“Her name is Rosie”, the old man that was camped near us with Florida license plates told me as his dog walked over to me. Rosie, was an overweight black lab with gray on her face and eyes clouded over with glaucoma. “Come on Rosie, don’t bother her,” he yelled in her direction.
I yelled back. “She’s okay, I like dogs.” He still walked over in my direction to fetch her.
“I’ve been coming to the Madison every year with her for the past 7 years,” he told me. “This year she’s had a hard time jumping up into the camper. She just turned 12.” I bent down to pet her. “I don’t know what I’ll do when she dies, I love this dog and I’m already dreading the day I have to put her down” he sighed.
“My husband and I just had to put our 13-year-old Brittany down last month; he had cancer.” I tried not to let him see that my eyes were starting to tear up as I told him about Angus. “He didn’t suffer; he went downhill pretty fast.”
“I camped here with my son years ago, we used to ride motorcycles together, but I don’t ride anymore,” he said. “I like going back to the places that we used to go together.” He paused for a moment, “He died a few years ago.”
I hesitated responding, remembering how my own Dad used to ride motorcycles and go on trips with my older brother. On a gorgeous fall day in September, 16 years ago, my brother took his own life only a couple of days after he’d spent the weekend going on a motorcycle road trip with my Dad. “I’m sorry to hear about your son, that’s tough,” I told him. I don’t know why, but I didn’t ask him how his son died. I just remember telling him, “Yeah, it’s nice to go back to those places that you shared with someone you loved, it makes you feel closer to them.”
As he walked away with Rosie, he said “I’m sorry for your loss.” I appreciated the words of condolence from this total stranger who reminded me of my own Dad.
To get to this place on the Madison River was a long drive in stormy weather on hundreds of miles of winding roads. Bob and I drove in separate vehicles bringing the extra one to use for longer shuttles on the days we fished out of our drift boat. I’d been listening to music along the way, but somewhere between Grangeville and Lolo Pass, a song called “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel started playing on my Bluetooth shuffle and it touched a nerve. It caused me an overwhelming sense of emptiness and panic, and I felt like we’d left Angus behind. Teardrops followed like the rain falling heavily on the windshield. Peat was in the cab of the pickup with me; he’d been sleeping soundly but was awakened by my loud wailing over the music. Not wanting to upset him, I made myself stop crying and focused on the curves in the road. I’d been forcing myself to forget about it but I vividly remembered that dreadful day, that day we drove Angus to our vet in Council in the back of our old Jeep that we parked out front next to the curb and we ended this life. I remember trying to be strong and comforting for him and not let his last moments of life be watching me crying and being so upset. He knew what was happening, he was ready, he was the strong one, the stoic one. When I think back and remember life with Angus it isn’t just those memories on the chukar hills but those days in-between because he had a calm presence that just made everything seem right in the world.
I called my father immediately after Angus died to let him know Angus had just died. Angus had been my loyal companion from the time when he was small enough to fit in my hands. I thought my Dad should know, but he didn’t answer the phone and never called me back. It’s complicated, thorny, and complex, but I’ve got a non-existent relationship with my Dad and it’s been that way for years and I’ve learned to accept it.
After talking to the old man from Florida, I sat in my camp chair and stared at Peat and wondered if he remembers being on the Madison with Angus and running in the golden fields near our campground and if if he’s sad because he’s gone. I wanted to come back to this campground on the Madison to remind me of happier times from the previous summer when life wasn’t so strange, surreal, uncertain. The time before lost lives, broken friendships and when people used to be kind to each other, the days before we knew Angus had cancer even though it was already growing inside him.
As we drove away from the campground to head home, the old man from Florida was still there alone in his camper with Rosie. We headed west and through the rolling hills, mountains, and ranches near Dillon and Wisdom that reminded me of home but on a much larger scale. On our last night on the road we camped in a National Forest campground high up on the Idaho/Montana border that we’d visited two years before with Peat and Angus. After setting up camp, Bob, Peat, and I walked along a beautiful little creek where we went the last time we were there. I watched this funny dog that makes me laugh constantly, this little dog that loves life and play and that I adore and that I’ve raised since he was 7-weeks old explore the world without Angus. I remember Bob saying, “I think he’ll be okay.”
I love Peat but we have a complex relationship. At home Peat has replaced Angus as my constant shadow but sadly the last three years he didn’t want to hunt with me in the field when Bob and I were hunting together. Peat prefers Bob and it is as if I don’t exist. It’s weird but I’m okay that Bob is the alpha. When it’s just Peat and me out together, he’s fine and he hunts hard for me but just like humans relating to one another, relationships with our dogs can sometimes be complicated, intricate, and painful. Angus is missed terribly and I’ll miss having him be my hunting partner on chukar opening day but I’m looking forward to having some quality days with Peat this coming season.
Grief is loud but love is even louder.