Night Hike

I used to hike at night in the winter in California. Not (normally) LATE at night but after dark. It was a wondrous world of sounds and the smell of black sage in the Southern California Chaparral. Most of those hikes were with my wolf-dog, Ariel, and with Molly or Lupo. Molly, Lupo and Ariel were pretty large dogs, so I had companionship, a warning system and protection.

The night sky above a big city does not reveal a lot of stars, but there I could see stars unless there was heavy ocean fog. The river valley that made the canyon went straight to the Pacific, so little cat feet of fog often made their way up the valley.

Many animals are more active at night, including mountain lions. It strikes me odd today that I never thought of that when I was wandering up a finger canyon with my dogs. I relied on my dogs a lot on those hikes, their noses, their senses, their instincts.

One of the sweetest of the shadowy experiences was toward the end of a canyon beside some oak trees (coastal live oak) where a pair of Western Screech Owls would often just make a racket. I thought they might have been talking to each other. Whatever they were doing, that was THEIR tree. One night, they were completely silent. I sensed they were there, that their silence was strategic, and that there was a predator near. I was a little bewildered because my dogs didn’t react at all, so if there WAS a predator, it wasn’t upsetting Molly and Ariel.


I developed a theory. My dogs had been around coyotes so much by that point that I think, on some level, they just regarded them as “the dogs we meet up with when we go for a hike with Martha.” I thought there might have been a coyote under that tree. To test my theory, I yipped.

He answered. We chatted. Molly and Ariel lay down, and waited patiently as we conducted our conversation, but after a while they got restless. They were hungry, and it was dinner time. I said my good-byes to the coyote, admonishing him to leave the owls alone and headed home.

Tale of a Tail-less Little Dog in the Big Empty

“She really doesn’t want to go, Martha?”

“Nope. I’m not going to spend time trying to catch her when I have another perfectly good dog who DOES want to go, right?”

“Yay! Yay! Yay! I’m going to sit here and you put my harness on, OK?”

“Good boy, Teddy.”

“Bye Bear! Bye Bear! Can’t we take her? She’s looking at us through the fence.”

“That’s her thing, Teddy. She has free will. She chose not to come.”

“Yay!!! Yay!!!”

“Up, puppy. You do that so good, Teddy.”

“I know, Martha. I’m the shit when it comes to getting in the car. Is that a good song, Martha?”

“Yeah, it’s a good song.”

“Why don’t you sing?”

“I can’t sing this one.” (Truth is, only Teddy thinks I can sing ANYTHING.)

We arrive, park, get out of Bella. I take my handy-dandy poop bag for my little guy just in case and we take off.

“Martha, there is all kinds of NEW POOP everywhere! Martha, my geese are out of control. Wait, there’s more! More geese!”

I look and there are goslings.

I need to take a real camera instead of subjecting you to this…

“Stop, Teddy,” I say and take a zoomed in photo of tiny birds. OH well.

We go on and then, suddenly, beside the trail…


“No Teddy. You have to leave that alone. That little guy has enough enemies already.”

“What IS it? What is that miraculous beast? I WANT it!!!”

“Cottontail rabbit, Teddy.”

“Rabbit. Hmmmm.”

“Probably somewhere in your ancestral memory.”

“My WHAT?”

There are other signs of spring in the Big Empty now. The trees…

It is a hazy, windy day today with cool temperatures…

Look, more poop. And more. I’m going to taste this one.”

“Don’t eat that shit, Teddy.” I laugh to myself. Here in the Big Empty who’s going to laugh with me?”

“Martha, listen. There’s that sound you like.”

You can almost see the Meadowlark

“Hang on little dude. I’m going to try to take her picture.”

“Are you going to stop here?”

“Yeah. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see the osprey or the hawks again.” I sit down on a rock. In fact, this walk has been slow and painful. Various parts of my body hurt from wielding the pick-axe. I’m no spring chicken. But, you know, it’s just one foot in front of the other and there is NO race. I don’t mind at all because walking is better than NOT walking. Left, right, left, right, left right. No one is here. No one is judging me. Just this little guy who stops periodically to jump up on me for a hug. He thinks I’m great.

