Winter Alert: Mixed Message Warning

Reaching Escape Velocity
Reaching Escape Velocity

She, for reasons I will never fathom, insists on giving Tsuga, our six year old yellow lab, one more chance despite a history of unrepentant recidivism. But she feels sorry for him to the point of being willing to suffer hardship again and again on his behalf. Or more to the point in this tale, to offer my suffering as sacrifice for his freedom.

“Don’t call him, he’s okay, he’ll not go anywhere. He needs to roam a little” she said as the dog wandered farther from us into the deep December snow.

It soon became clear that he had picked up a scent and also that he had suddenly and completely lost his hearing. We hollered the usual commands that bring him back, even as he moved away from us, down into the creek bed and into the meadow at the foot of Heart-attack Hill. He did not even bother to look our way.

I grabbed the leash from her, hoping faintly to intersect his path where the road comes closest to the pasture near the foot of the bluff, confident there he would take notice, repent, and come.

Mostly I hoped that catching him would extinguish the “exhortations” of my dear life-mate that were coming heavy and mixed from the distance. I was over-heating, from the excess of clothing, from the exertion, but chiefly from the heat of utter exasperation stoked by the conflicting directives aimed at my ego.

“Hurry! You’ve got to get him NOW!” she implored, followed immediately by “Don’t you have a heart attack chasing the dog” and before the echo from that dire warning could leave the valley: “I could have HAD him by now!”

I refused to allow my manhood be sullied by my panel of judges standing casually back on the road, alternately cheering and booing. I slogged through the drifts toward the dog step by labored step in urgent slow motion as if in a futility dream.

“He’s getting away, you’re losing him!” the blame-filled encouragement just kept coming. At the bottom of an impossibly steep and rocky hillside, the snow piled up to my waist. The dog, with four wheel drive, was well on his way up the slope, while my snow-filled rubber boots spun without friction in the soft powder. Run, Forest, run. I grasped for saplings to purchase elevation, and fell face first three times only to gain as many feet.

“I walk in this stuff a lot more than you do, I should have gone to get him” she gloated. Then, in a dazzling retraction of all prior forecasts of dire consequences: “Just leave him alone, he’ll come home. You’re killing yourself just to prove you are still the alpha male” followed immediately by the whiplash-inducing reversal: “You’re letting him get away!”  Push. Pull. Advance! Retreat! The vicissitudes of married life and pet ownership. Defeat was clearly in my grasp.

In my own defense, I shouted back to her at a higher volume than necessary from that distance that simply walking in this stuff as opposed to wind-sprinting up a near-vertical hillside were two different categories of effort not to be compared, so maybe she’d like to show me how fast she could scamper up Cardio-Hill through the drifts. The dog left us to our marital discourse. I abandoned the hope of tracking him, tucked my tail and made my way back to the road.

She, fresh and superior, strode trimphantly past a beaten man, hunched over, hands on knees, overheated, panting and fuming. Muttering to no avail in self-justification, I lumbered along behind her in the general direction that the dog had most probably gone after he left me stranded in the agony of defeat.

A short walk later, Tsuga appeared some distance down the road, his attention totally focused on the object of his adventure, a deer kill whose existence he’d detected from a quarter mile away–an inner-wolf trigger that had required his brief escape from domestic life on a leash.

And he was happy. And she was happy. And I, clinging to the vague notion that some tiny facet of abnormal human or animal behavior could be better understood from a debriefing of this bizarre winter cameo, was considering the episode in my head as the three of us walked silently back to the house.

Tune into this Marital Storms Channel from time to time for emergency updates. All Hazards.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Does this ever sound familiar – Spencer’s impeccable nose can pick up the scent of something ripely dead or a heap of fragrant bear poo at quite a distance, and when that happens, he is gone at the speed of light. A few weeks ago, he decided to roll in a pile of smelly bear stuff way up the trail and since he shuns indoor bathing, we had fun, lots and lots of fun.

    Merry Fred, Ann and (of course) Tsuga…

  2. I’ve now seen quite a few pictures of dogs gamboling in the snow and ask myself how they stay warm? Of course, I know they have fur, but what about the bottoms of their feet, their bellies, their legs, their snouts, their ears? Maybe if they move fast enough and burn enough calories, they stay warm? You can sure tell this query comes from a non-snow person!

  3. Dear Fred,

    You need help and a hot chocolate. I’m reminded of some fact or folklore that says nobody has ever found a cat skeleton in a tall tree or on a telephone pole.

    Let the she and the dog do what they do best. You’ve got better things to do. Even if you don’t, anything else seems more productive. Crazy glue in your house slippers might work.

    Happy Holidays.

  4. I loved your debriefing and Jeffrey King’s comment about cat skeletons. I laughed and laughed at your story and read lots out loud to my husband, who has been in similar circumstances with me and our dog and snow. I do hope you exaggerated in your depiction of Ann’s exortations. If not, she needs a good telling off!! She’s not too old to learn.