One Small Mistake
Perhaps I should have left Peter and Peggy in a kennel when I drove Outside to help Uncle Ralph celebrate his 90th. But my heart wouldn't allow it. Betray their trust and leave them in a kennel? No.
I made up my bed in the back of my station wagon, covered it with a tarp, loaded dog beds, suitcase, cooler, food box, five-gallon water jug, chains, dog dishes, and a fifty-pound sack of dog food on top of the tarp, hustled Peter and Peggy in through the tailgate, then headed for the Alaska Highway and on to Windsor, Illinois, where Uncle Ralph lived.
In the north, May days are long and I made good time driving. By the end of the second day, I was well beyond Watson Lake. I stopped at an empty campground in early evening, walked and watered the dogs, and considered staying there for the night. A sunray peeped hopefully through rain clouds. Briefly, I saw the sun, still high in the western sky. I reloaded my dogs and drove on through the misty evening.
I hummed a happy traveling tune as I rolled along, reveling in late evening driving. Occasionally, the sun filtered through clouds, bathing the countryside in its golden glow. As daylight dimmed, animals came out. I saw bighorn sheep, elk, caribou, and six black bears foraging along the side of the road. For the sake of my dogs, I wanted to put distance between the black bears and us before I camped. I kept driving.
Ever eager, my Subaru ate up the road, but my body nudged me. "Stop!" it said. "You've already driven over 700 miles today. Find a camping place."
In the gathering dusk, I spotted a gravel pit. I swung in to check it out. Perfect. I drove around behind a wall of gravel, well out of sight of the highway. Nice gravel floor. The dogs won't get muddy.
I snapped on Peter and Peggy's leashes. They bounded out of the station wagon. After being cooped up for two days, they were eager to go. Their busy noses detected many game trails as I walked them around the perimeter of the large gravel pit. They strained at their leashes, begging to take off. I reined them in and hauled them back to the car. Reluctantly, they submitted to their chains. I fed and watered them, put out their dog beds, had some supper myself, then tossed back the tarp and crawled in bed.
That night it rained. Peter and Peggy jerked the car around, trying to find a sheltered spot. With all that jerking, I wasn't getting much sleep. I fished around for my shoes, crawled out of the car, tossed the tarp over my bed, put the dogs' sopping beds on top of the tarp and the dogs on top of the beds. Then I covered myself with my sleeping bag and dozed in the driver's seat to the lullaby of drumming rainfall.
A body cramp awakened me. It had stopped raining. Light crept over the gravel pit, but I wanted more sleep before I left nature's congenial hotel. I un-kinked my body, chained the dogs back outside, and stretched out on my bed for luxurious gulps of slumber.
I awoke a little after six and roused myself to pack up and drive on. It was then I made an awful mistake. I loaded the car and unchained Peggy. The little feist wouldn't relieve herself while chained. A bit of freedom would give her the opportunity. While Peggy pranced around, anxious to be with me, I put her chain in the car, then, with the tailgate open and ready for the dogs to hop in, I went to unchain Peter.
I unsnapped Peter's chain and for a moment—a mere moment—let go of his collar so I could gather up his chain. Peter braced his feet, looked over his shoulder at me to see if he was really free, then tucked his hind legs and took off in urgent pursuit of enticing scents. Eager for a frolic, Peggy chased after him.
Oh, no! I grabbed dog treats and yelled for Peggy. She hesitated, looked back, turned, started to move toward me, then abandoned me and tore off after Peter, who had already disappeared in the far-reaching forest.
I dashed to my car, spun it around, and took off at a good clip, expecting the dogs to follow. Frantically, I cranked the window down as I drove and called, "Peter. Peggy. Come." I checked the rearview mirrors, expecting to see my rascals racing after me for dear life so I wouldn't leave them. The sweep of an empty gravel pit ringed with wilderness yawned behind me, echoing isolation. My dogs were gone.
I drove down the Alaska Highway in the direction those unfaithful hunters had headed. Every hundred feet or so, I stopped and called, "Peter. Peggy. Come." Dripping vegetation absorbed my voice. Nothing responded, not even an echo.
An alarming thought pierced me. Maybe they think I've driven off and left them. Jolted, I turned around right in the middle of the isolated road, sped back to our camping spot, and parked. I scrambled out of the car and yelled for Peter and Peggy, then ran back up the hill to the road to yell again—and again—and again.
The Alaska Highway had hardly any traffic that early in the morning. I waited and called. Long, lonely time passed before I heard a stray vehicle putting up the highway. I jumped to the edge of the road and raised my hand for it to stop. The camper rolled on down the hill, its driver and passenger staring stonily ahead, avoiding looking my way. My raised arm dropped and my shoulders sagged as I watched that camper door disappear around a curve.
Again and again I raised my hand and waved to halt early travelers. Again and again, they, eyes averted, drove on, pretending they didn't see the wildly waving gray-headed woman in the middle of nowhere, with no cars, no buildings, no campground anywhere nearby. Who knew how she got there? Who knew what she might do?
A scrap of hope came when a highway truck appeared over the crest of the hill and actually slowed to a stop at my desperate waving.
"Have you seen two huskies?" I asked the men in the truck.
Both men shook their heads. "We'll watch for them," they said, and drove off.
By mid-morning, my energy tank was running on empty. Still, I crashed through the woods and up and down the Alaska Highway, yelling, yelling, yelling.
"Peter. Peggy. Oh, Pe-e-eggy." Silence. Only silence. Not even the sound of a bird. Exhausted, I returned to my car.
I tried to eat. Cantaloupe dropped untasted into my twisting stomach. I buried the rind under a fallen log and looked around at the soundless forest. What chance did my dogs have in that northern British Columbia wilderness? Home was over a thousand miles away. They'd never make it.
Would they know enough to find their way back to the car? I thought of bears, elk, moose, the miles of wildness, the absence of people. Could my dogs cope—those kibble-fed rascals? Body and spirit slumped. Regret, powerful and sharp, knifed through me, punching my stomach, squeezing my heart. If only, if only.... Over and over I agonized. But I couldn't reclaim that millisecond mistake I made when I released Peter's collar.
I sent out a fervent prayer: "Protect my little dogs," I pleaded. "Keep them safe."
I didn't know how the universe worked, but I believed—hoped—a Listening Intelligence had a hand in its workings. I felt sheepish praying. I wasn't a habitual pray-er. Any prayers I mustered were spontaneous prayers surging from my heart as I beheld the beauty and intricacies in nature, rejoiced in gratitude for life's small gifts, or expanded with love at children's happy innocence and—yes, alas, alas—the doggie antics of Peter and Peggy.
Now I, a supplicant-come-lately with sore and fearful heart, prayed a pleading prayer. I apologized for my prayer laxity and sent my pleas into the ether, hoping some Mysterious Listener might hear and save my furry friends. What else could I do?
In my prayers, I was specific. "Bring them back in the next three hours," I broadcast. Such bossiness, the wisps of my hope, I dumped from the caverns of my doubt into any Knowing Presence.
I'd done all I could do. I crawled in the back of my station wagon and lay on my back staring at the dome light, trying to will myself to sleep. But every few minutes, I popped up to see if those dogs were back. Sleep eluded me.
A tight gnarl of impatience and regret sapped my waning energy. Tensed and jumping, I waited. I had no book to read, no puzzles to work, nothing to distract my mind. It grew later. And later. And later. Three hours passed. Still no dogs. I had to do something or burst.
Whatever I did, I would not move my car. It was the last bit of "home" my dogs could return to. I straightened the dog beds beside my car and put out bowls of food and water. Then I locked my car, tossed my wallet in my backpack, and climbed the walls of the gravel pit to the Alaska Highway, intending to hitch a ride to Laird River Lodge. Maybe travelers had seen the dogs. I would leave my brother Jim's Illinois phone number and my own Alaskan number in case—well, just in case.
By this time, traffic had picked up on the highway. Each time I heard a vehicle heading west, I stepped toward the pavement and stuck out my thumb. Trucks, campers, and motor homes passed me as though I were a bit of debris along the road. Again, drivers averted their eyes and clutched their steering wheels, intent on their journey, intent on not seeing me. They'd been schooled, by heck: Don't pick up hitchhikers.