While I’m sitting on “my” rock, a pair of ravens flies over, surfing the wind. Teddy climbs up into my lap as much as he can. I think of the thousands of times I’ve sat on a rock somewhere in the turn around or half-way point of a hike and a beloved dog has sat beside me or laid its head on my lap while I watched birds. “What’s better than this?” I think from my “lofty” promontory of roughly 28 inches. “A great dog and ravens playing on the wind.”

On the way home (the walk back was easier and less painful than the way out which is why it’s better to walk) I hear a good old song that I LOVE and that I can sing. Nothing deep, no Rocky Mountain High or anything, but Teddy was happy, licked my hand (probably thought I was in pain) and snuggled beside me.

Black Sage

One of the loveliest aromas I know is black sage after a rain, but how can you describe a fragrance? With similes, but black sage after a rain really ONLY smells like black sage after a rain.

It doesn’t grow here in Colorado. Its range is limited to Baja California and Southern California.

In 1984, I moved from Colorado to California. I didn’t want to move to California, and didn’t like it all that much most of the time, but here’s the thing. Even here, living in Heaven, I sometimes dream of those sere Southern California hills and their magic, and, sometimes (shhhh don’t tell anyone) I want to go back. I know that going back isn’t just a matter of getting on a jet and renting a car at a distant airport. There’s a bit of time travel involved.

Well, here goes, the fragrance of black sage.

It’s January. Still a month before the rattlesnakes and their babies come out in force to hunt around Valentine’s Day. It rained through the night, a real thunderstorm, and the world is wet, a magic thing in that desert place. You drive down Fairmount, under the freeway and connect to Mission Gorge Road where you turn right. You go west on Mission Gorge to Fr. Junipero Sera Trail where you turn left. This road is fun, windy and fast until the place becomes a park, but since we’re on an imaginary journey, lets say it’s not a park yet. You get to the Old Mission Dam Parking lot and park. You let Truffle and Molly out of the back seat of your Peugeot 505 sti (you don’t have your truck yet) and keep them leashed until you cross the bridge away from the dam area where people are often found. Then you let the dogs run free.

They charge off in a rush of dog joy ahead of you on the trail. You wrap their leashes over your shoulder and adjust your pack that contains only water, an orange, a granola bar and a yogurt container for the dogs to drink from.

You walk through the small ravine cut by the seasonal stream that empties into the San Diego River. In January it has water in it, and Truffle — a mix of a couple of water dogs, Labrador and Springer spaniel — is “fishing,” the white tip of her tail waving in joy.

Truffle swimming in the January ravine, black sage growing between the rocks

Molly stays with you most of the time, occasionally catching a scent and chasing it. Molly — Malamute and Australian shepherd — is a master hunter who has come back to you with a bunny butt hanging from her mouth. More than once she’s gone off with the coyotes in the darkness and returned, unable to tell her stories.

Truffle and Molly

As they run, they brush against the sage — black and white — and the air is redolent. The black sage is more common on the scrubby looking slopes, but the white sage is what the Indians use to purify spaces. You sometimes pick a branch or two to burn in your car.

Low clouds drifting in from the ocean climb the slopes, so close you can reach into them, walk through them, small patches of moving fog. When you reach the top of the hill — mountain, the world is green. You climb up to the top of the rock. Truffle and Molly join you. You pour them some water, take the orange out of your pack, peel it, suck on the juicy sections and watch the light play over the ocean, breaking through the shaggy remnants of last night’s storm.

That’s black sage after a rain.

Salvia mellifera. Salvia mellifera (black sage) is a small, highly aromatic, evergreen shrub of the genus Salvia (the sages) native to California, and Baja California, Mexico”

Slower Times

By the time we moved to Colorado in 2014, Mindy T. Dog (RIP 2018) was an elderly dog with bad hips. Bad hips and being unable to keep up NEVER stopped her interest in a good walk but she was s—l—o—w. Dusty and I would walk at our usual pace and then wait for Mindy to catch up. She wanted the whole walk. She didn’t like it when we turned around before she’d seen everything. Toward the end, the inevitable “last walk” (that’s not a euphemism) occurred. She wanted to go but the alley was her limit. She turned around on her own. You can read about Mindy’s adventures here, in the great Saga, “Princess Mindy and the Vast Monster of Snow.”

I have learned the wonders of a slow walk during the last few years. For a long time, walking 4 mph or faster in the back country, I joyed in the motion. I still saw a lot of things and would stop for many of them (a bobcat crossing the trail, a group of deer in the distance, hawks in the sky — the list is long and I don’t want to bore you [further]). But when I was not able to walk well at all and a mile took an hour, I learned to savor the whole thing. The result is that my big livestock guardian dog, Bear, as a puppy, learned to walk that way. When we’re OUT there, she thinks we should stop often. We don’t hurry and we DO stop often, but now a normal Bear walk is twice as fast. Still slow, but there’s a chance we’ll finish before the end of time.

I learned from the slow walks that 1) there’s really no place to go and 2) every place to BE. I’d like to go faster, but it’s really not important as it was 20 years ago. And, I never would have witnessed monarch butterflies copulating 20 years ago…or stopped long enough to get shredded by a horsefly.

What a Walk Means to a Dog

My injured foot has slowly been getting better. I have not, cannot and will not stay off of it completely nor will I see a doctor. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just sick of shit going wrong. Dr. Google (and previous experience) tell me that there no “cure” other than time, RICE and supportive shoes. It’s OK. It has three months + to get back to normal. I’ve been walking the dogs less frequently and less far and choosing trails carefully. Sidewalks are the most painful places, so I’m not walking around the hood. The golf course would be best, but guys are still playing golf. That leaves the wildlife areas, but Shriver/Wright is better than the Rio Grande Wildlife area because the trail is softer and there are far fewer rocks..

The poor dogs had gone without a walk for three days, so once I had done a ton of chores, I leashed Bear and Teddy, and we went out there. We were relegated to the Rio Grande Wildlife Area by dog owners parked at Shriver/Wright.

My foot is still hurt and walking on that rocky trail was difficult, requiring that I pay good attention to where I placed my foot. Teddy was a pain in the ass, continually walking behind me and nearly tripping me. I lost it and started giving him the what for — I never do that, but there I was. Pain makes people not themselves, and I definitely had a hurt foot. But afterwards, I was really sorry and embarrassed. We turned around at 1/2 mile and within 10 steps I’d re-injured my foot. “Karma,” I thought.

“I’m sorry Teddy.”

Teddy didn’t care and he’d stopped walking behind me.

I thought about what I’d read about Australian shepherds, “These dogs are tough. Think about it. They get kicked in the face by cattle.” I felt a little better.

We walked. Slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly. The dogs were good, and I was philosophical — the best I was going to get and it was pretty OK.

Back at home, my dogs — who have been a little insecure and, in Teddy’s case, aloof, since the two nights at the kennel — were back to their old affectionate selves and I thought about that. When I walk my dogs, that’s when the real bonding occurs between all of us. It’s not the food bowl. It’s not being petted, trained, given cookies or played with. It’s the hunt. This is the actual reason I have had so many dogs and love them so much. The hunt is the biggest thing in my life, too, the best part of any given day and the redemption of many a bad day. When my mom accused me of having dogs as “child surrogates” I said, “No. We’re friends. They like to do what I like to do.”

All of us basically hang around all day waiting for the moment when we can go hunting. My new plan is to take a couple days off and then walk them each on alternating days and take my cane. 🙂

Just Another Dog Walk

I think Faith, the late-blooming Australian pumpkin, is going into autumn with the best possible attitude. She isn’t paying any attention. Her growth outward might have slowed a bit, but she’s busy building actual pumpkins now, not just solar collectors. As of now, she has four pumpkins and a few little girls hoping to be fertilized. I won’t be helping her out anymore. I know what’s ahead and I think she’s going to need all her energy for the pumpkins that are already growing. Nonetheless, hopeful bachelors continue reaching for the sky and opening their golden blossoms to the bees.

