Skyline Sketches are short stories from Appalachia, AMC’s journal of mountaineering and conservation. Each captures a unique perspective about what we feel and the ways we connect in the mountains.
My dog Rufus, a 3-year-old Alaskan malamute, died one Christmas, killed accidentally by the neighbor’s squirrel poison. She had been my second malamute—a hard dog to train. Each of my malamutes seemed to remain a puppy for a few years. Then one morning, I would wake up finding a new dog in my house. After the puppy stage ends, malamutes are obedient. Calm. Perhaps too possessive of me and my possessions, anything that smelled like me. Malamutes’ yellow eyes run so deep that I can find souls inside. Perhaps two.
After Rufus died, I told myself I would not get another dog until I’d accomplished certain experiences, allowing me to maximize my time with a new puppy. I wanted to backpack one more time through the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, staying at the high huts. I wanted one more chance to hike above treeline on the Appalachian Trail in that area—and then to say goodbye to it.
There is nothing good that I can say about having to clean a dog’s life out of a backpack. For me this had been soft dog bowls. Cloth leads. An empty plastic bag that held her food. I added her tags as zipper pulls. It became clear that the only way to get over Rufus was to finish my list of things I wanted to do—and find the next puppy.
I could see that finally something different than mountains was more important to me. I had been on or living in mountains since I was a kid. On more than one occasion, I had chosen mountains over a relationship. Over a job. Mountains had decided where I lived. What I drove. How I dressed. How I spent my money.
I heard a clanging sound from a distance as I climbed. I found myself stopping to listen. I felt certain that I understood what was making that sound as I hiked along the Appalachian Trail, someplace on Mount Webster, but the fog was confusing my senses. Was it in front of me? Coming up behind? Was it close? I was smiling. This sound, a sort of bouncing jingle-jangle, could only mean one thing. A bear bell that had been attached to a dog’s collar. But that created more to the mystery. Here, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, dogs were frowned upon. It is not entirely their fault. There are too few campsites and fewer still drinking water sources that concentrate the backpackers and day-hikers into specific locations, notably the high huts. And dogs were not allowed at these.
There it was again, inside the swirl, the sound of a bear bell bouncing along.
“This bog is especially good for the azaleas.” I was on them before I could see them, a group of twenty or so hikers standing on the board walkway that spanned an alpine bog. Most of them were women. They had trekking poles, large-brimmed hats, cameras, and phones acting like cameras, long-sleeved shirts, shorts—all the latest gear. It took several moments for them to find me in their midst and for me to find any sort of words other than, “I’m sorry. I did not mean to startle you.” Everyone looked toward me. I would find out that this was an organized hike sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club, a wildflower hike. The bogs had recently bloomed. Then I added, trying not to embarrass myself, “Have you seen a dog?”
“No, why?” said the woman I took to be the group leader.
“It is just that I thought I heard a bear bell bouncing along the trail in this fog. You know how it is inside fog. I couldn’t place it. Couldn’t find it. It was confusing to me.”
I laughed again, pointing down into the muddy ground next to the boardwalk. In the darkness were bear tracks moving on toward the Mizpah Spring Hut, ahead of us. But the bell was gone. The fog lifted, and the trail became all mine. When I arrived at the hut, I was greeted with a hot, just baked oatmeal cookie while I signed in. I found a bed. Croo members were in the kitchen working. One hiker sat on the bench in front of the window with a guidebook tipped over, a leather-bound journal opened, but he was writing on a series of typed pages. There was a steel cup and a teal colored SIGG bottle, the kind that all of the backpackers know to hold whiskey. I balked at disturbing him. Finding time to be alone with yourself at the huts is difficult. It appeared he wanted that. But we looked at each other. Nodded.
“I don’t mean to disturb you but have you seen a dog?” I asked again.
“Why? Did you lose one?”
“No,” I said, laughing, “I thought that I had heard a bear bell coming over the mountains and was just wondering.”
“That was me. I had found it in my pack this morning and after seeing fresh bear sign, decided to attach it to my pack. I like how it sounds. It reminds me of my dogs, of other times together in mountains on trail.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Do you have a dog?”
“Not anymore,” I said, and then explained that I had come to the Whites as a last hike before I got another dog. “The dog will help me give up these mountains,” I added.
“How old are you?”
“You look good man. I’m impressed.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but I am losing my core. There is just no more stamina left in me for this sort of adventure. But I don’t mind. It seems like every time I give up something, something new comes into my life and it changes me. It makes me find happiness again.”
“Wow. This is good to know. Ever since I retired, I have been playing with the idea of what would I give up either due to a lack of money or physical ability. It has been dragging on me.”
“What are you working on?” I asked.
He laughed. “It is a story about a dog. I stared it back in 2008 but got stuck on the ending. There is a saying among writers that all dog stories end the same way. I don’t want mine to be like that. I am hoping that by being back in the mountains, I will find a new way forward to a different ending.”
I signed into the trail register on New York Route 28N/30, just above the village of Blue Mountain Lake. It was October 12. From a top pocket of my pack, I pulled out a bear bell and released the magnet, attaching it to the collar of a German shepherd puppy. She turned her head to try to see what it was. I guess she wanted to find out why it made that sound. We were on our way to Tirrell Pond. “Let’s go, Speedway,” I said. “We have a new life to find.”