Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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This summer was a hard one in Montana. There were fires everywhere, but even when they were not nearby, the sky was heavy with grey smoke blowing in from other places. The still air, the absence of rain, the pall laid on a world become too hot, too dry replaced the deep blue Montana sky. In the heavy greyness, it was no longer a big sky. It was just ash.

So when a good morning happened, David and I jumped on it to head out for a hike. It is what we did a few Thursdays ago, driving up the Cardwell road to Whitehall, up 287 through Twin Bridges to Sheridan. By the time we left Twin Bridges though, the sky had greyed over. By Sheridan, ten miles down the road, we could no longer see the mountains. From Sheridan to the start of our hike at Branham Lakes the dirt road is only a few miles long, but rutted and rocky enough that it requires an hour’s drive, too long a road to travel just to see if the world got better at the end of it.

We decided to continue on to Virginia City, first territorial capitol of Montana, current seat of Madison County, summer-tourist-jammed-restored 19th century town. If we couldn’t hike, at least we could have ice-cream.

About eight mile out of Sheridan there was a wheaten terrier running back and forth along 287. He ran with the desperation of a dog abandoned. 287, a two-lane state highway, the route between Virginia City and all the rest of Madison County, gets a fair amount of traffic. David stopped the car quickly. I jumped out, crossed the road, and grabbed the dog’s collar. When a car pulled up behind the dog and me, a woman climbed out offering a leash. I attached it, then checked the dog’s collar for tags. None.

The dog, meanwhile, was perfectly comfortable with my presence, with the leash, with stopping his frantic running. When I opened the door to my vehicle, he jumped in. I returned the leash and the woman crossed back to her car where a pug watched everything from the window.

The dog was beautiful. In good shape. Young, with remnants of puppy wheaten golden hair, and black still on his muzzle and ears. Well fed and very sweet, this was not the sort of dog someone just left off on a road 500 miles from home. I reached back to pet him. He licked my hand.

Not far down the road we came to a sign announcing Laurin (pronounced “La ray”), an erstwhile town established in 1863. These days there’s not much there besides a few houses and the church built of native stone in 1901. The church is still used.

There seemed to be nobody at all anywhere in Laurin. We pulled into Elijah’s Rest, a bed & breakfast with several log cabins, a main lodge, and a big yellow house where my search of every building finally turned up the owner—Tom—cleaning the last of the cabins. When I told him about the dog he put down his mop and ushered me into the main lodge. First he poured water into a bowl for the dog, then he called the sheriff’s office—where he is the chaplain—to see if anyone had called about a lost dog. Nobody had. He called several local ranches. No lost dog. He suggested stopping at the store in Alder, the place everyone stops, to see if anyone had reported a lost dog. And the Alder bar.

Everyone in the bar was interested. The two women behind the bar. The several old men in front of the bar, although one –the most elderly – thought I was telling them I’d lost my dog. I got more action across the road at the store. Tuesday, the woman behind the counter immediately said, “I’ll take his picture and put it on my Facebook page,” then followed me out with her camera.

The dog greeted Tuesday with a lick on her hand, then posed quite beautifully for his photo.

Tuesday returned to the store, coming back at once with a bowl of water and several treats for him. He was pleased.

In Virginia City I found a dog leash at a shop selling horse-tack, a lovely narrow leash of wonderfully soft leather, the sort that would go into a bridle. We took Luke, as I now called him, for a walk through a small park, up a gravel lane behind the main street. I hoped he would pee. Or something. He just walked, occasionally sniffing at things. We returned to the main street, found a bench for me to sit on while David went in search of lunch, sandwiches for us, a burger for Luke. Luke lay down on the sidewalk at my feet. Everyone who passed said, “What a beautiful dog!”

I thanked them all.

On the way out of town, we stopped at the sheriff’s office, hidden in the bowels of City Hall where no one up to no good would ever find it, to check if anyone had called yet. No one had. We drove on to Ennis, stopping at the vet’s to find out if Luke was microchipped. He was not. I bought dog food and treats at the Ennis grocery.

I tried not to imagine keeping this dog. He was too well cared for for someone not to want him. He certainly hadn’t been abandoned. But why didn’t he have an ID tag? Why hadn’t he been microchipped? Why hadn’t anyone called the sheriff?

It is half an hour’s drive from Ennis to our house. Luke was perfectly at home in the back seat. Every time I turned I thought I was seeing Blue. Blue, my beautiful wheaten who died in 2003 at age 14. Companion of so many hikes and backpacks. Companion of so many years. He had lived with me since he was ten weeks old, when a friend and I drove out to Huson, Montana to pick him up. Luke looked more like Blue than any wheaten I’d ever seen. He isn’t Blue, I told myself. He’s somebody else’s dog. They’ll come for him. He isn’t your dog.

I walked him again when we reached the house. Inside, I set down his water bowl. I gave him a biscuit. David and I both talked to him.

And we listened to the phone messages. There were three. One from Tom at Elijah’s Rest. One from the sheriff’s office. One from Ann Clark. “I’m so glad you’ve got Norm,” she said. “He’s my daughter’s dog. I’ll come and get him.”

Our hearts sank. We knew it would happen, but we only thought . . . maybe. . . maybe . . . I called Ann back. She was so grateful we’d picked him up, saved him from the traffic on 287. Californians, part-time residents of Laurin, they’d all gone to ride a friend’s horse – she, her daughter, her daughter’s three children under the age of five. They’d left Norm in the yard, playing with another dog.

“O.K., Norm,” I said, “your people are coming to get you.” He licked my hand. “It will take them an hour to get here.”

When Ann knocked on the door, Norm went to greet her. It is what wheatens do. They believe themselves responsible for all greeting on earth. A wheaten greeting is specific. The dog, excited to see someone he loves (as all dogs are), almost dances around the person, proferring non-stop kisses. The necessity of the kisses is what sets wheatens apart. Norm offered up his kisses, his delight at seeing Ann. Then he turned around and went back into the house.

“I think he’d rather stay here,” Ann said. “He probably wants a little peace and quiet with three children always pestering him.” I managed to keep from saying he would be better off here.

“I want to give you something,” Ann said.

“Thank you, but we don’t want anything,” I said.

“But I know my daughter will want to do something.”

“Absolutely not.”

“But may I give her your address?”

“Not if she’ll send me anything.”

“I know she’ll want to send a thank you note.”

“A note is o.k.,” I said. “But only a note.”

When Norm left, the house seemed empty. Neither of us knew what to do. I
have an unopened bag of dog food. And a new leash.

I guess I need a dog.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner