Trail Confession: I Paid for a Hit on My Best Friend

Backpacking

That’s not all. It wasn’t the first time, and I’d do it again under similar circumstances. I only wish I had a friend that would do the same for me. 

I’ve used the same hit man more than once. I had him come to the house when there would be witnesses. I even stayed, watched, and participated in the death of my best friend. I held her when he injected her with a muscle relaxer to keep her calm throughout the whole process. 

The sun must eventually set on us all.

How It All Started

To understand the relationship fully, we need to go back in time to get a fuller understanding. I’m not talking about the period of our lives that we have been friends. Much further back so the relationship can be seen in its fullest context. I’m talking pre-historical times. 

It’s not known exactly when but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 years ago. When men were living in small family groups, it was only natural to develop a location on the edge of the living space where excess materials and waste would accumulate. The modern-day equivalent of a dump. 

An advanced species of animal began interacting with a truly savage species. The advanced species was scared of the savagery of the lesser, but saw a glimmer of hope for a peaceful coexistence. The experiment began with two members of the advanced species talking to each other about future possibilities. “One day, we will be able to tame them to the point that we will lay around on the couch all day while they go out to gather food for us. When they come home, they will prepare our meals before taking us out to exercise. We will make them pay for our entire existence including free health care. And, just to make sure they never forget their place in the order of things, we will have them pick up our poop and carry it while we saunter around.”

The first primitive species to interact with wolves. Clearly, they have influenced us by teaching us how to howl.

From those humble beginnings, the wolves developed a strategy for domesticating the human race. At first, they allowed humans to go on hunts with them to teach the power of organized hunting methods. In time, they allowed the humans to hunt on their own and bring back the bounty to them. The ritual of “walking the dog” is a reminder of the time when our two species hunted together. 

Flash Forward

Thirteen years ago, I adopted two half sisters who were only 18 days apart in age. The younger was only 6 1/2 weeks old, but she had never been separated from her older sister her entire life. They were constantly touching each other. I had originally only planned on getting one pup, but the two were so close to each other that the breeder didn’t want to separate them. They gave me such a great deal to keep them together that I couldn’t resist. 

Bunny with our constant companions, Ilana and Nutiket, at a winery in SE Missouri.

On the drive home, the younger pup slept on the paws of her big sister while the big sister stayed awake and watched. She lay her head on her ward so she would know she was safe to sleep. In fact, big sis (Nutiket) and little sis (Ilana) didn’t spend a total of ten nights apart from each other until Nutiket died 9 1/2 years later from cancer. 

Where Did Those Names Come From?

When I was in third grade, I read a book, In the Shadow of a Rainbow, about a great silver wolf living in Canada’s Yukon Territory.  That wolf’s name was Nahani. I fell in love with the name as soon as I heard it. There’s even a river in the Yukon named Nahani River. I didn’t know what type of dog I would have, but I knew its name. 

Eventually, I grew up and went to college. I had almost forgotten about Nahani until I visited a coworker’s apartment. We walked in and I was face to face with the most beautiful dog I had ever seen… a Great Pyrenees. I now had the dog to go with my name. 

Great Pyrenees are known as gentle giants.

After college comes career and first home, but no home is complete without a dog. I found a Great Pyrenees puppy that needed a home and Nahani finally joined my family. A dog that took me 18 years to get. After getting her through her puppy months, I decided to get another so I’d never have to know the pain of complete separation from losing a child. I chose to not have children so my dogs were my children and best friends. Naming was critical. 

Over the years, I have had six Great Pyrenees named as follows: 

  • Nahani…shining one
  • Amangi..large one
  • Holpe…farmer
  • Allumes…little dog 
  • Nutiket…guard
  • Ilana…tree

Clearly, I had too much time on my hands. 

Off we go for a backpacking weekend with Ilana (Nutiket was not an avid camper, so this is one of the nights they were separated).

Sadly, bigger dogs have shorter lives. The oldest dog I’d had until Nutiket died at 9 1/2 was just barely 9. When Bunny and I started planning our backpacking adventures, Ilana was still with us. Seeing as how I’d never had a dog live past 9 1/2, we made sure to give Ilana plenty of time. It was her age that caused us to delay the start of our travels until 2017 which would make Ilana 11. Surely, she wouldn’t still be alive considering the history of my other dogs. 

Ilana’s First Brush with Death

When Bunny and I moved in together, Nutiket and Ilana were four and full of life. Nutiket, the bigger protector weighed in around 125# with Ilana tipping the scales at 110#. She was just a little lap dog. In the backyard of the house we were renting was a brush pile with little bunnies living in it. Ilana used to dig around in the pile trying to get to the rabbits. If she caught one, she didn’t hurt it. She’d just try to carry it into the house. 

Clearly, Ilana was failing when she didn’t even react while sleeping with a cat.