After many vain attempts to hitch a ride, I saw a highway truck pull off the road down the hill from me. The driver got out and ambled over to a road sign to examine it. I sprinted down the hill toward him. He was stepping back into his truck when I approached.
I waved to him. "Wait. Wait. Would you give me a ride to the Laird River Lodge so I can leave a message there? My two dogs ran off. I want to leave my own car here in case the dogs come back."
The driver said "Sure. I'm headed that way anyway. Hop in."
Finally! I was moving toward possible help. It felt so good to lean against the truck seat and rest. My body uncoiled a little. As we drove down the long, winding hill toward Laird River, I asked the young man about his summer job inspecting highway signs. All the while, I scanned the roadsides, looking for a flash of white tail. A futile quest: Those dogs weren't on the roadway. They were hunting in the forest.
We continued down and down and down. The lodge was farther away than I thought. "Boy, I hope I can get a ride back," I said.
"I'll give you a ride," the young man said. "I need to come back this way, anyway."
He stopped at a lodge perched high above the far side of Laird River. I went inside to inquire about my dogs while the sign inspector sat on a log and ate his lunch. Inside, a nice-looking blonde woman sitting at a table with a group of other women got up and asked if she could help me. I told her about my missing dogs, gave her my phone number and Jim's, and told her where my car was parked.
"On the other side of the river is a highway station," she said. "You might let them know. They have dogs. Your two dogs might have stopped there."
I thanked her and said I'd like to buy a cup of hot tea. I couldn't eat, but I needed a shot of caffeine. I was feeling shaky and washed out from my morning exertions. The blonde wouldn't take my money. "No, no," she said. "There's no charge. You take it. Good luck finding your dogs."
When my Samaritan driver finished his lunch, we drove across the bridge to the highway station. "Anyone around?" I yelled. A woman around thirty or forty came out of one of the buildings. When I told her about my dogs, her sympathy and willingness to hold them for me if they came around lifted my spirits. I didn't think the dogs would ever cross the Laird River. I would come here later in the evening if the dogs hadn't returned to my car by then.
The young man and I drove back up the long, winding way to the gravel pit. I thanked him, cut across to the lip of the gravel pit, and scrambled down toward my parking spot. As I approached the spot, I strained my eyes, hoping, but saw no tired dogs curled on their dog beds. When I reached the car, I looked in the dog dishes. The kibbles were still there.
Dispirited, I lay down on my bed. The sun came out and warmed my legs. I dozed.
When I awoke, I hoisted myself to check the dog beds. Empty. I looked at my car clock. It was after 3:00. Over nine hours had passed since those dogs took off. If they hadn't returned by now, what chance was there that they would return?
What to do? I couldn't—just couldn't—drive away without them. A lump lodged in my throat. I swallowed and blinked.
I had to do something. In my glove compartment I fished around for a notepad I used for gas records. From it, I tore off a sheet of notepaper and wrote, "REWARD. $500...." I noted Jim's phone number, my phone number, and the approximate location of the gravel pit in case the dogs were seen. I said I would pay for their gas and time if they came to the gravel pit with information about my dogs.
When I finished the first sheet, I ripped out another sheet and wrote the same message. One sheet I would send to Muncho Lake, twenty or thirty miles away. One I would take back to the Laird River Lodge myself, but first I would stop by the highway station to see if my dogs were there.
Again, I went up to the highway. I listened for vehicles heading toward Muncho Lake. Each time one came up the hill, I waved my arm. Each time, the drivers went on, eyes straight ahead.
This isn't working, I thought after six or eight vehicles passed me. I need to be more aggressive.
When I heard the sound of the next motor churning up the hill from Laird River, I stood in the middle of the lane and waved both arms. A pick-up truck towing a U-Haul appeared over the lip of the hill. Its driver had three choices: To go around me, to run me down, or to stop. He stopped.
Two plaid-shirted men, looking a trifle impatient, stared through the windshield at me. I went to the passenger window, held out my reward message and said, "Would you drop this off at Muncho Lake? My two dogs disappeared. They've been gone over nine hours."
