Welcome back to Member Monday! It’s a delight to feature my long time friend and fellow Writers Forum board member, Jen Higley. She’s the woman responsible for managing the details of our ever-increasing membership as well as the purveyor of the delicious and healthy treats at our meetings. Anyone who can make a cookie delicious AND healthy deserves a medal in my book. Welcome, Jen!
Just Me and My Dog by Jen Higley
What does it mean to grow up?
To finish growing physically? To take on complete responsibility for your own life and actions?
I am quite responsible, and plenty old, but I needed to grow up—to truly mature, be strong, depend on no one but God for my well-being, body and soul. Then, I could take on the life that was meant for me. So I had a thought. I would head into the wild, by myself, and discover the person I am meant to be. Many cultures practice rites of passage when their children transition to adulthood. This would be a rite of passage for me, and if I passed this, I knew I would forever be stronger. But I didn’t want to die in the process, so I took my dog with me.
We found the trailhead free of cars. We were alone. There was one trail to take us to one destination, and it went up. And up, and up, and up. Over two miles of up, with no reprieve. Test number one: be willing to work hard without complaining. There’d be no one to hear it anyway. As we hiked, I felt very aware of the potential for wildlife encounters, and though I was looking for solitude, I found myself not minding the thought of someone else hiking in while we were there. But we came across no one.
We got to the small alpine lake which was our destination, and it was beautiful. All settled in camp, we turned in early. We awoke at one in the morning to the sound of loud coughing. Coughing, loud running, large things running on the rocks above our camp. I remembered what I had heard about mountain lions, and was pretty sure this was one. I went rigid, barely even lifting my head. I glanced at my dog, and he was doing the exact same thing. Didn’t bark, didn’t whine, didn’t move. It was as if he was telling me, ‘You don’t move when predators are hunting something else, you just be still.’ In the moment, the thought passed fleetingly through my mind to break camp at the crack of dawn and run screaming down the mountain to my car. But that would do me no good right now. Test number two: do not let fear control you. I prayed, knowing I was safe, and forcing myself to believe it. We heard no further sounds. An entire hour passed before I again fell asleep, but I did.
The next day we headed up and over a butte to find the little lakes on the other side of it. We made good time to the top of the ridge, and following deer trails down the other side we soon arrived at a small lake. Very small. I wanted to pump water from a bigger, cleaner source. I hiked past the little lake, and around it, and above it, at times literally dragging my dog behind me. There are some things even wolves weren’t built to climb. I finally told my dog to stay put while I looked for a different water source. He did stay put, and when I returned ten minutes later, he was exactly where I had left him, in the sun as there was no shade, and unconcerned. My dog was perfectly calm, waiting alone in the wilderness because I had told him to. I felt swept clean of the concern for water, and washed over with the joy of being so trusted, and the peace of being trustworthy. I had spied a larger lake nearby. ‘Found some more water. Let’s go.’
Back on top of the ridge, we began the return descent. At one point, my dog stopped to sniff and failed to notice I had headed down through some trees. Seeing me below him, and anxious to catch up, he raced to the edge of a sheer ten-foot cliff, convinced I must have gone that way. ‘No! Stop!’ He paused, inches from the edge, and looked at me expectantly. I didn’t move, just stood there with my hand in the air like I was keeping him from falling by using “the force.” I finally commanded, ‘Stay,’ then backtracked, moving the direction I wanted him to move. When I called ‘come,’ he ran away from the edge and down through the trees, happy to be again at my feet. Test number three: do not panic. Ever. You can’t help others, or yourself, when you’re panicking. We both made it back to camp alive.
The next day we rested, and the following morning, I packed up and we headed home. I had been reflecting on all we had experienced, and what I had learned, when my dog stopped behind me, sniffing toward the nearby creek. I scanned for movement, but saw none. We continued, but ten seconds later he stopped again, sniffing the air. I looked toward the creek again. Mama Bear and I saw each other at the same moment, and we both froze. She and her beautiful cub glowed black against the forest growth, and I was both terrified and thrilled by the sight. What was it people say about bears? That they run away from you, unless they feel the need to protect their cubs. ‘God, what do I do?’ Then she was off. Within three seconds, she had huffed and grunted away from us as fast as she could while not one, but two little cubs scaled two enormous pine trees near us. I grabbed my dog, who hadn’t moved, and proceeded at a steady pace down the trail, determined to look neither threat nor prey to the no doubt not-far-off mama. Test number two again: do not let fear control you. That’s an important one, which I got the opportunity to pass twice. I knew she was not coming after us. I knew we would be a safe distance away by the time she came back for her cubs. That knowledge did not stop me from inadvertently sending my dog the signal that we flee for our lives when we see bears. After a good half mile, I stopped, calmed myself, and told him out loud that we are not afraid of bears, we are not running for our lives, and stop tripping me trying to blaze past me down the mountain. It worked. We were both calm again. Calmish.
Our rite of passage now felt complete. We had passed the tests, and we emerged from the wilderness stronger, unafraid, grown up.
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