were a family.

I watched the B-Man during Scott’s climbing trips. B ran the foothills with me, guard dog. He was gentle, lapping at the dinner morsels from my fingers. He slept with his head on my thigh as I read, sighing and groaning with contentment. We spooned sleeping. 

When I left Scott, I lost Bailey too. Both hurt, but especially losing B-Man—the “purity” of us.

I was 29, single, and my biological clock was ticking. I moved to Durango, into wilder mountains. Supervising a landscape project at an enclave near Molas Pass, I saved all season, preparing for a 30th birthday road trip: I would quit my job, move into my truck camper, climb until elk season, fish until the snow fell, and then climb all winter in Thailand.

And then, September 11.

Planes stopped flying. The economy crashed. Unemployment shot to five percent. So I climbed, hunted, and fished the Rockies from New Mexico to the Wyoming-Montana border. But by November I was exhausted, lonely. Haunted. And over my “adventure.” I hadn’t planned well—I had no re-entry plan to a post-9/11 world. 

I wanted my sister. I wanted the comforts and anonymity of her very different Louisiana culture. I wanted a lot. Including a dog. A bird dog. I limped across the South in my F150, tail between my legs.

Answering a pet ad in the paper, I was reassured when I arrived at the breeder’s home: warm, welcoming, with gables and a front porch. The puppies were enclosed in a sunny, clean laundry room. Six or seven puppies rooted and nuzzled at Mama's belly. Daddy stood over her, wagging his tail at us, looking at his family...and smiling like a Golden.

Two weeks later I returned for Zoë Luzienne. “Zoë” for the daughter Scott and I never had, and “Luzienne” for the chapter of life engendering my Golden. I will never forget the stew of emotion I felt, driving off, taking one sentient Being from another. Zoë whimpered in his crate; guilt enflamed me. But oh, my God! I had my own dog! No one could ever take him away. I finally had my own family.

Unemployed, I devoted my full attention to training Zoë in Louisiana. He was my little buddy and I owed it to him. A well trained dog would listen, stay healthy, be safe, and be appreciated

At six months, we headed back to Colorado, where his training increased. Zoë grew lean, well-muscled, and lanky. His coat was a shorter, lustrous red-gold, his head sleek and angular with expressive eyes and ears. And that smile! Tail and chest proud, erect, he drew attention and affection wherever we went. Bonded to me, Zoë was always at heel. He didn’t pull at a leash, jump up, beg, bark, pick fights, or destroy things. 

Those first years together, I was a land manager in the foothills. My days were mine. We walked every morning, often scouting the State Trust Lands just beyond an irrigation canal defining our boundary. As I restored and enhanced the acreage, Zoë would swim, chasing after his bubbles, and return to me, flopping down, exhausted. We were inseparable.

Zoë became my fishing buddy, patiently nosing at scent molecules along the banks. When he sensed me ready to relinquish a hole, he would look at me with excitement, waiting: “Go ahead! Go get it, Zoë!” He’d slip into the pool, red fur floating, back legs pumping through the deep, chasing his own bubbles down the current. Bliss.

Tick, tock went the bio-clock. I longed to be a mother, the mother I never had. The landowner and I had fallen in love. We spoke of dreams, starting a family. Noting a disconnect between dreams and action, I set my Plan B in motion: I encouraged him to get a Golden Retriever. Zoë and I trained both him and his new pup. Once they were bonded, Zoë and I moved on, to a funky little mountain town that I had chosen for its watershed: Carbondale.

Answering some epigenetic call, I then traveled to the landscapes of Northern Mongolia in pursuit of the elusive “river wolf” fish, hucho taimen. My guide and I fell in love. He moved west to create a life with me and my bird dog. We fished together, hunted grouse in the high country and pheasant out on the plains. I had “Fluffy Love a Kiss” mornings again. When I gave birth to our daughter Juniper, though, the relationship failed. When she and I moved out, Zoë became the man of my house and helped me raise a little girl. 

Every job I’d had, I accepted on condition that Zoë was with me, be it in the office or in the field. He ran alongside Juniper in her Chariot, as we biked to preschool. He protected me on trail runs and guarded the house. He was my “man.” I watched the years accumulate in his white face mask, in the shorter runs, in his worn out frame. 

In those twilight years, Zoë became Master, imbuing compassion. How to bequeath dignity, peace, and contentment to a slowly dying Being? On our last walk at the dog park, Zoë stopped, unable to continue. We sat in the April sun, sharing silence, Sopris, bird song. I carried Zoë the last half, like a puppy again, his head on my shoulder, trusting me. 

To this day, Zoë is “still” at my side, and a very real presence in Juniper’s daily life, through the stories we still share. Like this one.

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