"Was one of them a husky?" the man in the passenger seat said.
A lightning bolt of hope! "Yes, they're both huskies."
"We saw a husky laying beside the road back not too far from here."
"Was it dead or alive?"
"Oh, it was alive."
"One was all we saw."
The words leapt from my mouth. "Would you take me back and show me?"
Reluctantly, the passenger slid down from the truck and moved things to make room for me.
"You don't need to do that," I said. "I can just hop in the back of the truck."
"No, that's too dangerous," the driver said as the other man motioned me to the middle of the seat.
After I squeezed in the cab, the driver turned his truck and U-Haul around. While we descended, rounding one curve after another, I scanned ditches 'til my eyes ached. I saw no dogs, let alone mine. Despair again crept in.
Then the driver said, "It was right in here we saw him."
"On the right or the left?"
"Over on the right."
I peered to the right, but saw nothing. The driver slowed, drove on a short way, then said the blessed words, "Yep, he's still there."
I looked and saw Peggy's ears sticking up.
As we neared the spot, one of the men said, "Yeah, there are two of them. Look."
I looked. Peggy, loyal Peggy, sat at Peter's rear, as if guarding him. Peter lay, unmoving.
Is he dead?
When the truck pulled up at the spot where the dogs were, I jumped out and hurried toward them. "Peter," I yelled. Peter lifted his head.
"Peter! Peggy! Oh, am I glad to see you." I dug in my pocket and pulled out two treats. Usually Peggy snaps treats from my hand. This time, she took hers gingerly and cautiously gnawed it, chewing on one side of her mouth only.
Peter lay, weakly wagging his tail. He groaned when I lifted him and limped, but when I checked him over, I found no marks on him. Politely, he took the treat I offered and slowly ate it.
I turned to the men in the truck. "Yes, these are my dogs all right, the little rascals."
The men lowered the tailgate on the truck. Peggy jumped right in alongside an ATV, but Peter couldn't make it. I lifted him in and the men secured the tailgate.
Returning to the gravel pit, I carried on. "Oh, I'm so relieved. I'm so relieved," I said as I sank back against the seat. "You guys have done your good deed for the century. You have three stars in your crown. I thought I'd lost those dogs for good...." My muscles uncoiled, the weight of over nine hours of "if onlys" slipped away, and lightness suffused me.
When the men dropped me off at the gravel pit, I said, "I'd like to give you a reward, but my checkbook's in my car. Let me go get it."
"Naw, we don't want a reward." I shut the door and my benefactors drove on, heading for Montana. I hoped my obvious relief and happiness at finding those dogs rewarded them. I hoped it made their day.
Peter walked without limping when I took the dogs down to the car. Maybe, I thought, he was just tired. The rascals were more than ready to get in the car. Peggy jumped right in and curled up on her dog bed. I lifted Peter to his bed, dumped kibbles back in the sack, shut the tailgate, and drove to Laird River Lodge. I wanted to let them know the dogs were found and to buy gas there, since they were so nice.
The gas station didn't have any gas because the truck hadn't come in, but the nice blonde woman was glad I'd found my dogs.
"This time I want to buy a cup of hot tea," I said.
She got my tea. When I went to pay for it, she waved me away. "No, no, she said. You've had a hard day. You take this tea."
It was after 4:30 when, light and happy, I started my day's drive with my dogs safe, curled up sleeping in the back of the car. As I drove down the Alaska Highway into the golden evening, I acknowledged how lucky—how exceedingly lucky—I had been to get my dogs back.
I wondered again about Universal Intelligence, about Providential help, about the efficacy of prayer. So many cars, campers, and motor homes passed me by as I stood in that isolated spot trying to wave them down. Did Providence hurry them past me? Did Providence wait until a truck carrying two hunter-eyed men who'd spotted a husky beside the road came along, and then and only then, prompt the driver to stop for me?
Regardless of Providential mysteries, my heartfelt relief, gratitude, and restored sense of well-being reverberated in the heavenly spheres—my genuine prayers of thanksgiving.