Bonding Time With Reuben:
In September, I took my first solo backpacking trip, venturing into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness and summiting Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trip and revel in the accomplishment, but I also recognize it as a special bonding experience for me and my dog. Of course, we have plenty of moments alone doing our special things: going to the beach or on short post-meal walks. But I was the leader of this trip; I planned the route, picked our meals, and set the pace.
My dog would look to me for guidance for an entire 48 hours. Besides that, many will agree that hiking, swimming, running, or doing anything you love outdoors with a well-behaved pup is life’s greatest treasure. This pure joy, combined with the independence, carried me for our first few hours of hiking, Reuben puttering along next to me with his orange backpack filled with kibble.
By lunchtime, I was dragging my feet on the steep ascent, so I made a small cup of coffee. Being alone in the wilderness was beautiful but mentally exhausting; my mind was racing to fill the empty silence. The only sound I recognized was the flutter of near-dead aspen leaves in the wind, like a thousand streams of water trickling together in unison. I knew what it sounded like immediately because Reuben was racing, searching for a stream, a familiar pacing activity he does when searching for water. He sped ahead to the next switchback and put an ear up to listen for the water, and then he backtracked to my side.
The coffee wore off, and I rested again. I looked over at Reuben, and after only a few minutes with packs down, he was truly resting. His eyes were glued shut, his snout sitting on his overlapping paws, occasionally bouncing up and down as he hiccupped in his sleep – signs of a true, deep doggy sleep. I shuffled my feet and my bag to see if he would wake up. He opened one eye. I laid down next to him with my head in the curve of his back and fell asleep. When we woke up twenty minutes later, all was the same as before, except we were both a little more rested. Reuben’s closeness quieted my mind. We cleared the aspen grove, and he gave up his search for the imaginary stream.
That night, thunderstorms and rain came, cluttering my head with images of lightning strikes, fires, falling branches. Reuben positioned himself at the head of the tent like a pillow under my head. He would make a low, guttural “brrrrruff” at the occasional too-loud leaf pattering with rain or branch cracking in the wind, warning them of our presence. It was an oddly bright night even through the tent’s rainfly. I fell asleep to the silhouette of Reuben’s head against the pink-orange sky, his ears pointed, listening to us.
Early next morning, I savored my half cup of coffee. I had water for two cups but wanted to save as much water as possible. Nothing phased Reuben. Like me, he had barely slept, but his eyes were clear, white, and wide, waiting for me to pick up my pack.
We reached a turbulent, windy summit at seven o’clock, no one else in sight. Powerful, unpredictable gusts muted all other sounds. Reuben’s ears were flapping in the wind as he looked out at the valley below. Amidst the deafening blows, stinging my face and watering my eyes, the silent familiar promise of unconditional love we made so often was renewed, and my mind was quiet and still.