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The History of Dogs

Mike Baker, May 2018

I

Greta was an Australian cattle dog we had been fostering. She had spent most of her life tied to a porch and had lost her appetite for being a dog.  Greta would lay in the grass like she was dead. She wouldn’t even pick a sunny spot. We would take her to the dog park and she would lay in the dirt if that was next to where we sat down. The other dogs would swoop past us in a tight peloton, leaning into the turn and chasing the lead dog. She wouldn’t even follow them with her eyes.

This went on for weeks and weeks. Dogs would even come up and look at her like she was an interesting rock. I don’t know if dogs feel pity. I always imagined them walking away shaking their heads unsure that they had really seen as sloth-ly an ACD as they had just witnessed. She was a barrel chest hulk of a dog which is also odd for an ACD and maybe that had come from years laying tied up in someone’s yard.

The change, imperceptible for a long time, was in her postures over the course of weeks. It was a shift from laying to sitting up on her paws then her head up, a slow pivot following the pack until one Saturday, as the pack rolled past, she shot up and lit out after them. It was like she saw something she remembered deep inside herself and, over the course of weeks, connecting the dots to see a picture of who she really was. She was a dog. She had a job to do.  And, from that day, there was no holding her back.

These last two years has felt like that to me. I was chained to my injuries. My back went out hard. I had pinched nerves. I went on and then off an antidepressant. I put on a lot of weight. I had a full blown cardiac event.  I woke up one day and I forgot I had been a runner.  I wasn’t unhappy. I ate whatever I wanted. I drank a lot of craft beer. I slept in all the time. I became that guy you hate to invite on a run because maybe he’d show up or maybe his alarm just never went off. This went on for two years.

I was lying in bed one morning and the blanket was warm and the air felt cold. I pulled the blanket tighter around me and started drifting back to sleep and then I heard Gary’s voice in my head. He said, “You either get up and run this morning or you just got to admit you aren’t a runner anymore.”  I got up. I got dressed and ran the three-mile loop in my neighborhood. The three-mile loop became my regular run for a while. I needed something excuse-proof. Everyone one else could bag but I had that stupid ugly boring loop to run every morning.

It’s not that other people bagged.  The Judge has always been a good companion on the trail. Dale gave me his Sundays and, of course, Brad has always had my back. It’s that the loop in my neighborhood was quit-proof because it was always there waiting for me outside my own house. And it would wait outside my house as long as it took me to get my shoes on and lock the front door.

I had my Greta moment one day when Bill and I went for a ten mile out and back run. It was at mile six I felt my back pop a disc. Bill said there was a way to shave two miles off the course and we could do that since we’d be walking. I told Bill he could do a very bad thing to himself and that I was running back the four miles we had left. That might not be your kind of runner but it’s mine and that’s what we did.

II

I used to run real early Wednesday mornings with a guy that was having big troubles in his life. One morning he showed up in kind of cold sweat. I could see, maybe in his eyes, that the night’s worrying had raked him over pretty hard.

No one but me seemed to notice and nobody said a word to him. We all started running. I let it slide. These guys ran faster than me and it was all I had to hang on behind them as I didn’t ever learn the course and getting dropped meant getting lost.

His life has gotten much better since that time but when I see him still, that moment lingers. Second chances are like that. They hang around your neck swaying contra to everything you ever do. They drape your eyes, a crepe veil depicting what went wrong the first time.

They become the other runner so you never run alone again. They whisper in your ear on the hill climb. They remind you of all the other hills you’ve run. They say, “Climb or die but climb anyhow.” The rain will not tamp them down nor will heat or cold gut-whipping wind.

I was running out at Fort Braden in a rain storm. This was after my dog Aubrey, half Dachshund and half Chihuahua, died. I had had her in my life for ten years and she was twenty when she passed. I drove to south Florida the day I brought her home and she sat on my lap as I drove all the way.

She stayed on my lap all weekend and that’s how we were for ten years. I took to the street in front of my own house, in my own neighborhood, howling like a bear and sobbing. My wife stood on the step afraid someone would call the po-lice.

That day out at Braden was a sob and run type of run for me. And then there came a thunder strike and a tree went down. It was a huge cracking howl of a sound. I couldn’t see it or pick its direction. It was like every tree had fallen all around me.

I bolted and lost the trail, following a tiny creek down the ridge from me. I thought I shook the whisper of the second runner loose and I felt free. Lightning popped off up ahead and then somewhere behind me. I felt it in my nerves but my heart said, We are too fast for lightning.

I saw the doe off in the distance. We running parallel ridges, stopping to admire each other, both knowing that stopping too long gave the lightning time to find us and running on. There is no shelter at Fort Braden and sometimes there is no ground.

This deer was running away from the lightning and she was running away from me. The second runner had always been there. The rain covering its whisper, hiding the deer hooves beating the warning to leave woods.

I made my way back to the parking lot, as the storm finally turned from electric to a growling dark deluge, and got into my car soaking wet. I changed my shirt and put on a knit cap, my ears still ringing from the lightning strikes.

III

It was a big sky pre-dawn morning, the dark starry blue you can see only at 5am. The air was crisp and dry as we shuffled out of our cars still too groggy to say hello to each other, just falling into stretches and yawns. This was the Myles Johnson run the Judge loves so much. You run a mile up the trail and then cross Miccosukee at Myles Johnson and then you run Myles Johnson.

Myles Johnson Road is a dirty stretch of road between Miccosukee and Crump Road but it’s all hills. The last hill is a mile and a half of long slow climb. You can get a good seven mile run out of this route if you start at the Thornton Road Greenway entrance, ten if you start at Edenfield. It’s funny how you get to Myles Johnson. There’s a gate at the top of the hill. You have to go around it and then cross Miccosukee.  It’s a blind corner for cars coming off Myles Johnson turning right. It has all the feel of trespassing as you cross the road and start running again.

It reminds me of Miller’s Landing which is a runner’s road, a mean spirited straight away that pulls you along its hardest climbs.  It is like a kid on the playground calling you out to fight. It brings out the runner in runners. I am always weary and tired, exclaiming how bad things will go on the run, and then pulling the Judge along as my legs and lungs come alive. My favorite part of the run though is getting to Crump Road and stopping at Maxwell’s convenience store. You’ve been running, locked into the mindset of the fight or just in a conversation with your running partner. And then suddenly, you are in this place filled with people who have no context by which a sweaty half naked person makes sense. You are like a stray dog, wandering up for water at the faucet on the side of the building.

Maybe you’re laughing at some inside joke that the people pumping gas or buying scratchers will never get. Everyone is a little nervous, sidelong and holding their breath just a little unsure why you showed up. And then, because you can’t let your legs get cold, you turn and head off back to Myles Johnson, heading back into the wilderness from whence you came. And all the people pumping gas relax and are at ease again.

This morning as we prepared to head out to Myles Johnson, a man unloaded five Rhodesian Ridgebacks, dogs raised to hunt lions on the savannah. They are large hoary brown dogs and all of them had red lights hanging on their necks. They’re big, powerful creatures and while I never felt threatened, I wasn’t about to bum rush the person they came with to the park. He headed out in to the field with them following at first and then moving ahead of him.  

I spent the first twenty minutes of the run thinking about them running off lead. I imagined them sweeping across the field, swooping left and then right, not chasing one another, just training, coordinating their attack on that thing tickling the backs of their brains. That thing they can’t ever find because as beautiful as the Greenway is, it is no African savannah.  We run the hill toward the gate you pass around before crossing over to Myles Johnson. I wanted to turn our headlamps off and run like the dogs, loose and wily, trusting my feet to sort out the terrain. I wanted to run back and bring the dogs with us.