Since I’m in one of those “What’s going on?” life moments, I’m scrutinizing everything and every moment for clues. Yesterday in the late afternoon Bear, Teddy and I headed out to the Wildlife Area for a walk. When we arrived, there was a man, a car and a dog. I recognize the dog. He lives two doors down and has for the past three or four years. I’ve wanted to meet him, but never could because, out on walks with Dusty, it was just too difficult.

I sat in Bella for a few minutes pondering what to do. Finally I jumped out and went over to ask the man if I could meet his dog.

“This is Roscoe,” said the man, introducing himself. But, of course, I forgot his name instantly. “You’re my neighbor, right? Two doors down?” Then, as is normal for this place, I learned his life story. Roscoe came from a shelter, already 4 years old. “That was four years ago,” said the man, “so he’s getting up there.” I think an 8 year old dog is in its prime, but that’s OK. “My wife brought him home, and she died a few months later. Then, last year, I had a stroke. I’m starting to do OK now, but I just want to be alone.” I said I understood that. I told him how when I retired from teaching and moved back here, I didn’t talk to anyone for five months. “Those big life changes,” he said, a comment that somehow made perfect sense. We made a few more remarks that were definitely deep clichés about being older, how when we were young we wanted to change the world and didn’t understand that the world would change us, first.

I wanted to get on the trail because the dogs were closed in my car. “Hey, Bear isn’t really dog friendly, so I…”

“Your black dog?”

“No, he died this year. My white dog, the livestock guardian dog. I have her and an Aussie puppy. He’s a year old. Bear was attacked by a dog on one of our walks and it changed her.”

“You know those apartments that look like motels? That little pit bull has attacked Roscoe twice. He bit me, too. And you know what? The people call the cops on ME.”

I shrugged. I never go that way because of that. I didn’t even utter the appropriate and expected remark. I just said, “I know. I’m sorry about Bear. She used to love every dog and every person, but she feels she has to protect me and…”

“Go get your dogs. I’ll leash Roscoe.”

“Great. Thank you. Which way are you going to go?”

“Tell me which way you’re going and I’ll go the other way.” The wildlife area is immense so we could still both have good walks.

I got the dogs and we hit the trail. It was a windy, crystalline early fall day in the wetlands. The light was incredible. It looked like we were going to go all the way to the river, maybe do the loop, when I stepped wrong on uneven ground and felt my foot go, “HFS!!!!” and that was that. It hurt like the furies of hell had pounded hot nails into the outer edge. I had to turn around. I had nearly a mile to walk to the car.

Bear got it that we were going to go very, very slowly. She immediately slowed down and began paying rapt attention to me. It was like the old days when my hip hurt so badly that a mile walk took at least an hour. This was the pace at which she’d learned to walk with me. Teddy, though. Oh the smells that this lingering pace brought to his canine radar — including a skunk who was most probably in the reeds beside the trail. “I don’t think so, Teddy. That’s not an experience you want to have.” I remembered when Lily and Dusty got skunked in my yard in California and all that followed from THAT.

“I love this, Martha!”

On we went at the pace I could manage, being careful not to bend my foot.
I remembered all I learned about looking at the world while in pain and going slowly. I saw so much more. I quickly returned to the discipline I’d learned during the year or more of my bad hip, and took in the analgesic beauty of the light on the blue water of the slough and the gold of the changing cattails.

My foot hurts today, but it’s not broken, not very swollen, and it’s wrapped and I am icing it. I still don’t know what’s going on but looking at life, it seems like a lot of the time I haven’t known what’s going on. So what else is new, right?

