Category Archives: Dog

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

Day Thirty-Nine: Cross-Species Friendship

As I may have mentioned, I participate in @dorianmases Instagram photography challenges. The latest was to take a picture featuring a shadow or shadows. While playing around with the camera and the dog, I got this shot, which I entered. Part of the challenge is to put some good text with the photo, a little story about it.

Working on the challenge while re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens made me think about our amazing relationship with dogs. We humans like to think of ourselves as a single species, independent of all the others. In reality, we may not even be mostly human. The commonly cited statistic about a 10:1 ration of microbial cells to human cells may not be good science, or even science, period, but whatever the reality is, a large part of us isn’t actually us. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say a large part of us is what one of my professors would call a holon, something that is both a whole and a part, simultaneously. I’ve heard humans referred to as a composite species.

And that’s without even thinking of our symbiotes. Most of our symbiotic relationships are a pretty raw deal for the other party. Humans make chickens the most widespread bird in the world, an evolutionary win, but most chickens lead miserable lives.

In some cases, dogs and cats also lead miserable lives, but on the whole, our symbiotic relationship with carnivores is different than with herbivores. It is more about partnership than subjugation. Dogs and humans, in particular, have been an unbeatable team.

The earliest concrete evidence we have of domesticated dogs is 14,000 or so years old, but there is evidence that dogs and wolves split from a common wolf-like ancestor 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. I’m not sure what other selection pressure would cause this divergence, if not domestication.

Though I have no basis for it, I choose to believe that dogs teamed up with people at the early end of that range. It allows more time for what has been a process of co-evolution. It wasn’t just the dogs that changed with domestication. Both species developed a remarkable instinct for communication with one another. Dog’s profound cooperative instincts, pack hunting, territoriality, and gregariousness may have influenced human development.

In fact, it’s pretty arguable who domesticated whom. More recent theories posit that, when wolves scavenged human middens, the friendliest started to bond with humans, kicking the whole thing off.

However it happened, humans would be different creatures if we hadn’t teamed up dogs. Our partnership has had profound implications for our own development, as well as that of dogs.

My friend, Nairobi.

And what a marvel that is! Two species, so different from one another, literally creating each other down the centuries.

I’ve heard dogs and cats called parasites, who mooch off human generosity while providing little in return. Few of us hunt with our dogs any longer, or run sheep, or pull travoises and sleds. But in these times in particular, we can’t discount the oxytocin boost they give us when we look into their eyes, they vicarious joy we feel when they exuberantly chase down a ball, or the warmth we feel when they lay their heads on our knees.

People who have dogs in their lives have better physical health outcomes, and oxytocin expression and cortisol reduction provide significant mental health benefits. In these stressful times, our friends the dogs are doing us plenty of services.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a dog, don’t take him or her for granted. You are just the most recent partners in a relationship that goes back at least 14,000 years, and is an absolutely astonishing, almost magical, story of co-evolution. Remember to be amazed.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Three: Verbal Emoji

In a mask, this looks cranky af, but it’s actually quizzical.

Being out on the trails carries, realistically, a very small chance of infection. But I wear the damned mask anyway, in great part to normalize it. The more people see others masked, the more they will do it themselves at the grocery stores and in other, higher-risk venues. I also want to normalize it for myself, as just something I put on when I am going out. And I don’t want to scare people with my seasonal allergies. I know I’m not sniffling because I’m sick, but nobody else does.

But going around masked causes a new set of problems. Yesterday, I was on a trail near my house that has become by unspoken and somewhat sneaky consent a sort of informal off-leash dog area for the neighborhood. I was running, and Dog stays on the leash when we run. I can’t keep track of her and my footing and run up hills all at the same time. But there was another dog who was having a free-range moment. She ran right up to us.

I have learned the hard way that when we encounter a loose dog when Dog is leashed, it’s best to stop and let the sniffing happen. Pulling Dog along just forces her to retreat without following dog etiquette, and often leads to unpleasantness. So I stopped and waited for this other dog’s humans to come along. When they were still some distance back, the guy started calling his dog, who totally ignored him. I smiled as he came closer and said “I see she’s super obedient, like my dog.”

This was a cheerful social gambit, not really funny, but lighthearted, and typical on the trails. I got nothing back. The guy wasn’t masked, so I could see that he didn’t smile. He may as well not have heard me.

It didn’t occur to me until after we had all passed each other that he couldn’t have seen that I was smiling. He could have interpreted my comment as sarcastic. I thought I infused a smile into my voice, but it might have been rough from breathing hard. He really had no way of knowing I wasn’t trying to be snarky.

Of course, maybe he was in a mood, or just isn’t a friendly type. But it would be a lot easier to tell if I knew what kind of signal I was giving out.

If we’re going to do this mask thing for real, we’re gonna need some face to face emoji. The technology is out there for a t-shirt or hat with LED light emoji, but that has never seemed very washable to me. I think we need something that we don’t have to replace part of our wardrobe to use.

That leaves us two obvious options. We can make some hand signs, maybe borrow from American Sign Language, although facial expression is a big part of signing, too. Or we can insert our smiley faces like a verbal tic. “I see your dog is super obedient, like mine, LOL face.”

This can have all kinds of applications. When you see family you are socially distant with: “it’s great to see you, Dad, hugging face.” Creeps who can’t leer effectively will have to say “eggplant” or “peach.” When someone gets a little too close in line, you’ll say “great social distancing, there, side eye.” After you get a great call from your doctor, you’ll tell your roommate “I tested negative, cold sweat relief face.”

If masks actually catch on in a big way, it will be interesting to see how face to face communication evolves. Maybe we won’t all develop a verbal emoji tic or start hashtagging everything à la John Oliver, but we’ll find some way to convey nuance, possibly by exaggerating our vocal tones or waggling the hell out of our eyebrows.

Or maybe by something completely different.

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Eight: Dog

Dog is back in commission!

She had picked up stiff little limp, so I benched her for two weeks. I missed her terribly on my walks and runs. It really got me thinking about why a walk or run with a dog is so much better than one without.

1. Happy Dog Butt. She doesn’t just walk on our walks and runs. She sashays and saunters and prances, tail switching like a metronome.

2. Getting compliments on the dog. It makes me irrationally happy when other people like my dog.

3. The occasional urge to take a selfie feels less self-involved if the dog is in it too.

4. Evergreen’s dangerous carnivorous elk may hesitate to attack two of us.

5. Every walk is a new voyage of discovery. Going around the block is like the resurrection of Marco Polo. Every. Single. Time.

6. Expressive ears.

7. Without a dog, squirrels ignore me. With a dog, they come down to yell at us, and I can sneak in a picture.

8. Everyone needs a photobomber in their life.

9. I talk to myself. Out loud. This is marginally less weird if you are addressing another mammal.

10. Sheer, unbridled, joyous enthusiasm!

Bonus. In winter, dogs sometimes get a snose.

Signing off. Take Care, everyone, and Take Care of one another.