Southeast Missouri has a history of fungus in the soil which I was unaware of. One evening, I came home from work to find Ilana barely able to breathe. I decided to take her to a 24 hour vet emergency. On the X-ray of her lungs, they showed me what appeared to be a bag of cotton balls. She had contracted histoplasmosis and blastomycosis. If the fungus made the jump from her respiratory system to her circulatory system, she would die. 

We spent the next 18 months fighting the fungus. I was spending nearly $1,000 a month on antifungal medication and carrying her back and forth between vets. During this period, she lost over 50% of her body weight. She had no appetite at all. I’d bring her McDonald’s hamburgers, or make her chicken and rice, whatever I could find that she would eat. Several times I was driving her to the vet thinking “this is it” and crying my eyes out. 

She loved the snow! The colder the better.

Once she got down to 55#, she slowly started the climb back up to recovery. For the rest of her life, she always had a wheeze and reduced lung capacity, but she had a strong will to live. She never made it back up to her pre-fungal weight of 110#, but she did make it up to a healthy 90#. It only took three years to get there. 

Time to Leave

All of our plans were made including buying plane tickets to London. We got married in January of 2017. Ilana was nearly 11. This meant that Ilana was simultaneously my oldest and youngest daughter with no end in sight. What do we do with her since we will be out of the country for 8 months hiking all over Europe?

A friend of ours and former pet sitter agreed to adopt her for the time we were in Europe. DR had two other dogs but was willing to take Ilana in as well because she had been in her life for nearly 8 years. With heavy hearts, we left Ilana and went to Europe, convinced we’d never see her again. 

Ilana was just a lap dog.

To our surprise and relief, Ilana survived our separation. We got back in December of 2017 finding her a little lighter, slightly feeble, but pretty healthy for a big dog almost 12 years old. We had two months to spend with her before we were to start the Appalachian Trail. As the time passed, she started getting stronger. It looked like we’d have to make plans for another home while we hiked the AT. 

We took her with us on a road trip to visit friends and family over Christmas. We had several offers to take her in. In the end, we decided to leave her with Bunny’s parents. They had just lost their dog and needed someone to fill the void. Once again, we said our goodbyes to Ilana, convinced we were never going to see her again. 

Clearly a good natured dog that will wear deer antlers at Christmas.

We kept in constant contact with Ilana on the trail. We heard every time her health started declining only to hear her rebound the next week. By the time we made it up to the Whites of NH, I started having nightly dreams of my puppy. I was convinced that this was her coming to me telling me the end was near. I wanted to get home in time to be with Ilana when the time came. 

The End

When we got home from hiking the AT, I walked into the house looking for Ilana. I found her sitting in the backyard with a Grandma and Grandpa. She looked confused and could barely sit up. I didn’t think she’d even made it through the night. I slept with her on the floor that night thinking I’d have to make “the call” in the morning.  The next morning, she was able to stand on her own. Let’s give her another day. 

I could never resist this face or deny her what she wanted…she was/is/always will be a daddy’s girl

It’s been nearly 4 months since that first night. During that time, we have been in and out visiting friends and relatives. She’s been riding ups and downs during that time. When Bunny and I leave for a couple of days, her health dips down. When we get back, I sleep on the floor with her for a night or two until she starts rebounding. 

Recently, she had been failing more and recovering less. She’s gotten to the point where she strains so much getting up, that she poops a bit. Last Friday, she fell while peeing and I had to hold her rear end up so she could pee. I called the vet that day and asked him to come to the house the following week. I wanted to give her every chance to bounce back strong. When she goes out in the yard, she has good moments, but she looks wistfully at the gate wanting to go for a walk knowing that she doesn’t have the strength. 

To the end she loved children

This morning, he called and said he could be here at 11a. I was devastated. I had hoped he couldn’t make it until later in the week. I have been having to carry her in and out for her to go to the bathroom. We are planning on starting the PCT the end of next week and I don’t think she would survive the separation again. I know it’s time, but I can’t accept it. 

I had two hours before the vet was to show. She hadn’t moved since I carried her back in this morning. I laid down with her and whispered in her ear while I stroked her. Could she remember the times we used to sit in our backyard when she was a puppy and we’d listen to the sounds of the night together? Or the long walks Nutiket, she, and I used to take around our farm? Or the way the deer followed us on the walks fascinated by the two big white dogs? Or the time she wouldn’t listen to me and ran after a skunk?—she did listen a lot better after that episode. Did she remember swimming in our pond? Did she know how much I loved her and all she’d done for me over the years? 

My life was better and fuller because of having dogs in them. I will miss Ilana more than she realized.

It’s an amazing relationship, dogs and people. Two different species that have evolved together. They have become inseparable and work together. Dogs enrich our lives and inhabit our hearts. This is one of the worst days of my life. I’ve lost my best friend and daughter. For the first time in over a half a century, I’m a little boy without his dog. 

EFG

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