Bear’s Official “Gotcha” Day

Every family has its special days, and four years ago today, I brought my Bear home from the shelter for real. It was the most painless puppy integration I remember, though Teddy has been easy, too. I wasn’t sure about having a giant breed dog, but Marilyn of Serendipity told me what that kind of dog is like and I was persuaded. Bear was four months old and already had the gentle wisdom of a livestock guardian dog. Her very first night, when dusk arrived, she went outside to guard. She gave Dusty time to get to know her and there was a magic day when, for the first time in his life Dusty played. Bear taught him how. She treated my old Aussie, Mindy, with gentleness and respect.

I have enjoyed getting to know her. She’s not the dog to do tricks or anything like that. She was born with great self-confidence and inherent knowledge of who she is. There are things she will never do — so she’s always leashed when we’re out and that’s OK with both of us. Teddy is already learning to stay with me without a leash.

I love her, but I also like her in the way you might like a human friend. We’ve shared so many experiences and feelings. Back when I was suffering from advanced osteoarthritis in my hip, before my surgery, it was Bear who helped me understand WHY I should persevere with an operation I’d already experienced (the other hip) and dreaded with all my heart. “Because I’m here,” she said one afternoon when I was really in despair. Pain fucks with our minds; never doubt it. Somehow Bear reminded me of my “job” which is to be her human, caring for her and loving her all her life. I was truly standing on a precipice and Bear pulled me back. ❤

When we go out and ramble in the snow we share the experience and, I think, enhance the experience of the other. Bear loves snow as much as I do and as soon as she smells it, she’s outside, letting me know our “bliss” is falling. She’s an amazing being. Her beauty attracts people when we take walks and little kids always have to meet her. She’s gentle and slow moving around them and while, generally, I wouldn’t let a little kid hug one of my dogs, I don’t worry about Bear. I am sure the little kids believe they’ve entered an enchanted fairytale world when they stand beside a gentle creature as large as they are. When the little kids at the end of my alley get to walk her, it’s as good as a parade.

So, to honor her day, we went out to the slough to walk, something we haven’t been able to do because the river pretty much covered the first parts of it. The trail hasn’t been mowed and the weeds are high. There were mosquitoes everywhere and flowers — that’s a good description of life, I think. We had a great time.

Getting Bear in 2015

Walking Update — Mule Deer and My New Buff

Yesterday after I rode the Bike To Nowhere, Bear and I headed out for a ramble. I kind of wanted to see the horse that I call “My” horse because she’s so big and so friendly. She’s about a mile away, across the golf course, across the driving range, past where the burnt house once stood, beyond some pastures. You get the idea. When she sees me, she runs to the fence to get as close to me as she can. I wanted to go all the way to her paddock (which I cannot do with Dusty because of his barking) and maybe give her an apple. Dusty was pretty stove up after our last walk together and needed a day off.

So out we went, just Bear and me.

Cesar Milan is right in saying if you want to bond with your dog, walk with it. 

I have been walking and hiking with dogs since I got my first one, Truffleupagus of Song and Story, in 1987. For years and years walking with them in a wild place was always a suspension of normal human life. These were soul-lifting walks into a world where dog and human shared an experience that wasn’t all dog and wasn’t all human. I always felt it was one of the things that drew dogs and humans together eons ago. It’s hunting, it’s non-verbal communication, and neither dog nor human is in charge. It’s a partnership.

Not every dog I’ve lived with has been suited to this relationship. Dusty isn’t. He just likes to go for a walk. The huskies (most of them) were not. They were passionate about the Husky Agenda and didn’t notice the human beside them, except Ariel who was Husky with a smidgeon of wolf. She and I shared a very deep rapport on the trail. Molly was also great partner, though she did not share everything with me. I’ve sensed that Bear would be a great partner in this way, but, as long as I’ve had her, I haven’t been up to the partnership. I’d even begun to doubt if it was real. Maybe it was a fantasy I’d fabricated to explain having fun with my dogs on a trail.

But yesterday, it happened. All it took was for me to feel well enough that I was no longer conscious of my body. For a long time it hurt to walk. Then I was aware that it no longer hurt. I couldn’t focus on what was outside very easily.

Yesterday I never thought about how I walked. It was my first truly free day on a trail since late 2004/early 2005. Really. I didn’t know this was about to happen when I set out; I didn’t expect it.

I got to share it with my wonderful big white dog whose gifts are immense. We took off and there we were, confidently striding across the world toward the big empty.

She spotted the deer — a young buck calmly walking along the railroad track. Bear alerted me without barking or making any sound. She just let me know he was there. Not all dog breeds are gifted with great eyesight, but the Akbash is. They are a composite of breeds assembled hundreds maybe thousands of years ago in Turkey. One of their components is a Sight Hound, like an Afghan dog or Greyhound. Bear just stopped, stood still and watched. I immediately looked where my dog was looking, just as she had told me to

As soon as she knew I saw the deer, she was ready to go get him (with me) but she didn’t. She looked at me, “How are we going to do this, Human?”

I whispered, “Bear, sit.” She sat. “Just watch,” I whispered. She watched, rapt, ready. I’m sure she wondered when we were going to go get him, but she didn’t make a sound.

When he took off (calmly, slowly) by going under the train car, she stood as if she were saying, “Hey, Martha, what?” 

When I said, “You’re perfect, Bear,” and hugged her she understood. 

I can’t explain the connection clearly. I don’t think it’s a word thing, but I’m sure others have experienced it. You see it with working dogs all the time, Aussies and Border Collies working with their people to keep a flock of sheep in line. 

And now for the product plug…

Trying to combat the effects of cold air on my lungs, I’ve been heading out with a scarf wrapped around my mouth. OK, mostly, effective but it doesn’t stay put or tied or… Then Xenia, in Scotland, whose blog is Whippet Wisdom mentioned a thing called a “Buff” that she wears when it’s cold. I checked into this thing called “Buff” and bought one.

I just got back from a Dusty and Bear walk, heading north, which is always cold this time of year, walking in my own shade. I wore my new Buff today. It was GREAT. Because it can get to -20 F here, I got the extreme one, fleece on one side and microfiber on the other. It matches both my jackets which is pretty amazing since one is red and one is purple. It contorts into numerous functional shapes and the one I bought is made from two plastic bottles. I love it.

My Marathon

A long time ago in a far away place my dog Molly and I hiked a marathon. We didn’t set out to do that, but by the time we finished, that’s what we’d done. It was December in the year 2000 or 2001. Molly was already a pretty old dog — 12 years old. She was my best friend. She was — to me — much more than a dog though being a dog is already a pretty amazing thing. I thought we’d hike 7 or 8 miles, but the day was so beautiful, windy but not too windy, just windy enough to clean the air an bring the sky close. As we hiked, I’d think, “Wow, I wonder what THIS looks like today” and we would go there. Fortunately, there was drinking water on the trail from a good well that flowed into a trough for the dog.

We started at the Meadows Information Station on the Sunrise Highway about 9 am. By the time we got back, it was dark and my feet hurt in a wonderful new way. The bottoms hurt when I put my foot down; the tops hurt when I lifted my foot and the top hit the laces and tongue of my shoe.


I checked my map when I got back to my truck and computed the distance. I was stunned. I had walked the distance between the mountain and the outskirts of San Diego. 26 miles. And, I was starving.

Not long after that, Molly was no longer up for a long hike. Time began to tell on her joints as happens with larger old dogs. I think that day was a great gift of long distance spontaneity, my only marathon and I shared it with her. ❤


Sleeping Cattails Between the Storms


I don’t know why I thought of this song while we were walking, maybe because of the numerous carrot and potato filled semis heading down the country road to meet HWY 160 and the fact that I know I’m home. Home — for me — is this beautiful world, this valley with its harsh climate and heart-breaking beauty. I still can’t believe I get to live here. Maybe the kisses I get are dog kisses, and maybe the hugs I get are from friends and Bear and trees and light and mountains in the distance, stars so bright they seem to blaze through my window at night. I don’t know. Love is what keeps your heart whole and, for me, it’s always been being outside, human, embraced by nature, beneath the sky. ❤